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:

  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 it 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.

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

Last time we talked about the basics of deep work and why you need it. This time I’ll share how to get more deep work, for those tasks that you have that require you to have intense focus to master, in your life.

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

To work more deeply, I’ll go over Cal Newport’s 4 rules in this post as well as my next:

  1. Work deeply
  2. Embrace boredom
  3. Quit social media
  4. Drain the shallows

Rule #1: Work Deeply

According to David Dewayne, if you were to create the perfect environment to work deeply, it would closely resemble the Eudaimonia machine. It’s essentially a chain of the following connected rooms where you would enter into room 1 and work your way to room 5. You would spend 90 minutes in room 5 and then exit back to room 1 for 2-3 cycles because that’s about all our brains can handle.

Rooms of the Eudaimonia machine:

  1. Gallery – where you see examples of the deep work you made in “the machine”.
  2. Salon – a room that creates a mood between intense curiosity and augmentation where you can sit and debate or brood.
  3. Library – houses a permanent record of all the work produced in the machine. It has all the resources you needed for the previous work.
  4. Office space – looks like a typical office with whiteboards, cubicles, and desks. This is where you would do your low-intensity work that is tied to your project.
  5. Deep work chamber – a 6’x10′ soundproof room that allows you total focus.

Don’t worry. You don’t need to create a Eudaimonia machine to get more deep work in your life.

Deep work and willpower

According to Ray Baumeister, people fight the following most common desires all day long:

  1. Eat
  2. Sleep
  3. Sex
  4. Taking a break from hard work
  5. Go on the Internet or watch TV

We can resist those desires about 50% of the time. Each time you resist one of those desires, you deplete your willpower a little more until it’s all gone.

One way to avoid using willpower all day long is to create habits of routines and rituals. So, if you want more deep work, just like most things that require effort, you need to make it a habit.

There are 4 ways you can schedule deep work into your life. The one you choose to follow depends heavily on the type of connectivity you need in your work and how you work.

For example, if you need to be present online and in your inbox all day to do your job, then you’ll need to use a different deep work philosophy than someone that can hide away for a day or so at a time and peek their head out every now and then to catch up on all the shallow work.

4 Philosophies of deep work scheduling:

  1. Monastic
  2. Bimodal
  3. Rhythmic
  4. Journalistic

The Monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling

How it works:

  • Get rid of and minimize as many shallow obligations as you can.
  • Block off days, weeks, or months where you only do deep work and you shut out all distractions.

Who it works best for:

  • Works best for those with a well-defined and highly valued professional goals.
  • The bulk of this person’s success comes from them doing this one thing really well.
  • This philosophy of deep work only works for a small group of people – those that can work on their goals and shut out the outside world to get their stuff done.
  • Works really well for professors.

The Bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling

How it works:

  • You divide your time with clearly defined stretches with at least a full day at a time dedicated to deep work. Leave the rest of your time open to everything else.
  • During your deep work phases, you work as you would in the monastic philosophy: shut out all distractions and only deal with them when you are done with your deep work time.
  • Seek intense, uninterrupted concentration.

Who it works best for: 

  • If you’re working a day job, you would use this philosophy if you can block out your weekends for deep work or block out an entire week at a time for deep work.
  • Carl Jung used this method in his work as a Psychologist.

The Rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling

How it works:

  • This one follows Jerry Seinfeld’s work routine and his streak calendar.
  • Make deep work a habit. Do it everyday with an easy reminder to do the work.
  • Work for at least 90 minutes at a time.
  • May be necessary if the results of your deep work has no serious deadline.

Who it works best for: 

  • People with day jobs that can block off 90 minutes a day to do deep work.
  • This method works best for most people.

The Journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling

How it works:

  • Any time you have free time, you switch to deep work.
  • Work to fit in deep work wherever you can in your schedule.

