The First Rule of ‘Deep Work’

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Learn not just how to work harder, but also how to work smarter

I have finally finished making notes from ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport. It has taken me much longer than I expected, probably because it contains so much useful information. I had planned to write just one more post looking at his four rules, but the first rule alone is going to take up all of this post.

If you missed my first post on ‘The Benefits of Discovering Deep Work’, then take at look at it here, otherwise let’s get started…

The philosophies of deep work

The first rule is – Work Deeply i.e. implement his recommended way of working. Cal suggests four different ways in which you can go about trying to do this, which he calls ‘philosophies’.

Monastic

Basically lock yourself away like a monk, ignore the modern world and do deep work. This is how some of the great minds of our time have written the texts that made them famous. Unfortunately this is not practical for most of us. I don’t think that my employer would be happy for me to take a couple of months off to go and live in the woods.

Bimodal

In this philosophy you spend whole days at a time, with a minimum of at least one whole day, doing deep work. Again, this may not be practical unless you have complete control over your time.

Rhythmic

Have a set time each day during which you do deep work. This may be achievable if your days follow a set format. Unfortunately for me, no two days are the same, so having to do this would make it difficult for me.

Journalistic

Fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. At the beginning of the week or the end of the previous week, have a look at your calendar and see where there are gaps that you can allocate to doing deep work. This is the method that I have been trying to use and which Cal himself employs.

desk with laptop, lamp and vase of roses
If you want to do ‘Dee Work’ you will need to remove distractions from your desk
The Method

Once you have decided on when you are going to do your deep work, Cal then gives you tips on how to actually achieve it.

Where

Decide on a specific location in which to do deep work. Open plan offices are not a good place to focus. I have never understood why employers think that they are such a good idea. If you work in an open plan office and want to do deep work, I would suggest that you ask to work at home on some days. Alternatively you could try to block out noise distractions with ear plugs, but you can’t shut your eyes to cut out visual ones.

I am lucky in that I can work at home a lot. My office is at the front of the house and although I try to minimise distractions I still lose focus when someone walks past the house. I don’t want to close the curtains and sit in the dark, but I have considered buying a roller blind which would let in light, but block out the world.

Ritualise

Include various rituals as part of your routine e.g. start with a good cup of coffee, have a break part way through to take a walk and clear your mind. I suppose it’s a way of signalling to your body and mind that you are about to do some deep work. It’s a bit like brushing your teeth and putting your pyjamas on before bed. Your body knows that it’s time to wind down and think about going to sleep.

Prioritise

Decide what’s most important to you and focus on that during your deep work hours. You can’t do deep work all day every day, as it’s hard and your concentration is limited. Therefore you have to select the most important parts of your work to undertake during this time. For me this is writing reports, which is the culmination of all of my smaller tasks and what other people see.

Collaborate

This may be not be relevant to your role, but if it is you could work alongside someone else to push you both deeper in your work. You will also need to make time for your own individual deep work. An example would be if you are working in product development and want to bounce ideas off of someone else. You may be a scientist and deep discussions with a colleague may help you to make that breakthrough you so desperately want.

Be lazy

Have a set shutdown time at the end of the day and forget about work. This helps recharge the energy that you need to work deeply. It allows the conscious brain to switch off and the unconscious mind takes a turn in sorting through your most complex professional challenges.

According to Cal Newport, any work undertaken in the evening will not be ‘deep work’ and so will be less valuable. Without a break you may not be able to achieve quality deep work the following day. When later reflecting on this I realised that for those with caring responsibilities this may not be realistic. I know many women who finish work early in order to collect their children from school and be with them until they go to bed. After that they turn on the computer again and finish their working day.

Evaluate

Deep work is a new skill and from my recent experience, not easy. You need to practise regularly and hone your skills. You should routinely review what went well and what didn’t. Then change your practice accordingly. Over time you will hopefully get better at deep work.

Conclusion

In our working day there are so many interesting distractions, such as checking email or looking at our phones. It’s tempting to busy ourselves with these easier tasks, but they often bring less value to our work. It’s the more complex tasks, which take focus and commitment, that you need to master if you are going to progress. Whether it’s career advancement that you’re looking for or an ability to focus on your side hustles, both of which may help you on your road to financial independence, deep work may be the answer.

Fancy trying out ‘deep work’? I’d love to know how you get on. I’ll tell you about the three other rules next time. Until then, thanks for reading and take care.

The Benefits of Discovering ‘Deep Work’

Woman doing yoga on the beach
Want to find time to do more of this?

Do you want more time with your family or to fit in that yoga class you keep promising yourself that you’ll join, but you’re always too tired by the end of the day?

How does your average day go? Maybe you’re looking at your emails on your phone as soon as you wake – reaching out to grab your phone whilst it’s still dark or you log on to your computer before the kids wake up just to get in an hour before the day gets hectic. Then there’s the long commute to work, a busy day answering emails and attending meetings, no break for lunch and then the drive back home. Maybe you work evenings and weekends just to keep afloat.  

A different job might be the answer, but finding a new one isn’t always that easy. You’ll probably have to work just as many hours as you do now, unless you’re prepared to do something less responsible and for a lower salary. If you’re trying to save as much as you can on your journey towards financial independence then that isn’t an option that you’ll want to consider.

clock
A way to help you manage your time

So what is an option?

My suggestion is to try to find a way of managing your workload better, so that work stays where it was originally meant to be and only happens between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday.

I expect at this point you’re say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all this before. I know, I just need to be more organised and learn how to plan’. You’re right, those things will help, but I’ve got another idea for you, courtesy of Cal Newport. In his book, ‘Deep Work’ he describes what is a valuable technique in how to really focus to get tasks done. In essence, how to do the same amount of work in a shorter period of time and do it better.  

If you’re a nurse or serve burgers at McDonalds this isn’t going to be for you, as it’s a practice which helps the creative process in the world of what he calls ‘knowledge work’ i.e. for those of us who spend a lot of our workday sitting at a computer.

Neon sign saying do something great
Learn to push yourself and do your work better and quicker

So, what is ‘Deep Work’?

Cal Newport describes it as ‘professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit’. He claims that those individuals who have been influential in society often practise deep work.

In contrast to these people, most of us in the modern world have forgotten the value of deep work. Unfortunately, in our ultra-connected world, the focus has moved away from this valuable work to tasks such as responding to and sending emails, what he would define as shallow work. This is ‘non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted’. He believes that this work doesn’t create much new value in the world.

Cal states that there are two core abilities for thriving in the new economy:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

These two core abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work, which involves :

  1. Focusing your attention tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master. This requires uninterrupted concentration.
  2. Receiving feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
Be Happy sign
Focus on what you like doing, reduce stress and fall in love with your work

The benefits of deep work

As well as enabling you to increase the quantity and quality of your work, Cal believes that if you spend your day focusing deeply on a task you don’t have the capacity to think about irrelevant things or worry about problems.

In contrast, if you spend your day checking your inbox the problems the emails present will remain at the forefront of your mind. By concentrating fully on those things that are important you will experience your working life as more important and positive. In summary, ‘to build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction’.

Next time I will look at Cal’s four rules of how to develop and build the skill of ‘deep work’. If you can’t wait until then listen to him being interviewed by Paula Pant on the Afford Anything podcast.

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