Just before the holiday season, I read the book Deep Work, which claims to provide “rules for focused success in a distracted world”. Having been distracted and having written little in the weeks prior, my discovery of the book was timely. I finished the book in two days, reading with more focus than I’ve been able to muster for a non-fiction title in a long time. By the time I had finished the book, I had accumulated pages of notes on how I wanted to change my work habits to write more. Knowing I’d have a busy holiday season, I chose the first weekday in the new year—today, Monday, January 2, 2017—to put my new habits into practice.
When I found myself struggling to prioritize writing, I decided to head to my favorite bookstore to look for books with advice on how to be more productive. That’s how I came across Deep Work: it was prominently displayed in the self-help section. It’s a popular self-help book written by computer science professor Cal Newport. Most self-help books are full of vague writing and obvious ideas, so when I picked this book off the shelf, I was not expecting to buy and read it. But leafing through the book, it seemed surprisingly down-to-earth and full of interesting advice. I read the first chapter on a bench in the bookstore and the rest of the first part of the book at home later that day. The next day, I finished the book.
What did I learn from Deep Work? The book itself is divided into two parts. The first part explains what deep work is and why it is important. The second part suggests rules you might follow to achieve deep work, which Cal Newport defines as follows:
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.
For me, these activities include writing. Writing the best pieces I can, without distraction, is exactly what I wanted to do but had been struggling with. How does Newport suggest we can get deep work done? He offers some rules, some of which he sees as essential and others that he lists only as inspiration.
One of Newport’s suggestions is to schedule deep work and to treat scheduled deep work like you would treat an appointment. When you schedule a couple of deep work sessions for a given day, you can then plan the rest of your day around those sessions. Contrast that with reacting to what happens during your day—answering emails as soon as they come in, reading some news articles when you fancy a distraction—and then hoping you’ll naturally be left with time during which you can focus on important work. When you’re proactive, you control how much work you do; when you stay passive, you leave it up to chance.
Another of Newport’s suggestions is to set rules for your deep work. He sees Internet use as a major distraction, so he suggests banning Internet use during a deep work session. I know from experience that this works, so I can only encourage you to try it. I also like to set my nearby devices to “do not disturb” mode so notifications that come in while I’m working won’t catch my attention.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be trying to work according to Newport’s advice. I’ve created a schedule for deep work and rules to follow when I work deeply and when I schedule future deep work sessions. It will probably take the better part of a month to figure out whether this new work habit works—you’ll be able to tell by how much I write. I don’t only write for this blog, but if all goes well, I should be publishing more articles here in January 2017 than in any previous month. Consider it an experiment.
If I succeed, I’ll detail my deep work schedule and deep work rules in a future post. If I fail, I’ll tell you why.
In the meantime, I wish you all a happy and healthy 2017!