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.