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Home » Season 4 » Make Deep Work Your Superpower: Deep Work and School (Part 1)

Make Deep Work Your Superpower: Deep Work and School (Part 1)

By Dr. Colleen Worrell, Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning

Make Deep Work Your Superpower: Deep Work and School (Part 1)

Want to learn complicated things quickly, be more productive, and generate higher quality work? Make Deep Work your superpower.

“Deep work” is a term coined by Georgetown University professor Cal Newport to refer to the ability to “focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task” (“Cal Newport on Deep Work”). In his newest book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), Professor Newport argues persuasively that the ability to do deep work is the superpower of the 21st century. By training your ability to focus and by actively carving out time “for real intense focused work,” Newport argues that we can train our brains and cultivate habits that build a superpower for learning, creating, and producing quickly and well (5 Science-Backed Tips for Managing Your Time). By so doing, we not only become more productive, we also develop our brain’s cognitive capacity and gain an increased sense of satisfaction and well-being. As Professor Newport writes in his conclusion, when you “struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning” (Deep Work 263).

While Newport’s book focuses on workers’ ability to thrive in the new economy, his research holds tremendous value for schools. After all, at its core learning “is an act of deep work” (Deep Work 37). The same two capacities that are critical for success in the competitive knowledge economy are also essential to the work we all do in schools:

  1. “The ability to master hard things.”
  2. “The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed” (Deep Work 29).

Through this series in LEO, I invite readers, students, teachers, administrators, and parents to consider the potential that deep work has to positively impact education and learning. My hope is that concept of deep work can be explored and applied, so that both educators and students can find ways to cultivate and promote this skill in and beyond school.

For the first part in the series, I want to share three reasons and strategies for building deep work into our lives:

1) Recognize the Difference Between Deep and Shallow Work

When you are doing deep work, you are devoting your time, energy, and focus to a task that requires you to lock in your concentration and push your brainpower to its limits. According to Newport, this kind of work creates something of value, builds meaningful skills, and makes a contribution to the world that is unique to you. “Shallow work,” on the other hand, does not require a great deal of focus and is often accomplished in a state of distraction (Deep Work 6). Answering email, scrolling through Twitter, organizing your binder, searching the Internet, and meeting to update partners on a project are all examples of non-cognitively demanding, shallow work. Recognizing the difference between these two types of work can help you become more mindful of how you work so that you can better plan your schedule and design more effective routines.

2) Make Time for (Truly) Deep Work

To use your mind to the fullest capacity, block out undistracted time of at least 60-90 minutes to do work that requires a high degree of concentration. This means putting your phone away, ignoring your email inbox, shutting off TV, and staying away from the Internet when you devote yourself to deep work. Research on multitasking backs up the need to filter out distractions. “Attention residue theory” explains that every time you shift your attention to another task, even if it’s a quick glance at a text or Snapchat, your mind is “stuck” on that different task for 10-30 minutes, which leaves you operating at a reduced cognitive capacity and limits your ability to work deeply (“Cal Newport on Deep Work”). Bottom line: there is no room for multitasking in deep work. You can schedule in distraction “breaks” (more on this in a future post), but uninterrupted focus is the key to deep work.

3) Deep Work Makes Us Smarter and Happier

The fields of neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy all underscore the value of deep work. Newport likens shallow work to junk food that leaves our brain undernourished, while deep work is like exercise that builds muscle of our brains  (“Cal Newport on Deep Work”). Similarly, distraction and mind-wandering tends to leave us feeling stressed and incomplete, whereas we gain a satisfied sense of “flow” when devoting “full rapt attention to something” that matters (5 Science-Backed Tips for Managing Your Time). As Newport explains in an article in Time magazine,

There’s a certain anxiety that seems to arise from constant distraction, and this anxiety can be replaced with deep satisfaction when you instead allow yourself to get lost in a single activity. Teaching kids how to live a life filled with focused attention means teaching them to live a life with less anxiety and more meaning (Time, Jan. 21, 2016).

Deliberate practice and scheduling in periods of “boredom” or disconnection can help build the super-skill of focus (more on this in future posts).

I hope these initial ideas inspire you to make deep work your superpower and to return to future issues of LEO for more on Deep Work and School.

IMG_4523Dr. Colleen Worrell is the Director of The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. She earned a BA in American Studies from Colby College and an MA/PhD in American Studies from The College of William & Mary. Dr. Worrell teaches Social Justice. She lives in Hopkinton with her husband, 3 children, chickens, and a couple of hives of bees.


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