Deep Work: A welcome kick in the butt.

Based on this tweet by Enrico Bertini:

… after having been successfully primed by this one some weeks ago (because locals!):

…I bought and then devoured Deep Work by Cal Newport in two to three sessions.

As I munched through the book, I could almost physically sense the impact it was making on my thought patterns. I have since spent another Deep Work Pomodoro scanning through its pages again to make sure I did not miss anything.

Deep Work is at its heart Cal Newport’s passionate argument for Deep Work in this extremely fragmented and highly connected information age. He defines Deep Work as:

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.

Armed with a whole book full of stories and examples, he makes the case for eschewing network tools such as email, twitter, facebook, reddit, slack, whatsapp and so forth, instead dedicating as much of your time as possible to specific valuable outcomes. Yes, even after work, he makes the case for structuring your leisure activities in a similar fashion.

Although the book cites a number of studies, storytelling is its main persuasive tool. Whatever the case may be, I am utterly convinced.

I have resolved to put in a massive effort to get my Deep Work muscles back in top form.

I knew all of this stuff before. Heck, I’ve even written on this blog about deprioritising communication to make room for important thingsminimising interruptions and maximising concentration and more (use the search Luke).

Somehow, maybe because of my transition to business, I’ve slipped back into the illusion that you have to be connected all the time. On an average workday, I have email, two instances of slack, one instance of mattermost and whatsapp all open on my desktop, just in case I need to be reached. (To be clear, there’s a great deal of messages that go through them every day, so it’s not just me sitting there waiting in vain for someone, anyone, to please send me a message.)

Contrary to what I’ve convinced myself of, these tools all detract significantly from my value production, both in terms of quality and throughput.

Structure and summary of the book

In Part 1, Newport tries to convince you of the value and necessity of Deep Work. The take-home message is that in order to excel at learning and at doing especially in the current interruption and distraction filled information age, we need unfragmented periods of distraction-free concentration, during which we push our cognition to the limit.

When I say it like that, it seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

Phrased differently, the great fallacy of current times is that one can perform at one’s best whilst being hyper-connected.

One can’t.

Even worse, if we continue doing it this way, we’ll start losing our ability to focus.

In Part 2, Newport gives high-level advice towards implementing Deep Work, packaged as the four rules of Deep Work:

  1. Work deeply: More about this further down.
  2. Embrace boredom: Avoid busywork. That is, when you have a few minutes waiting in line somewhere, use the time to think instead of reaching for your smartphone.
  3. Quit social media: EEEKE! Don’t worry, it’s slightly more complicated, but “manage social media” would not have had the same impact.)
  4. Drain the shallows: Squeeze out as much as possible shallow work from your schedule. Focus work should be the default, distractions (shallow work) the exception.

In terms of scheduling, rule #1 can be implemented in at least four different ways: monastic (isolate yourself almost permanently), bimodal (isolate yourself some of the time, but for significant periods, e.g. a month sabbatical), rhythmic (integrate into your schedule at set times during the day every day), journalistic (cultivate the ability to work deeply whenever you get a moment).

Of these, the rhythmic philosophy is probably the most practical for me and for most of the readers of this blog.

More practically, rule #1 (“Work Deeply”, remember?!) can be implemented using the following four disciplines:

  1. Focus on the wildly important: Make sure that you always know what the absolute most valuable thing is to work on.
  2. Act on lead measures: Track your deep work by metrics that can be calculated before the output realises and not after, for example track your daily number of hours during which you were able to work deeply.
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard: Create some modality with which you can see clearly your daily deep work performance.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability: Your daily or weekly routine should ensure that you review your work, and your deep work performance via the scoreboard for example.

How I’m planning to apply Deep Work

In the book Newport reiterates an important observation: We humans have limited stores of will power. These can and will get depleted through the day if we’re not careful.

If it takes too much conscious effort to avoid distractions and to stay focused on the mentally taxing task at hand, our will power is depleted at some point and then our defences crumble.

Before you know it, you’re stuck in that super satisfying (not) email, twitter, facebook, reddit, email, twitter, whatsapp, slack loop again.

An effective remedy for this is ritualization.

This does not mean that you have to get out the old Ouija board. Rather, it means that you should develop “routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration”.

Fortunately, because of a choice I made in 2013, my work already involves spending longer periods reading, thinking and programming. Now I only need to ensure that these periods are as deep as possible, which means eliminating distractions and practising as intensively as possible focusing on that One Really Important Thing.

I will eliminate distractions by:

  • Using the pomodoro method (as I’ve been doing all this time, just badly).
  • Extending the length of the 25 minute pomodoro. If I’m in the deep work flow, I’ll continue past the 25 minute alarm. A longer break can be taken later.
  • Activating my phone’s no distraction mode during pomodori. Only phone calls get through, nothing else.
  • Killing my email app and all browser tabs that have to do with real-time communication (slack, mattermost, whatsapp, and so on).
  • Just in case, pasting a list of time-wasting site hostnames into my uBlock Origin’s “My Filters” list.

Besides that, I am recording deep work by prepending one of D0, D1, … D5 to the mytomatoes.com pomodoro description, corresponding to the spectrum from shallow to most deep work.

Thanks to veronikach.com, I am using focus@will which helps tremendously with my concentration in the sometimes busy office.

Newport explains that most people can manage a maximum of four hours per day of truly deep work. Furthermore, for many people, it is most effective to schedule creative and deep work for the morning, and shallow work (email, admin, meetings etc.) for the afternoon. For a longer time I have been following the guideline of scheduling meetings for the afternoon, so now I’ll strengthen that by trying to get my deep work done in the morning, leaving shallow work for the afternoon as far as possible.

