What sets  elite performers who turn out prodigious quantities of valuable work apart from normal worker bees, who despite our best intentions and long hours, consistently produce less than we hoped?

A new book entitled Deep Work claims to know the answer. The much discussed title from Georgetown professor Cal Newport claims that the secret of superstars is simple but powerful -- intensity.

In an excerpt on Medium, Newport warns that "the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance." Why? The pernicious effects of something researchers have dubbed "attention residue." It is caused by frequent task switching and interferes with our ability to perform at our your best.

Newport's bottom line: "To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work. If you're not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it'll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally."

Deep work is old news for Bill Gates.

This is fascinating stuff for our multitasking-obsessed age (despite the fact that approximately a million studies attest to the fact that multitasking makes you dumber), and hopefully for Newport, it will sell lots of books. But as Newport concedes, deep work is hardly new. In fact, it's the way of working that fueled Bill Gates' success.

A thought-provoking post on Business Insider gathers evidence from Newport's book and elsewhere that the Microsoft founder was -- in his youth at least -- a true master of deep work.

Just check out this example from a 2013 Harvard Gazette article by Walter Isaacson: "In the wee hours of the morning, Gates would sometimes fall asleep at the terminal. 'He'd be in the middle of a line of code when he'd gradually tilt forward until his nose touched the keyboard,' [Microsoft co-founder Paul] Allen said. 'After dozing an hour or two, he'd open his eyes, squint at the screen, blink twice, and resume precisely where he'd left off -- a prodigious feat of concentration.'"

The BI article also points out that as part of a 2014 Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), Gates wrote that, though age has since moderated his work habits, "20 years ago I would stay in the office for days at a time and not think twice about it."

You could call this simple workaholism, but the BI post insists that Gates wasn't merely cranking out hours at the office. He was engaged in exactly the sort of deep, immersive concentration that Newport calls deep work.

What's the lesson for those hoping to steal just a bit of Gates' secret sauce? Focus less on the insane schedule, and instead attempt to imitate his ability to concentrate. "You don't need to take it to Gates' level and regularly work through the night at the office. A dedication to deep work requires setting aside stretches of time each week (of say an hour or two) when you work with urgency and your concentration is not disrupted by anything," concludes the article. "It's about being constantly aware of what work is considered 'shallow' and what is 'deep,' and ensuring that shallow work doesn't overtake your schedule."

How much of your schedule is dedicated to "deep work"?

Published on: Feb 2, 2016