Reflections on Deep Work

What’s the first thing you do when you open your eyes in the morning? If you’re like most people, chances are, you reach over to your bedside table and check the time on your smartphone. And then, if you’re still like most people, you won’t stop there, and instead open up your social media messages or e-mail to see if anyone messaged while you were asleep.

Then, you might scroll a bit before finally deciding to get out of bed, hit the shower, and head to whatever you’re supposed to do next—with your trusty phone in hand, to while the time away in your daily commute, or while waiting at the next traffic light, or while standing in queue for something.

No, I’m not a mind reader. That’s just the way we all seem to be wired nowadays (pun intended!), thanks to the awesome benefits of a 24/7-connected world.

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, takes an in-depth look at how this kind of lifestyle has affected the way we work, and tragically, the quality of the work we deliver. His subtitle sums it up perfectly: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

When was the last time you were able to work, in a concentrated manner, with no distractions, for at least one hour? 
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What is Deep Work?

Newport lays down the foundation of what deep work really is. He defines it as the kind of work that results from an undistracted focused effort—a creative output that we rarely tap into when we’re constantly jumping from one thing to the next, which is the default for us with all the notifications we get from our phones every minute of every hour.

Think about it. When was the last time you were able to work, in a concentrated manner, with no distractions, for at least one hour?

If you’re familiar with the Pomodoro Method, you would probably have done at least half an hour of focused work. The Pomodoro Method encourages using a timer to work with laser-beam focus on whatever task you choose for at least 30 minutes, and then take a 5-minute break. Then you repeat the process again for the next task on your list.

I think that may be the closest the modern day professional can get to undistracted work.

I’m not sharing this because I’m beyond the enticements of social media. In fact, I was deeply impacted by Newport’s work because I could relate to it all too well.


Why do we welcome distractions?

In Part 1 of his book, Newport describes Deep Work as Valuable, Rare, and Meaningful. Indeed, not everyone is able to set aside a time for digital detox (as Newport outlines in Part 2, which we will also share in the next section). But when we do give it a shot, it can result in much more meaningful results than the shallow output we produce from a distracted viewpoint.

Of course, we can’t just force people to disconnect. We need to understand why we ourselves choose to be at the mercy of everyone contacting us any time of the day. Could it be borne of an anxiety that things can go awfully wrong when we’re not in touch? Perhaps we’ve all been used to being so easy to reach that it’s become like a crutch too for everyone else we work with?

To test this theory, Newport shares some examples in the book of some professionals who are used to being reachable by their colleagues 24/7. (This is a noble goal, isn’t it, to be so invested in your work that you don’t really mind helping out even on your day off or in the evenings? Isn’t that everyone’s idea of an ideal employee?)

Through an elaborate experiment, (needless to say, with some kicking and screaming from the test subjects) he shows that people who are able to disconnect, say, even for just one day off, actually come back more refreshed and energized to give it their all in the new week that comes. And, contrary to our fears, the world did not end while we were unreachable!

Perhaps our goal shouldn’t be an illusion of productivity where we’re constantly messaging people 24/7, but instead it should be a wholistic growth and authentic, quality work.


The Rules for Deep Work

Here we want to share just a little bit of Newport’s rules for doing deep work. The book shares 4 rules, but here we want to give you a little teaser with the first 3 rules:

1. Work Deeply

One way we can get into deep work is to eradicate all distractions. In his book, Newport describes an almost-fantastical “deep work chamber,” a room with thick soundproof walls, where someone could work undisturbed for, say, ninety minutes at a time.

Can you imagine locking yourself up somewhere with your phone out of reach? If you can’t, that’s a symptom of a shallow work system. You can give this a try by setting a timer, for example, for 30 minutes at a time, so that if you feel you MUST check your e-mail, you know that you can do so after the set time

2. Embrace Boredom

In this chapter, Newport shares an example of a Jewish community intent on memorising extensive amount of text—a classic example of a kind of work that requires much mental effort. He shares how this type of skill calls for an intentional effort, one that we can’t just acquire on the fly.

So what does this have to do with boredom? When we get bored, our current natural tendency is to distract ourselves. Do you see it? Distraction isn’t even just something that happens to us in this case, but it’s something we’ve probably developed the habit to do whenever we get bored! This means that one of the first things we need to do to pursue deep work is to recognise—and embrace, instead of shun—boredom.

3. Quit Social Media

Oops, here’s the big whammy. Newport really recommends us to quit social media—that one constant fix of dopamine that keeps us from diving deep into the creative process!

Now, we understand that a lot of us use social media for work and business, not just for our boredom. Since it’s not possible to quit the Internet altogether, consider doing a digital detox, or what Newport terms a “drastic Internet sabbatical.” This is an intentional choice of drawing back from the constant flood of information, which can help you focus your attention to the work at hand.

(I don’t think a short paragraph or two will do this justice, especially with the nuances of our involvement with the Interrnet—we recommend you to check out the book!)

Pursuing Deep Work

Personally, this book has helped encourage me and my family to find regular time to disconnect from the Internet world. Granted, it’s not easy, since a lot of our work has to do with staying connected with people.

But at least one day a week where we turn off our phones has done wonders, first in terms of refreshing ourselves for the next week’s work. As a writer, finding space to write in an undistracted way has also yielded a greater quality output that I’ve had while constantly bombarded with distractions.

Don’t just take my word for it. Check out the book to be inspired yourself! Purchase it here

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