About six months ago, I listened to a podcast with Cal Newport, author of a new book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. This interview planted a seed that I’ve been nurturing ever since.
I wondered what I could create if I eliminated distractions and made time for deep work.
“Deep work is 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. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”
I often speak of developing contemplative habits as a way to live a deeper, richer life. Attention is one of those habits and it can easily get side-tracked in this day and age. Although I’m in a time of life with very few external obligations, my free time is often hijacked because I haven’t made a commitment to deep work.
Don’t get me wrong. I do have alone time and I get work done. I make time for daily walks and practice contemplative photography. Yet, I know I can and need to go deeper. The Internet, and social media in particular, is a distraction. In many ways, I love them both. I’ve met wonderful people online and many of the articles I’m inspired by come from social media. However, it can take on greater importance than necessary and become a distraction from the work only you are meant to do or even your relationships.
In this post, Resolve to Live a Deep Life, from his Study Hacks blog, Newport says that you need to embrace three general commitments. These apply whether you’re working a job or not. Even in retirement, your time can get hijacked from what’s most important to you.
1. Train your ability to concentrate intensely. Focus is a skill that must be practiced, and therefore, most people are not very good at it. Those who train themselves to concentrate intensely, however, produce at a level that can seem superhuman to their peers. Do you have a cognitive calisthenics routine?
2. Build your week around protecting and supporting occasions to work deeply. If you want to work deeply on a regular basis, you have to fight for it. Hold back time for depth despite the ever-encroaching pressure of the shallow. Start with blocking off time on your calendar for deep work, whether three hours a day or three hours a week. Each session should be at least 90 minutes long.
3. Take bold measures to demonstrate respect for your attention. Deep work wields your attention like a well-honed tool. In other words, eliminate distractions during your deep work time. This might mean that you quit social media, or lock away your phone, or take up meditation, or spend more time outside each day. The details don’t matter as much as the intention. Make at least one non-trivial change in your life that demonstrates to yourself that you prioritize your attention over more superficial activities.
An Experiment for 2018
I decided to do a little experiment beginning January 1, 2018. For three months, I’ll go off social media completely to make room for deep work. And, I’ll respond to non-urgent emails weekly. I know I’ll miss some things about social media – good articles and photography, updates on friends and family – but I believe that by going cold turkey, I’ll be better able to redefine our relationship.
My other purpose is to create something new Over those three months. I feel that my work is in transition and I want to see what emerges from this time. I’ll send out a monthly update to email subscribers, to share what I’ve been doing and how it’s going.
Here are a few other resources that have been helpful in planning this time.
* Read: Creating the Elegance and Simplicity of Focus in your Workday by Leo Babauta (Zen Habits). Really good practical tips. For example,
Smartphone – turn off notifications, clear home screen, search for apps
Desktop – turn off notifications, clear desktop and dock, search for apps and sites
Operating System – close email, only one tab at a time.
* Read: 3 Time Management Tips that Will Improve Your Productivity by James Clear
1. Eliminate half–work and focus deeply.
2. Do the most important thing first.
3. Stick to your schedule and build the habit, no matter how small the accomplishment.
Regarding #3, recently, a friend and I held each other accountable on our writing projects. On the advice of Dani Shapiro, we made a pledge to “touch” our projects every day for 30 days. By touch, I mean it could be as simple as re-reading a piece or writing a thought on an index card. We had to text each other at the end of each day to say what we’d done (no response required from the other person). There were several days where I did very little, but at the end of the 30 days I had more than 20,000 words written. This really works!
* Read: Our Minds can be Highjacked: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia by Paul Lewis (The Guardian).
* Book: The Way of Transition by William Bridges, the best book by far that I’ve read on this subject.
* Make time for stillness. It’s okay to be bored. Watch: Pico Iyer’s TED Talk – The Art of Stillness.
How are you making space to create in 2018?