Here’s me prepping for high school finals: remove all clocks from my room, close curtains, take apart the computer, study from noon until sunrise, shower, breakfast, coffee, sleep until noon. Rise and repeat.
I did that for three months straight.
Immediately after finals I got sick and was in bed for a week.
I’m just sayin’, I don’t love productivity hacks.
That whole thing of doing more in a limited time bugs me.
I do my best work at night when I can work without interruption.
But I can’t lock myself away for hours, let alone days, to work undistracted anymore.
I’m a husband and father, consultant and team leader, most of the hours in my day are already spoken for.
But I’ve seen marketing go from “It’s cool to know HTML” to “Can you code in Python and write copy that sells?” in the six years since I got my Bachelor’s degree.
If you don’t master new skills, there’s not gonna be much demand for you in the job market.
But doing that requires you to take control of your time and go deep.
And what I love about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work is that it helped me:
- cultivate focus,
- remove distractions,
- master new skills, and
- improve the quality of my work.
Without turning into a hermit.
My biggest takeaway from Deep Work.
There’s a personal and mental cost when you give in to distractions.
The personal cost: losing work/life balance.
Spend enough time in a state of shallowness and you permanently damage your ability to focus on anything for long.
Being constantly distracted leads to the feeling that you’re always falling behind, which leads to you try and catch up during evenings and weekends.
To thrive, you need to cultivate your skill to focus and make it the core of your working life.
The mental cost of giving in to distractions: losing your ability to focus and master complex skills and ideas.
Every time you learn something new, your brain builds new connections between neurons.
A fatty tissue called Myelin builds up surrounding neurons involved in practising the same skills repeatedly. These mental highways help you perform that skill quicker and better over time.
On the other hand, when you continuously give in to distractions, you train your brain to get bored easily and damage your ability to master complex skills and ideas.
Deep work is a skill anyone can learn.
Deep Work is full of practical strategies to fit your personality and inspiring stories that encourage you to take action.
But stories alone won’t stop me from reaching for my phone every time I feel a tiny bit bored.
Not unless I learn new habits and behaviours to plan my day differently.
In the book, Newport shares four strategies used by famous thinkers to go deep.
My favourite strategy — also the only one that fits my work and life — is Bimodal, when you split your time being freely available and schedule regular sessions for focusing without any distractions.
Besides Bimodal, there’s:
- Rhythmic: where you repeat a deep work habit every day,
- Journalistic: where you go deep whenever you get a chance, and
- Monastic: where you move offline and preferably to a cabin where no one can distract you from doing your best thinking.
If your work is collaborative by nature, you might want to split your time between working alone and then together with your team or working side-by-side.
Find a strategy that works for you — alone or in a group. The only requirement to mastering anything is to focus on the task completely undistracted.
Reading Deep Work helped me unlearn some nasty habits, too.
I’ve unlearned two habits that I didn’t see as an obstacle to focus before reading Deep Work.
Just as you need to schedule a time to focus, you also need to schedule distractions.
You will struggle to deepen your focus if you keep giving in to distractions.
The best thing you can do is schedule time for focused work and your favourite distractions separately.
Mixing focus with distractions, no matter how tiny, doesn’t work.
Take your downtime as seriously as your focused time.
You need to avoid distracting yourself from getting bored.
Idle time is necessary for coming up with insights and inspirations because the unconscious part of your brain has more bandwidth for testing multiple solutions to complicated problems then.
By contrast, it’s the more conscious part of your brain that’s best suited to solving more immediate, logical problems.
Never leave a task unfinished.
If you can’t complete it, then you need to wrap it up for the day.
One rogue email or a ‘quick chat’ can derail your entire day.
And often, the biggest hurdle keeping you from winding down is the residue of a task left undone, just rattling around in your head.
That seemingly harmless thing can keep you from resting, dominate your attention and dampen your ability to concentrate the next day.
The answer isn’t to break open your laptop just one more time before bed.
Newport recommends a ritual to end your day.
Mine’s to record where I’m in my task, schedule time for picking it up again and saying out loud, “I’m done for the day!”
My favourite story from Deep Work.
How long did it take you to forget every telephone number you used to remember by heart before you started using a smartphone? (Yes, I’m that old.)
People aren’t great at remembering abstract details like numbers, but stories stick with us for a lifetime.
And my favourite story is of Forrest Pritchard, a farmer who decided to sell the tractor he needed to make hay, favouring buying hay from other farmers instead.
He needed hay to feed his animals, and he had the land to grow his own hay. So, why sell the tractor?
Improving yield for his land was his top priority.
With that in mind, raising chickens was a better investment than making hay. The chickens would produce eggs and meat, as well as help take care of the land.
Plus, his tractor packed the soil down harder and added to his workload.
By thinking ahead, the choice to buy the hay and get fertiliser from his chickens became obvious.
Why you should read Deep Work.
You may not be living your ideal work-life right now but may be you’re satisfied enough to not bother changing it.
But that has a price.
In a noisy world where people push you to write eight articles before 8 AM or hustle 24/7, cultivating a habit to avoid distractions and focusing on what truly matters to you is your competitive advantage.