Deep Work: Why you need it and how to get more of it (Part III)

Disclaimer: If you buy this book using this linked image, I get a small kickback. 

So far we’ve talked about what deep work is and rule #1 on how to get more of it. If you’re not familiar with deep work, why you need it, and what rule #1 is to get more deep work, you’ll want to read those posts first and then come back to this post.

With this post, I will wrap up how you can get more deep work in your life.

So, without further ado…

Rule #2: Embrace boredom

Our new mantra is: Be bored to concentrate better.

To go along with this idea, here’s a little quote from Clifford Nass, a Stanford Communications prof:

People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand…they’re pretty much mental wrecks. – Clifford Nass

What does multitasking have to do with being bored? Well, if you fill every moment of boredom with your smart phone and “multitask”, then you have likely rewired your brain to be a “mental wreck”. Even if you practice deep work in your day-to-day, if you still whip out your phone any time you’re bored, you’re reinforcing your brain to act like a mental wreck.

So, knock it off. Be bored instead.

Here are some exercises to practice that concentration muscle.

Take breaks from focus

Instead of taking breaks from distraction, take breaks from focus. Schedule a break from concentration to give into distraction. To do this, try scheduling your Internet time:

  1. Schedule your phone and Internet time in advance.
  2. Keep a notepad by your computer at work and note the next time you’ll use the Internet.
  3. Avoid Internet all together outside of that scheduled time.

If you have an office job that requires you to be connected all the time to email and chat, and you need to check in every 15 minutes. That’s fine. Schedule it. Keep track of it. And, don’t deviate from the plan. You’re still training your brain to concentrate and that’s what matters.

Keep your Internet-free times truly free of the Internet. If you’re working on a task that requires more Internet time, wait if you can. Do another offline activity until your next Internet window comes along.

If that won’t work and you have to do the task NOW, then reschedule your Internet time so that your block begins sooner, but you have to have at least a 5 minute gap until you can go online again. Otherwise, you’re reinforcing that bad behavior you’re trying to break.

This scheduling of Internet time is not only for when you’re at work. Do it when you’re at home, too.

Also, you can schedule large blocks of Internet time, so don’t feel that you can’t binge on Netflix anymore. You can. But you have to schedule it and you have to stick to the schedule.

Work like Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt would use concentrated bursts of studying to reduce the overall amount of time it took. Do what Newport calls the “Roosevelt Dash”:

  1. Estimate how long it will take you to do a high-priority, deep work task under normal conditions.
  2. Reduce the amount of time you’re allowed to get the work done dramatically.
  3. Announce the revised deadline publically or set a timer you can’t watch and get to work.

Since this requires a lot of concentration and you are likely new to deep work, only do this once week at first. After you get used to it, increase the frequency.

Meditate productively

When you’re doing a mindless physical task like walking, driving, or showering, use it to do practice deep work.

  1. Concentrate on a well-defined problem and review the relevant variables to solve the problem.
  2. Your mind will wander. Bring it back to the problem at hand.
  3. When your brain begins to “loop” (repeats what you already know) say to yourself, “I seem to be in a loop” and redirect your concentration back to the problem.
  4. When you solve the problem, review the answer and start on the next problem.

Newport says to try this 2-3 times a week to strengthen your concentration muscles.

Expect to see results from this activity after about 12 times (3 weeks) of doing this.

Memorize a deck of cards

Doing this task requires attentional control. It is a memory training task, but that leads to an improvement in your ability to concentrate. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Cement an image of you walking through 5 rooms in your home.
  2. Fix in your mind a collection of 10 things in each room. The larger the better because they’re easier to remember.
  3. Establish the order you look at each of these items in the room.
  4. Add 2 more items in another room or a place like your backyard to get to 52.
  5. Practice mentally walking through each of the rooms and looking at the 10 items in each room in their correct order.

Then, with a deck of cards:

  1. Associate a memorable person or thing with each of the 52 cards. For example, imagine Jim Carrey for the Ace of spades because he played the character Ace Ventura.
  2. Practice these associations until you can randomly pull a card from the deck and immediately recall the associated person or thing.

