thoughts on Deep Work

Over two and a half years ago I read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. It’s sat with me and changed how I think about work and how I focus. At the start of this year, I made a commitment to working deeper. It hasn’t been easy, I know how but training myself to practice it wasn’t straightforward as I thought.

There are many reasons why it’s hard. The primary reason I believe, is that we’ve become accustomed to distractions. Breaking that habit and modifying workflows so you aren’t tempted by them isn’t easy.

Three steps to start working deeper

Step 1 – Start small

Please turn off notifications for non-essential apps (phone call notifications stay, but I screen caller id). I also place my phone in do-not-disturb mode when I’m focused and leave it on my desk where I can see it. The display will turn on and display that a call is coming in, otherwise it stays dark. This allows me to glance and evaluate if it’s urgent. I find this less jarring to me than if I left it in my pocket or even on vibrate. When I’m not focused on work, I’m still opening various applications to see what’s new or different.

Step 2 – Practice focus

To enforce focus during my time blocks I close the applications I do not need. Yes, it’s easy to hide my email application behind other windows, however it’s just as easy to then tab into it while switching apps and get lost in my inbox.

Step 3 – Cut out the social media

It’s not easy. I decided to cut out one, and it was the one that ate the most of my time. When I replaced the failing hard drive on my primary computer I decided not to log into Facebook. At the same time I uninstalled the apps from my tablet and phone.

That was over a month ago. My laptop still provides access, but I honestly haven’t logged in to check anything. The longer I go the less urgent it feels for me to log in. If someone needed to contact me, they’ve found another way. Instead I’m reading more books, finishing projects, and developing a new product for pen at work!

I hope these tips help you think about working deeper and developing habits and workflows that help you focus.

Book Review

The following review was first posted in March 2016.

cover of deep work by cal newport
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

By Cal Newport
Grand Central Publishing (Hachette Book Group)
January 2016.

While one could potentially argue that Newport’s book about why deep work is valuable, meaningful, and increasingly rare (and how shallow work harms knowledge workers) is simply a rehash of plain common sense, I counter that it is a valuable read. He makes the case in a compelling and clear manner that left me questioning each of my daily actions and if they helped me contribute to the goal of helping my clients truly solve their technology (or yarn) problems. The book is divided into two parts, the first is to convince you of the validity of the deep work hypothesis and the second teaches you how to transform your habits so you can work deeply.

For me, the most compelling part of the first section was about how busyness is a proxy for productivity. If we aren’t clear on how to show or prove what we do as knowledge work, it’s easy to return to an industrial indicator of productivity: do lots of stuff visibly. I’ve seen myself fall into this trap by responding to a flurry of emails or focusing on tasks where my clients can easily see that I did something, instead of working on the deeper code that I really should pay attention to. Yes, some client work is shallow work, however, as Newport agrees, I won’t give all of it up as it’s not possible to be all-deep all the time.

Newport then states four rules: work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media, and drain the shallows. First, begin to train yourself to work deeply by setting routines and making a ritual of your work habits. Embrace boredom, instead of taking an internet break, schedule into your day when you’ll respond to email and social media (perhaps with time blocks), and when you’ll have some productive meditation and structured deep thinking. This next rule is hard: quit social media/networking tools. Newport suggests a cold turkey 30 day quit. Don’t tell people you’re taking the break, just do it. After the 30 days review your social media needs. Does it add true value to your professional goals and was there real loss in your not participating? If so, resume using it but with caution toward its addictive tendencies and false sense of true value. Finally, drain the shallows. Deep work value is by-and-large greater than shallow work, but don’t completely eliminate the shallow, some of it is necessary! Schedule every minute with time blocks and roll with the interruptions and disruptions.

It’s been a while since there was a book I’ve begged people to read and think about. Don’t turn into someone who has become so used to shallow work that when a deep work project comes along, there is no ability to think deeply and lead to a successful project.