Favourite book of the year alert: Deep Work by Cal Newport
If you read it and apply only a few of the strategies, I bet you’ll at least double your productivity and work less. Quite a claim I know – stick with me.
What is deep work? Cal Newport describes it as:
Deep Work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task
Stop and think about that. When is the last time you worked like that for at least an hour? How many hours a day fall into that category? Be honest with yourself.
If you’re anything like me, very few. Even those hours are spent fighting urges to be distracted – email, web surfing, twitter, talking or texting a friend, making a cup of tea, tidying workspaces etc.
It’s a subject I’m fascinated by. I ditched my smartphone a while back. I don’t use Facebook. I wake early. I try hard to restrict email and twitter to a 30 minute window each day. I sometimes avoid the internet on a Saturday. I try to avoid any computer or phone use after 9PM.
You’ll notice I said ‘try’ and ‘sometimes’ a lot. It’s hard and I don’t always get it right – less than 50% of the time. But, I’m moving the right way.
Why bother? Why not just chill and be normal? Give into the distraction, it’s harmless. I don’t think it is. I think it eats away at ambition, productivity and a good life. Life is short. Time spent doing unuseful things, is time not spent on what’s important.
I was first introduced to deep work and how powerful it was by reading Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. The book examines the working routines of more than a hundred and sixty of the greatest philosophers, writers, composers and artists ever to have lived. I was surprised by how few hours people worked – yet many were wildly productive. I found it hard to believe, but I get it now. Just a few hours of deep work each day adds up to significant output each year. Most of us are lucky to grab just a couple of hours per week.
Back to Deep Work. It made me realise I can do much better. It gave useful strategies for working deeply more often. And it motivated me to keep pushing to get better,
Below are some of my insights:
- Waking up early is important. It’s a great time to do deep work. I use the first hour of the day to do mobility exercises, meditate and write. If I didn’t take advantage of the early hours, they wouldn’t happen consistently.
- 90 min blocks feel about the right length for deep work. They should be scheduled into the day. Avoid distractions. Focus on one thing. Aim for two or three blocks a day.
- Now and again, take 2-3 days and isolate yourself. Maybe rent a remote place. Use it to work deeply on something that’s important to you.
- Think about the best way to incorporate deep work blocks into your life. It’ll be different for everyone. I think my ideal day would look like this:
- 5-6am: wake, mobility, meditate & write (hour for me)
- 6-7am: shower, get ready and into work
- 7-9am: plan the day. 1 x 90 min deep work block
- 1 or 2 more deep work blocks during the day
- stop working by 6pm at the latest. Sometimes as early as 4pm.
- If I need to make a lot of progress on something quickly, this might work:
- 4.30am: wake and mobility exercises (my non-negotiable habit)
- 4:45am – 5:30am: shower, get ready and into work
- 5.30am – 9:00am: plan the day. 2 x 90 min deep work blocks
- Deep work is hard and mentally draining. 3-6 hours a day is probably the upper limit for most. Doing shallow work between is fine, and often necessary. Separating the two is what’s important.
- Shutdown rituals help you separate work from leisure. When you work, work hard and smart. When you’re done, you’re done – avoid work entirely. This includes thinking about it. Having a ritual allows you to get closure. Think about what makes you feel like you can switch off. e.g. clearing inbox, making a plan for outstanding issues / the next day, an activity that is the sign of the transition from work to leisure etc.
- Don’t get tempted to do shallow work, when you should be resting (usually evenings). It will be low concentration, low quality work. It’s not worth the tradeoff. You need to re-charge for the next day’s deep work.
- Controlling your time spent on social media, internet and email is hard. You need rules and restrictions. You have to be disciplined. Aim for small windows of use, amongst larger blocks of focus.
- Don’t feel guilty about leisure time. Your subconscious is at work during this time and that’s valuable. Often the greatest insights come during leisure time, or just after it.
- Take advantage of dead time – walks, shower, commute etc. You can use it to solve problems in your head, plan stuff etc.
I want to finish with a quick personal story.
When I look back at when I felt the most productive, it was 2011 and 2012. I was working at Jagex and I would often arrive at work at 5am. It would mean getting up at 4am. I would spend the first half an hour planning out an awesome day and clearing the inbox. I spent the next 3 hours working on projects and thinking things through. Mostly, before anyone arrived.
It gave me an advantage over others. Most people would arrive at 9am and start frantically checking their inbox (lots of early emails from me!). Then they would rush to their first meeting. I could see that most people were starting the day without a plan and were backpedaling from the get go. They were struggling to catch even an hour of focused work. I put a lot of my productivity down to my early morning focus.
Deep work requires self discipline and routines. It requires a commitment to winning the war of distractions. If you do it, you’ll have a huge competitive advantage over everyone else.