When you see the title of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work it can create the image in your head of an intellectual looking person poring over books and taking notes in some secluded area of a library. This image makes it feel like working deeply is for scientists and researchers but has no intersection with my life. The concept of Deep Work that Newport develops is quite different than the previously described image. Newport makes the case that high quality work is just a function of time spent and the intensity of focus. We all have time for what we decide to use it for and we can all learn to focus better on the things that are important to us. Because we posses both of these things we can all learn to perform deep work. The book describes what deep work looks like and provides strategies to accomplish more of it in our lives.
In the book Newport says “…your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to…” Since depth is important in my field of engineering, I cannot afford to lose time and effort by paying attention to what does not matter. At work I often create my own reality of stress, anxiety, and worry by focusing on these emotions. For example, by constantly checking my email inbox throughout the day I ensure that the issues which come up stay at the front of my mind all day long. My work life is then dominated by my inbox and whatever comes into it. To fight this I have begun the habit of not immediately checking my email when I arrive for work every morning. Perhaps I wait 1 or 2 hours to get some work accomplished before I dive into my email. Another way I have applied this is by not immediately reacting to every email that comes into my inbox. Not every situation is a disaster and my response is not usually needed immediately, if at all. I can also close my email for intervals throughout the day to accomplish certain tasks distraction free and the earth will continue to spin.
Plan Your Day
In order to focus your attention on the right things throughout the day, you have to have a plan. One idea that Newport gave to plan your day better is to start each day by creating a block schedule of your day on a piece of notebook paper and assigning activities to each block. You can batch similar tasks together, you can plan for lunch breaks, but the idea is that you assign each minute of your workday a job. Inevitably you will be interrupted or a new task will manifest which takes priority over your plan. When this happens it threatens to throw off your schedule. All you have to do is start over from wherever you are on your schedule and map out the remainder of the day. For me this exercise does 2 things:
- It helps me plan to accomplish what I know is important. When I don’t do this it is easy to get sidetracked on easy to accomplish tasks that will not equate to deep work.
- It helps me grasp where my time is actually going. It acts as a time audit.
In order to become good at deep work we not only have to start our days correctly by planning but we also have to end them correctly. Newport describes what he calls a “shutdown ritual” which is a set of steps that ensures he has reviewed all the open items and notes from the day, has a plan to complete them, or trusts that they are documented in a place where he can revisit them later. I have found this concept very helpful in my own working life as it helps me release my mind from work at the end of the day and allows me to enjoy my life outside of work. Our minds need rest but at the same time incomplete tasks cannot be left unplanned for because they will create open loops in our minds that take up mental space and energy. As long as we have noted and planned an actionable step for all open items, our minds are free to rest at the end of the day.
We all want to be fulfilled and have purpose to our lives. This desire is vague though and hard to get a handle on. We see many people around us accomplishing this in many different ways. Should we follow what they are doing? There is no blueprint. Deep work is a good way to cultivate the skill of discerning the meaning that is already present in your current role. You can apply these principles to be more efficient and increase your ability to perform deep work. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to grow and generate more depth in his or her work.