Maximized Productivity through “Deep Work” (Busyness is Not Productivity)

A few months ago, I led a group discussion about maximizing productivity, largely based on the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport.

My main objective was to talk about ways in which we all can complete mundane responsibilities, while maximizing time spent on our most challenging tasks, like reading, research, writing, etc.

Newport argues that the “deep work” required for reading/research/writing is the most valuable work that we do, though personal discipline is necessary to do it successfully.

For example, here are a few pro tips we developed to do valuable / difficult things…

1. Don’t multitask / pledge to ignore email/text.

2. For complex reading, print paper copies so that you’re not distracted by technology & can take notes in the margins.

3. Set a goal – Examples: finish the first draft, read & annotate these 2 studies, etc.

4. Set aside a significant time block to make real progress & find a quiet spot to work. If you need to alert colleagues you’re out of pocket for a couple of hours, then do that.

I especially want to make a special note about #1: multitasking. Newport says that minor little distractions – checking email, conducting a quick Google search, sending a text, glancing at the Phillies score – harm our productivity more than we know. Initially it’s ridiculous to think that peeking at email when you’re trying to read a white paper or write a blog post is, in and of itself, a really destructive activity…. It was just a quick glance! What’s the big deal?

The problem is that most of us – myself included – break from our intended tasks far too often and each of these little distractions adds up to significant productivity disruption. Newport argues that it’s not just the 60 seconds you took to check email, it’s also the several minutes it will take for you to again become immersed in your reading/writing so to regain your train of thought. If you consider the opportunity cost of glancing at email every five minutes and the associated 2-3 minutes to regain your focus, it likely means that more than half of your time during a work hour is spent on unproductive distractions.

To get a sense of this challenge at DCI, I asked my eight discussion group participants to answer this question: “We all perform some tasks that are mundane (scheduling, administrative, clips, social media) & some that are more challenging (writing, research/reading, developing ideas, & recruiting allies). Thinking about these two broad categories, what percentage of your time do you spend on each?”

I was pleased to learn there was broad consensus among this group. All eight responded that they spent 60-80% of their time on the challenging tasks. While it’s debatable that we can each make an accurate self-assessment, I was still pleased to learn that my colleagues believe they can handle their chores and allocate substantial time their own “deep work.”

Here’s a summary of what I want to say: My favorite thing about working at DCI (aside from the free snacks) is that clients come to us with their existential problems and ask us to think strategically, using a myriad of tactics, to solve those concerns. Our firm has the experience, capacity, and creativity to provide & execute effective ideas, but this requires the kind of Deep Work that Newport espouses. So do not confuse monitoring email, attending meetings, and conducting Google searches with Deep Work – they are the means to end, not the objective itself.

I’m proud that DCI is a flat organization that appreciates creative ideas & valuable work product from every level of the company, irrespective of seniority. BUT Newport teaches us that discipline is necessary to generate meaningful ideas/product and that we shouldn’t confuse busyness with productivity. 

Washington, DC

Headquartered in Washington, DC.
Operating worldwide.