, November 18, 2016

Reading List: Deep Work

It was ironic to read Cal Newport’s Deep Work on the Kindle app on my iPhone, considering that the device is full of alluring distractions. The first part of the book argues why deep, focused and uninterrupted work is valuable, with section titles including:

  • Deep work helps you quickly learn hard things
  • Deep work helps you produce at an elite level
  • Deep work is rare

The typical work environment of “knowledge workers” is full of distractions like meetings, social media and open plan offices, which are all enemies of deep work. We only have a limited capacity for fully immersed, intense work which may start at only one hour per day and increase with mental training (flexing your deep work muscles) up to a half day. This is the reason why the title of another favourite productivity book of mine, Never Check Your Emails in the Morning, makes sense.

If we spend our mental energy on shallow tasks like responding to emails and checking social media, we won’t have enough mental focus to make breakthroughs and new discoveries.

In the second half of this inspiring book, there are many practical examples of different ways of scheduling time in order to make space for deep work.

  • Monastic: taking chunks of time away from all distractions
  • Bimodal: short times away, like a couple of days per month
  • Rhythmic: with the same schedule every day or every weekday
  • Journalistic: grabbing time in a quiet place when you can

The four rules covered are 1. Work Deeply; 2. Embrace Boredom; 3. Quit Social Media; 4. Drain the Shallows.

By writing down your professional and personal goals, you can prioritise where you spend your time and energy. For example, if you would rather have meaningful, personal contact with your friends, abandon Facebook and use that time to meet people in person or ring them up or have a video call. However, Cal Newport doesn’t discount social media outright (even though it’s rule number 3), and gives the example of someone who has just moved to a new city who will use it to keep in touch with friends, or a university student who relies on it to meet new people. It all depends on your own situation.

I feel like a recovering addict. From having my phone within a foot of myself at any moment in the day, and with an Apple Watch on my wrist, I quit email outside of working hours cold turkey. Anytime when not at my desk, the everlasting circle of checking emails, then Facebook, then the Guardian app, messages and Instagram has now reduced to a glance at the Guardian and more occasionally, Instagram, as well as keeping up with messages as social contact with friends.

In the spirit of Cal Newport’s suggestion of having an end of day ritual, I have put my email app in a phone folder called “Shutdown” and take it out of the folder if for example I’m out of the office during the working week and want to check emails.

In the evening I put my phone on airplane mode and it doesn’t go under the bed anymore at night – it stays downstairs. I use my watch (also on airplane mode) as an alarm clock. Reading physical books and magazines is really enjoyable, and I indulge in Netflix on an iPad, but without holding my phone in another hand looking up things on Safari, or getting into that obsessive, everlasting circle.

I haven’t properly entered deep work mode as outlined in the book, but my brain already feels less fragmented and I think I’m sleeping more deeply (if that’s physiologically possible!). The next step: true deep work.

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