In 2009, 27-year-old behavioural scientist Adam Grant became an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Within two years, he became the youngest professor to receive tenure at the school; within five years, he became the school’s youngest full professor with around 60 peer-reviewed research papers under his belt.
Now, at 34, Grant is a New York Times bestselling author and prolific researcher who performs at a level typically far beyond his years.
Grant decided early in his career that productivity was a scientific problem that could be solved, and one of the fundamental components of his solution is doing “deep work,” Georgetown professor and author Cal Newport writes in his new book “Deep Work”. It’s a phrase Newport coined for intense sessions of distraction-free work that requires the full use of one’s focus and intelligence.
It’s a simple formula, Newport says: “High quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus).“
Newport writes that “there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.”
Rather than continuously work on research throughout the year, Grant reserves the fall semester for his teaching responsibilities, and the effort that he puts into his classes and students has resulted in Grant’s being Wharton’s top-rated professor for four straight years.
The spring semester and summer are then dedicated to research. When he’s working in his office, he’ll sometimes spend a few days working in total isolation. During these stretches, Grant will set up an email auto-reply telling people he’s not answering messages for a few days.
“It sometimes confuses my colleagues,” Grant told Newport. “They say, ‘You’re not out of office, I see you in your office right now!'”
In a 2009 research paper, University of Minnesota business professor Sophie Leroy explains that every time a brain shifts its attention from one task to another, part of its energy is still processing the first task. She calls this “attention residue.”
When people discipline themselves to focus on one task only, their brain utilises energy more efficiently, which Newport argues can result in more and better quality work.
“When Grant is working for days in isolation on a paper,” Newport writes, “he’s doing so at a higher level of effectiveness than the standard professor following a more distracted strategy in which the work is repeatedly interrupted by residue-slathering interruptions.”
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