Combine the two:

  1. Begin your walkthrough of your house. For each item, look at the next card in the shuffled deck and imagine the corresponding memorable person or thing doing something memorable near that item.
  2. Once you finish a room, walk through it in your mind a few times in a row to lock in the imagery.
  3. Go carefully through the rooms, associating the proper mental images with objects in the proper order.

Voila! You memorized a deck of cards and your concentration is increasing by the second!

Rule #3: Quit social media

Eek! Do what now?!

Don’t worry, you can do a trial run of this. You don’t have to quit until you’re ready. And, if you’re never ready, that’s ok, too. Here’s the spiel…

We all know that these services are made to be addictive and are meant to take as much as your focus as possible. They’re made so that you keep scrolling.

We also know that we often spend more time than we had intended on them. For example, it’s a common scenario that I open my phone to add an item to my grocery list, get distracted by the red badge notification that we know and love, and my list item is completely forgotten while I “check Facebook real quick”. 15 minutes later, there’s no item on my grocery list, but I’ve learned that so-and-so had a nice looking lunch and smiled at a pic of a cute puppy. …WTF am I doing?

Deep work is a hell of a lot harder with social media. Hell, focus of any kind is a lot harder with social media. So get real clear on what you get from social media. What benefits do you get from social media? Why do you use it? What might you miss out on if you don’t use it?

The craftsman approach to tool selection

Look at the core factors that determine your success and happiness. Use a tool only if its positive impacts on those factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Apply the law of the vital few

  1. Define your high-level goals in your work and in personal life.
  2. List the 2-3 most important activities you need to reach those goals. Be specific enough that you can clearly picture doing them, but general enough to not be tied to a one-time outcome.
  3. Look at your social media tools. Ask if each tool has a substantially positive impact, negative impact, or little impact on the activities you listed for your goals.
  4. Only use the tool if it has substantial positive impacts that outweigh the negative.

Try this: 30 day ban

For 30 days, ban yourself from social media. All of them. Rules:

  1. Don’t deactivate your accounts.
  2. Don’t announce you’re leaving.
  3. Stop using them cold turkey.

When your 30 days are up, ask:

  1. Would my 30 days have been notably better if I had used them?
  2. Did people care I wasn’t using them?

If your answer is no to those questions, then quit the service permanently. If your answer is yes, then schedule that social media time and and stick to that schedule.

Don’t use the Internet to entertain yourself

I, for one, love the Buzzfeed articles that show me how to cheaply decorate my home. Do I ever do anything with that information? Nope. I fantasize about doing all these cute DIYs, but I never do them. Never write them down as goals. Never make action plans with them. Just fantasize about doing them.

There are many of these entertainment services that pose themselves as light “news” or helpful information, but with their snappy headlines, big promises, and easily consumable content, they are just another focus-sucking machine. Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, TMZ, Business Insider, Reddit, and I’ll add, Netflix…all time sucks. They are a crutch to eliminate boredom and they kill your ability to do deep work.

But how do I relax?

When I read this in Deep Work, it was a real eye-opener. I had realized it on some level, but it never fully registered until now…

Did you know that your brain can handle continuous hard activity? It doesn’t get tired like the rest of your body. It was made to think and analyze. Your brain still needs rest, and it gets it when you sleep, but other than that, your brain is like, “Let’s do this!”. All. The. Time.

The mental faculties are capable of continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or leg. All they want is change – not rest, except in sleep. – Arnold Bennett

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semi-conscious and unstructured Web surfing. – Cal Newport

Experience what it means to live, and not just exist. – Cal Newport

Bottom line, our “Netflix and chill” need after a long hard day is really just a ruse. If we didn’t veg out on the interwebs, we may actually be more rested for tomorrow.

Say what?? I know, right? Doesn’t seem right at first, until you do it and begin to see the difference.

(Also, this doesn’t mean you have to give those things up, but you should plan them and schedule them and then stick to the schedule.)

Rule #4: Drain the shallows

This rule is all about minimizing and controlling your shallow work. You can’t eliminate it completely because not all of your work can be deep. And, shallow work is only problematic when it crowds out your deep work. So what to do with shallow work?

Schedule every minute of your day

We’re horrible at knowing where our time goes. We underestimate how much sleep we get and overestimate how much we think we work. So, bottom line is that you really don’t know where your time is spent until you track your time.

