How to be a superstar at work.

The pressure is on

You know the expression “it’s a dog-eat-dog world”? I never liked it because of the nasty image it conjures up but it does seem a fitting way to describe the business world today. Companies are cutting costs wherever they can. Jobs are being transformed or eliminated by technology. Reality is, the job market is competitive. Everyone is fighting to get ahead and stay ahead. 

In this environment, landing a good job and building a successful career is not as easy as it once was. There is a lot of pressure to keep up in whatever you do for a living if you want to survive. Even more so if you want to excel and be seen as a superstar in your field. But there is plenty of opportunity in the knowledge-based industries if you have one particular skill that is highly valued yet increasingly hard to find. And that skill is the ability to do ‘deep work.’

Where opportunity lives

Knowledge industries make money based largely on extracting value from information and generating ideas, rather than on the production of goods. Examples of companies in these types of industries include marketing agencies, law firms, research companies, financial institutions and technology developers. As our shift to an information economy continues, the need for knowledge workers is increasing, offering some of the best opportunities for employment and career development.

 Knowledge workers are required to master large amounts of information quickly and develop ideas in the form of content, strategies, theories, proposals, etc. This intellectually-demanding type of work is called deep work (a term coined by Cal Newport), and it is something that fewer and fewer people are able to do. 

How to stand out

The reason deep work has become increasingly difficult and rare is because of the business environment we have created. Thinking at this level requires us to focus for a specified amount of time and our ability to do that is decreasing. We live in a world full of distractions and the workplace is teeming with them. Email, group chat, multiple devices and open offices lead to countless interruptions. The need to be constantly available has become the norm. As such, there are never-ending demands on our time and attention. The result of all these distractions is that we have trouble concentrating. We feel like we are busy all the time and yet (let’s be honest), we’re not accomplishing much that’s significant. 

I know this feeling all too well. It’s like being a ping pong ball, all over the place and at everyone else’s beck and call. For me, this feeling was slowly building for many years until I discovered that I don’t need to feel this way any longer. I found a way to regain control, improve my concentration and increase my productivity. The solution to this problem is based on cultivating the ability to do deep work, a skill that is crucial if you want to succeed in business.

My journey

I spent over 25 years in the world of marketing, working both at marketing agencies and in-house marketing departments. The jobs I held always required a certain amount of deep work. I believe what helped me get ahead and build my career was my ability to get that type of work done. It was something I never really thought about, I just did it. But over the past few years, I noticed it was been getting harder and harder to do. I kept starting things that I had trouble finishing. I would block off a couple of hours to work on something but then couldn’t concentrate for more than 10 minutes at a time. There was always something else fighting for my attention, making me feel like I was being pulled in different directions. My brain couldn’t seem to settle down like it used to.

Then, late in 2016, I started my own business as a freelance consultant. I left the typical office environment so I no longer had to deal with the usual distractions. No stream of emails, endless meetings, busy chat groups, interruptions from coworkers, etc. I was certain my sense of overwhelm would disappear and my ability to focus would return. But they didn’t. I was stumped. Why was I struggling so much and what could I do about it? I had to figure this out. 

What I learned

Over the past year and a half, I’ve read countless articles, research papers and books to better understand what was going on. And during that time, I have learned a lot about productivity, performance and how our brain works. Here are some highlights of my research findings.

  • We like to think we are productive when we multitask but we aren’t.
  • Focusing for hours at a time, without breaks, is impossible.
  • Although technology can help us be more productive, it can easily consume us if we use it mindlessly.
  • Periods of both collaboration and isolation are key when striving for higher accomplishments.
  • Having work/life boundaries does more than just make us feel better.
  • Routines may seem boring but they reduce decision
  • We do not have to be constantly connected and available to be successful.
  • To be effective at cognitively-demanding work, you have to practice it regularly.

The biggest key to success

All of these learnings lead to my biggest takeaway. If you want to stand out in an increasingly competitive workplace, you must be able to do deep work. Having spent the last year honing my ability, I confess it’s not an easy skill to develop and maintain. But it is very doable if you set your mind to it. Not only will it help improve your productivity and increase your market value, it will also give you a stronger sense of accomplishment in the work that you do. Deep work is the super power for people who want to succeed.

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