When I flew to Hong Kong two weeks ago, I was feeling distracted and pulled in many divergent directions as my busy autumn season had already begun in earnest. Our Advance was just another item on the to-do list and anticipating the work ahead in this program was rather daunting when paired next to my other responsibilities. But on returning home, recovering from jet lag, and reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, some excellent disciplines have resurfaced to make my working hours more productive and life more meaningful.
Newport’s recommendations are not rocket science. But he boldly practices these countercultural disciplines in a world which often insists on the opposite. I’m tempted to summarize the book with this simple counsel: Deep work can only happen when you turn off the freaking internet. In the past twenty-four hours since reading it, I have practiced this simple habit: When entering into a period of deep work, write a note beside your computer the time that you can go back on the internet. This is the simple way, for example, that you can acquire two blissful hours of focus free from responding to pestering emails or sucked into distraction on BuzzFeed.
Aside from that jewel, the book was replete with examples of things I’ve done in the past but need to intentionally renew for ongoing productivity.
- Become harder to reach: Last winter I decided to stop becoming available to people seeking my free advice. I created a paywall and appointment scheduler so that those making appointments would now need to provide their credit card number. It’s a sender filter as described by Newport, and it’s given me a small income stream as well as the joy of not spreading myself too thinly.
- Practice the grand gesture: When I wrote my book, I decided I wouldn’t be able to focus in my home office, and besides, I needed a different atmosphere to challenge me for this work. My wife and I rented an inexpensive flat in Guatemala on VRBO for a month, and after 30 days of viewing a perfectly-shaped volcano looming over Lake Atitlán, I had 75% of a book written. “Grand gestures” are the dramatic and unusual choices you make to jolt you forward in creating new products.
- Discover the silence: Newport doesn’t mention the power of spiritual retreats though he does mention meditation. In the past I’ve found directed and undirected retreats, silent or not, to be fertile ground for deep work, both for personal inner healing and for strategic planning with my business.
Newport also recommended various new practices that will enhance my productivity. Here are three I’m beginning now:
- Schedule the internet: My normal practice up to now has been to have all tabs open when attempting deep work. I would be distracted by email notifications, text messages, and social media feeds. This has to stop. Newport counsels, “Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.”
- Learn to embrace boredom: This is a tough one. Turning off and tuning out will result in boredom which we will be tempted to remedy with distractions. But entering into the emptiness is a pathway forward toward clearer thinking.
- Develop a shutdown ritual: This is a new strategy that I can see becoming a fruitful practice. When concluding the day’s work, spend 10-15 minutes shutting down. Plot out the next day’s deep work blocking off time segments, respond to emails that need attention, and reducing your inbox to zero. “The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another.”
Reading Newport’s book reminded me of a daily planner journal I had once started but my commitment to it petered out. The Best Self Journal was a great tool for me for awhile; it is time to renew its use. (Keep me accountable; ask how it’s going.)
This ritualized planning is one that will be useful to me and could be useful to you also. Kathy Anne Cowie, in her review of Deep Work, learns:
“Rituals and routines encourage deep work, Newport asserts, with scheduled intervals of intense focus and breaks to recharge energy required. He stresses the importance of downtime and offers a ritual to assure that unresolved issues from the workday do not battle for attention later in the evening: logging in tasks and creating a plan for the next day.
When I review the extent of items on my to-do list, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and out of control. However, discipline and focus using the ideas from Deep Work will give the needed structure for better productivity.
 Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 161.
 Newport, 243.
 Newport, 125.
 Newport, 169-174.
 Newport, 161.
 Newport, 169.
 Newport, 151.
 Kathy Anne Cowie, “Book Review-Achieving Success in the Face of Distractions, Organizational Change, and Conflict” Global Business & Organizational Excellence 35, no. 6 (October 9, 2016): 84–88. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1002/joe.21716.