Who it works best for: 

  • Somebody that is not new to deep work and can turn deep work modes on and off like a switch, which is hard to pull off.
  • Requires confidence in your abilities. Knowing that what you’re doing is important and that you will succeed.
  • Journalists and writers can usually pull this off.

Do any of those sound like they will work for you? If so, get scheduling your deep work time! If not, try the rhythmic philosophy out and see how that works for you.

Ritualize

As with any habit, if you have it incorporated into a routine, or a daily ritual, you can eventually get to a point where you do it without even thinking about it. Take that, willpower!

Same goes for deep work. Build a ritual that you can do to get yourself ready for deep work.

What kind of ritual do you need? One that answers these questions:

  1. Where will you work and for how long? If at all possible, make this a spot that you ONLY use for deep work.
  2. How will you work once you start? For example, will you have no Internet use? Will you use a metric to measure the work you do like words-per-minute if you’re writing? Will you track the minutes/hours that you are in deep work?
  3. How will you support your deep work? For example, will you start with a fresh cup of coffee, some food, and meditation?

Make grand gestures

Sometimes when you need to make a change, you need to make it clear to yourself that this IS a big deal and you ARE going to do it. If you invest a lot of time or money into something, it becomes something that you really don’t want to drop the ball on.

 

Don’t work alone

Contrary to how it might sound, you CAN do deep work with others. Hello, whiteboard effect.

Ever been in a meeting where you’re trying to solve a problem and everybody is at the whiteboard with a marker in hand? That is deep work, but in a group setting. It can happen. But, the key is that you need an area to meet up and bounce ideas off each other and you need an area where you can escape and focus. Like a hub and spoke.

The pressure of needing to produce something for another person is a great motivator and can help you “short-circuit” your instinct to avoid the discomfort of depth, so get a deep-work buddy.

Execute like a business

Figure out a strategy to achieve a goal, but more importantly, HOW you will achieve it. Often we figure out the “what” that needs to happen, but we miss the “how”. To figure out the how, use the 4 disciplines of execution.

The 4 disciplines of execution (4DX)

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

Use these 4 disciplines that companies use to successfully implement high-level strategies:

  1. Focus on the wildly important.
    • The more you try to do, the less you accomplish.
    • Find a small number of ambitious goals to work on in deep work.
  2. Act on lead measures.
    • Lag measure is the thing that you’re ultimately trying to prove.
    • Lead measure is the new behavior you do to drive success on the lag measure. It’s the action you do that leads to the goal.
    • For example, if you’re trying to write a book (your lag measure), then your lead measure would be working on getting 1000 words down each day.
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard.
    • Have a physical artifact where you can see your progress in deep work. Maybe it’s a list of the number of deep work hours you get each day, maybe it’s a calendar where you place a gold star each day you do deep work. Whatever it is, make it hard to miss.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability.
    • Do a weekly review your scoreboard. Commit to ways you’re going to improve your score for next week. Review what happened with the commitments from last week; did they help you get more deep work done?

Be lazy

You may be tempted to push as hard as you can and get more deep work hours out of the day, but instead, you should quit working at the end of the day. Working into the wee hours will not get you far in this case. Why?

Reason #1: Downtime aids insight

In 2006, Ap Dijksterhuis published an article in Science that proved that some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind.

Unconscious Thought Theory is the attempt to understand the different roles your conscious and unconscious mind have when making decisions.

It posits that if you need to make a decision that requires the application of strict rules, then your conscious brain is better equipped to handle it. Much like a computer, your conscious brain can follow the rules and reach a decision. However, for decisions that require lots of information with lots of vague and sometimes contradicting constraints, then your unconscious mind is better equipped to handle it.

Because it’s a badass.

Your unconscious mind has so much more bandwidth and can handle so much more data than your conscious brain. So let it. Shut down at the end of your workday and let your unconscious mind take over.

Reason #2: Downtime helps recharge the energy needed for deep work

Concentration requires directed attention and this attention is finite.

