I was recently listening to a webinar with Cal Newport, author of Deep work, where he talked about how in today’s world there is more value attached to doing work which comes from doing deep work.
He argues focus is the new I.Q. in the modern workplace and that the ability to concentrate without distraction is becoming increasingly valuable.
Most writers, myself included, struggle with finding the time to write. I used to think this was a genuine reason for why I was not writing. I really didn’t have time. But upon closer inspection, I found that it wasn’t time that was the issue, but where I was focusing my time and what I was doing with that time.
The internet has changed our world and lives. We can now run businesses online, find information without leaving the house. Possibilities are endless. But what that means is that we have more things and people competing for our time than ever before.
Back when I was still at school 15 years ago, I used to do 99% of all my research in the library using nothing but real books. I used to spend hours pouring over textbook after textbook looking for relevant information. And I did this in silence with no mobile phone distracting me (I didn’t get a mobile phone till I was 18 years old).
Looking back I actually miss going to the library, pouring over books with no distractions as I was able to totally immerse myself in the task at hand.
I used to always do one task at a time but these days I am multi tasking. I eat breakfast whilst catching up on the latest happenings in the publishing world. I cook lunch whilst listening to a writing podcast. And I think of blog ideas to write whilst running at the gym. And to tell you the truth, I don’t like it. I’m always feeling overwhelmed (something I have talked about before) and I still feel like I am always catching up. Yet I feel there is too much to do so I need to cram it all into every waking hour.
We are too easily distracted in today’s world (myself included). I find myself checking email and social media when I shouldn’t be. I find myself doing tasks that are easier to do rather than focusing on work that is cognitively challenging like writing. It’s not all my fault though, I’m going to partly blame the internet. There is just so much competing for our attention.
But the truth is that the responsibility to do deep work must lie with yourself and you need to cultivate the discipline to do the work.
So I’m going to practice this more often as I do believe that you can only produce the best and quality work you have to offer when you do focused work on that task. I find I write better if I block off a solid two hours and just write. Rather than trying to write and then checking my email midway. I need to train my monkey brain to stop jumping from task to task and learn to cultivate a deep focus on just one task at a time. Here are the top takeaways I took from Cal Newport:
Work Deep Rather Than Shallow
Deep work is doing a task that challenges you cognitively for an intense period of time with zero distraction. The best way to do this is to set up routines or rituals that support this work.
For example, I am now blocking out 2 hours every morning to do 4 writing sessions of 25 minutes each followed by a 5 minute break (using the Pomodoro technique). During this time I will do no other activity other than write.
Our brains are constantly stimulated by a plethora of other activities and tasks. From social media to watching tv to checking email. When we feel bored we feel uncomfortable and so our brain goes for the most shallow type of activity to keep it busy.
We need to learn to be bored and sit in that boredom. We need to wean the brain away from stimuli when bored. I know this is a challenge for me. If I’m queueing at a shop or waiting for a train I usually pull out my phone and check my twitter stream. Instead I’m now going to practice being bored.
I think so many people have an issue with being bored because we see it as a waster of time. That we could be doing something productive. But is it really productive when you check your social media stream? The truth is that when you consume you are not producing. Its only when you are in the creation mode that you are being truly productive.
Quit Social Media
This leads nicely into the next point. I know some of you may gasp in horror at this one. We are supposed to be author entrepreneurs and social media is a key free marketing tool. So why should we quit this?
Well the premise here is that you need to have a controlled approach to how you use social media. For example, schedule in time for when you will be on social media rather than checking your notifications feed 20 times a day. Perhaps implement a rule that you won’t check social media after dinner. Or even better, go the other way and schedule in only an hour a day for social media.
New port argues for this case and says that we should be scheduling things into our diary. This applies to being on the internet. So the default mode should be that you are not on the internet 100% of the time, but only the 1 hour you schedule per day.
I already try do this with email. I tend to check my email once in the afternoon and once early evening (but sometimes do check it more than this when bored!). Note to self – see point above and embrace boredom.
Drain the Shallows
Where deep work is focused work on a challenging task, shallow work relates to tasks that are easier to do and are not cognitively challenging. For example, checking social media, doing household chores.
He describes them as a necessary evil because in most cases they need to be done. However, where you can, try to do less of them or delegate these tasks. The point is that your time should be reserved for doing the most important work you need to do. So if you are writing, which is a challenging task, you need to conserve your energy to do this task rather than your energy being consumed by mundane unproductive tasks like going through your friends Facebook feeds, mindlessly watching tv etc.
How to put this into action?
Newport says that to get started we should block out four hours a week for two weeks to do deep work. Choose a task that is cognitively challenging and one that you can see immediate progress on if you stop working on it.During that time block there has to be zero distraction. No checking the phone or social media. These four hours are dedicated solely to the chosen task.
You can split the four hours over two chunks i.e. 1-3pm on Monday and 2-4pm on Wednesday of that week. Then repeat the following week. The time can vary but you must dedicate 4 hours per week and have no distractions.
You need to do an activity that will train your brain cognitively. For example read a challenging book and write a summary afterwards.
Block an activity that you do i.e. limit it. This will indicate your commitment to doing deep work. For example dedicate one hour to checking social media between 1-2pm daily. You cannot check social media at any other time outside of this designated time.
Newport argues that ‘busyness’ has no value in today’s world. Its only by doing deep work that you will be more satisfied and fulfilled and I agree with this point.
I know that I always feel a bit deflated when I realise I’ve just spent 2 hours reading random blogs and news articles. But every time I emerge from a solid writing session where I know I was challenged, I always feel more satisfied. Checking your Facebook feed is not doing productive work. But the minds that created the platform did deep work to produce something of value.
Deep work always produces value. And its value that is in short supply in today’s world. And value gets you noticed in todays crowded marketplace.
Deep work is hard. But you also need to shift your mindset into understanding that although its hard, it is rewarding and enjoyable.
I know that I love to write but some days I do struggle. But just working through the struggle makes me feel good when I reach the end of the writing session and see my word count or the value I have produced.
Doing deep work will lead to a more satisfying and fulfilled life. And once you put in rituals and routines to support to do deep work, you won’t feel good if you don’t do it. This I can relate to. Ever since I started a word chain, I cannot end my day till I know I have created at least 500 new words. The routine helps support you do the deep work.
So going forward I’m going to practice doing more deep work and doing time blocks. I’m also going to embrace boredom ( I know that will be hard!).