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  • Lisa Walden

The Case For Deep Work (And Why We Flounder In The Shallows)


This blog could just have easily been called “Why We Choose Not to Worship at the Temple of Busy.”


What, pray tell, is the Temple of Busy? It’s hustle culture. It’s “rise and grind.” It’s the work-‘til-you-have-nothing-left-to-give mindset. It’s always being on the clock. It’s priding yourself on never taking PTO and telling your team they can always reach you no matter what. It’s that supposedly hallowed ground at which all us worker bees are conditioned to worship. And, at the risk of coming off as completely sacrilegious to traditional work culture, it’s absolute bunk.

There’s so much that the Temple of Busy stands in the way of, but one of my biggest peeves is how it impedes really important work: deep work, or the practice of putting your cognitive functions to work at their max, with minimal to no distractions.


Deep work is a concept put forth by author Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. At its simplest, deep work = distraction-free heavy lifting for the brain, and shallow work = non-cognitively demanding tasks easily accomplished while distracted.


For example…


Shallow work:

  • Email

  • Surfing the web

  • Formatting documents

  • Answering one-off questions

  • Coffee meetings

  • Checking voicemail

Deep work:


  • Writing a blog, article, book, or social media post

  • Designing a new file storage methodology

  • Strategizing for next quarter

  • Analyzing your budget to forecast the year ahead

  • Preparing for an employee feedback session

  • Reading the latest industry report


I was first exposed to the idea of deep work while doing research for one of our presentations on company culture. I came across this article, 5 Questions That Reveal If A Company Has A Healthy Workplace Culture. Number one on the list:


WHEN IS THE LAST TIME YOU HAD A 4-HOUR BLOCK OF UNINTERRUPTED TIME?


I thought back and realized that in the 10+ years of my professional career, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve had that long a block of uninterrupted time. And since my last foray in corporate America was in a leadership capacity, it’s been literally years.

Imagine, just imagine (if you can) no email, no calls, no instant messages, no answering questions, just free and clear time to put your head down and focus on a project or initiative. My eyes lit up at the thought.


Intrigued and excited, I mentioned it to Hannah. Her reaction was… less than agreeable, to put it mildly. “That’s insane!!! Over four hours of uninterrupted work? That’s so selfish! What if someone needs something from you? What if you being unavailable holds something up? That’s so long. That’s too long. No.”


Now, to be fair to Hannah, she thought I meant 4+ hours of uninterrupted work every day and she, like many, has never worked in an interruption-free environment. And sure, over four hours of quiet time once a day is kind of a lot (though I’m tempted to make the case for it). After I clarified what I meant, which was a suggestion for blocks of deep work not daily but once a week or a few times a month, she completely warmed up to the idea. But if even Hannah, someone very much in favor of ditching the grind mentality for one of balance, reacted at first with skepticism, what hope have we for the rest of corporate America?


I’ve floated this deep work concept to other managers and leaders, and have gotten looks like, “oh, you sweet simpleton,” or “lol, good joke.” It’s as if I’m telling them some sort of workplace fairytale. They look at me like, “Come on Lisa… pumpkins don’t *actually* turn into carriages, get real.” 


Why is this so radical? Why have we so easily accepted the falsehood that being a good worker, a good boss, a good leader means always being on and immediately available to put out any fire, big or triflingly small?


Being busy is a drug of the 21st century. Even though it’s been scientifically proven as super problematic, and harmful to our health and wellbeing (stress/anxiety/burnout), we keep taking hit after hit. But hear me out. What if. What if…. what if we spent a little less time putting out fires, and a little more time distraction free, focused on one big project, idea, or initiative?

In Newport’s book, he cites this statistic that blew my mind while at the same time not surprising me one bit: “a 2012 study by the consulting firm McKinsey found that the average worker spends over 60 percent of the workweek using online communication tools and surfing the internet with 30 percent devoted to reading and answering emails.”


What does that even leave time for? How do you move a company forward? When do you do your strategic thinking? How can you dig into the deep, disruptive, innovative and imperative creative thinking?


The case for deep work, and why it should actively be built into your company culture, is quite clear. By giving employees – and yourself – the time and space to move projects along in a meaningful way, rather than chipping away between emails, you’re providing the time and space to do satisfying, fulfilling work that not only contributes to the company, but also gives everyone a sense of satisfaction. Deep work creates the prime environment for creative thinking. It helps prevent burnout. It ignites productivity. It sharpens cognitive abilities and generates buy-in, because you care enough, and you trust enough, to give people the space for quiet, concentrated, independent work.


As you’re assessing your own company culture, heck, your own contributions to the organization you work for or lead… seriously consider how you might make time for deep work on a regularly scheduled basis, so that if you’re asked, “When was the last time you had a 4-hour block of uninterrupted time?”  you can say, with some satisfaction at being a true apostate of the Temple of Busy, “why, just yesterday.”