How to Cure Languishing: Six Deep Work Tips for Thriving at Home and At Work

 Before you continue on this post, first check out the FIRST PART

Done? Okay good. Now that you've heard all the virtues of flow and deep work in that first part, you may be asking,

But How? How Do I Do Deep Work?

I'm glad you asked. A potential challenge to the idea of deep work is that our brains don’t just immediately listen to our desires/mind and focus when we tell it to. As you may know if you read this blog, I use some form of the Pomodoro technique a lot. I am also a fairly disciplined person. My friend recently said I have a gift of discipline and she wants to learn to be like me, but she is my friend and part of being a friend is gassing your friends up, so take that what she said with a grain of salt. My point is even with all that discipline, I can tell you that you may be resolute in your decision to focus on your work, but your mind can still refuse to accept and just focus, especially when you're working on something deeply uninspiring or for which the solution is hard. Maybe your mind just wants to, I don’t know, watch videos of cats on YouTube. Even I will admit this is a challenge to the deep work thesis, but it’s not fatal and there are a ways around this.  So, in a real world, how does one do deep work? Here are some tips from Cal Newport’s book:

a. You have to eliminate distractions. 

This is where mindfulness comes in. We live in a world of distractions. Ridiculous open floor office plans (this is the WORST idea in the professional world and I am sooo happy Newport trashes them), unnecessary work meetings, a desire to check your email every second, and an even more obsessive desire to check Twitter and Instagram all compete for your attention.  It is why you have to be drastic in eliminating all distractions, depending on your nature and habits. Is it necessary (for you) to turn off the Internet? Maybe for instance, schedule in advance when you'll use the internet, then avoid it altogether outside these times.  Before we go on, let’s address the elephant in the room of distractions: social media. One suggestion Newport gives is to quit social media altogether or drastically pare down your use of it. To put simply, deep work is entirely incompatible with social media. I understand this is impossible for most people so it will be a whole other post on its own (and I promise, it will be the final part of these posts!). But, let’s be honest, if you scroll and scroll enough, your attention span decreases at an incredible rate. Lots of research and evidence (including from people who created these things) show us that social media distracts us from work that requires concentration and degrade our capacity to remain focused. So in that post on social media, we will tackle how to either leave it completely or a unique approach to managing it so it doesn’t detract from deep work. If you take anything away from this point (or frankly even from this whole entire series of posts), let it be, "DO NOT USE THE INTERNET/social media TO ENTERTAIN YOURSELF."

b. Routines and Rituals are important. 
Beyond intention, Newport argues that routine and rituals are important. Your routine should carefully embed a system free of distractions. Realistically, this would mean that you are not switching back and forth from deep work to other nonsensical work. After all, as Newport shows us in his book, the ability to switch your mind from shallow to deep mode does not come naturally. Such switches can deplete your finite willpower reserves if you have no practices. Routines are also important because it is impossible to create anything valuable by being haphazard. You need to be organized, and you need to know that waiting for inspiration is about the most terrible idea anyone can incorporate.  Mason Currey spent five years putting together the habits of famous thinkers and writers and found that the best advice he can offer anyone doing creative work is to ignore inspiration. So, build rituals and push your brain to its limits. There is no specific ritual to give because none is inherently correct. An effective ritual, Newport argues, will factor where you will work, how long you will work, which distractions to eliminate, how many number of words you will produce, how you will support your work (lunch? Coffee? Standing up every hour?). I have my own routines so much that people close to me can almost tell what I’m doing at every hour of the day. Part of routines is thinking creatively about how you spend your day. Deep work is challenging because there is only so much of it in a day you can do anyway. It's why you have to be strategic about carefully arranging your day to create time for it. You can possibly schedule every minute of your day, remembering that people self-estimate behaviors terribly. People watch more TV than they think, work way less than they think, eat more junk than they think, exercise way less than they think, all because we rarely measure stuff. Not to mention, most of our day is on autopilot and there is hardly any thought to what people do with their time. As our time is incredibly valuable (some will say, even more than money), budget it wisely and build routines and rituals that facilitate focus and deep work.

c. Simplify your schedule. 
Pulling from The 4 Disciplines of Execution, a framework for helping companies successfully implement high-level strategies, Newport shows that focus is wildly important in deep work.  Stop trying to do one million things at once. In the book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, the authors say that the more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish. I relate to this a ton. I used to cram each day on my planner with so many things, sometimes spending just five minutes on a task. The end result was that I was working on stuff, but nothing was getting done. Now, I aim my execution at a small number of “wildly important goals” as The 4 Disciplines of Execution suggests. This simplicity that helps focus organizations’ energy can be used with deep work: identify a small number of “ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours” and stick with it. 

d. Be lazy. 
When you're done at the end of the workday, be done. Shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning. In fact, shut down work thinking completely. A 2006 study by psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis found that some decisions are better "left to your unconscious mind to untangle" such that continuing to actively try to work through such decisions will lead to a worse outcome than loading up the relevant info and then moving on to something else while allowing the subconscious layer of your mind to think things through. Also, downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply. Resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. So it's simple: "When you work, work hard. When you're done, be done." Another tactic for this rule is to "finish your work by five thirty". Newport, for instance, doesn’t work after 5:30pm. He calls it fixed schedule productivity as he fixes the firm goal of not working past a certain time, then working backward to find productivity strategies that allow him to achieve the goal. Hence, he doesn’t work at night and rarely works on weekends. Yet, Newport published more than 20 peer reviewed articles, won 2 competitive grants, published a book, and is writing another in the space of 3 years at Georgetown. To show this is possible, he also cites Radhika Nagpal, a famous computer science professor who does something similar.  Both Nagpal and Newport use quite interesting tactics to achieve this, but the truth is, the rest of us are just not powerful enough to wield some of these tactics.  You know, like just declining requests to not join committees at work or “becoming hard to reach”. But again, there are contours of this you too can adopt! 

