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Tim Denning

Giving up These 6 Things Can Get You Closer to Doing Deep Work

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Tim Denning
Tim Denning
 2021-05-11

The more preparation you have to do to start work, the less deep work you will do.

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Image Credit: Zivica Kerkez

Deep work is the holy grail of productivity.

NakedPoppy CEO Jaleh Bisharat describes deep work perfectly.

You know that feeling of being in flow where your mind is alert, you’re deeply focused on a difficult problem, when time stands still and work stops feeling like work? That productive state where every move you make is purposeful? That’s “deep work.”

Writing is my difficult problem. It takes everything I’ve got. When I write, time stands still. Writing isn’t work to me; writing is a must. Writing is how I escape the problems of the world and attempt to enter the reader’s world. Perhaps you can relate.

Deep work gives you a lot more meaning than shallow, busy work. You feel elated when you complete a session of deep work. Cal Newport popularized deep work. He called it an economic advantage and a way to “manage your attention.” When your attention is darting all over the place you can’t effectively do deep work. So you accidentally do shallow work.

I wrote a story a few years ago called The Power of Doing Only One Thing. This was my first taste of deep work, although I had no idea what deep work was back then. If you want to read more on the subject then you can get a hold of the book Hyperfocus or The One Thing.

These are a few enemies of deep work based on research.

Give up Being Endlessly Busy

You get sucked into the busyness vacuum. It’s not your fault.

Modern-day society hero-worships busyness. Startup culture created the hustle culture. What is often left out is that most ‘hustlers’ who end up burning out are doing shallow tasks, not deep work.

You have examples of people all around you who act busy and think they’re doing meaningful work. Many of these people end up endlessly switching careers, looking for better work. What they’ve overlooked is that it’s not the company, people, or industry you work in necessarily. It’s your proximity to deep work. Deep work feels good when you do it often.

You can work in an average company that gives you access to deep work and beat a lot of shallow workers who work for a ping pong table tech giant.

Give up Open-Plan Offices

Open-plan offices are a nightmare. Harvard agrees. Remember when you used to spend five days a week at one? It’s been a while. (Don’t worry they’re making a post-pandemic comeback.)

Try and sit down in a WeWork co-working space and write for two hours straight. You’ll go nuts. A friend let me work in their co-working space last week. I tried to write an email to a customer. An innocent-looking male in a startup t-shirt was in the corner. He started talking loudly.

He kept saying, “We need to work ON the business, not IN the business.”

They kept arguing. Bear in mind he was far away, but the wooden floorboards and the paper-thin walls made it sound like he was screaming into my beautiful big ears.

Deep work failed. The email didn’t get written. A customer ended up missing their project deadline because of my inability to send the email. Hearing other people’s work problems can create a work problem for you.

Give up a Multi-Tab Life

Using a browser with excessive numbers of tabs open is like working on a messy desk. Social media companies have become smart. They place notifications in the title of your browser tabs so you’ll click away from your work and see who just liked your post about sweat pants for life.

I am the worst offender. It’s not uncommon for me to have multiple windows of 50+ tabs in each. A browser extension called OneTab partially saved my life. It allows me to hoard tabs and not feel guilty about it.

Starting with zero tabs is a blank canvas.

Having loads of browser tabs open is secretly multitasking. One study found that multitasking makes you scatterbrained. Productivity app, Trello, explains it scientifically.

When you are jumping from tab to tab your brain is releasing dopamine receptors that are giving you the illusion that you are being more productive.
Your brain, however, is not actually processing all of these stimuli. Rather, it’s frantically jumping from focus point to focus point, called spotlights, desperately trying to dial in on one item at a time in rapid succession.

Give up the Story of Why You Can’t

Some writers tell me deep work is near-impossible for them. This is a story. We’re all able to access deep work.

You’ve done deep work before even if you don’t remember. Putting pressure on yourself to do deep work isn’t helpful. Overthinking what deep work is will only tell you it’s a destination you can’t reach.

Give up Over-Preparation

It’s easy to over-prepare for deep work. I wrote about how, before doing my deep work of writing, I got stuck procrastinating for periods of up to three hours. When you want your deep work to be perfect it eludes you.

If you need incense, a special mug with a pug face on it, motivational quotes, choir music, couch pants from Uniqlo, and a buddhist statue on your desk before you can do deep work, you might be overthinking it. The more preparation you have to do to start work, the less deep work you will do. Deep work is the reward, remember?

Give up Over-Education

Education can be procrastination.

I love doing online courses. But I overdo it. Doing more education is a sign I’m avoiding deep work — like releasing another eBook. You can begin doing deep work from where you are. There’s always more to learn. You’ll never consume all the resources in your lifetime. And you don’t need to.

Some of the best learning comes from deep work. I taught myself to write by doing it for seven years straight. If, instead, I chose to study professional writing at Harvard and spend four years of my life on campus, I’d probably have given up by now. Doing deep work shows you the results. Results are deeply motivating. Results are evidence that enable deep work.

Educate yourself after doing deep work rather than before.

A Legit Way to Access Deep Work Regularly

Deep work takes everything you’ve got. Willpower won’t get you there. You won’t magically wake up feeling like doing deep work.

“[Deep Work] is not something you can summon on command. The best you can do is set an attractive trap and wait. My mornings are the trap.” — Scott Adams

Create a habit of doing deep work.

I do deep work all day Thursday and Saturday. Unless a tidal wave hits my hometown, I have an agreement with myself and my family to do deep work during this time. Deep work has become like muscle memory. I don’t have to stand in front of a mirror and repeat mantras to woo myself into working. I don’t have to phone Tony Robbins for deep work advice. I don’t need to Marie Kondo my closet to get me inspired. In a way, deep work is minimalism in practice. You do less, better.

Deep work is simply scheduled. Seven years on, deep work continues.

The power of a deep work habit is often missed. It’s easy to think it’s just another self-help life hack that won’t make a difference. Then when you make deep work a priority you subtly realize the way you feel about work is different. Deep work prevents us from giving up.

You can count on the practice of regular deep work to give you evidence to keep building your dream. I blame deep work for my seven-year writing habit. You can blame deep work for your results too.