Making Time for Deep Work

cat on desk

As Jason noted a year ago in his review of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport’s central claim will seem familiar to many academic readers: deep work — extended concentration on challenging problems — is both extremely valuable and difficult to commit to. If you’re used to jockeying among multiple browser tabs and responding to notifications all the time, your brain will crave that extra stimulus when you try to settle down to work more deeply. (Newport recommends practicing being a little bit bored, like when you’re standing in line at the grocery store, instead of reaching for your phone in every spare minute, to lessen that impulse towards distraction.)

Particularly in a time when the historical events surrounding us demand our attention in compelling ways, it can be even more difficult to settle down to deep work. And yet, as Newport suggests,

In work (and especially knowledge work), to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.

Newport describes in his book the various ways he’s been able to arrange his life to allow for long stretches of time in deep work. Some of these (like block scheduling time for email or administrative tasks) will be familiar to ProfHacker readers. But Newport dismisses social media entirely and seems proud of how inaccessible he is — strategies that don’t work for many of us.

So, what does work? Treating deep work as an important commitment that you schedule on your calendar and protect fiercely:

  • First, look at your calendar to see how much time you actually have available. What are your firm external commitments (classes, meetings, childcare pickup, commute time, etc)?

  • Decide when you will work (yes, specific days and times) and put it on your calendar. Maybe it’s 30 minutes, maybe it’s 2 hours. Make it concrete, specific, and scheduled.

  • Protect these appointments with yourself. No one else will protect your time. If you have deep work time scheduled for Wednesday morning, treat it as a meeting with someone important (you!!) who you wouldn’t cancel on, and schedule other things around that time.

  • Show up, even if you don’t feel like it.

  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. When you’re trying to break a habit of distraction, it matters more that you put the commitment on your calendar and that you practice showing up for yourself, than how many words you write during each session.

The degree to which you need to schedule time for deep work will probably vary depending on your institutional, professional, and temporal context. During the semester, for instance, I have to schedule work time in ways that I don’t need to when I’m not teaching. In a recent blog post, Newport admits that even he has begun to need to schedule his deep work, moving from recording a tally of time spent (a simple version of action tracking) to scheduling his deep work four weeks in advance. A four week moving window seems like a good time frame for practicing this kind of scheduling and repeated commitment to intellectual work, but if you’re new to doing this, try scheduling for two weeks instead.

How will you make time for your own work in the next two weeks? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user Sarah and Jason]

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