Cognitive superpowers: The biggest benefits of deep work
Last updated on
March 17, 2021
We can’t solve complex problems or create new value without having space for undisturbed deep thinking. So in a world of constant digital distraction, those able to master their productive focus will thrive. This is the simple premise of deep work – to regularly push your cognitive capacities to their limits. With huge consequences for employee productivity, happiness and adaptability, it’s touted as the world’s ultimate job skill for good reason. Here are just four reasons to start practicing deep work today.
The value of deep work
Most of us work in a state of perpetual distraction, multitasking and checking phones and emails every few minutes. Constant communication and immersive tech have made it almost impossible to stay focused on the complex problem solving tasks that push our work forward – ushering in huge consequences for our wellbeing, as well as our work.
A multitude of “shallow tasks” pepper our days – such as emails, Slack messages, manual admin and tool notifications. Leaping between these tasks slowly maxes out our attention, leaving us overwhelmed, unfulfilled and unproductive. It contributes to a culture of busyness, where we seem to work flat out with very little to actually show for it at the end of the day.
In sharp contrast, there’s deep work, which promises dividends in terms of productivity, employability and happiness, as professor Cal Newport (who coined the term) explains:
"...deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
Sadly, deep work isn’t easy. As a skill that needs to developed, you can’t just expect to be good at it right away; it requires routine and sustained willpower. But sticking with it is certainly worth the effort. Here are just four of the biggest deep work benefits you can expect to enjoy with regular practice.
1. Unparalleled focus
The ability to do deep work is a skill and, like any skill, the more you work on it the more proficient you become. Strengthening your deep work muscle helps improve your concentration – helping you lock focus on a specific task, and stick at it for longer periods of time. You might begin only being able to focus deeply for 45 minutes, but regularly practicing and pushing deep work can help you scale this. Aside from boosting your productivity and the quality of your work, being able to work on mentally taxing tasks for long periods of time helps you to build presence in everything you want to do.
2. Supreme employability
Deep work helps us quickly develop new skills and solve the complex problems that move companies forward. In addition, working at an elite level – where you produce more and better work in less time – clearly comes with huge competitive advantages. Since deep work is currently under-practiced as a skill, Newport believes that those who can produce high-quality work at a superior rate will quickly outpace their colleagues and land the best jobs. In an increasingly automated future, this ability to quickly grasp and engage new skills is also essential to our job security and continued employability.
3. Profound satisfaction
Deep work challenges people to regularly accomplish difficult and meaningful tasks. It essentially provides a framework for accessing and extending productive flow states – where we produce our best work. When we achieve something valuable, we feel an intense sense of happiness, purpose and satisfaction. So there’s a deeply emotional benefit to deep work too.
As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains, people who are able to regularly access flow states “lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live.”
4. An improved sense of self
When we’re constantly distracted and multitasking, it's difficult to remember what really matters and reflect on what we’re actually contributing towards that. People naturally search for meaning and connection, but a constant flow of shallow work and multitasking leaves little cognitive space for this. In contrast, deep work challenges us to consider the true value of our time – it’s about understanding what work actually helps you achieve your goals, and redirecting your efforts to immerse yourself in it. In championing time and mental energy for our most important, useful work, Newport believes regular deep work can support a state of eudaimonia — where we feel we’re achieving our full human potential.