In the previous article, I introduced Deep Work, explained by Professor Cal Newport of Georgetown University. In his book of the same name, Newport argues that it is challenging to work deeply. Many distractions affect our careers, professional and personal wellbeing.
It provokes the question, how does one start to work deeply? Newport establishes four rules. He acknowledges that there is not a one size fits all method. He presents several ideas designed to motivate you to find or develop something that works for you and your situation. In this article, I want to start by sharing the foundation Newport recommends beginning your deep work path. Welcome to Rule One: “Work Deeply”.
Only you know what work you have to do. Therefore, we have to paint a bigger picture. Newport divides work into two types of tasks which he names deep tasks and shallow tasks. The task’s priority is not relevant. It is the level of concentration that is required to fulfil it. If your work needs you to plan, think or create something, Newport would say it is a deep task. An example could be to create a presentation or to write a report. The shallow task would be delivering the presentation, attending a meeting, answering emails.
Distractions, the arch-enemy of deep tasks, have one strong ally, our willpower. How often do you find yourself working at your computer, and then a message pops up on your screen? Usually, the sender will include a sense of urgency, demanding you respond to it quickly. Email is gradually being replaced by instant messaging. The word “instant” carries with it a whole range of distractions designed to break down the walls of resistance surrounding your willpower. In my example, if you are thinking about your presentation and someone interrupts you, your concentration could suffer. Your thinking process is interrupted and you might forget valuable input. A coffee might restore it. On the way to the machine, you meet a colleague and exchange a few words. You look at your watch and see it is almost time for lunch. It is not worth returning to your task. After lunch, you look at your diary and see there are other tasks. Finally, it is time to go home. You take your laptop with you because you might work a couple of hours after dinner. Your partner is unhappy because “you are always working and never have time for the kids”. You reply, “I have to do the work, support the family, move my career forward, it is normal.” Sound familiar?
It was one solitary email that started this (perhaps exaggerated) chain of events. Most likely, reading and acting upon the email later would not be a problem. The distractions come laden with pressure, and our willpower goes out the window, and problems multiply.
To begin with, Newport invites us to decide on how we want to approach deep work. We start with a very fundamental and physical step. It is where we can work deeply and protect ourselves when we need to avoid distractions.
Newport suggests four options. The first one is perhaps the nicest but only reserved for the privileged few. It is called the monastic approach. This approach involves you disappearing to a place where you cannot be found or contacted. You disappear and only reappear when the task is complete. You can dedicate your whole time to the task.
The second approach is called the “Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling”. The word “scheduling” is crucial. See it as a budget version of the monastic approach. You block off times in your diary. Ideally, it is a day a week or perhaps half a day. You disappear, either physically or deliberately and put a wall around you to block out the distractions, which are usually sent to you by your work colleagues. You lock your office door, start your “out of office” email responder and switch off your phone(s). Even if others see you or know you are in the office, they cannot contact you. Office planners thought that open-plan offices were a good idea. If you have a meeting room, why not use that? Be ruthless. It is for the common good.
The third approach is the “rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling”. You create time blocks in advance and work on your deep task. Then make a visual and physical entry somewhere when you have finished a step in your work. Newport suggests red crosses on a wall calendar by your computer. When the time block is over, you mark the day with the cross. The motivation lies in “not breaking the chain of crosses”. You complete the work in regular steps. The visible signs of success are your reward for your self-discipline.
The final approach is what Newport calls the journalistic approach. He borrowed this from a journalist for the New York Times, who could do deep work whenever the opportunity presented itself. Remember distractions want to attack your willpower. This method only works if you are a seasoned “deep worker”. Or if the task you are working on has captured your imagination like a good book which you cannot put down until you have finished reading it.
When you have created your physical environment, you should introduce a few “rituals”. These are designed to make you “feel good”.
Here is an example from my own experiences. My deep work is planning, writing, doing the Brida Journal. At first, I do my creative work using a pen and paper. No laptop. I am too easily distracted. I work in my training room, which is bright and airy, and a mug of freshly ground coffee starts me off. There is nothing else on the large conference table, just the pen, paper, my thoughts, and me. I can do this for about 90 minutes to two hours. At that point, my concentration drops, and I stop, eat something, and move on to appointments or shallow tasks.
When writing these first two articles, I mixed several approaches. I blocked off time in the morning to pen the first draft on paper. Later, I transferred the first draft to the laptop (and automatically wrote the second draft). My task became “semi shallow”. I still did this during the morning when I was fresh enough to think while I reworked the article.
Once I had the second draft on the screen, I used the text to speech tool on Microsoft’s Edge Browser. I listened to my article countless times until I was satisfied with the result. For me, this was a shallow task because I was repeatedly fine-tuning the almost finished text. Although it required concentration, I could do this task at a time when I am less fit. I found myself in the “journalistic approach” because by now, my motivation had significantly increased.
How do we start on the “Deep Work” route? It all starts with identifying and categorising tasks into deep tasks and shallow tasks. Deep tasks must be free of distractions, or else we run into trouble. To perform our deep tasks, we need to find a physical environment where we can work undistracted. Depending on your status and budget, Newport gives us four possibilities. When we have our space, we need to create rituals designed to make us comfortable and settle down into our deep working mode. These are as individual as you are. Planning and knowing which times work best for you are crucial at this early stage.
One last thought. If you work in a team and you want to go into “Deep Work Mode”, inform the others and tell them why. Chances are that they will appreciate your attitude because they suffer from the same problem. And last but not least, I am gradually moving to do all my deep work on a Monday. No emails, no social media, no appointments.
We know what we have to do. In the next article, I will explore in greater detail how we can work deeply.
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