Cal Newport is a professor of computer science and a writer. I appreciate his no-frills approach to doing hard work. His new book, Deep Work, is a handbook for creating a deliberate practice of focused time of work. I pre-ordered the audio book and will be studying it soon. This is an approach and skill I want to develop and train with intention.
Cal recently did a Q&A session on product hunt, and I want to share a few highlights here.
How to approach deep work.
When conducting deep work:
(1) have clarity about exactly what you are trying to accomplish and for how long you’ll be working on it
(2) have some sort of ritual you do to initiate such depth sessions (signaling your brain it’s time to concentrate)
(3) get up and move as needed to rest your mind, but do not expose yourself to unrelated work or obligations (e.g., inbox glances)
How to you set yourself up to push cognitive limits.
A useful approach is to choose an artifact you want to produce that will require intense focus to complete. For example, for me to say, “think about this proof” is too ambiguous. If I instead say, “write a formal version of the proof to share with a collaborator,” I have a specific outcome to pursue that will require deep work to accomplish.
I do a lot of my work on foot or in locations other than my offices because I too get drained if I spend too much time in the same room looking at the same screen. I also try to keep my life simple. I work during the normal work day and work real hard (no web surfing, no loafing, etc.) But then my evenings and weekends I can really relax, connect with people, etc.
How to develop this ability.
Think of the ability to concentrate hard for long periods of time as being the same thing as being able to run fast for long distances. You shouldn’t expect that you can just do it right away. Build up to it and support it. It’s a goal not a starting place.
On cultivating this life.
I think there are three types of things needed to cultivate a deep life:
(1) practice your ability to concentrate
(2) aggressively put aside and protect time for undistracted work
(3) take some sort of actions that signal to yourself that focus is important to you (e.g., quit Facebook)
I don’t work in a way in which things can pop up. There’s certain times in my day set aside to look through inboxes and figure out what to do with things and I leave it then. To be more concrete, once a week I really take the time to make sure everything lurking in my inbox is cleared out. So I’m not always that prompt.
In a normal week, I’ll clean my inbox on Monday. Otherwise, I try to check and respond to what I can once or twice a day the rest of the weekdays. I don’t usually do much (if any) email at night or on weekends. I’m bad at email and people know it…
On social media, web surfing and more email.
Because I value focus so much, I am very worried about distraction addictions. This is why I’ve never had a social media account and don’t web surf. I don’t want to temptation. I still have trouble with email, to some extent, which is the next topic of my focus most likely…