“If you can write an elegant algorithm, write a legal brief, write a thousand words of prose, look at a sea of unambiguous data—if you can do these types of activities to produce outcomes that are rare and valuable, people will find you—regardless of how many Instagram followers you have.” ~ Cal Newport
I plan to complete my first nonfiction book within the next three months.
The book is almost 45,000 words, rather than the usual 1,300 words of my blog posts. I need not more time, but more focused time.
I need to enter the realm of “deep work.”
The idea of deep work is nothing new. Cal Newport—professor, scientist, and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World—coined the term in early 2016.
Deep work describes our ability to focus singularly on a task, without any distractions, in order to produce meaningful, quality work. It can apply to writing a book, understanding a complex concept, solving a computer programming issue, or creating a brilliant marketing plan.
Deep work is where the magic happens. It’s what enabled Steve Jobs—with his legendary powers of intense focus—to envision and create the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
Carl Jung would retreat into a stone annex that he built behind his home in Switzerland to reflect, think, and write. That time away allowed him to shut off, escape, and access parts of his mind he couldn’t otherwise reach. There, he entered the realm of the unconscious.
Now more than ever, we need to differentiate ourselves from the crowd, where everyone is faster and smarter. It’s time to slow down and dumb down. What is needed is not speed, but quality and mastery. We need to be creative to come up with great ideas and even better ways of implementing those ideas.
Deep work, when practised in any chosen field, leads to a feeling of “flow,” in which time and space collapse, and we end up with a sense of deep satisfaction. And when the deep work takes place over many hours, months, and years, it produces the craftsman mindset that can lead to mastery.
Here are four ways to access deep work:
1. Cut Internet, Email, and Social Media Time. Technology is an undeniable asset and has provided us with many tools. But we must know how and when to use it. To me, the internet is still the greatest invention to date, but when I re-read the same article or news item on different websites, I’m wasting my time. Email is still one of the best ways to communicate and build a connection or potential following; however, both internet and email can be scheduled for the right time.
Social media is an unparalleled marketing tool and entertainment platform, but often takes over our lives without us noticing. We can use social media like a business uses advertising. We don’t have to do it personally, and we can delegate it instead. We can schedule time for social media like we would for a Netflix movie if using it for entertainment.
After researching and writing this article, I’ve realised that I’m an internet/social media/email addict. I crave the dopamine hit, and it doesn’t matter where I get my fix, be it smartphone or laptop. As of today, I have decided to remove all social media and email from my phone. I’ve set some time in the morning and late afternoon to check email, surf the net, and look at my social media accounts—but not during the time I’ve allotted to deep work.
2. Embrace Boredom. We need to train our minds to do nothing. The path to joy is through stillness and becoming more present in our lives. This inspiring talk by Pico Iyer on “The Art of Stillness” reiterates this fact. How many wonderful moments of beauty have we missed because we were walking while staring at our phone, instead of our surroundings? How many meaningful conversations, whether waiting in line or sitting on the bus home, have we missed out on because we were seeking solace from virtual friends?
We have also lost the ability to wonder and imagine, forgetting that all the greatest things ever created, including the laptop and the smartphone, came of the inventor tapping into their subconscious mind while in deep work.
I recently went to the U.S. consulate for my visa and had to come without my phone. I was worried, as the wait would be at least three to four hours long. However, I found myself striking up a conversation with an interesting and colourful old man. When he left, I read Albert Camus’ The Outsider in paperback (first time in years) for a few hours and almost finished it. It was a refreshing feeling, and I wasn’t bored whatsoever.
3. Respect Downtime. If we intend to do meaningful work in our lives, then we will undoubtedly get exhausted. As such, we need to rest our minds. Downtime is important, because it helps rejuvenate our minds and spirit just as much as sleep restores our bodies.
The flip side of that dopamine hit we get when we check our social media accounts is the sinking feeling that comes when no one likes our post, as if we were not enough. We compare ourselves with others and becomes envious of their lives, even though we know they only showcase their best few minutes of the day. This causes us a lot of anxiety, which can often lead to depression—all of which we can counter with some downtime.
I’ve decided to infuse some more play and fun into my life. I have also decided not to use technology between 6:00 p.m. and the next day’s allotted time. And the whole of Sunday is a technology Sabbath, so both my phone and laptop will be off limits.
4. Schedule, Ritualise, and Track Deep Work. If something is not scheduled, then the odds are that it won’t happen. We can put deep work sessions into our calendar as far as a month in advance and treat this time as we would a meeting or a special event; make it fixed and non-negotiable.
If possible, we can set the exact time and location so that it becomes a habit that is easier for us to follow. Because of my business, I now schedule my deep work for 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. on some days—but ultimately, I would love to stick to a morning routine. I use the same desk and space every time.
Establishing rituals makes it easier to initiate and maintain focus. For my writing sessions, I start with an espresso coffee, put on my noise-cancelling headphones to listen to classical music, and then start typing away. I’m aiming for three sessions of uninterrupted 40-minute slots with five minutes of break time in between. In the five-minute breaks, I walk around, stretch, and make another coffee. If I glance once at my phone or email, then the session becomes a failure.
Finally, I track my progress on a calendar with a simple tick when completed or a big X when not. Presently, I’m aiming for three deep sessions a week—and at the end of the month, I will track my success rate by calculating a percentage.
In the Millennial Age, we are heading to the apex of shallowness in our relationships, work, and goals. Deep work is a powerful way to stop that slide and guide ourselves to more meaning and joy.
Deep work is not meant only for creative folks or people who want to impact the world. It is for anyone who wants to work toward their goals with more intensity and live a full life coloured with details and beauty.
Author: Mo Issa
Image: Unsplash/Alexa Mazzarello
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina