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:

My 5 Favorite Books of 2017

2017 has been a whirlwind of a year for me. I took on a new job, learned of some big family news, and also confronted some health issues and personal demons of mine..
One of the biggest and most constant sources of joy to me this year was when I read.

I love books [really any form of great writing, short or long form]. I like them for the following reasons:

  1. I can escape into them: On a good, restful day, taking the time to read for myself helps me achieve an even higher state of zen, and on a crazy, tiring day, I can escape the traps of “my depressing life” thinking and jump instead into the world of the book I am reading, and this gives me deep solace and strength. Sometimes they even help me cry and grieve for the things I’ve probably been meaning to cry for, and they help me bring my guard down even if it’s for only a minute to feel what I have been feeling that day, that past week or the past year. Sometimes they bring a greater joy to the things I’ve been experiencing in my life by offering up similar and parallel scenarios that add more color and zest to the contexts of my real life stories.
  2. The authors help me live lives I’ll probably never have the chance of living with this one body. You can’t be in three places at once, but with books– you can! Limits to time, geography, and resources are blown away like “chaff from the wind” (sorry, I had to add in the Biblical reference – har har). I can imagine myself in the village of Combray, France, or find myself the next day in Middletown, Ohio on the suburban streets. I can bring myself back to post-war England in the 1940’s, where the last of true aristocracy habits were finally coming to an end. I can put myself in the shoes of the invisible black man of the early 19th and 20th centuries, of the white man experiencing discrimination from those that cry out “down with white privilege!” or even of the young Irish orphan in Tuam, relegated to a life of social marginalization and impoverished youth.
  3. Books elucidate thoughts I’m thinking and am grappling to understand better. They give me a deeper wisdom about the things out there and add another puzzle piece to the mental “map” I have about the kinds of people, lives, and thoughts I see co-existing in the world at large, from Chile to Cambodia, with time unbound. They tell me I really don’t know much, that I only know so much, and that I need to learn so, much, more in order to do the things I think I’m meant to do in this life (apparently according to the Social Security Administration, I have about 61.6 years, 739 months, or 22,484 days left to figure life out- time’s a tickin’). Every book, every line of well written prose gives me a deeper understanding for the human experience, of the brokenness amongst our global communities, of the complexities of our problems and our progress, and of the shared experiences we as humans all go through, sometime and somewhere on this Earth.

For those who’re not too much of a book reader, I’m sure you probably experience the same kind of things through a different medium. Maybe it’s art. Maybe it’s music or film. Maybe it’s through your career vocation, I don’t know.

Anyways, without further ado, here are my favorite books of 2017:

 

  1. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE by Phil Knight

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2. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

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3. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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4. Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter by Barbara Leaming

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5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (recommended by friends Max and Sewon)

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If you’re interested in seeing what else I’ve been reading, feel free to check out my Reading List, with a list of the books I’ve read from 2016 to present, and Wordy Treasures, which includes my favorite excerpts and aphorisms.