in productivity

Deep work in practice: reimagining my workflow for radically less distraction

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

– Alain de Botton

My recent survey of the last 50 days of my five minute journalling showed I have a serious problem with “deep work”.

Deep work refers to Cal Newport’s thesis (he expands on it vastly in his excellent book) that:

[Deep work is] cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve… [. Deep work results in] improvement of the value of your work output… [and] an increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.

This is contrasted with “shallow work”, the tasks that “almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish” such as checking emails, planning, social media etc.

I read Deep Work more or less in one sitting on a twelve hour flight from Tokyo and it summarised much of my pre-held thoughts on productivity, I just hadn’t adopted to the same extent as Prof. Newport advocates. I think the basic thesis is very strong and I’m yet to find a better blueprint for work in the modern economy.

So why am I so bad at doing deep work? And how can you start using it in practice?

Are we getting more distracted?

Deep work requires prolonged periods of concentration on hard problems. For me that typically means writing of some kind and project planning. For you that may mean something similar; any sort of computer work and the concept stands.

As Alain de Botton commented up top, we’ve experienced an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything in recent years and this is a problem.

There are no end of op-eds and studies arguing we are hopelessly hooked and most people I know have problems with internet addiction and we’re creating a culture of distraction – and the economic data says the same thing: the US output per hour (a standard measure of labour productivity) has decreased from an annual rate of 3% between 1945 and the 1970s to 0.5% since 2010. The latest annualised productivity growth rate was minus 0.4%.

The internet “is designed to be an interruption system”, and we are “addicted to distraction”, argues Nicholas Carr. As a 90s kid I’ve grown up with the internet and all its benefits – but also can’t help myself from switching tabs the second I need to think about something difficult.

Social media and apps use the same principles as slot machines: intermittent reinforcement. When you pull to refresh Twitter or Facebook or your email you don’t know what you’re going to get – it may be nothing or it may be a really cool email. The randomness makes the action of checking addictive. Technology companies know and use this and we are ill-equipped to defend ourselves.

Distraction seems to be a well established problem but nobody wants to take it seriously or knows how to fix it.

How do I generally reduce distractions, anxiety and noise?

We’ve made two theses so far:

  1. The type of work that is valuable in the modern economy involves long periods of serious work and focus.
  2. We are easily distracted and find prolonged period of focus difficult.

Identifying these as problems is important and valuable in itself, but real progress will come from being able to properly put deep work into practice.

Trying to break the “distraction habit” is hard and this is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive list, but this is what I’ve been doing and what has worked for me:

Be less distracted in general:

  • Delete social media apps from my phone (that aim to be addictive). I can still access from the mobile browser if I want, but its inconvenience puts me off.
  • Ban my phone from the toilet. Yup. This is actually a big one.
  • Stop keeping my phone near my bed. Check your email before you get out of bed? If you can’t reach it, you can’t.
  • Stop carrying my phone in my pocket. Keeping it in my bag instead makes it less convenient and me less prone to picking it up.

Be less distracted at work:

  • Recognise when I’m doing deep work and need to focus (this is useful for stopping yourself when you’re tempted to change tab).
  • Install Timewarp for Chrome. This doesn’t aggressively block websites (although you can if you wish), but puts up a timer for selected sites, showing you how much time you’ve spent on a site that day. Much more useful than sweary alternatives*.
  • Put my phone on do not disturb and keep it off my desk.
  • Use full screen mode in app and browser.
  • Remove the bookmarks bar from Chrome.
  • Close my email app and only open at set times.
  • Listen to more classical music.

I’ve long been a fan of the Pomodoro Technique and relied on it almost exclusively for the last two years of my degree, but I’ve not found it such a useful ally in the quest for deep work. It’s a prop for concentration rather than an outright fix – and I want to be able to fix my focus problem rather than cover it up. The Pomodoro timer (my favourite is Pomotodo) my come out again in the future, but for now I’m leaving it.

*I’ve received lots of recommendations for Chrome extensions after publishing this. A couple of note: Inbox When Ready hides your inbox by default, so you can compose email without getting distracted. News Feed Eradicator removes the news feed from Facebook (or just use to get chat-only Facebook instead). Finally, Forest offers an intense tree-killing alternative to Timewarp. For Mac Self Control is another more extreme option. See what works for you.

How do I get deep work done?

Two more things to think about. Your work schedule and what you’re working on.

The former is pretty simple: set aside time for working out what you’re working on, so when you sit down to work it’s just a case of getting on with the deep work. No time faffing working out what to work on.

The second appears simple but is more complex to fix: you need to be working on projects interesting enough that they can demand your attention. Something to think about.

Embracing deep work

Distraction is a problem. We’re probably reliant on or addicted to the internet more than we’d like to admit. Fixing this will be a work in progress, but acting now, recognising the problem and consciously trying to fix it is as good a first step as any.

For your convenience here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Deep work requires prolonged focus on hard things.
  • We’re addicted to the internet and distractions. Certain apps are especially bad for this.
  • Reducing distractions in general and at work is helpful.
  • Timewarp for Chrome is helpful.
  • Plan your schedule in advance.
  • This is all a lot easier if you’re working on interesting and important things.

There may be a magical fix for this. I’ll let you know if and when I find it.