Why deep concentration makes the difference for your working future

Pepijn Lochtenberg

A good friend of mine doesn't respond quickly to text messages. If you call him, he rarely answers. It is certain that he will answer or call back, because he is a reliable man. When we meet, he’s fully present. He has a job with many responsibilities, but I’ve never heard him talk about work pressure. Coincidence? 

Cal Newport is an American Professor of Computer Sciences who has published widely in the field of focus, including the book 'Deep Work'. A formula from his book: 

High Quality Work = Duration x Intensity of Concentration

This definition applies to work, but certainly also to the quality of your private life: high-quality relaxation, high-quality sport or high-quality conversations. 

For now, I will focus on the application in work. 

Superficial tasks

In more and more places, superficial work is becoming the priority due to the expectation to be easily accessible, constantly collaborating and visible on social media. 

Superficial tasks

Tasks that do not require much cognitive skill, that add little new value and are easy to imitate.

Newport, 2016

Some employees are expected to reply to their email within 15 minutes, have to attend all meetings they are invited to and always have their phone on. A comment like 'during a large part of the meetings I am answering my email' sometimes does not even lead to surprise.... 

How is this with you? Do you recognize that you are mainly occupied with small, superficial tasks? 

Why is it that superficial tasks dominate?

The first important reason is that it feels best in the moment. The fine incentive of receiving a message or the gratitude of a colleague after your direct help gives a pleasant feeling in the moment. If you compare that to the feelings that starting a complex deep task brings, the choice a lot of people make is very human.

Deep Work: tasks that require deep concentration

Work that you perform in a state of distraction-free concentration, pushing your cognitive abilities to the limit. This effort provides new value, improves your skills and is difficult for others to imitate (Newport, 2016).

A task that requires deep concentration is much more likely to bring feelings of stress and uncertainty at the start. In addition, compared to external stimuli (mail, news, social media), the start might be less stimulating, so you may also notice boredom at the start.  

A second reason why you often choose superficial tasks is that you’ll save a lot of effort in planning. Letting the urgent tasks of the moment, the incoming emails and the questions that colleagues ask you via Skype chat lead your day: it saves you the trouble of deciding what is really important in the moment. 

The opportunity for you 

So here is a great opportunity: by developing your capacity for deep concentration, you distinguish yourself from the vast majority who remain stuck in superficial tasks. This does not mean that you have to become a nano scientist, but it does mean that you have to challenge yourself to increase your abilities. 

With your ability to concentrate deeply, you will be able to grasp complex issues quickly and deliver high quality work at high speed. In a world increasingly dominated by technological development, this is an incredibly important quality. 

Start today

Every moment you practice keeping your attention on one task, you take another step towards better focus. Of course, there is advice on how to make it easier for yourself to do that. 

Soon I will give you tips that you can put into practice immediately during the webinar Focus like a Pro. Register for the next free webinar here. 

Do not expect to be able to sprint for an hour untrained

You may have the tendency to set ambitious goals right away, such as, for example, to immediately start working in deep concentration for an hour. This can be compared to sprinting for an hour untrained: you’ll probably start enthusiastically, but soon you’ll realize that it is not feasible. Build up your training gradually. If you are used to switching between tasks and being distracted often, start, for example, with 20 minutes of concentrated work on a task.

Good luck!

Pepijn Lochtenberg is a sports and performance psychologist and one of the owners of Focus like a Pro. He works with professionals in business and sports on a daily basis to improve focus.