Book review: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Is it ironic or awesome that I’m writing this in a focused 30 minute burst?!

A few weeks ago I realized that multiple bloggers I read had read and commented on Deep Work, by Cal Newport. I’m a big believer in the value of single-tasking and focus, and last summer I had a week-long experience with shingles that convinced me I needed to get less distraction in my life – so I picked up a copy of the book myself, in hopes of a few new ideas.

The summary: it’s changing how I approach focus, and that’s a good thing.

Often I find that business and productivity books are skimmable; all too often, someone takes a three-page idea and turns it into two hundred pages of content. Happily, that’s not the case with Deep Work; I found the whole thing to be worth reading.

The premise: focus and deep work are worthwhile because, professionally and personally speaking, they are a competitive advantage.

The challenge: we (ie, modern humans with access to cellphones, power, and data plans) exist in a context very likely to erode our ability to focus and do that deep work that will help us do whatever it is we’re trying to do (including, unfortunately, figure out what we’re trying to do!).

The approach: build focus and deep work into our lives, using several of a variety of techniques adapted to our specific situations.

Okay, that said, here’s how the techniques break down, specifically as I’m using them:

  • Find a rhythm that works. Tempting as it is to carve out three straight hours every morning starting at eight a.m., I work a lot with New York and India teams, which means most of my mornings are full of meetings. I’ve also noticed I work well in 90 minute bursts.

==> I’ve scheduled one 90 minute block for myself, every work day, and labelled it “project work.” These are usually in the afternoon, at different times each day. I’ve also set them to start on the quarter hour, which gives me a built in break between the prior meeting & the project work block.

  • Build up focus muscles. Don’t check the internet every time it occurs to you to check the internet. Instead, notice that you wanted to check it, and go back to whatever you were doing. This applies both during project blocks and in general. Basically, stop using the internet to amuse yourself while waiting in line. Instead, let your brain just do whatever it wants to do. The other idea I really liked in this section is concentrated reflection on a given topic – rather than just working hard on something, spending a while intentionally thinking it through. This pairs nicely with my goal of going for more walks.

==> I’m trying this. I think I can feel my brain unwinding!

  • Make social media intentional. What are you using it for? Deep connections with friends? Self-promotion? I basically treat LinkedIn like an old-school Rolodex (useful); Instagram as a connection with people I actually care about (I value this); and Facebook annoys me but is (maybe?) good for self-promotion of a poetry reading I’m doing next week.

==> I’ve updated my profiles and I’m paying more attention to what I read and post.

  • Crowd out low-value stuff. Work, errands, and personal tasks will expand to fill every available minute. So – cap the minutes, and fill them with high-value stuff.

==> I’m learning to delegate (I could be so, so much better at this! But I’m learning); scheduled the gym; I’m using the shuttle as a way to force-schedule my workdays; and I’ve made a few more weekend plans.

So. There’s more in the book, but that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been trying this plus tracking all my work time for the past three weeks. So far, so good. I feel a) calmer and b) I think I’m doing more useful stuff.

If you’re working on focus… what have you tried? What’s working?

A January Experiment: Focused Deep Work

Late in November of last year, I took on some new responsibilities at work. My team grew. My role grew. The amount of stuff I’m responsible for grew.

I’m going to have to do some things differently.

So in January, I’m going to experiment.

First, I overhauled my schedule so that I can have a solid block of focused work time each day, mostly first thing in the morning. Making this happen took an amazing (to me, anyway) two hours of focused effort on overhauling my calendar – but while I was at it, I also built in three visits to the gym, two long walks, and a preset day to work from the San Francisco office. This is all weekly, so it gives me a lot more predictability, and I feel good about having that work time to look forward to.

Second, over time I’ve gradually reduced my own multitasking. If I’m in a meeting, I don’t take my laptop, just a notebook and pen. This reduces the temptation to check email, especially because…

Third, I’ve turned off all email and chat notifications on my phone. I’ve also decided not to check email until after my daily focused work time.

So that’s January! I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes. I’m hoping that in combination, these changes will lead me to get more thoughtful work done, at a greater level of depth, while feeling less scattered.

What about when work *is* balance?

I keep running into a common story about work-life balance. It’s a story about how ‘no one wishes they’d spent more time at the office,’ and ‘it’s not the most important thing’ and ‘I wanted to spend more time with family’ or ‘on the things that really matter.’ To go along with these stories, there are lots and lots of internet articles about how you should never check email before going to bed, or right when you wake up. You should let family time be family time, turn off the phone or turn on airplane mode, be present with your loved ones. Leave work at work. Also, you should meditate, and exercise, and eat healthily.

That’s common sense. That’s what we should all be doing, should all aspire to.

Right?

Right?

Shouldn’t we?

Family and life are more important than work. Work should be neatly boxed up, set aside.

Shouldn’t it?

I’ve pretty much believed that for my whole career, which is (wtf?!) a sizeable number of years at this point. Early on I worked hourly jobs, and that meant I had a baked-in mindset of either being ‘on’ for work or ‘off,’ rarely or ever in-between. I don’t generally work nights or weekends; I rarely checked work email in my off hours.

Then last year happened.

Last year was tough. It was tough on the family side and tough on the life side. Nothing went the way I planned. Bad stuff happened (and is still happening). I didn’t know – I still don’t know – what to do about most of it. I don’t know what will happen next, or where things will go. Some number of things will probably not end up in any way I think is OK. I’m not OK with how things are going, and I’m doing my best to turn them, but that’s hard, and in some cases just not possible. It’s exhausting, and it’s miserable, and I don’t want to be doing any of it. I am hanging on, but it’s not comfortable or fun, and it takes effort.

And none of that – not one single thing – has to do with work.

Work, in contrast to everything else, has been pretty much entirely lovely. I like my team. I like my job. It’s interesting stuff, I’m competent or good at it, it’s pretty much squarely lined up in the area of work I like best, where I think it’s important and I have some ideas but I don’t actually know how to do it yet – and I like the people I work with. I have solid professional support of various kinds and a network that I enjoy working with and I am actively looking forward to the next several months.

In other words, work is a real bright spot right now.

During one of the toughest weeks I’ve had, I started checking my work email right when I woke up, before I got out of bed. At first I felt bad about doing this – I should have work-life balance! – and then I realized that after checking my work email, I felt better. Calmer. Happier. More myself. Work email was a reminder that life wasn’t just the pile of rotten I was currently dealing with. Work email was a reminder that I was something other than the person dealing with that pile. Work email was a moment to slip into my other role, into the effort I wanted to be doing, into the person I like being, before taking a big deep breath and, strengthened, diving back into the rest of my life.

When the rest of my life was really tough, work was my lifeline.

I don’t quite know why I’m writing this. Things are so tough in California right now for so many people that I think I’ve been thinking a lot about how fortunate I am – and I want to express gratitude to the universe for that. I am fortunate to like my work. I am fortunate to like the people I work with. I am fortunate to like & get along with my family.

I am fortunate that when things are tough for me, I have this mental refuge to turn back to.

I know that many people don’t have that. I’m grateful.

And I’d like to remember and remind myself that common stories, even if they are often reasonable guideposts for life, may also be totally off-base for specific situations.

That’s all.

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