Track every minute:

  1. Divide the hours of your workday into blocks of at least 30 minutes per block.
  2. Assign activities to those blocks.
  3. Batch similar tasks to more generic task blocks. He suggests drawing a line from a generic task block to a list of individual tasks to be done during that block.
  4. Schedule every minute of your day.
  5. Use the schedule to guide you.

Tips:

  • As new, unplanned tasks crop up, reschedule your day.
  • Use “conditional” blocks to allow for tasks that you’re not sure how long they will last. Basically, mark the block for two tasks knowing that if you finish the first task early, you will work on the next task for that block. And, if you don’t finish early, you’ll keep working on that first task instead.

Quantify the depth of every activity

If you don’t know if a task you’re about to do is shallow work, ask yourself:

  • How long would it take (in months) for me to train a smart, recent graduate with no specialized training in my field to do this task?
    • If it’s many months, then it’s a deep work task.
    • If it’s not long at all, then you’re looking at shallow work.

And, as always, try to spend more time on deep work.

Ask your boss for a shallow work budget

If you ask your boss how much time they want you to spend on shallow work, you then also have permission to timebox yourself from doing more shallow work than allotted. This is also a good time to have a discussion with your boss about how responsive and connected you need to be to IM and email, if you haven’t already.

Cal notes that about 30-50% of your time is the typical budget for shallow work.

Finish your work by 5:30pm

This is a case of timeboxing, essentially. With the 5:30pm deadline, you not only get a better work-life balance, but you also have the push to finish your work in that timeframe. It’s kind of like a daily “Roosevelt Dash” motivator. It helps you turn down shallow work.

Shallow work seems harmless in isolation, but when you have less time to get your real work done, it really becomes clear how low-priority it is compared to your deep work.

Become hard to reach

Here are 3 tips from Cal to make yourself hard to reach:

Tip 1: Make people that send you email do more work.

Ask them to filter themselves before emailing you. “If you need XYZ, contact PQR.”

Set the expectation that you won’t respond unless <insert reason>.

Tip 2: Do more work when you send emails.

Ask yourself, “What project is represented by this email?” and, “What is the most efficient process (in terms of emails generated) for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?” before you write the email. It will help you put in more information than you may have originally, cutting down on the number of emails you end up sending overall.

Tip 3: Don’t respond if any of the following applies:

  • It’s ambiguous or makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
  • It’s not a question or a proposal that interests you.
  • Nothing really good will happen if you respond and nothing really bad will happen if you don’t.

Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things. – Tim Ferriss

The End

That concludes everything that I learned from Deep Work. I hope my notes help you out in some way. If they have, let me know in the comments. It’ll keep my momentum going to know that somebody is getting something out of this weird propulsion I have to write all this stuff down in a blog.

Also, share it with your friends, if they will find it useful.

In my next post on Deep Work, I’ll show you how I’m implementing these practices in my own life and how I track it all in my bullet journal.

Thanks for sticking with me to the end. Now go do some deep work.

4 Comments

  1. This is some great stuff. I can’t wait to read about which pieces you’ve implemented because it seems overwhemling.

    1. Yeah, I’m trying to try most of the things, but I won’t be able to do all. Well, at least it doesn’t seem like I’ll be able to.

  2. I really like the idea of breaking my workday down into 30 minute chunks. I have a running to-do list, but sometimes it gets overwhelming to look at everything. Breaking it into chunks seems like it would help.

    I’m ready to give up social media. All of the platforms leave me feeling a little empty. I’ve been trying to make Pinterest work better for me by following different types of boards, but their algorithm is awful. There is no variety to it! Maybe I should plan a one-week break.

    1. I’ve been doing the time chunks for awhile now, and it always amazes me how much time I actually don’t have to do stuff because of meetings. Or how long something really takes when it seems like it wouldn’t. Good stuff.

      As for Pinterest, I totally agree! Also, if you lookup anything remotely religious, such as a memorial for a recently deceased relative, for example, you are suddenly buried in bible quotes. Wtelf? How are those two items the same? No. That is NOT what I wanted. /rant

      Their algorithms need work, for sure.

      As for a break, not a bad idea. Might find you don’t need it after all.

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