Demystifying Deep Work 

What is deep work? It’s a term coined by best-selling author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and Georgetown University associate professor, Cal Newport.

Cal Newport defines it as, “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”

The perceived rewards of deep work are invaluable: one can complete a degree, write a magnum opus of a book, or become fluent in a language concurrently with their current life and work. What makes it so difficult for others to adopt this discipline, then? I see the primary barriers to deep-work being our insufficient awareness and understanding of how it works and the natural barriers that stand against it.

In itself, deep work is not an emergent discipline of the 21st century for hacking-work or productivity in the Digital Age. It’s been practiced and cultivated by thinkers in time, more notably, Henry Thoreau, who retreated to Walden Pond to live and write more deliberately, Carl Jung, who built the Bollinger Tower in order to produce high level work away from the pull of daily obligations, and Yuval Noah Harari, who’s credited Vipassana meditation and 60 day meditations for his ability to focus and produce a high quality of insights and work.

“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure.There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk… those who work more, do not work hard.” – Henry David Thoreau 

The Driving Forces Behind Deep Work

To understand what happens when engaging in deep work, we’ll get comfortable with two parts of the brain, the Amygdala and the Basal Ganglia: The Amygdala is an almond-shaped area in our brain and the center behind much of our emotional processing and formation of automatic response. The Basal Ganglia, sitting north of the Amygdala and looking like a horizontally elongated swirl is related to reinforcement learning, conditioning (e.g. looking at immensely dry text and having a recurring desire to recoil from it), habit formation and procedural memory. When you engage in deep work regularly and with relative ease, it’s an indication that your amygdala sees the activity as rewarding or even exciting! (Naturally, the feeling of pleasure affects one’s perception and level of attention to any kind of activity. The basal ganglia reinforces this and facilitates repetitive action and automation, making something that is objectively cognitively demanding significantly “easier”– more smooth; hence, you are able to do deep work over an extended period of time with less effort.

Why Deep Work Can Matter to You 

With a strong muscle for deep work, we have the ability to activate flow on command. We can experience heightened levels of productivity, quality in work, insight and more. Deep Work not only helps you achieve your professional goals– it can change your life. If you’re looking for less busyness, more productivity, more substance, or an additional practice to increase your level of fulfillment in life, this is a good ability to have. 

There are so many upsides to deep work, so why is it that so few of us are doing it?

Most of us have a tendency to pull away from deep work; we have a habit of unfocus over focus. Many tools, frameworks for living and working, and products at our disposal today reinforce thinking and behavior patterns that acclimate us to distraction, a prioritization of many things (which is really the prioritization of nothing), and rampant context switching.

More essentially, our preclusion from deep work comes from two things: we either do not have the sufficient desire to perform deep work, or having the sufficient desire, we lack the sufficient discipline— we fail to plan ahead, be realistic about our current schedules, environment, and self, or set boundaries around activities and other people that compete for our attention and time.

Developing a capacity for deep work is possible, but it requires discipline, flexibility to adapt to what works and let go of what no longer serves, and lots of patience. Scheduling time-blocks or focus days, setting aside a relatively isolated-quiet location for deep work, setting boundaries around other demands and stimuli, meditation, and having an accountability partner are all tools that can help you succeed with deep work.

If you’re working to develop your capacity for deep work or already have a framework in place, share with an accountability partner (a friend, a spouse), or leave a comment on a process or a guardrail you are implementing or leaning on to get better at deep work. Is it blocking out 9-2pm on Saturdays to go to the library and work? Is it implementing a strict time limit on social media or media? Let me know!

A reference to support your journey as you develop your own roadmap for deep work:

Trying to Abstain from Social Media, 2016

This is my second week of trying to abstain from all social media, and I have been failing gloriously.

I can’t seem to take my hands away from clicking that app icon.

I have uninstalled apps only to reinstall them. I am finding reasons to go back to Facebook or Instagram, because my mind tells me I have to share this one insight or reach out to this one person, or share this one thing, the message or communication of which [I apparently believe] can only be served through the means of “x” Messenger chat device.

I’ve turned off notifications, giving myself what I thought an acceptable and reasonable amount of distance and constraint.

I am a victim of connectivity.

How have I, along with potentially many of my peers found ourselves to be this way?

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A month ago, I finished reading a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, written by Cal Newport. It unpacks the professor’s studies on deep work and deep work’s place in our modern world of connectivity.

As Newport shares mind-opening insights in regards to facilitating deliberate practice and deep work, he questions whether social media and its perceived benefits are truly beneficial to one’s life and proceeds to ask us all to contemplate on whether it actually inhibits our ability to do significant and qualitative work.

In my support for his argument on social media not being beneficial, I am not claiming that one must do everything and justify it solely for its industriousness, its productivity level, or its potential for adding value to our society (That’s where the case for pleasure comes in, for pleasure’s sake.). However, his arguments were compelling enough to give me pause and think deeper about this waves arms around situation.

So, inspired as I was, I decided to embark on a personal project to apply the claims and suggestions I found to be relevant for my life.

For October, I set for myself the goal of abstaining from using all modes of social media for a month. I haven’t not tried this out before, but the cool thing this time in re-embarking on a [Social] Media diet was that Cal Newport’s proposal for  quitting social media suggests we mentally approach this trial period as a means for observation, rather than see it as a time in which we make the drastic decision to quit forever and live a Luddite life for the rest of our lives.

I’ve outlined for you some salient notes that I found key to embarking on this low-commitment period of self-exploration—it’s already yielded some valuable personal insights for me and hopefully you will find this helpful to you too:

Allez vous!

Cal Newport suggests the following guidelines for measuring the value of our connectivity:

“Set a 30 day goal for self-imposed network isolation. After those 30 days, “ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit:

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service? (p. 205)”

“The Any-benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.” How do you perceive the value of the tools in your life in relation to this?

After two weeks of following his suggestions, I came to certain, undeniable revelations about myself. I determined I have a very dependent relationship with certain media devices. I also apparently have more of a lack of self-control than I had previously thought (whether this characteristic is exacerbated from being a millennial or being genetically pre-disposed, I do not know). And most importantly, I’ve realized just how distracted I could be as opposed to seeing how focused or not distracted I was. This project was intriguing to me because although I’ve long developed a wariness towards the effects of technology and its byproducts, I was seeing things in a whole new light thanks to Newport’s tips & tweaks.

Ending notes: 

Sometimes, social media tools are very necessary to me, and I find Instagram in particular as a very enjoyable way to spend some portions of my day. But is the amount of time I dedicate to these platforms truly necessary, and ultimately even healthy for me et mon existence as a huuuman?

That is something for me to continue thinking about.

For more, hit up Cal Newport’s post on September 21 on quitting.