Why the hell are you checking your email at 11:58 pm on a Sunday night?
That’s the question I had to ask myself a few weeks ago.
Why was I checking email when waking up in the middle of the night? Why was I stopping in the middle of a writing session to browse unrelated stuff? Why did I feel the constant need to “be productive”, yet seemed to be less productive as a result?
Then I remembered a book I read last year that gave me a surge of productivity that lasted months. So I decided to re-read it again, internalise its messages, and make notes.
Reading the book again was like hitting the reset button on my life.
It gave me focus back. It made me remember what was really important (hint: it’s not freaking 24/7 email tag).
Internalizing the book’s principles and applying them to my life immediately made me happier, more productive, and have more free time. I got more done in less time.
Here are my main takeaways from “Deep Work”:
High quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)
Deep work is a cool way to describe focusing intensely for long periods of time without distraction.
The harder you focus and the longer you spend, the deeper you get into your work and the higher quality you produce.
Examples of deep work include:
- 3-4 hours writing the next chapter of your novel
- 3 hours practicing your golf swing on the driving range
- 5 hours gathering your research notes to make a cohesive whole
The key here is focus, intensity, and no interruptions.
Going deep is about blocking yourself off from the outside world. Shut the door on distractions. This means you turn off your phone, you don’t access your email, you tell your spouse and kids and the whole world that you are not to be disturbed.
Newport talks about how going deep is a rare skill in today’s world of constant Facebook updates and digital temptation. Despite being a rare skill, it is a valuable one. The ability to consistently conduct deep work as opposed to shallow work will reward one with an impressive output in whatever field they wish to master.
Examples of shallow work include:
- Social media updates
One of the great aspects of ‘Deep Work’ is not only the practical principles it contains but the wealth of examples of famous deep workers.
Newport gives us a glimpse into the working practices of people like:
- Bill Gates
- Carl Jung
- Mark Twain
- Woody Allen
- J . K. Rowling
- Neal Stephenson
- Theodore Roosevelt
Newport also gives us a variety of styles of deep work and corresponding famous examples. These different styles show how deep work is available to all of us no matter our occupational or personal commitments.
Central to all styles of deep work is the idea of batching.
“Batch hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches” – Cal Newport
If you need to learn something difficult quickly – Japanese kanji, computer science, or metalwork – you need to focus intensely without distraction.
I used to focus intensely. But as my “commitments” grew in number, I found myself working longer hours with less quality output.
This was particularly disheartening when it came to my fiction writing.
I would write a few hundred words in a chapter and pause for a few minutes to think about what I was going to write next. In that pause, I instinctively went to my email or a news website 9 out of 10 times. I didn’t realise how damaging this was until I read Newport’s book.
You see, you might think it’s harmless (as I did) to just quickly check your email while you’re in the middle of an important task. But it’s not harmless. Task switching is actually very mentally demanding.
Newport puts it like this:
“Attention residue from unresolved task switches dampens your performance.”
What’s attention residue? Well, it basically means that when you come back to writing your novel or researching your paper, you still have a niggling feeling at the back of your mind. You didn’t respond to an email. You feel like something is incomplete. And now your focus is never fully on your work. As a result, it takes you longer to get back to where you were and the quality isn’t as good.
It’s kind of like this (horrible) scene from The Shining. Seriously, if you’re a writer, you can actually sympathise with Nicholson’s character in this scene. Unpleasant though that might be…
One of the quickest ways to stop the temptation to indulge distractions (like clicking over to your email) is to be clear about what’s important.
Newport puts it this way:
“Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.”
What matters to you?
If being a prolific writer is what matters to you, why are you interrupting your work flow to look at email?
If being a competition-winning bodybuilder is what matters to you, why are you delaying your next set at the gym to gab at the water cooler?
The problem is that deep work is uncomfortable. It’s not uncomfortable for the reason you might think. It’s not because it’s mentally or physically taxing (although that is part of the reason). But one of the big problems many people have with deep work is that it often doesn’t even look like work.
I can’t count how many times someone has distracted me because I’m just sitting there. I’m deep in thought, planning the structure for my next book, but it looks like I’m daydreaming about cats or some shit. I don’t look busy.
But people who indulge in lots of shallow work often like to do so because it looks good. Hell, they look productive, don’t they? Look at them blasting out those emails!
Newport addresses this worry head on by talking about “busyness” as a proxy for productivity:
“In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
As someone who is largely self-employed, I know this all too well. I’m sure you do too. So when I returned an long email after midnight when I’m supposed to be sleeping or watching a movie in bed with my girlfriend, I felt productive. But it also achieved nothing. It didn’t effect my bottom line one bit. It just burdened me with unnecessary stress and affected my performance the next day.
One of the best parts of “Deep Work” is when Newport discusses rituals and routines as a way to counter this incessant pointless activity. He discusses the importance of having very specific routines in place in order to facilitate deep work.
One such routine is a “shut down routine”. This is where you schedule time to actually stop working. Like aiming to finish at task by 5 pm. Crazy, right?
What’s really crazy is that you are actually way more productive this way. You also have downtime, which is super important because, in Newport’s words, “downtime aids insights”.
You need to recharge your batteries and build your energy back up so you can go deep into your work.
You need to actually schedule periods of time off. You should also schedule periods of internet blocks every day.
For example, now when I’m working on a book, I don’t access the internet. When I’m writing, I’m writing. I have 2-3 hours set aside in the morning with the internet off and I aim for 2,000 words minimum or 250 words per 15 minutes (as per this routine).
Since re-reading Newport’s book, I’ve become more productive and way less stressed. I’ve got more downtime to visit the park or learn Japanese and read books and I’m producing way better work each day.
This review has only scratched the surface of Newport’s book. There’s way more good stuff inside. Stuff like productive meditation, Rooseveltian focus, and the importance of embracing boredom.
As well as being incredibly practical and immediately applicable, “Deep Focus” is also a riveting read and massively motivating.
If you find yourself staring at your inbox when you’re supposed to be working on important stuff or enjoying your downtime, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of the book.