Finally, I think that probably the most important advice here is to practise, practise and then practise some more.

Conclusion

This could very well be due to my own bias, but if I had to describe Deep Work as compactly as possible, I would have to say that it comes down to “mindful action”.

It might sound like a contradiction in terms (mindfulness is the practice of being, amongst other things), but I am referring to the practice of being fully connected to and focused on the current moment.

With Deep Work, one practises connecting fully to and focusing on the current endeavour, thus greatly enriching that experience and the output that it generates.

Thank you, Cal Newport, for this very welcome kick in the butt.

9 thoughts on “Deep Work: A welcome kick in the butt.”

  1. Could not have said it better. I admit I haven’t read Deep Work yet, but I’ve read so much about it that the message is getting through anyway. Thanks for another awesome reminder.

    I’m thinking how to integrate focus@will with Pomodoro, without actually operating two apps. I want it to play for 25+ mins, then pause, then start playing again. Any ideas?

    By the way, do you know RescueTime? You need to give it access to your whole life, but it will track whether you are spending your time in Word/LaTeX/whatever you call productive, or on social websites (which it can block if you subscribe).

    1. Perhaps this is old news to you, but Deep Work might be even more interesting as Cal Newport is also a young(ish) academic. :) (first of quite a number of academic publications in 2009, and somehow made time to publish 4 books; see https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=EhodjeAAAAAJ&hl=en )

      At this point I’m still doing it manually: Starting pomodoro in mytomatoes, and starting the focus@will soundtrack. I have the tendency to get stuck in my tools, forgetting the actual point of the exercise, so I’ll keep it like this for now.

      A friend of mine who used to work at the LUMC used RescueTime. It did look quite invasive, plus that their Linux version was only released later.

  2. I’m glad to hear this book getting the attention it deserves out there. I had a very similar experience reading it, the feeling that important brain patterns were being rewired in positive ways. I wrote a port about my experience and what I’ve done to increase the amount of deep work I’m doing (website link in comment here).

    One thing I tried that I found _didn’t_ help me at all was Pomodoro. The constant interruptions took me out of the focus I had and felt like a prompt to go get tea, water, whatever. I felt like the deep work session should continue as long as possible, which might be and hour or two, and the breaks would come naturally.

    Good luck on your journey towards more focus!

  3. Personally I only use Pomodoro for two things – working on something I don’t want to do (25 mins is a small forced march) or if its something I’m happily binge working on then I do 52 minutes and then force myself to take a 17 minute break.

    For “Deep Work” I like to cut out the whole morning or afternoon and just dwell there. I don’t want timers or schedules at all. I don’t want to know when time has run out; I don’t even want time to exist.

    The book is really great (recommend!) and for me it emphasizes how we broke our concentration – info snacking, context switching, guilty interruption pleasures, over-scheduling, over-working. We have to learn how to create sufficient space for the mind to settle and become absorbed.

  4. “Focus on the wildly important: Make sure that you always know what the absolute most valuable thing is to work on.”

    Care to expound on this?

    I think this statement supersedes all the other recommendations you’ve presented. If our objective is genuinely important to us, we’ll surely find the means and methods to work deeply on it.

    But how exactly does one measure importance or value?

    1. Implicit in that discipline, is that qualifier “…within the constraints of your life and work”.

      Newport himself is a tenured academic, which gives him quite some freedom. However, he is still constrained by having to apply successfully for funding, getting papers published, teaching, and so forth. For each of these goals, he will need to perform certain tasks.

      When you’re working towards a goal like that, then that activity is at that moment is the most valuable thing, although it might not be the most valuable thing that you would work on given the hypothetical situation of NO constraints.

      In my work, I answer the question of importance or value in a similar fashion: When I’m working on a client project, the most important thing for me is to get the project done, and to deliver at the highest possible quality, even although I might at that moment prefer to walk up the mountain instead. ;)

      To address your first point that having something important will automatically mean that one focuses on that thing, I have the following: I have a long-running side-project which I find hugely important. However, I generally only find time to work on it after I’ve worked on my paying projects, and have spent the evening with my family.

      By that time, my energy levels are low (and my will power probably quite depleted), so focusing on that hugely important project becomes quite challenging, especially when there are so many SNL videos on YouTube that I still need to see. ;)

      So, systems that help me focus on important work (where important is defined in a context- and constraint-dependent fashion) remain extremely useful.

  5. By coincidence, I came to a similar point at the start of this year by a different route: instead of stressing about how little I felt that I accomplish, I decided to work out the non-work productive time that I actually have available, and fit work accordingly: http://www.stuartellis.name/posts/time-budgeting/. Once I did that, I realized that I had more than I thought, and that by far the most productive periods in the day were whilst I was commuting on trains, with no Internet access for most of the journey (rural area, not great cell coverage).

  6. Thank you so much for this post. I have added Cal Newports “Deep Work” to my reading list, and I can’t wait to read it.

    I feel like I tried a MILLION pomodoro apps before I discovered the under-the-raider app Orkanizer.com that ended up taking the pomodoro technique to a new level for me. After reading your post, I realize that while I loved wonderful pomodoro apps such as KanbanFlow (https://kanbanflow.com/), somehow Orkanizer facilitated deep work like none of the other pomodoro apps I’d tried.

    I just wanted to say thank you for your post and wanted to share Orkanizer for your readers, in case it ends up benefiting someone.

    Many blessings!

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