e. Drain the shallows. 
Speaking of, when people say they work 8 hours or 10 hours a day, very few people actually work ALL of those hours. Between meetings, interruptions, web surfing, personal ish, people sometimes only work a few hours. Newport makes the case that if you remove shallow work that dominates people’s time and attention, and replace it with a deep alternative, you will get more optimal results. Of course, you can’t completely eliminate shallow work. You do need to check your work emails if you don’t want to get fired. But again, draining the shallows as much as you can is what allows  you to “be lazy” per the last point. So carefully examine your schedule and think about what you can or cannot remove, and most importantly think about actually working not spending time doing nonsense. 

f. Embrace boredom. 
Concentrating intensely, focus, and deep work may be valuable, but they are hard. It is why you must keep at it.  Newport says to channel the kind of dedication Olympic-level athletes use to train even when they have no upcoming competition. You can't just quit at the slightest taste of boredom (and this is the secret sauce of deep work even when your mind is restless). This is not easy especially if every moment of “potential boredom” in your life (such as in the example in the book, say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant till a friend arrives) is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone. You have wired your brain to not be prepared for deep work. If every single free time must be filled with scrolling on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or worse, the nonsensical lists Buzzfeed creates, you are wiring your brain and your mind to not embrace the quiet.  So, the best thing I find that helps here is practicing. When I’m on the line in the grocery store, I try not to whip out my phone. I try to not fill every moment with something. Meditating also helps tackle this. The goal is to rewire your brain to stay on task. 

Now those are all practical tips to keep in mind. But Newport goes ahead to suggest philosophies to engage in deep work. Think of this way, the above tips can be implemented no matter the philosophy [from the below] you choose.

Helpful Philosophies To Engage in Deep Work
In the book, Newport argues that you need your own philosophy for integrating deep work in your professional life, and he provides the different ways of going about this.  The first is the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling. People within this camp can be drastic. They may choose, for instance, to completely eliminate email use in their lives. Donald Knuth, a famous computer scientist, is an example of this; he has rejected emails. Instead, people mail him and his admin assistant will sort through all letters and put aside things that she thinks are relevant. If anything is urgent, she brings to him promptly. Otherwise, he handles everything else in a big batch: once every 3 months or so. What this philosophy attempts to do is to maximize deep work by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. This is clearly not realistic. In an ideal world, I would not want to have emails too. But you must have a kind of power to get this level.  It is why even Newport admits that the pool of individuals to whom this monastic philosophy applies is limited. 

The second is bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling. This one is a little more realistic because it asks you to divide your time, dedicating some stretch of time to deep pursuit and leaving the rest open to everything else. During the specific time for deep work, “the bimodal worker will act monastically, seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration.” But during the shallow time, such focus is not prioritized. How you divide that time is up to you. Maybe some months is for deep work and others for shallow work. But the minimum is one full day as Newport argues that putting aside a few hours in the morning would be too short to count as deep work stretch for this approach. So while this is better than monastic above, it is still not very realistic for the simple reason that people have bosses. There is a level of autonomy (that is just impossible) that these examples require that may dissuade you from deep work. For instance, he gives the example of Adam Grant (yes, the same Adam Grant), who produces at an elite level. Grant was the youngest person to ever receive tenure at Wharton. In one year, he published ten articles (this may very well be wizardry in academia) AND wrote a NYT bestseller, all the while receiving awards for being a stellar teacher. Grant, in an interview with Newport, says he dedicates the fall semester only to teaching and then spring and summer semesters for his research. Not only is this unrealistic for non-professors, even a junior professor at a non-Ivy would be laughed out of the Dean’s office if they ever request this. 

The third is the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling. This philosophy posits that the  easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. So the goal is to create "a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you're going deep".  Although this requires a lot of self control, it is also very flexible and applicable to every day people. All you need is the tips from above, and make a decision about when you will be doing deep work and stick to it. 

The fourth is the journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling. While this is flexible, it is borderline chaotic. Newport uses the legendary journalist, Walter Isaacson, as an example. Apparently, he was methodic; that is, any time he could find some free time, he would switch to deep work mode and hammer away at his book, a classic he wrote while maintaining a full time job at Time magazine. You can't be a deep work novice and do this. You can't be a novice at your job and do this either. As a matter of fact, it requires a sense of confidence in your abilities—a conviction that what you're doing is important and will succeed. You need a  solid foundation of existing professional accomplishments before you can even try this philosophy.  You must know you CAN do this, and frankly, the only way to know in this instance is to have a slew of evidence pointing to immaculate success in the past. 

These philosophies may discourage you. And I thought about whether to even include them at all, because it's incredibly easy to think, well, I can't possibly be monastic or even use the bimodal method so why try. I posit you don't necessarily need these philosophies as much as you need the preceding tips for doing deep work. Challenge yourself to incorporate all six tips first and then notice the change, then think about what philosophy you can or cannot adopt. It is impossible (yes, I said it) to adopt those tips and not notice a change in your work and life. 

"I'll live the focused life, because it's the best kind life there is." - Winifred Gallagher

On the matter of a conclusion, it is important to remember that deep work is not a moral stance or a philosophical statement as Newport himself reminds us. It is just a pragmatic "recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done". Think of it this way,  "Deep work is important not because distraction is evil but because deep work enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester." Understandably, deep work is not for everyone. It requires hard work and intense changes to your habits that just not everyone may want to commit to and which may not necessarily spark joy for everyone, but which is incredibly transformative.



No comments