Deep time



I have just finished reading Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world, by the writer and study guru Cal Newport. The idea is a very interesting one, and although after you’ve read it you think “that’s obvious, I was trying to do that anyway”, the book is very clearly written and the case well argued. I recommend it.

Deep work is work that advances our meaningful goals. One could quibble in saying it’s not always obvious what’s meaningful, but I know deep down which goals are worth while pursuing and which are superficial. As far as work is concerned it’s writing, and that’s probably true of most academics (and most writers). Not all writing is deep: books, papers, and lectures (to some extent) are, but a report on what I’ve been doing recently isn’t – it’s just something I have to do. Deep goals need deep work, which is demanding and involves concentration, effort, and time. It involves, using the psychologist Csikszentmihályi’s term, getting into a state of flow. You don’t make much progress on writing a book unless you put aside some quality time, which means time free from distraction, and get on with getting those words out.

The problem is that distraction is all around us, even when we try to do deep work. The other day I noticed that my Kindle said “15 minutes left in book” (the book was Deep work in fact). So I sat down and tried to finish reading it, measuring how long it actually took. It took over 45 minutes! I kept on getting distracted, looking around me, my mind wandering, checking a few facts, standing up to stretch and wander around.

And writing is so much more difficult than reading. At our desk or laptop we are usually always connected to the internet, and what a distraction that can be. Checking email, looking at Twitter maybe, checking our messages, looking at Facebook, checking the news to see if anything interesting has happened in the last five minutes, checking a fact on what we’re writing and then getting distracted by another link – none of these distractions were around when Proust was writing. It is easy to start writing with the best intentions and then discover an hour later we’ve only managed a sentence. We do know that Arsenal haven’t bought a new striker and that Emily’s cat slept on the duvet last night looking cute.

So clearly some discipline is necessary when we’re trying to do deep work. Newport argues that we can learn to work deeply, just as we can acquire any other skill. We might be able to work deeply simply by resolution and determination. Some of us might need to log out of Twitter and Facebook to make it that much more difficult to check them. Some of us might need more drastic medicine and to switch off our internet connection or router. Some might even need to burn the router. Newport is against even checking facts as we write, putting them aside to dedicated time later.

Even when we can do it, deep work is tiring. When I was writing my book Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science, I think I was pretty disciplined. I would sit at my desk in the morning,, starting at 8, and from the hour not stop until I had written 500 words. On average these 500 words would take me 35-40 minutes. Then I would stretch, stand up, go to the loo, make coffee perhaps – and very quickly the top of the hour and come round and off I’d go on the next 500. I found this regime absolutely exhausting.

Newport argues that it’s not easy to do much more than four hours real deep work a day, and that’s my experience when writing Talking the talk. I doubt if I could do four contiguous hours; I would need a coffee break at least – time to catch up with the news and checking those facts. And often our jobs involve work that is necessary but not necessarily deep, so we need to reserve some time for shallow work.

It all sounds very obvious, but in practice it’s fiendishly difficult to do, for me at least. Now it’s time to check my email again.

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

3 thoughts on “Deep time”

  1. “Deep work is work that advances our meaningful goals. ”

    Personally, I find life more meaningful when I can help others reach their meaningful goals. A cynic may argue that that is a meaningful goal, I would say that would be a circular argument. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, helping others is undoubtedly meaningful, and good for ourselves too – I think the research shows that those who give and help themselves become happier and healthier.


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