What is Deep Work

What is Deep Work?

Deep work is the opposite of the state of mind that many of us find ourselves in most of the time. One of the biggest challenges we face, is focusing on the important things. Our lives have become very busy, but not necessarily busy with more important work. Our lives have become busy with noise – in both the sense of unwanted sound, but also in the sense of the Merrian-Webster online dictionary definition of unwanted signals and disturbances.

 

At home, we often have the TV on for background noise, our phones have red notifications from multiple apps every time we open them, and we know that our social media feeds are constantly refreshing and offer us new things to see and look at. There is always something new, something distracting, and something to pull our attention away from the things which take substantial mental energy.

 

In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport provides the following definition for Deep Work:

 

“Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

 

The focus needed for deep work cannot be developed when we are constantly distracted. When we allow ourselves to be taken over by our phones, when we allow ourselves to have a million things pulling at our attention, when we constantly have some type of stimulation coming in while we do our chores, drive to work, and walk the dog, we train our brain to jump from one thought to another. Our daily life encourages a brain that cannot focus, destroying our ability to do deep work.

 

I have seen this in my own life. For 2 years I was working full time and in grad school. To get my work done, I had to work on focus, and I had to dedicate a lot of time to reading and completing school work. Outside of my job, I spent a lot of time trying to focus. A lot of house chores were ignored, but I found academic success, and found myself continually doing better focus work on the job as well.

 

A year after grad school, and into a boring job which doesn’t keep me as engaged as I would like, I have found my brain more distracted and I have found it harder to focus when I need to. I often watch YouTube videos while doing dishes, I listen to podcasts while doing laundry, and I find myself pulling up twitter or various blogs when I get bored. I have allowed myself to be distracted when I don’t need to be doing any deep work, and that has reduced my brain’s capacity to focus when I need to. I’m working against this now (partially thanks to a mental refocusing from Ryan Holiday’s book Stillness is the Key),  but it is hard work and requires that I think about what I am doing at any given moment and why.

 

Deep work is mentally taxing, and when the brain gets tired it wants to be distracted and shift to a low value cognitively easy task. However, if we focus on deep work, and train like an athlete to improve our thinking and focus, we can get better at it. We can push ourselves to be better at focusing on important things, and in the long run we will find that we can do better work, accomplish more important things in shorter periods of time, and be more focused when we need to be.

Learning to Think In Silence

I listen to a lot of podcasts. When I am driving, cooking, cleaning, doing yard work, and any time I have a task to do around the house I like to have a podcast going. I love listening to interesting conversations, discussions about new scientific ideas, and stories about things I never thought of. Podcasts are great, but something I recognize is that I tend to fill all of my time with some sort of medium produced by another person.

 

My wife and I often watch movies at the end of the day, I put on a podcast when I do dishes so that I don’t have to stand at the sink in silence, I read when I eat or take a lunch break, when I am in line at the grocery store I instinctively pull out my phone to scroll through something. In all of these situations, I could engage with whats in front of me or let my mind wander, but instead, I normally choose to put something in my mind. Cal Newport calls this an inability to deal with isolation. Colin Wright calls it a compulsive reflex and in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be writes, “But saturating these channels [social media] just for the sake of not having to deal with silence, of having to think our own thoughts and listen to our own internal monologue for a while, is part of the problem.”

 

I’m not great at dealing with silence and I am in some ways afraid of it. I grew up with a Gameboy and never had to live a moment without some type of entertainment. Whether it was driving around, going to the bathroom, or hanging out with Grandma, I always had a Gameboy to keep me entertained. Today, I am working on concentrating at work and focusing at the boring non-stimulating office environment. I am working on thinking more deeply about specific subjects and building my awareness of the world and stories I tell myself about the world. These are skills I need to develop that are quite atrophied because I grew up distracted and still feel and urge to flood myself with information and distraction through my phone and through media created by other people at all times.

 

It is important that we learn to step back and put devices, podcasts, TV, music, and Facetime in a planned time and space. It is important that we be able to live with ourselves in isolation, so that we can understand and recognize the thoughts we think and how we interpret and understand the world. If we don’t, we won’t be able to build deep focus, we will have trouble truly connecting with others, and life will rush past us in autopilot.