This week we’re going to look at Part Two of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. While this post will build on last week’s post on the need for limiting distraction, it’s really the third post carrying the theme that we need to intentionally swim against the stream and reject conventional practices if we’re going to have better lives as men. So, be sure to read last week’s post and my post on The Unhurried Life, found here.
In Part Two, having already established the need for Deep Work, Newport gives us practical steps for engaging in Deep Work. The beauty of this book is that, while it focuses our work in our careers, it always has a view on making us happier, more content individuals overall, not just at work.
Establishing Your Deep Work Schedule and Routine
Here Newport reiterates the widely accepted view that willpower is a finite resource. While some people may have higher levels of willpower or self-discipline, the supply is not endless. As a result, reliance on willpower alone is not optimal and, for many, likely to result in failure. For example, you don’t want to have to face hundreds of decisions each day of whether to surf the web, scroll through social media, check your inbox, or simply look at your phone to see if you got a new notification about something. The solution: adopt routines, rituals, and strategies that make it more likely that you will engage in deep work.
Step One is to establish your Deep Work Schedule. Newport gives four models of scheduling. I’m using different names than he does for the models, as I think they better convey the program.
Seasonal Monk Mode – You eliminate or substantially limit all shallow obligations and potential distractions for long periods of time, such as weeks or months. Picture authors who go to a cabin in the woods to write a novel or professors who lock themselves in their office while working on a research project. Basically no phone calls, no e-mails, no social media, no web surfing; just deep thinking and writing every day during the period.
Intermittent Monk Mode – This differs from Seasonal Monk Mode in that it lasts for much shorter time periods. You devote three or four days each week to your Deep Work, during which time you eliminate or drastically reduce distractions and shallow work and leave the rest of the week open to shallow work and other pursuits. It allows for sustained periods of deep work while not completely withdrawing from other endeavors that are either necessary or valuable.
Daily Monk Mode – This model involves scheduling a chunk of each day that is reserved for deep work. Your Deep Work Session is scheduled into your calendar just like a meeting or event; meaning that it isn’t cancelled unless you would also cancel an appointment with a client or customer as well. This is probably the most pragmatic model for most people. It allows a significant period of time for one to focus deeply, but also allows him to take care of the other shallow responsibilities that need to be done daily. Client meetings, phone calls, etc. One simply separates the daily schedule into deep work periods and shallow work periods. The key is to make the deep work periods long enough to actually think deeply. In order to generate a comfort level, a rhythm, and momentum, it’s best if your deep work period is at the same time each day.
Sporadic Monk Mode – This model is for those who don’t have a consistent chunk of time in which they can go deep; instead, they have to catch it when they can and take advantage of holes that arise in their schedules. As one might imagine, this is the least optimal and least effective model for scheduling deep work, but likely the one that most people feel like is their only option.
Establishing Your Deep Work Routine
Once you’ve selected your model for performing deep work, you then need to set up a ritual or routine to make it happen. Your routine needs to address the following:
- Where you’re going to work – the best option is to have a location that is used only for deep work, but that may not be an option for you. The only non-negotiable is that it’s an area free from distraction and interruption.
- The length of time you’re going to work – it should be no more than 90 minutes consecutively according to the research and four hours total.
- The rules of your work – your phone is turned off, you inbox is closed and not checked, your internet browser is closed, etc. You may need your web browser to facilitate your work, but you need a rule that limits how you use the web during your deep work session to avoid wasting time.
- The object of your work – your project – you need to have a predetermined project that you’re going to work on and sense of what you need to accomplish during that session. If possible, track measurable elements (words written, etc.) so that you can evaluate and track your progress.
- The support for your work – make sure that your deep work session is not during a meal time and that you have your coffee, water, etc., with you so that you don’t have to deal with thoughts of “I’m thirsty” or interrupt your time to go grab a coffee.
You’ll likely have to play with your routine a bit and then refine it until you have something that works for you. The key point is to develop a routine and do it. The execution matters more than the strategy.
Once you’ve established both your Deep Work Schedule and your Deep Work Routine, the next step is to train, or more likely re-train, your mind to engage in deep work. While Newport is arguing for a way to work at a higher intensity for a longer period of time, he is explicitly not arguing that we need to keep our minds locked in on our project all the time. In fact, as noted above, our deep work sessions should last no more than 90 minutes at a time. What’s more, we need to shut down for extended periods of time in order to recharge our mental energy.
Training our Minds for Deep Work: Attention Restoration
Newport echoes a lot of what I’ve emphasized on the blog in noting that spending time in nature is one of the best ways to shut down and get some peace of mind.
As it turns out, this idea is supported by scientific research and is known as Attention Restoration Theory. The idea is that our attention, like our willpower, is a finite resource that can be depleted. If we spend all our time in high-stimuli environments, our attention is required at a heightened level and, thus, depleted more quickly. However, nature is a lower-stimuli environment that requires lower levels of attention and concentration, thereby allowing our attention reserves to be restored, thereby making us ready for more deep work.