If you want to have more concentration, then you need to replenish your attention. Replenish your concentration reserves by chatting with a friend, listening to music while making dinner, go for a run, play with your kids…relax, have fun, and play.

Though you may be tempted to sneak in a little more deep work before bed, don’t do it. It will only reduce your effectiveness for the next day. You can still do deep work before bed, just not if you’ve already done 4 hours worth. Go to bed, fool!

Reason #3: The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important

If you practice deep work, as a novice, you can usually get in an hour a day. As you gain more experience, you can get up to 4 hours a day. Any more than that and you clearly have super-human focus abilities and should reach out to Cal and brag to him about how you’re bigger deep thinker than he is.

Bottom line: Your capacity for deep work in a day is limited. Any work you do after a long day of deep work ain’t gonna be your best because you’re all deep worked out, ya dig?

Shutdown ritual

To help you get into your downtime zone, have a shutdown ritual (Again, with the ritual!):

  1. Review your inbox and make sure there’s nothing urgent there.
  2. Get your remaining tasks whether they’re in your head or on a scrap of paper onto a master to-do list where you keep all your todos.
  3. Skim every task in that master list and look at the next few days on your calendar.
  4. Make a rough plan for tomorrow.
  5. Say a phrase to let your brain know you’re done for the day like “Shutdown complete”. It sounds dumb, but do it anyway. DO IT!

Why do you have to say a phrase? The Zeigarnik effect.

The Zeigarnik effect is the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. If you don’t make a plan for that task rolling around in your head, your brain is going to feel the need to keep track of it for you. So take care of it. Make a plan for those unfinished tasks and then tell your brain that you took care of it (by saying a dumb little phrase) so that you can free your unconscious mind to do some work for you.

Next time…

Well, we made it through the first rule to get more deep work in your life and it was a doozy! My hope is that I can wrap up rules 2-4 in my next post. After that, I’ll post how I’m implementing what I learned in this book, what’s working, what’s not, and if it’s worth the hoopla.

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

Deep Work

I just wrapped up Deep Work by Cal Newport and was blown away with all of the takeaways that came out of it. I’m going to give you a rundown, but it’s going to take a couple posts because it’s a LOT of information.

Fair warning:

  • Throughout this post, any statements I make or references to studies I mention are all from Cal’s book. I didn’t add anything to it other than my commentary. I thought that would be less annoying than saying, “Cal says/argues etc.” 85 bajillion times in this post.
  • Also, I am now an Amazon Affiliate. That means that if you buy any of the books I’ve linked here in this post using my link, I get a small (very small) kickback.

Deep work: What is it?

Deep work is: 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.

It’s the moments when you’re in flow and the time flies by while you’re working. Apparently it’s also important if you want to create and be influential. Or, as he puts it:

“The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers. …[Most knowledge workers are] constantly sending and receiving email messages, like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. – Cal Newport

I’m a knowledge worker and that just stings. I get it. I know it’s likely true, but it still stings.

To back this up, he talks about a 2012 Mckinsey study that found that the average knowledge worker spends more than 60% of their work week using electronic forms of communication and searching the Internet. And, 30% of a worker’s time is spent reading and answering emails.

To any of you with an office job, these stats are probably not that big of a surprise. We live from our inboxes. But, sadly, it’s also not influential work.

Shallow work is: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. 

Here’s the scary part:

Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to do deep work.” – Cal Newport

Permanently?! Holy hell.

Deep Work: Why it matters

“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. The few that can pull this off will thrive.” – Cal Newport

There are 3 types of workers that will thrive in the current and future economy:

  1. High-skilled workers
  2. Superstars (ace workers)
  3. Owners/investors

In order to thrive, you need two abilities:

  1. The ability to master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of quality and speed.

And what do you know? Both of those require the ability to focus and do “deep work”.

 

Deep work is meaningful

Deep work is meaningful for the following reasons:

Neurological argument

Winifred Gallagher argues that we focus on what happens to us and that we allow our circumstances determine how we feel. This allows us to ignore how we spend our days. Or, in other words, we’re focused on large-scale outcomes and not what we do day in and day out.

