Obama at night: a role model for Deep Work

In a recent New York Times article, Michael Shear describes how President Obama works late into the night in his private study. He considers this time spent alone “as essential as his time in the Oval Office.” What is he doing in there until the early hours of the morning? He’s doing deep work: speech writing, reading, thinking, responding to documents and memos that need consideration.

Deep Work is the title of a book I finished on the same day the NYT article was published. Written by Cal Newport, it provides a compelling argument for the necessity and power of carving out time to engage your brain in creating valuable knowledge-based outputs.

Newport makes the case that in today’s economy, producing valuable work requires synthesizing a lot of information and thinking deeply about the knowledge you have. Basic brain science tells us that this level of cognitive engagement cannot occur while you have distractions like email and social media, or while your attention is taken up with non-value adding admin tasks. Using the strategies he shared in the book, Newport managed – in one year and without working evenings – to write a book, be a father to a toddler and publish nine peer reviewed academic papers. Remarkable.

There’s an important message in Obama’s evening work and Cal Newport’s book for talent development leaders. They both remind us of the necessity of building in time for thinking – deep work – in development programs. In times of cost-cutting and anxiety about leaving the “real work” for more than a couple of hours, many development programs have lost this important aspect of learning. Even when technology supports continuous and micro- learning, we must be careful not to simply increase the “noise” in our everyday lives without building in space for engaging with the information at a deep enough level to make it valuable.


Sarah Tennyson helps organizations assess, develop and retain great people. To find out more visit http://tennysonllc.wpengine.com/ 

If you enjoyed reading this, sign up here for the latest news, research and tools to help you get the most from yourself and your team.