The Question

When we think of setting goals at Accountability Works, we very much have a framework in mind. We have known time bounds, 12-weeks or 1-year for our programs. We know how to help people translate what they want to accomplish into goals that they are excited about and can be accountable for. However, we’ve never asked, what is the deep work required for you to accomplish that goal? And now we might want to.
Women concentrating and doing deep work

The Book that Inspired Us

The book that inspired this question is Deep Work by Cal Newport. Newport defines deep work as a state of peak concentration that lets you learn hard things and create quality work quickly. This is as opposed to shallow work which encompasses logistical (planning), administrative tasks (email, anyone?) and duties that can be done while distracted (i.e. categorizing your spending). What struck us in regards to goal-setting was when Newport asked, what is the deep work that you need to carve out time for in order to accomplish your goals?

What stands out about this question is how differently you have to think about your actions. We typically think of goals as either outcome or process goals. An outcome goal is mostly focused on an outcome and is not specific in how you get to that outcome. For example, make x amount of dollars per year is an outcome goal. How you arrive at the goal can change over months, weeks and quarters. A process goal is mostly focused on the process of arriving at a goal and typically is built on establishing an action or set of actions that you do over and over again. A good example would be the goal of learning to play guitar. Newport’s question speaks most easily to the second type. In this case the deep work would be to carve out time to practice. 

Deep Work, Flow States and the Progress Principle

The interesting part is that we enjoy doing deep work, because it produces a flow state, where we can literally get lost in our work. The more experiences of flow that we have has been attributed to higher life satisfaction. We know from previous studies (see our post on the Progress Principle) that we get more out of the pursuit of a goal than the achievement of the goal, so it makes sense to focus on doing deep work in service of our goals. Double bonus! So as we head into summer, we couldn’t help but be excited to minimize the shallow work (logistical and administrative) and to be intentional about doing deep work.

What would you choose?

What is your deep work? It might be something new you want to learn or study. Immersing yourself in a creative project for the sake of doing it. It could be diving into creating that next offering that you’ve been thinking about but haven’t had the time to think through. Or spending 5 hours in the garden just because that’s where you want to be and it feels good.

Why it’s so appealing

As I’ve been thinking more about what quality work is required to accomplish my goals (it’s not an easy question to answer), I’ve realized why I had such a visceral reaction to the concept of deep work. I have been spending a lot of my time doing shallow work. Shallow work gives the feeling of accomplishment but does give much meaning or satisfaction. The lure of a state of peak concentration is exactly what makes it difficult. Focus. And developing those muscles again, being good at focusing, tuning out noise and tuning into what it is you are doing. Now that sounds exciting.