Of course, spending time in nature is not the only way to restore our attention reserves. Exercising, spending time with friends, making dinner, listening to music, playing, etc., can all be low-concentration activities that help us get ready for future deep work sessions. The person who cycles from deep work sessions to high-stimuli environments and back again will invariably burn out and lose the ability to concentrate deeply. So, work deeply, then shut down for a bit. Work intensely, then recover.
Training Our Minds for Deep Work: Embrace Boredom
The ability to engage in deep work on a regular basis requires that we break free from what Newport calls our “dependence on distraction”. As I’ve noted, the smartphone allows a million different voices to beckon for our attention throughout our waking hours. Social media timelines and news feeds are updated with thousands (millions?) of posts each second, calling for your attention. There is no end to the rabbit hole of articles, blog posts, forums, and chat rooms about any topic of interest to us. We have music and video games available at all times In short, there is not a second of the day that we need to be bored. As a result, too many of us live in a state of chronic and perpetual distraction.
This state makes it difficult to engage in and recover from deep work. Our minds have been trained to seek constant stimulus, and we get uncomfortable when none is provided. Here’s an easy tell: when you get a break (e.g., a task ends, a lull in the conversation, etc.), do you instinctively reach for your phone? I’m guilty. If you’re in that state, you have to re-train your brain to be comfortable with a lack of stimulus. In short, you have to get comfortable with being bored.
While that doesn’t sound appealing, here’s the fact: the peace that comes from being comfortable with boredom is nothing short of amazing. It’s there that you begin to observe sights and sounds that you’ve traditionally drowned out with distractions from your smartphone. As one New York Times essayist quoted in the book recounted, “I’ve remembered about buttercups, stink bugs, and the stars.” It’s amazing how enthralling our world is when we slow down and unplug enough to notice it. What’s more, it’s amazing what level of thinking (and thus, deep work) we can do.
Training our Minds for Deep Work: Schedule and Limit Internet Use
Newport’s suggestion for Internet use runs contra to the typical advice. Typically, people are advised to schedule Internet breaks or Internet Sabbaths, where they take a day off from technology in general or the web in particular. Newport’s argument is that this method is backwards: we should schedule time to use technology or the web, with the rest of our time being focused. In short, we take breaks from focus, not breaks from distraction.
I think this is a powerful idea, especially for men. Men need to be active. We don’t need to be sitting on a couch reading our phones for sustained periods. We need to be moving. During the evenings, once it’s dark, it’s much better to grab a book than to peruse the web. As noted earlier, the web is full of rabbit holes that will suck our attention for hours. Of course, there are exceptions, and there are times that we need to take advantage of the information on the web. But, that time should be focused and directed.
As most of you know, I have a goal of being personally able to take wild game from field to plate. I’m learning to hunt, kill, clean, butcher, and cook different species. There’s a ton that I need to learn: different species, different weapons, different techniques, different gear of all kinds, different geographies, different clothing, different licenses and seasons, and different recipes. I’ll never learn much by surfing the web watching cat videos, refreshing Twitter or Facebook, and reading forums on fantasy sports. So, I do spend a lot of evenings reading about the above topics. But, that time is focused and I’m learning about something that (1) makes me active, (2) makes me more capable, (3) provides for my family, and (4) that I can teach my sons. That’s a worthwhile use of technology.
That’s not to say that we should never indulge in pure entertainment or distraction. In fact, those are critical to mental and emotional health, for allowing our attention and focus to recharge. But the point is that those times should be scheduled and limited, rather than being the rule. Otherwise, for many of us, we will spend our time in a state of “dependence on distraction” and we will struggle to work deeply because our brains will crave new stimuli.
Our summary for today:
- Establish a Deep Work Schedule. If you can take a month off to seclude yourself during the workday and be in monk mode, go for it. If you can take three or four days a week off, go for it. For the majority of us, we’re going to have to schedule one or two Deep Work Sessions within our day. So, make your plan and write it into your schedule.
- Establish a Deep Work Routine. Set up where you’re going to work, what you’re going to work on, what tools you’ll need, and what support items you’ll need.
- Establish practices that promote attention restoration. See my post on The Unhurried Life for suggestions. Get out in nature, exercise, talk to friends, and play.
- Refuse to use your phone as an Anti-Boredom Device. Don’t look at it because you’re bored. Instead, use those times to simply relax your mind and observe your surroundings. It’s amazing what you’ll notice.
- Use the Internet primarily for learning. We should always be learning something. Books are best, but take advantage of the information on the web by using it in a focused manner.
- Schedule your Internet time for distracted activities. Allot yourself a certain amount of time to entertain yourself on the web. Once you hit the scheduled time limit, get off the web.
Next week, I’m going to look at Newport’s suggestions on use of Social Media. Buckle up. This is the man’s life.
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