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Deep Work by Cal Newport: Why JC and University Students Should Study Less!

Deep Work is one of Cal Newport's most popular books. It is widely read and supported by many accomplished productivity gurus on the internet. Its success can be attributed to the thesis it proposes: the ability to focus on one task for lengthy periods of time is valuable, rare, and meaningful, producing elite work that distinguishes a knowledge worker from his/her competitors.

But what exactly does this mean? And why should JC and university students care about it?

In this article, we will summarise the key points from Part 1 of this book, drawing parallels between the knowledge worker and students to underscore the importance of deep study in your academic life.

university student studies in a library in Singapore

First, let us take a look at how Newport defines deep work:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Restructuring this definition to apply to students, in this article, we define Deep Study as:

Academic activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value in your life, improve your learning outcomes, and produce a deep understanding that is hard to fabricate.

Already this seems appealing. As students, we would love to derive meaning from the one activity we spend many hours doing (studying), and have something to show for it (academic success). Yet, when we reflect on our daily work habits, we realise how far from this ideal we may really be.

student is using her phone

Research quoted by Newport suggests that 60% of an average knowledge worker's workweek is spent in e-communication such as email. Similarly, have a look at your phone screen time: Can you calculate what percentage of your weekly waking hours are spent on social media?

While the ability to stay connected globally provides meaning in our social circles, problematic use of social media has become a source of many mental health crises among Gen Z. Not only is depression and anxiety becoming more common, we also find students' attention spans decreasing and concentration worsening. More and more we find ourselves checking emails and social media accounts many times a day.

Have a look at your "pickups" count in your screen time data. You'd be surprised to find it is likely over a 100. This means even if you don't use your phone for a long time each time you pick it up, you gravitate towards it and check it as many as a hundred times a day.

Without a doubt, this is impacting your academic achievement.

This is because we often engage in what is the antithesis of deep study. In his book, Newport defines Shallow Work as:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Anyone can scroll through social media for hours. Yet, how many can achieve deep levels of understanding of calculus (or any other complex topic in a given discipline)?

Yes, we are aware that this concept of deep study is quite separated from the mainstream narrative. Usually, students are told to have a professional online presence, and many disciplines are constantly looking for innovative ways to incorporate technology and the Internet in their operations.

Undergraduate university Singapore application form

Moreover, college admissions officers often expect students to be performing many different extracurriculars along with their studies, which leaves little time for focused work. In this increasingly digitalized world that sets hustle culture as its paragon of productivity, actively carving out time to be disconnected can appear strange and is difficult to execute.

So why should you go out of your way to study deep?

Firstly, you want to study deeply precisely because the mainstream narrative promotes a seemingly busy but shallow work style. This is because the ability to hone your craft - whether it be a specific subject in preparation for an important exam or tasks in your future career - is rare, providing you with a competitive advantage over your peers. When you spend hours understanding the intricacies of your subject, the essays and answers you develop will be highly valuable not just in the short term as excellent grades but in the long term as a solid foundation in your discipline as well!

Secondly, as Newport aims to prove, there are two core abilities for thriving in today's knowledge economy. These are:

1. The ability to quickly master hard things

2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

As the MOE shifts its focus away from exam results as the key social marker of academic success, staying ahead of the curve will require developing certain soft skills such as excellent interpersonal communication (Emotional and Social Intelligence) as well as the ability to study (and consequently, work) deeply.

No matter how innately talented you may be, if you are unable to turn that talent into some product, you will not be able to thrive.

"To learn requires intense concentration" - Newport, p. 22

In order to do well in your future career, you will need to develop a thorough understanding of your field. This understanding can only be developed when you tackle each relevant topic systematically, focusing your full attention to uncover truths. Such deliberate practice can help you improve and learn faster, and if you can combine that with personalized feedback from a private home tutor, you can correct your approach when needed to be your most productive self.

There is a biological basis to this theory!

Many psychologists have spent time exploring that top performers engage in deliberate practice. However, they have only recently started to identify why this is an effective behaviour. The answer comes from neurobiology, where more myelin - a layer of fatty tissue around your neurons - is a biological marker for fast thinking and memory.

neuron firing during deliberate practice

As one spends long hours practising a certain skill, the specific relevant neural circuit fires again and again, and in isolation. The repetitive use of this circuit triggers cells to wrap layers of myelin around these neurons, which helps them fire faster and more effortlessly the next time.

Conversely, the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction can have potentially devastating consequences to your performance!

This is because of the psychological concept of attention residue. This concept comes from the research findings that suggest that when one shifts one's focus from one task to another, it takes a while for the brain to fully adjust to focusing on the new task. During this transition period, the brain doesn't work at its highest capacity. In fact, people who switch focus actually perform worse on Task B!

The ultimate law of productivity:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Quoting findings from his previous book, How to Become a Straight-A Student, Newport suggests that "the very best students often study less than" the students right behind them. How can this be? The answer is simple: they fully utilise the above-mentioned law of productivity. They regularly go "out of their way to maximize concentration" as a result of which they could "radically reduce the time required to prepare for tests" or write excellent essays, "without diminishing the quality of the results".

With some simple changes, you can also reduce the time taken to prepare for exams or do your homework, by engaging in deep study! In part 2 of this article, we will apply Newports 4 Rules to students to give you a practical guide on how to excel in your JC or university studies using deep study. Stay tuned.

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