How Our Mental Habits Destroy Work Satisfaction

Note: The ideas in this article come from Cal Newport's book Deep Work.

The Cost of Distraction

We know our phones are double-edged swords. There are benefits. But digital addiction erases these benefits. It’s reasonable to say these devices are net negative for most people, since we use them irresponsibly.

We’re almost numb to messages about the dangers of devices. In fact, we’re numb to almost anything as we endlessly scroll.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and, well, the list could go on. There’s never enough shallow validation for the human ego.

And social media is the ego's version of crack. We have a limitless supply at our fingertips. Is it surprising we abuse it? But studies show...

Why bother finishing that sentence? You know where it’s going. Social media and digital addiction are bad for you. You feel it in your soul. You don't need any study to prove this to you.

Universally, people rave about how good they feel in those rare times when forced off their devices -- while in a remote location for example.

We ought to leave social media. Yet we justify staying. The trouble with the mafia is that you can't leave. And social media is the mafia of our mind. The cost of leaving so high that most of us remain, torturing ourselves.

"Why is SHE always vacationing in Thailand while I'm living this boring life?"

"Why is HE driving that sweet ass car, while I putter around in my Toyota?"

It sucks to consume junk information, but is there a commercial purpose? A 'personal brand' to think about? Relatives across the world, for whom we maintain a highlight reel of our lives?

It's the rare individual who ignores the noise, while maintaining a social media presence. The rest of us continue to justify. But do we know the real cost of this addiction?

There are many, but we’ll focus on work.

The Cost of Work

This article isn’t even about social media or digital addiction. It's about the practice of deep work -- a phrase coined by Cal Newport.

Newport is a professor and a popular writer on productivity and professional development. In 2016, he released a book called Deep Work, illuminating the true cost of distraction and the benefit of deep work.

It’s simple: on both an individual and societal level, we pay a massive price for our distraction and inability work deeply.

Here’s an idea that Newport popularized: All created value comes from deep work.

No new value comes from shallow work. But it does have a maintenance quality. We can’t completely avoid shallow work. And in the book, Newport provides strategies for being more efficient with the necessary and eliminating the unnecessary shallow work.

But pure distractions like social media and Buzzfeed have a negative value. They actually negate our ability to do valuable work or even do shallow maintenance tasks.

What is Deep Work?

You might think deep work is synonymous with 'flow states.' But it isn't. A flow state can be a type of deep work, but deep work is a larger category that flow states fit into.

How does one achieve flow state? This is a state of intense presence, when time seems to stand still. It's a mind-bending experience. But anyone who's been there will tell you the same thing: Flow is beautiful and the best work is done while in flow.

People report flow states while immersed in engaging activities. Things like writing, painting, surfing, etc. are common flow state triggers.

Any state where two conditions are met can bring about flow: a) where you must give all your concentration, and b) where you have a pre-developed an expertise.

A barely literate 4-year-old doesn’t experience flow while writing. Or, ask any landlubber who’s ever tried surfing. They’ll tell you they don’t achieve flow. So, not everyone experiences flow from the same tasks. Getting there requires pre-existing ability.

But when work meets flow it is a kind of deep work. Imagine the programmer who loses all track of time while building software. Or, picture the writer who goes into a trance while punching out 3,000 words on a Sunday morning.

So, flow is deep work. But it’s not the only type of deep work. How does the computer programmer or writer acquire the skill to one day enter flow?

Deliberate, difficult, and consistent practice.

This is another type of deep work. You can't learn how to write well enough to flow unless you've put in the hours. You won’t code like Mark Zuckerberg before you’ve built the skill. Playing Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata” won’t induce flow unless you can really play.

Deliberate, difficult, and consistent practice is a less pleasurable type of deep work. In the moment it often feels like a grind. And progress isn’t linear. Practitioners plateau, sometimes for weeks, months, or even years before making a big leap in skill. Other times progress comes in tiny increments, like ticking off one millimeter at a time on a thousand kilometer journey.

Flow is fun. But focused practice is every bit as rewarding over the long term, as you acquire more skill and create more wonderful things. Plus, it’s the habit that eventually makes way for flow.

So, deep work is flow and focused practice. In a practical working sense, it’s also any kind of intense, unbroken concentration on a valuable task. For example:

  • Writing a book outline

  • Thinking deeply about a sticky problem

  • Building a sales page

  • Analyzing the financial projections

  • Rehearsing the lines

You might want to ask yourself: how much time am I spending doing deep work every day?

The shocking answer for most people is: zero.

And this explains why so many of us feel no satisfaction in our work. Sure, we maintain the day by attending to email and being at all the meetings. But are we taking our careers further? Are we creating anything we’ll be proud of in 5 or 50 years?

Does Deep Work Apply to You?

"I'm a marketing intern. I don't need to do deep work."

"I'm a carpenter, what good is deep work to me?"

"I'm an entrepreneur, all my work happens on the phone."

These are but a few of the justifications we make for avoiding deep work. But the marketing intern needs to write better copy. The carpenter would improve the world by building a table fit for Greek gods. The entrepreneur has been stewing on a new product for months (or years) with no progress.

We're fooled by the seeming lack of necessity to our tasks. We pay the bills. The car works. We have an apartment and a social life. So what need is there for this extra effort?

You won’t be able to escape all the shallow work. Your boss won’t be happy if you ignore email. But this doesn’t mean we can't build more deep work into our lives. We can finally begin creating something of deeper value.

Deep work does apply to you. It applies to everyone, because we have an intense need to live with purpose. The industrial model of labor that made humans into mere cogs is going, going, gone.

There’s a thin chance you will have an industrial-style, widget-churning job. And even if you do, that daily task won’t fulfill you. You'll feel empty, a shell of a person, only partly developed. Because, on a psychological level our work has to matter.

And doing something that matters means doing deep work. The shallow life of pleasure, comfort, and distraction has failed. So, what else will you do with your working life except deep work?

The Über Deep Worker

Study great individuals, and you’ll find they’re deep workers. The greatest contemporary example is Elon Musk.

A caveat: you won't become Elon Musk by doing deep work. There is such a thing as talent, and Musk is a superhuman talent.

But for every genius like Elon Musk there are 100,000 other creators making a difference.

Failing to live up to Elon's bar doesn't excuse us from doing deep work. You still have value to share. And you're wasting your life when you don't dig into your depth.

But let's talk about Musk.

Ashlee Vance, in his biography of Elon Musk, writes about one of Musk's unique habits. Those who know him tell stories of Elon 'checking out,’ the sight of which is alarming when first witnessed.

He can be sitting in a room with other people when a tricky problem crosses his mind. Wanting a resolution immediately, Elon blocks out distractions and thinks only of the problem. Snapping your fingers in front of his face or playing loud music does nothing. He remains in this trance.

This sometimes goes on for hours.

The human mind, is more powerful than we imagine. Elon’s deep thinking method is how he unlocks his greatest innovations.

When was the last time you thought about anything with 1/10th of Elon's intensity? If you're like most people the answer is 'never.'

We can’t be Elon, but imagine what we could if we improved our deep work capacity by 10, 20, or 50 percent.