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What I missed about deep work

30 December 2021

Deep Work is one of the top five books I've read in the do-this-actionable-impact genre.

I've revisited that book and read one of Newport's more recent ones, Digital Minimalism, to tune up my work and life habits. Needless to say, there was room for improvement. Here are some of the things from the books that I had missed, or did and stopped doing, regarding deep work.

I distracted myself outside of my focused time

I was like an athlete who practiced hard during practice, but neglected themselves outside of it. I'd read a fair number of books in fits and starts, and spent plenty of time outside on walks, so I wasn't a total couch potato. But far more than I'd like I'd while away hours a weekend afternoon on YouTube or Twitter. After a long day of work quick posts on social media would turn into hour long scrolling sessions. I'd multitask - letting messages and browsing fragment my attention. And of course, I'd binge Netflix.

I forgot that building your concentration takes constant dedication. It's not enough to work deeply. You also have to hone your focus by resisting distractions. I'd think "Well, I coded today so it's cool. I did my job for the day." The thing is, my job never ends. Just like an athlete needs to watch their diet and sleep, I need to constantly watch where my attention goes. And when you get used to distraction, it becomes harder to focus. It's not something you can turn on and off at will, as much as I'd like to have thought.

I misunderstood social media's value proposition

The selling point of social media goes something like "hang out here, ..., profit $$$$$." All you have to do is use the platforms enough, and you too can benefit.

Sound vague? It is. And it's not by accident. This fuzzy value proposition is what they want you to think. They want you to spend undirected, unfocused time there. When you do they make more money.

I figured that if I spent enough time on those platforms, cool things would happen. And to be fair, cool things did happen. But those benefits were being diluted by hours spent aimlessly browsing, weakening my attention span and using up my time. I'd feel the way Seneca wrote that he felt after he spending an afternoon at the gladiator games, leaving the arena "more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman" than when arriving.

These tools are just that, tools. They can be useful. But you have to be careful. Even more so when you understand that they're engineered to be addictive. This means without focus and a clear goal they can waste a lot of your time and energy.

I like sharing writing and artwork with others. Putting them on social media is a way for people to discover them. They're also a way for me to find ideas I wouldn't encounter otherwise. This brings some creative benefits. But, it's not the best way. I'm putting more effort into making face-to-face, local connections. Those are the ones that will bring me the most satisfaction. They're the ones that we, as humans, are wired for having. Online life is seductive, but it's not a substitute for having a life offline.

Making good use of social media doesn't require much time, and won't get in the way of the rest of my life, if I plan and focus when I'm on it. Some things I'll try once I end my month long digital media fast are preparing text and images for posts beforehand, posting before browsing, and setting a timer for my usage.

I stopped measuring

What gets measured gets managed. I used to track my deep work hours in spreadsheets. I got out of the habit, and unsurprisingly my work habits slipped.

I have a notebook at my desk where I log my deep work hours. I can see how I'm doing, and work to increase it. There's a limit as to how high I can go. The brain can only handle about four hours of deep work a day. But getting as close as I can to that point is a good objective.

Developing mastery

I'm building my life around mastering activities I enjoy and spending time with people doing the same. Deep work, and a deep life, help me do this. So, here's to the deep life.