The future of work is deep attention

Working with focused attention is important

For me, it started with “Paid attention” and “The end of absence”. Maybe even The shallows”. Constant distraction as an issue. Digital crack as an addiction. Knowing that attention is what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore defines the quality of your life. Our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. That is from “Solve for happy”. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love, is the sum of what you focus on.


Since I moved to Spain, I have removed all social media from my phone, try to manage my e-mails only twice a day and try to get a routine going of mediation, reflection, exercising, reading and writing. The dreadlocks will follow. Sandals are already there. I want to become what Ryan Holiday calls a “Perennial seller”.  No quick tricks, no flash in the pan approach. Focus on mastery, longevity and perennial. On lasting impact, relevance and revenue. Focus on purpose and dharma. From great work to deep work is not much of a stretch.

Deep work

Cal Newport wrote “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”. A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60% 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.

Shallow work as an opportunity

Creating shallow work. Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. Creating a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognise the potential of resisting this trend and prioritising depth. Deep work as a skill that has great value today. Even more valuable because of the impacts of the digital network revolution. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward.

Shallow work as a threat

On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online. To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth. Newport thinks that deep work is so important that we might consider it, to use the phrasing of business writer Eric Barker, “the superpower of the 21st century.” The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.

Robot proof yourself

Though an increasing number of people will lose new economy as their skill becomes automatable or easily outsourced, there are others who will not only survive but thrive—becoming more valued (and therefore more rewarded) than before. Deep work will make you robot-proof. In the new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

The book explains how

  • You need the ability to quickly master hard things. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
  • You need to be able to learn. If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.
  • You need to create value. Mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You must then transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value.
  • You need to produce. If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.
  • You need to be able to concentrate.
  • You need to practice (deliberately).
  • You need to commit seriously to the task at hand.
  • You need to set ambitious targets, which are very important to you, so you don’t get distracted by mediocrity and trivial distractions.
  • You need to create metrics and a cadence of accountability to yourself.
  • You work needs to be meaningful to you.
  • You need to create a work environment designed to help you extract as much value as possible from your brain. Declutter. What stuff do you really need? One technique suggested is to pack everything you have and use in boxes. Unpack what you use, do that for a month. Recycle and sell the rest. I would suspect 75% of the stuff you have goes.
  • You need to develop routines. The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimise the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration. If the other hand, if you deployed smart routines and rituals—perhaps a set time and quiet location used for your deep tasks each afternoon—you’d require much less willpower to start and keep going.
  • You need to schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet and then avoid it altogether outside these times. I suggest that you keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed—no matter how tempting.
  • You need to stop multitasking. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.
  • You need to put more thought into your leisure time. Give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours. You will end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.
  • You need to say “no” a lot more, particularly to shallow work.
  • You need to become hard to reach (phone, e-mail), include ignoring or not responding. If it is important, they will reach out again.


You need to achieve mastery. And this could be straight from Robert Greene’s book with the same title:

  • “Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.”
  • “Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.”

The neuroscience perspective

Myelin—a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acts as an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated. By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. By contrast, if you’re trying to learn a complex new skill in a state of low concentration (perhaps you also have your Facebook feed open), you’re firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurones you actually want to strengthen.

No distraction

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work.
Which means you need to manage your daily programme. Develop a schedule. Starting with batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Uninterrupted is key. Because when you switch from some Task A (writing) to another Task B (checking e-mail), your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task and vice versa. Open offices, for example, might create more opportunities for collaboration, but they do so at the cost of “massive distraction,” to quote the results of experiments conducted for a British TV special titled The Secret Life of Office Buildings. “If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the background, it ruins what you are concentrating on,” said the neuroscientist who ran the experiments for the show. “Even though you are not aware at the time, the brain responds to distractions.” Replace phone by e-mail, post, tweet, text, and you get the picture.

Go the other way

So while everyone else is wasting their time on the internet, cultivating ADD, you should do the opposite. Depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable. You need to systematically develop your personal ability to go deep—and by doing so, reap great rewards.

Create your competitive advantage

Creating the advantage of cultivating a concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. To choose your targets with care and then give them your rapt attention.


Of course, that means flow. Read “Stealing fire“. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. The connection between deep work and flow should be clear: Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state. Forget social media as an addiction, get addicted to flow. To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction


You should use your subconsciousness. Read “The power of your subconscious mind” Go idle. Get bored. Do nothing. Go for a walk. Meditate. Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body. It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.


Some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. Your conscious mind is like a home computer on which you can run carefully written programs that return correct answers to limited problems, whereas your unconscious mind is like Google’s vast data centres, in which statistical algorithms sift through terabytes of unstructured information, teasing out surprising useful solutions to difficult questions.


Providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges. A shutdown habit, therefore, is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you’re engaged in productive work but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy. Downtime also helps to recharge the energy needed to work deeply. You can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this activity a rest.

The stick and question to consider

If you got this far, you still can read and focus Here is the question you need to consider. How much of your work you currently do, can be done by a smart unspecialised graduate with a few months of training? That is the stick. Robots and AI are on their way.

This the carrot

Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand.  To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few is a transformative experience. Depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning. Let’s finish with a quote by writer Winifred Gallagher “I’ll live the focused life because it’s the best kind there is.”

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

3 thoughts on “The future of work is deep attention”

  1. I sometimes feel like I am indulging myself when I switch off from the world and focus on something that completely absorbs me. No more guilt now – I will focus with confidence.

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