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.

Slow philosophy. [Weekly Head Voices #64]

I’ve spent days writing this post in my head, and now it’s taken more than two weeks to get done. It’s not that I have something complicated or difficult to tell you, it’s just that I was privy to three absolutely awesome weeks of vacation in an undisclosed location to the very far south of my current coordinates, during which I attained ultimate levels of relaxation that caused my brain to shut-down large parts of itself. The only parts that managed to remain online were those dedicated to slow living, appreciation of people and surroundings and, finally, deep thought. My brain is currently taking its sweet time to come fully online again.

Oh well.

I did bring you a photo of Disa Uniflora, a special little orchid that likes living close to little waterfalls, for example just like the one that can be found on your hike up Leopard’s Kloof. Look:

Pretty Disa in Leopard's Kloof.

As is usual for sunny vacations during which we transition into a new year, a number of realizations and resolutions slowly bubbled up to the surface from some usually submerged part of my consciousness. I’d like to share some of them with you:

Life goals are bad. Let’s stop doing them. The problem is that humans are awesome at adaptation. Unfortunately this means that two days after having celebrated your latest epic life achievement, you’re bored with it. Some people even get bored with their lives in general, and then buy a leather jacket and a motorbike because they think that that’ll somehow solve the problem, only to get bored with their new image soon after. Fortunately, there is a way to sidestep the problem quite elegantly. Don’t set life goals, but rather set life directions. Instead of defining the point that you want to go towards, define your preferred direction. If you do it right, you’ll pass those points as you go along in any case, except you won’t land in the depressing goal vacuum right after reaching the point that you’ve been moving towards for so long, because you’re motoring along in a direction, and that’s what’s important. To those more mathematically inclined, ignore the life function, rather design its derivatives. This is a practical way of applying the well-known addage that life is about the journey, and not the destination.

Disconnecting is good. I do love the internet. I also think it’s one of the most awesome achievements of the whole of humankind ever, and it really empowers humans everywhere. I’m more or less addicted to being constantly connected, having constant access to the sum total of human knowledge and in principle to a large percentage of my fellow humans. However, there is a fine line between having constant access and being constantly interrupted by too many not necessarily valuable packets of data. We’re very vulnerable to this latter situation, due to our brain chemistry being optimized by all of evolution for novelty, and for foraging, so we keep on clicking on “refresh”, and our ears perk up whenever a phone goes “ping”. However, when not being interrupted, human thought gets the room it needs to grow and deepen, into importance and into impact.

I’ve also been thinking about consumption. I’d like to do much less of that, and when I do, I’d prefer to consume quality. In my thoughts, it was primarily about information, but it applies to many other things. It’s an ongoing process.

I’m adding all of these to my growing list of little life tips. As regular readers of this blog, you know some of these by now: Keep on  striving for balance and harmony, focus on the now, create value, study your manual, and, most importantly, drink lots of coffee. One day I’m going to combine them all nicely into the Unified Dogma of  Me (UDM) and then I’ll start a sect. Seriously though, it’s quite challenging keeping these and the other ones in the front of my mind all the time. The UDM would definitely help. And I could start a sect.

One more thing before you go: I came across this recent PNAS article via the science pages of my newspaper. William Ratcliff and colleagues at the Michigan State University showed with a terribly simple experiment that single-celled yeast cells can evolve into multi-cellularity quite quickly. Pouring yeast from one test tube into another about 60 times, an action that favours, or selects, yeast cells that clump together, resulted into a multi-celled organism: The clumped together yeast cells started showing internal specialization. Pretty awesome results, especially considering the fact that you could probably reproduce this experiment in your kitchen.

That’s all for this week kids. Have fun evolving!