Coronavirus and Deep Work

by Ron Potter

I know, I know, enough of the Coronavirus already.  We’ve been self-isolated and at this point have no idea what to believe is true and what is hype.  What I do know is the interesting journey I’ve been on in relation to Deep Work.

Deep Work

The COVID-19 virus may be offering the opportunity that you’ve been looking for to stand-out in a crowded world.  In his book Deep Work by Cal Newton he makes some great points about Deep Work and the lack of it.

One of the things that Cal says is:

To remain valuable in our economy you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.”

“A McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.

This state of fragmented attention cannot accommodate deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking. At the same time, however, modern knowledge workers are not loafing. In fact, they report that they are as busy as ever. What explains the discrepancy? A lot can be explained by another type of effort, which provides a counterpart to the idea of deep work:
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

How not to be replaced by a computer

The “easy to replicate” emphasis is my note.  Why did I highlight that particular statement?  Because when something is easy to replicate it means that a person who makes less wages can easily to the same work.  More importantly, a computer can be taught to do easily replicable work.  Your job is in danger of becoming computerized if you don’t shift from shallow work to deep work!

How do you counter this danger of being replaced by either cheaper labor or a computer?  You learn, practice, and become good at and known for your deep work and deep thinking.

Cultivate Deep Work (Thinking)

You can pick up almost any article, magazine, podcast or post that will tell you how to survive working from home.  These sources talk about

  • Get started early (don’t let your day get away from you before it starts)
  • Act like you’re going to the office (wrong, take advantage of doing things differently)
  • Have a dedicated workspace (good idea, but focus on making it a non-interruptable workspace)
  • Go to coffee shops, libraries, public lounges (may not be a bad idea but discipline must tag along as well.  You can’t go to a coffee shop just so you can enjoy your favorite drink)  And during the pandemic, many of these public places are not even available to us.
  • Stay off the public media! (Great suggestion.)  Regardless of where you’re working from, stay off public media.

What you really need is the discipline and focus for deep work.

Living a life of Deep Work and Thought

As Cal Newton closes his book he says

Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand. To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience.
The deep life requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind.”

Take advantage of the opportunity being offered

We’re all looking for a silver lining to the isolation caused by our current pandemic.  Take advantage of the forced isolation to become a deep worker and deep thinker.  It will pay rewards that you can’t even think of at the moment.


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Dan Heffernan March 27, 2020 - 10:24 am

This is good food for thought, Ron. Deep work requires uninterrupted, quiet, concentrated thought and I find there are only certain times of day that I can do this type of work effectively. Scheduling my day properly involves considering which type of work needs to be done when.

Christi Barrett April 1, 2020 - 10:10 am

This post is so timely! I’ve been working remotely for about 3 weeks now, since I self-quarantined after international travel – before it was mandated by the State of Michigan. I don’t have a good private space, but as we are now empty nested, it is not hard to find undistracted space. However, I have found it hard to focus for long periods. Stress, maybe? My strategy has been to schedule 30-minute focused chunks, separated by a 5 minute break. I find that I can do that for many hours, and often I don’t need/take/remember the break at all. Best of luck to you and may you enjoy continued good health!


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