I recently stumbled upon Azeria’s blog post The Importance of Deep Work & The 30-hour Method For Learning a New Skill, and it seriously struck a chord with me. Over the past year or so, I’ve struggled with a lack of personal satisfaction in my life and my work. I tried various things to address the issue, but could not figure out a root cause until I read her article, and then it clicked with me.
Even though I was constantly busy at work, I never felt like I was getting the things done that mattered to me: security research, tackling difficult technical challenges, focused security work. Instead I was constantly in meetings, switching tasks, dealing with email, and other work that felt like I was just barely keeping afloat at the office.
I’ve since read Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and now I have an understanding of why I’ve had these feelings and, much more importantly, what to do about them. I’ll start by saying that the book is not one I ever thought I would be reading. It sounds like, and is, half self-help book and half business strategy book, neither of which are categories I usually give much attention. But Newport is also a professor of Computer Science, the book was recommended by Azeria, and I felt like I needed to try something different, so I gave it a shot.
The first third of the book is spent defining “deep work” and “shallow work” and convincing you that it’s worth pursuing “deep work”. I nearly gave up on the book at this point because my unhappiness with how things were already going had already convinced me of the value of deep work, so I figured I didn’t need a book to tell me I was doing things wrong, but I stuck with it, and I think it ended up being worth it.
Deep work is creative work that produces new value and requires that your stretch your brain to its limits. It is also the work that is best done in a state of flow (uninterrupted work focused entirely on one task at hand), and is the work that helps to build and grow the pathways in the brain. In my case, deep work includes things like security research, tool building, and learning new skills.
Shallow work is work that doesn’t require the full use of your brain, or that can be easily interrupted and resumed later, such as logistical tasks. In my case, this includes “doing email”, most meetings, and a lot of the collaboration I do with team mates. This is not to dismiss shallow work as unimportant, but it is different and done with a different mindset. It is also easier to get to shallow work with less mental friction, which leads to a tendency to go to shallow work.
All of this discussion is useless to me if I don’t actually make some changes based on what I’ve learned. I also don’t expect the “deep work” mindset to be a silver bullet to fix the problems I’m having. Some of the sources are likely outside that position, and going “all in” on the four rules set out by Newport would be difficult in my current corporate culture.
I am going to try some things though:
- Schedule at least 3 blocks of 3+ hours a week for Deep Work. During this time period, I will not check email, respond to (or read) instant messages, etc.
- Reduce the frequency with which I check email to ~3 times per day.
- Use separate browser windows for deep work, so I can hide the windows that have the distractions.
- Schedule time for personal projects as deep work.
Some problems I’ll still have:
- My team works in a highly collaborative fashion. Realtime communication is expected. I’ll need to find some way to sequester myself.
- I work in an open office floorplan, which has so many distractions that even shallow work is difficult. Finding somewhere to hide and do “deep work” means sacrificing my desktop and it’s large screens.
- A corporate culture where anyone can schedule a meeting anytime and expect you to show up.
I’m going to try an increased effort on deep work and following some of the principles from the book, as well as better efforts to track how I spend my time. I’ll report back in 6 months time on whether or not I feel more productive, am happier with my work, and have actually been able to stick to these things.
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