When I graduated college in 2006 I noticed that most available jobs included “ability to multi-task” as part of the requirements, I thought I was a solid multi-tasker, so this sounded good to me. Turns out both those employers and I were way wrong. I’m not a good multi-tasker, neither are you (although women are better than men). Quite simply humans are not designed to multi-task.
Over the years I started noticing more and more articles about research showing that we’re just no good at multi-tasking. Finally after having heard great things about it late last year I picked up a copy of Deep Work, I ended up loving it so much that I went out of my way to find the Spanish translation and gave both of my parents copies for Christmas.
Since the 70s psychologist in the field of Performance Psychology began to “systematically explore what separates experts from everyone else.” In the 1990s they came up with a name for what experts do differently to become experts: deliberate practice.
The trouble is that we love the story of the prodigy who is just magically good in their field. The story of Mozart just knowing what to do with a piano and we all dream of finding that one thing we’re just naturally good at.
So what is deliberate practice? It’s a specific kind of practice that requires two key components:
- Focused attention on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or master
- Receiving feedback to correct your approach to where it’s most productive
The book also digs into the neurological explanation of why deliberate practice works, but I’m not going to dig into those in this short article. The key thing to understand is that if you’re trying to learn a complex skill (like underwriting or understanding an insurance policy), our brains are simply unable to learn it if they’re in a state of low concentration, so you simply can’t afford to be distracted.
The core of the book can be summarized in this great paragraph in chapter 1:
To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expert systems and skills to come easily to you.
The book has multiple detailed examples of how experts in many fields have used deliberate practice and uninterrupted periods of productivity to achieve amazing things and outrun the competition. One of the many interesting things that the book finds is that being more productive doesn’t necessarily mean putting in more hours. He presents the following formula:
High-Quality Work Produces = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
Given that basic formula for expert-level productivity, it’s pretty easy to perform highly without putting in extreme hours by increasing your focus, however for most of us focus doesn’t come easy, it’s a skill that requires building like a muscle.
One of the key reasons that multi-tasking doesn’t work is the concept of attention residue. Basically, there is a cognitive cost of switching tasks, when you switch from task A to task B some of your attention stays on task A for a period of time not allowing you to be fully productive on Task B. The fix is pretty simple, by working on a single task for a long time without switching, you minimize the negative impact of attention residue when task switching.
The heart of the book digs into numerous people’s stories of expert performance and how they achieve it and several different strategies for how to actually create time for deep work in our chaotic modern lives. I found it to be well balanced, in-depth and pragmatic.
It’s hard to summarize the great number of useful ideas included in this book, so, for now, I’ll just say I highly recommend it, learning to improve your deep work skills will be very beneficial in your insurance career.