“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.” – Winifred Gallagher

Gallagher argues that an unfocused mind will focus on what could be wrong in your life instead of what’s right, which will bring you down.

Barbara Fredrickson argues in a similar vein that what you choose to focus on exerts significant leverage on your attitude. If you focus on the the positive, then you’ll have a more positive outcome even after negative events.

To go along with Gallagher’s and Fredrickson’s research, Newport argues that deep work gives you a perspective of gravity and importance in your work, making your worldview of gravity and importance. And he says that a shallow workday is likely to be draining and upsetting, even if that shallow stuff seemed fun because you didn’t focus on deep work and your focus on the shallow made your day shallow.

Psychological argument

A study done by Csikszentmihalyi and Larson backs up this idea that shallow work is a source of unhappiness.

Csikszentmihalyi and Larson’s study required their subjects to carry a beeper around with them and when the beeper would randomly go off, they would record what they were doing in that moment. What they found was that the best moments are “when your mind is stretched in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”. (Deep work).

Or as my simple brain puts it: Deep work = happy me. Shallow work = sad me.

Happier at work than at rest?

Cal argues, it’s actually much easier to be happier while you’re at work because you have built in goals, feedback rules, and challenges. Whereas, freetime is unstructured and requires greater effort to be enjoyable.

The hell? So my “Netflix and chill” nights are NOT a form of good self-care and recovery like I thought they were. In fact, I would be happier working? I cannot believe this…

Philosophical argument

Post-Enlightenment era, we decided that we are responsible for defining what is meaningful, which can be quite arbitrary and make you think that there is no meaning. (Well, no wonder I have issues.)

He argues that we are wrong to think that if we “follow our passion” and find some rare, unicorn job, that we will finally be fulfilled and be satisfied, while any other job will be hell. The actual work you do is irrelevant and what matters more is that you use your skills and you find meaning in it.

And, how do you find meaning in that job you hate?

Deep work. He says that deep work is the key to get meaning from your job and that deep work will allow you to grow your skills.

Intense focus means higher quality work

Intense focus is required to learn hard things quickly, which is what Cal argues is paramount to being successful in this economy. So intense focus is what you should practice if you want to create high quality work.

He argues that:

High quality work = (Time spent) x (Intensity of focus)

(I mean, that makes sense, but it also seems like a gratuitous equation to make it seem more scientific to me. No?)

Attention residue reduces your focus

Sophie Leroy from the University of MN (go, Gophers!) studied the impact of what she called “attention residue”. She found that when you switch from task A to task B, your attention isn’t fully on task B. Instead, a bit of your attention (a “residue”) remains on task A, especially if task A wasn’t finished, and was of low intensity without a deadline (a.k.a., shallow work).

Those “quick checks” we do to see if so-and-so has responded to our email or to see how many likes our Facebook post is getting are super detrimental because of, you guessed it, attention residue. To add insult to injury, when we’re doing that “quick check”, we often see other emails/posts that we can’t deal with at that moment, which causes more attention residue, which tanks our performance on the next task.

What to do? Try this instead:

  • Work on a single hard task for a long time without switching to reduce attention residue. Guess what you’ll need to do that? The ability to focus.

The modern office ruins almost every chance you have at deep work.

Even though you may not be aware of it when it’s happening, your brain notices and responds to distractions. All. Of. Them. (This little tidbit is sourced in Cal’s book as being from “The Secret Life of Office Buildings“).

If distractions are so detrimental, why are they allowed, even, dare I say, promoted, in the modern work environment? Because of:

  1. The Metric Black Hole
  2. The Principle of Least Resistance
  3. Busyness as a proxy for productivity
  4. The cult of the Internet and technology

The Metric Black Hole

The Metric Black Hole is the unmeasurable impact of distractions.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t see the impact of it = The Metric Black Hole.

