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Deep work amid deep crisis

A lot of things can happen in a month, needless to say, one year can change a lot of things. This COVID-19 pandemic has definitely altered our lifestyle, especially work. The good thing is, with advanced technology, we are now able to work from home. While it is comfortable working from home, one could experience the countless distractions at home.


You do the laundry not because you genuinely want to wash the clothes, but you think it is productive to multitask.

Your dog is too cute that you need to play with it.

Your plants look withered, and you decided to water it.

And, since there is no boss around you, you can mindlessly scroll your IG till it says ‘You’re All Caught Up.’


It is important to practise deep work, especially in a time like this to stay #productive. Hence, I am going to share with you some highlights from the book ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’ by Cal Newport, which is useful for you to stay productive.


In whatever occupation that you are in, you need to know this. No matter how skilled or talented you are, if you cannot deliver the absolute best output, you won’t thrive. And to succeed in this new economy, you need two core abilities. One, the ability to quickly master complicated things. Two, the ability to deliver at a professional level, in terms of both quality and speed. And all these require depth.


"The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy." - Cal Newport

One particular concept that the book shares is attention residue. A research done by Sophie Leroy has found out that it is difficult for people to transit their attention away from a task to another. This is because the thoughts from the previous task still persist around your head. Leroy termed this as ‘attention residue’, and it can happen very frequently. A single deep will shift our focus from work at hand to our mobile phone. After replying the message and getting back to work, you will realise that at times, you still have lingering thoughts about the conversation you just had. This is attention residue, and it affects your work performance. Newport suggests that the negative impact of attention residue can be reduced by working on a single task for a long period without switching, allowing one to maximise performance and reach peak productivity. The quality of the output is better as well. In short, focus and don’t stop until you have completed your work.


To help you achieve depth, ritualise by building a level of strictness to your work session. This ritual will minimise attention residue. However, it is essential to ask these few questions to aid your deep work:


Question #1: Where will you work and for how long?


Bill Gates takes vacations to read his books and do some deep thinking. J.K. Rowling once checked into a suite in the five-star Balmoral Hotel located in Edinburgh to complete her final book ‘The Deathly Hallows.’ These grand gestures, all devoted to supporting deep work, will increase its perceived importance. Thus, reducing your tendency to procrastinate while experiencing an increase in motivation. Of course, the book is not suggesting you invest such a massive amount of money but to rethink your environment when you want to begin your deep work. Nor the book is suggesting that you should lock yourself up and work alone. In fact, using appropriate collaboration, working with someone on a problem can drive each other towards a more profound level of depth.


When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done. A total shutdown is vital to help you recharge your energy needed to work deeply. Have a strict shutdown ritual, meaning to say, do not open that email even if it says ‘FYI.’ If you work hard and are cautious about your schedule, you should hit your daily capacity by evening. Anything beyond that, it will be ineffective to continue deep work. Instead, your efforts by then should be confined to low-value shallow tasks. And if you cannot finish your work, capture it in a place where it can be easily revisited when the time is appropriate.


Question #2: How will you work once you start to work?


Establish some rules and processes to keep your effort structured. One approach is to schedule your internet blocks and focus intensely on your work outside of these blocks. It is a good practice to schedule internet blocks during work as well as at home.


"To succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. This doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate distracting behaviours. It is sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviours to hijack your attention." - Cal Newport

Asking you to quit social media entirely is probably impossible, so reduce your mindless-scrolling habits! Consider the substantially positive and negative impact of social media. If you need some form of entertainment, don’t use social media or the internet. Put some thought into your leisure time like having a hobby or reading a book. Challenge yourself! If you temporarily quit social media for the next month, will you be distinctly worst off? Did your network of friends care about you not using social media? If the answer is no to both questions, then you may want to relook at your social media habits.

Question #3: How will you support your work?


Schedule every minute of your day. Every. Newport recommends batching similar things into more generic task blocks, with each block a minimum of 30 minutes. It does not also mean that you have to pursue a schedule in which it is invested in depth entirely. Shallow work is needed to support most knowledge work jobs. For each task, remember to set deadlines. This approach is useful for me, but two things usually occur. First, I tend to overestimate or underestimate myself. Second, I am sometimes interrupted by new obligations. This is fine as long as you revised the schedule and stay committed to it.


"We spend much of our day on autopilot — not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. This is a problem." - Cal Newport

To help you quantify the depth of each activity, you can ask this question to every task. How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialised training in my field to complete this task? The longer it takes, the more depth it requires.

The other approach is to meditate productively. Productive mediation aims to focus your attention to a single well-defined professional problem while you are involved in something physical, not mentally, such as walking or showering. Similarly to mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the issue at hand when it wanders or stalls.

This book is pretty academic than practical, with many interesting types of research supporting the concepts. Nevertheless, these approaches give us a good overview and structure of practising deep work. I have personally tried it, and I find it helpful. It is especially beneficial when we are all working from home during such an unprecedented situation. Try it out, and share with me how has your performance begun to evolve!

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