The Promise of Deep Work


The Note to Self Podcast produced an excellent program on Single Tasking that has turned out to be one of their most popular episodes. They contend that the crucial thing to relieve feelings of overwhelm is to select a single task, then work on it until it’s finished.

Gloria Mark, one of the researchers they interview in the show, says: it can take 23 minutes, 15 seconds to recover after an interruption. (Relevant part at about 7:40 of the podcast.) She even argues that after a series of interruptions, workers will begin to interrupt themselves, increasing stress and lowering productivity.

The solution proposed by the Note to Self team is simple, but not easy:

Your instructions: All day long, do just one thing at a time. If you catch yourself doing two things, switch your focus back to one. Don’t read an article and Tweet about it – read it, then Tweet. Write an email until you’ve finished it and hit “send.”

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World , discusses a paper called “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?” by Catherine Leroy. He explains:

When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow–a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.

Newport’s book is ultimately  a how-to guide of creating time, space, and attention to do this Single Tasking — what he calls Deep Work.  Newport gives three main reasons to engage in Deep Work:

  1. Deep Work is Valuable. You can write thousands of emails or you can write one book. Which will be more valuable to others?
  2. Deep Work is Rare. Increasingly rare in our always-on Social Media environment.  The Internet’s business dominance is built on ads – ads are sold by directing your attention – your attention is hijacked by intermittent rewards like a slot machine.
  3. Deep Work is Meaningful. Pushing yourself into a flow state requires matching your skills to the task at hand at a high level. It takes a commitment to focus and concentration–Newport quotes Mihály Csíkszentmihályi extensively throughout this section and Csíkszentmihályi’s work in Flow describes it the most accurately — doing hard work that challenges your skills is personally rewarding.

Overall this structure resonates with me. I know I’ve had days where I spend the entire day “chasing my tail” – surfing on the internet nearly all day, bandying emails back and forth instead of getting on with the work that I have at hand. I’ve also had days where I “get deep” and am able to focus and concentrate on the tasks I have to do. This is a reflection of the Pareto Principle of 80/20 – most of the value, both to myself and others, comes out of the 20% of deep-work time, and so the natural conclusion is that I need to set up frameworks so I can work more deeply more often.

Deep Work days are sometimes difficult to achieve, especially as distraction is embedded in the current “always on” work culture and the open office structure. There are several places I encountered these ideas before reading Newport’s book: first is the classic “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” article by Paul Graham. His contention is that anyone who is building anything needs long, uninterrupted blocks to get work done. Tom Limoncelli, in his book “Time Management for System Administrators: Stop Working Late and Start Working Smart” dedicates an entire chapter to dealing with interruptions and talks about why they are deadly to getting the bigger tasks done. In the book “Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams” the authors discuss why it’s better to give people offices with doors that close if you want to ship some code — for the simple reason that it allows them to actually concentrate. On the writing side, Stephen King in his book “On Writing, a Memoir of the Craft” says about the writer’s room:

…it really only needs one thing: a door which you are willing to shut.

Newport’s work takes up all of this and weaves it into a book-length narrative.

So we now know “why” at least in very general terms, the question is, how?The basics are simple, again, but not easy:

  1. Set aside an extended period of time to work (in the order of hours or even days)
  2. shut off distractions such as web-surfing and social media
  3.  use mental exercise to push the boundaries of what’s possible for you mentally – including mnemonic exercises and a mindful attention to the problem at hand

Building this structure can be difficult but is worth the thought you can spare to it. How can you build blocks of 90 or more minutes to focus? This is worth looking at through a Tesla Technique frame.

In my next post, I’ll discuss my personal solutions to these problems.

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