For example: Think of your average day. How much time do you spend on emails? What’s the average length of time it takes you to write an email? Read an email? How long do you spend trying to regain focus throughout the day? How long do you get stuck talking to the company bullshitter? How many meetings do you sit through that you don’t get a damn thing out of? How much time do you spend going to the bathroom, getting a drink, or grabbing a snack?

Because it’s hard to measure how much time we actually spend being human routers and being distracted, it gets ignored. We turn a blind eye to it because it’s easier to do so, which leads us to our next item…

The Principle of Least Resistance

The argument of this principle is that basically we do what is easiest in the moment at work because we don’t get feedback on what it does to the bottom line, thanks to the Metric Black Hole.

Examples:

  • Why save up all your questions in one email for an individual when you can pepper that person all day with your questions, the instant you have them, via chat systems?
  • Recurring meetings…those are a lot easier to set and forget than to set up a meeting each time you need one. (Also, it’s nice to have that meeting on the calendar “to keep the project moving forward”).

How much time do you spend answering instant messages during the day or random questions from coworkers or attending a recurring meetings for status updates that really don’t impact you? I don’t know and I’m guessing you don’t either.

–>The principle of least resistance is protected by the Metric Black Hole.

How nice.

Busyness as a proxy for productivity

Since we can’t really show what it means to be productive and valuable at work or unproductive for that matter (thanks, Metrics Black Hole), we fall back on other indicators that are easier to see.

We show our value by doing lots of stuff in a highly visible manner. Hello, meetings, email, IM, and office brainstorming sessions!

When you are using busyness as a proxy, these highly visible behaviors are crucial for convincing yourself and others that you are doing your job.

Stings, doesn’t it?

We are uber-connected at work, work from our inboxes, and revel in meetings because then we can show what we did all day even though all that hustle and bustle probably didn’t produce a damn thing.

Well, shit.

And, if that wasn’t enough to promote this madness of distraction, this uber-connectivity and all the distractions that occur at work (don’t get me started on open office systems), allow us to avoid the discomfort that comes with concentration and planning. Hello, procrastination!

But the real bad news is that it also means that we rob ourselves of long-term satisfaction and from producing anything of real value. Dammit.

The cult of the Internet and technology

This is our last reason of why the modern workplace promotes so much distraction, when they really want us to make something of value, and it goes a little something like this…

Anything tied to technology and the Internet is seen as a good thing in our society and something that we should embrace.

Oh, come on. You know it’s true!

Have you ever had to explain why you haven’t been on a social media platform lately? Why is that? We EXPECT you to be active on the interwebs. What gives? It’s not like this is The Circle!

Or is it?

If you don’t have a Facebook account, you’re not “normal”. Even though social media has been shown to not be so great for our happiness, you’re still expected to be on it, and if you’re not, you better have an explanation as to why.

Evgeny Morozov, the author of To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, argues that when we have a question, we turn to the Internet. It’s seen as a great source of information and wisdom. It’s much more than just routers and cables to us. Morozov argues that because of how we idolize the Internet, we see anything tied to the digital age as a signifier of progress.

Neil Postman calls this a “Technopoly”. In a Technopoly, technology eliminates alternatives to itself by making them invisible or irrelevant. Well, hello, Brave New World.

But the kick in the pants is that if you want to do more deep work, you’re probably going to have to reject all the new and high-tech gadgetry.

…Hmm…

Practice makes perfect

On the bright side, practice makes perfect. Deep work is like any activity you do repeatedly, you get better at it. Those neurons that are activated when you focus get reinforced with myelin each time you do it, which helps the nerve fire more effortlessly and effectively.

If you’re scattered and have lots of neurons firing at once, you can’t isolate the group of neurons you want to strengthen, so you don’t have the clear pathways and you won’t see improvement.

Well, how do I get there?

Are you ready to learn what you need to do to practice to have more deep work in your life? If so, be sure to read my next post where I get into Cal’s “rules” for deep work.

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