Deep Work

“Around 32% of the total time spend on social media during working hours is used for personal work indicating a huge loss of official resources and productivity”

Photo by Lisa from Pexels

I wake up at 7.30 am. I brush my teeth and have toast with peanut butter and banana. I watch the news for a bit and then try to read a book until I get distracted by the ‘ping’ on my phone. My sister sends me a snap. I open it and find a suitable landscape to photograph and snap back to her. I go back to my book and realize that it’s already 8.30 and I still need to do some household chores before starting work. I am working remotely. I quickly dust the furniture and sweep the floor and have a quick shower. I make a mug of instant coffee and start my day of work.

The first thing I do when I open my laptop is to check my emails. Most of the time I do not need to reply to emails as they are more informational. I then check if I need to reply to work messages from my colleagues and then really start my work. I hear a ‘ping’ from my phone again and the desire to check my notifications creeps on me. I unlock my phone and it’s just a promotional message from my sim card provider/service. I go back to work and after working for about half an hour, I hear another ‘ping’. I check my notifications on my phone without unlocking it but the only information I get from that is that it is from Instagram.

I quickly unlock it and open my favorite app. And it’s just an account going live. I then spend the next half hour unproductively scavenging through by scrolling and scrolling, going into a black hole. After a while, I start feeling inferior seeing all those successful people (who are of the same age or younger than me) posting about their awesome life. The feeling starts with being curious about their lifestyle, judging them for it, wanting to be them, and finally feeling guilty for not focusing on my own job to be more successful at mine instead of comparing.

I then try to organize my workday to be more productive. I order myself to work for 1 hour straight, after which I can take a short 15 minutes rest to do whatever I want. Sometimes I work well over the 1 hour that I had initially set and sometimes I fail to even get past the first 5 minutes of the 1-hour work. I get distracted by a thought about a book that I want to read, a topic I want to know more about, a movie/show I want to watch. The rest of my day often goes in a similar pattern until 6-7pm.

After this kind of day, I often feel drained with no motivation or energy to focus on things I want to improve on or on a hobby I want to go deeper in. The days come and go and they all look the same. I feel stagnant at whatever hobby or skill I am trying to build.

This is an average day in my life. Some days I am more productive. I can set chunks of hours to work/study. I can include some sort of exercise/healthy habit in my day. Some days I am worse.

I had read the book, deep work by Cal Newport right after university. At the internship that I did, I read the book 7 habits of highly effective people, by Stephen Covey and researched how to become more effective and productive daily. Recently, I noticed that I am starting to slack. I thus started reading some books like, The courage to be disliked and Think like a monk, eye-opening experiences, albeit slow progress. Those books are helpful but I could not find what I was looking for yet in those books to help me in my current predicament, being unfocused.

Deep work was mentioned in a video from one of the productivity gurus that I follow and watch on YouTube and I thought of revisiting it since I remember it had been helpful in the past.

Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels

Deep Work: 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.

Deep Work, Cal Newport

Deep work is a lifestyle that posits a life of working without distractions and in a state of flow. This concept of flow is also mentioned quite extensively in the book, Ikigai. I found this extremely helpful article which provides information on the 3C method for hacking the flow state, some of which are already mentioned in the book. Cal Newport provides different examples of people who have this type of deep work entrenched in their work systems.

The example of my daily routine above shows the somewhat opposite of what deep work is.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively 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.

Deep Work, Cal Newport

The main concept from shallow work is that of attention residue. When I switch from my scrolling on Instagram to my work, my brain takes some time to focus and to return to the state of flow that I was before. Sophie Leroy in a 2009 paper, “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?” explains this concept and also proves that constantly switching tasks exacerbate performance. Cal provides numerous examples of how people are more productive and efficient doing deep work.

A few rules to do deep work are as follows:

  1. Build your own Eudaimonia (a state in which you’re achieving your full human potential) machine. This translates to removing obstacles to distraction and creating an atmosphere where you remain focused. For instance, I need a clean and uncluttered workspace to enable my state of flow.
  2. Build a rhythm to your work. This simply means creating something and be consistent over a long period and keeping the momentum. Cal mentions the chain method as one example. Seinfeld would create a calendar and cross the date on the calendar upon completing his task. After a few days, he would build a chain and as the days go by, the chain becomes longer until the goal is to not break the chain.
  3. Make grand gestures. J. K Rowling, to write the final book in the Harry Potter series checked in a luxury hotel to engage in deep work and produce quality work. The cost of producing this type of work is high but the reward is even higher. Of course, the scale and the type of grand gesture would depend on you.
  4. Don’t work alone. Promoting deep work and serendipity (collaboration) is not impossible as Newport describes in the book.
  5. Separate your pursuit of serendipitous encounters from your efforts to think deeply and build on these inspirations.

There is a lot of advice and suggestions for building discipline, taking rest, and embracing boredom, all of which are supported by examples that make you believe that you also can do deep work and improve your performance.

One contentious advice that he gives in the book is rule#3 – Quit social media. Of course, he explains this quite extensively and gives examples on the extreme behaviors of people – no use of social media to constantly using it as well as a moderate to basic use of it, all the while showing how healthy, successful and productive every example is.

Quotes that I liked from the book

“You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work” – Cal Newport

“Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.” – Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges

When I look at my daily routine, I notice that there are some things that I do that mirror the concept of deep work. The solution is to focus on the wildly important, act on the lead measures, create a compelling scoreboard, and create accountability, essentially just implementing the 4 advices about discipline.


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