Cal Newport on the power of “deep work”

I read this Cal Newport post today and was inspired to lock in for a session of what he calls “deep work”.

He suggests that when most of us think we are truly focused at work, we actually are far from it. We tend to work in tiny bursts that are regularly interrupted by distractions—checking email or browsing online or talking with colleagues. 

In fact, the distractions probably occupy more of our time than actual work. 

So, taking up his challenge, I closed my office door this morning and quit the apps on my Mac that are most likely to distract—Mail, Tweetbot, Reeder, Slack, and Chrome. 

I then spent close to an hour at my whiteboard thinking through and mapping out ideas for the keynote I’m scheduled to give on Friday. After a brief walk outside to stretch my legs and get fresh air, I shut myself back in my office for another hour, this time at my desk using the Keynote app to synthesize those ideas and design and tweak the slides. 

Two hours of focused, distraction-free, “deep” work made a huge difference in my day and in an important project.

Resistance to getting started and to staying engaged with this level of focus is strong. At the first sign of boredom or discomfort it’s easy to bail and go get a hit of pleasure from some less important activity. You rationalize by saying you need a break or you’re just staying on top of other tasks. And you don’t want to seem inaccessible to others or unresponsive to requests that might be coming to you.

But there’s a momentum that comes from staying with a task in depth and pushing through the temptation to let your mind wander elsewhere. Some ideas are shy and only show up when they trust you will have the patience to allow them to appear. The flow state may only come after a prolonged period of seemingly fruitless drudgery. 

If you’re looking to rejuvenate your work life as the year begins, consider regularly blocking off two to three distraction-free hours at a time to focus and plunge into deep work on things that matter most.

Coincidentally, after those two hours of deep work ended this afternoon, I saw that Newport’s new book on this topic, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, was released today. Purchased.