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.

2018 -> 2019

2018 was tough. In pretty much every aspect of life except work, 2018 was full, it was difficult, it was a headache and a pain both emotionally and physically and logistically (yeah, I know, that’s more things than ‘both.’ Too bad). I don’t know when I’ve ever spent so much time scheduling, and I hate scheduling. And scheduling was when I got a handle on things.

Some of the full was good. I travelled to Australia, and Tokyo, and Tel Aviv, and New Mexico, and New York (twice). At home, the avocado tree didn’t die. The deer in the yard are more used to me, and watch me cautiously instead of fleeing. There’s a red-shouldered hawk that’s taken to hanging out on the fence or cedar (cypress? I can never remember) tree. The house remodel, awful though it is, did start, and make progress. There’s now a ceiling light in the master bedroom, among other things. I published my first poem (thank you, Modern Haiku!) and was invited to be a featured reader at Coastside Poetry (coming up in February – thank you, Coastside!). And there’s work: work was a bonus this year. I joined a team I love. I took on new responsibilities I’m excited about. Plus I just like it. Work right now is, and throughout 2018 has been, my calm and happy place. I’m almost inexpressibly grateful for and excited about that.

In 2018, my goals were simple. Trust my energy. Find some whitespace. Get comfortable with uncertainty. Follow some patterns that work for me (morning planning, meditation, flow). That worked… okay-ish. I liked the idea of not having set goals, but I also often felt scattered and reactive, and until I sat down to think it over at the end of the year, I didn’t have any sense of progress. Plus I don’t like meditation; my notions of whitespace were vague; and the need for scheduling that is simply a side effect of travel house remodel new work responsibilities felt antithetical to uncertainty. By the end of the year, I’d taken on a ‘one day at a time’ approach that seemed to work; realized I want more of an ongoing sense of progress; and thanks to an ‘ack’ moment involving a favorite dress not fitting, realized I have a serious need for more fitness.

On to 2019!

#planning #goals

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: