Something I explained to my 12-year-old son. Behind everyone who’s really good at something are many hours they spent, usually alone, just practicing.

Paul Graham (8/28/21)

Does Anyone Else Feel Like They Reply to Emails for a Living?

I read Deep Work by Cal Newport a couple years ago.

You should read it, too.

You will have the same reaction I did: Obviously, to produce quality work, we have to work without interruptions for extended periods of time.

I would like to tell you that I religiously block-off three hours each day, sit down at my desk, and get into a “flow” state, pushing myself, where I only work on things of lasting value.

Of course I do not do that, I am more distracted than ever.

I am often doing what Newport calls shallow work: non-cognitively demanding logistical style tasks, like replying to 100 emails and phone calls, and periodically taking breaks to laugh at the memes my friends send me.

I have the best intentions to focus. Then my phone vibrates.

Even at home, when I would like to write and read, I end up texting, working out, cleaning, making food, putting dishes away, drinking with friends, or doing laundry.

I need to do all of those things, but one at a time. The definition of a distraction is a thing that prevents us from giving full attention to something else.

Something is only a distraction if it prevents us from doing what we originally intended to do. If you are on Instagram for 15 minutes because you scheduled time to do it, then you are not distracted. If you intended to study for a test for 45 minutes and you spent that 45 minutes texting, you are distracted.

While working on this post I came across Indistracable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal, which is at least as good as Deep Work.

There are a few big ideas in it. The two main ones are:

  1. The first step is to recognize that distraction starts from within.
  2. You can’t call something a “distraction” unless you know what it is distracting you from.

Symptoms have a root cause. If an iPhone vibrates in a forest, no one gets distracted.

Root causes are rarely obvious at first. For instance, the root cause of procrastination is usually fear.

The root cause of distraction is usually a desire to escape discomfort, often boredom or pain, like anxiety or being tired (see The Two Causes of Human Unhappiness). Technology (increasingly) offers a fast solution.

Although I feel like I have Attention Deficit Disorder, what I actually have is a habit.

It has gotten out of hand for me, especially after I got the Apple Watch. I will be reading on my couch for 60 seconds, then my watch will vibrate. My willpower gets tested with every vibration: continue reading or check the notification?

Despite knowing this, ask me if I strapped my watch on this morning, like a heroin addict tightening a tourniquet.

I turn my notifications off. Then somehow, they end up back on.

The reason this is a problem is that you are not surprised.

You know I am flooded with distractions because you are flooded with distractions.

You may be here because you got distracted from the original reason you got on your phone or computer. You will almost certainly get a notification from something before you finish reading this.

I read the book, nodded my head, and passively assumed I had all of this under control.

Wrong. I have to do something about it. It is my responsibility.

However, without a system in place, my phone is inevitably going to end up in my hand. I am going to keep buying whatever Instagram shows me.

Normal life, and increasingly technology, is competing for every second of our day.

It always makes me laugh when I remember Netflix’s CEO said its biggest competitor is sleep.

In a similar way, it has always bothered me that there are only 24 hours in a day.

Specifically, there is only so much cognitive energy in a day. I get tired.

Realistically, I can do maybe 3-4 hours of thoughtful work a day. I can do shallow work for 10+ hours.

This impacts the way I view time. So, really a day is not 24 hours. For deep work, it is more like 3 hours.

So, more than ever, it is a question of Priority.

Types of Work

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Deep Work (p. 14)

Clearly, the nature of the work is important, which is one of the shortcomings of Newport’s book.

It is fair to ask: What exactly is this lasting value I am creating? It is a squishy topic because his example in his vocation is research papers (which are mostly read by other professors, not practitioners).

The book’s target audience is aspiring superstar knowledge workers.

Newport is a professor at Georgetown and is in the Top 0.1% of the productivity distribution. Look, I did not go to Yale Law School, but I know a lot of high performers, and I know at most two people who are as regimented and disciplined as him.

My point is, some of his suggestions are unrealistic (e.g. permanently deleting social media).

If your job entails putting out fires, running a company, or managing clients, then Deep Work is not really the goal.

For instance, nurses are trying to stop someone from dying in the next five minutes. If they started thinking deeply or required a distraction-free environment, then bodies would start piling up in hospitals.

If you are in sales, building a relationship with your customer or responsively solving his problem is one of the best ways to spend time.

If you are a CEO, internally, people are coming to you to filter decisions through your experience. Externally, you are marketing the company. There are exceptions, but few CEOs are doing deep work in the role.

Unfortunately, in tons of jobs, busyness is a proxy for productivity. Email is how you signal value. “Hey, look how responsive I am, I must be valuable.” One of the best things about the pandemic is that it pointed out how few jobs need to be accomplished in an office from 8:30am to 5:00pm.

Sometimes, there is nothing to do and boy does that drive people crazy.

There is another type of work, the type that involves being alone.

For me, that would include things like deciding whether a business should get a loan, writing, and analyzing personal investments.

My hunch: You don’t need to ask anyone what requires long periods of concentration in your life. You already know.

If deep work is unappealing to you, see Beyond Work below, or try Deep Quality Time or Deep Unplug.

It is very similar to working out, in that the thing I need to work on the most is the one I don’t want to do.

Realistic Solutions

No man is free who is not master of himself.

Epictetus

One hour.

One hour a day. No distractions. That’s it.

As soon as you finish, reward yourself.

The simpler something is, the harder it is to wiggle out of it.

I was listening to Jerry Seinfeld on The Tim Ferris Show podcast (here’s the link) and I realized I philosophically align with him more than anyone I can think of. If you forget his successful comedy career across multiple mediums over 40 years and his net worth approaching a billion dollars, we are basically the same person.

His advice was directed towards writing and creating. It extends beyond that to anything that needs focus.

Your work may require and/or allow for more than that, but an hour is an excellent place to start.

If you are able to do more, great.

Paraphrasing Seinfeld, if you leave your plan open-ended and just try to do as much as possible, that would be like working out with a personal trainer with no idea how long the session is going to last.

When you know it’s only going to last one hour, it becomes manageable.

But, let’s back up. You may be thinking, an hour!? Three minutes is a big ask.

It’s unlikely that we simply read a blog post and immediately have this new hour of concentration gifted to us.

The first step is awareness.

What normally happens is you notice something and you get tired of it.

There is an element of Just Do It for any change to happen, but as James Clear in Atomic Habits says so well, “We don’t rise to the levels of our goals, we fall to the levels of our systems.”

For me, I can simply ask myself any given day/month/year, what do I have to show for it?

If I want to really rub my nose in it, I write down what I accomplished. If I see a sheet of paper that says, “I saw 14 funny memes, liked 17 of my friends’ Instagram pictures, and listened to two podcasts,” the problem staring me in the face will give me the energy to put a system in place.

Tactics
  1. Schedule Distractions. Watch TikTok for 7 hours. Then put the phone down.
  2. Turn off the notifications & physically separate yourself. By now, it is probably clear that we should temporarily put our phones and smart watches, and anything else that dings or vibrates, in another room. I learned this from Atomic Habits and it is unbelievable how effective physical separation is. Besides, deep work cannot be done on a phone.
  3. 10-Minute Rule. From Indistractable, this is genius. “If I find myself wanting to check my phone as a pacification device when I can’t think of anything better to do, I tell myself it’s fine to give in, but not right now. I have to wait just ten minutes…If we still want to perform the action after ten minutes…we are free to do it, but that’s rarely still the case.
  4. Customize. There is no one correct way to work deeply.

I stay up late, but I have much more thinking energy in the morning. I try to do cognitive labor in the morning and save anything administrative for the afternoon.

My ideal time for an in-person meeting is 11:00am.

My friend does all of his intellectual work after 11:00pm(!) until about 3:00am.

The point being, you know what works for you. You know when you have the most energy. You know when you have the least energy.

Your intuition knows things. You know that real thinking is impossible in an open office. Great conversations can happen in an open office, but nothing that requires concentration happens in an open office.

One thing I have to remind myself of constantly is the the Eisenhower Matrix below. Our brain is pretty good at filtering decisions through this naturally, but I find it helpful to consciously think about it.

Beyond Work

In Build a Content Library, we talked about how some people may not have hobbies or work that entails this type of work.

Although I think a deep life is superior to a shallow one, I would say this extends beyond work in two ways: opinions and relaxation.

Opinions

There is a huge temptation to have an opinion on everything.

If you want to have good opinions, you need a good thinking framework. To think well, you need to do deep work.

These days, you can turn on a podcast and hear someone say, “Today we’re going to do a Deep Dive on nutrition.”

Ten minutes later, we are supposedly nutrition experts on grass fed ancestor something or another and they move on to the next topic.

You should see my face when I hear that. I’m sitting there wondering if it was a Saturday Night Live skit.

When I hear Deep Dive, I’m thinking: 30 hours. Five books from five different authors. Documentaries, interviews, YouTube.

Relaxation

Forget work for a moment.

It is fair to say in our culture there is a persistent nervous mental energy, amplified by caffeine. People need to check something. See root causes above.

Some people are aiming to eliminate/minimize busyness so they can get onto more important things, while others are trying to create/maximize busyness so they have something to do with their time.

We intuitively know that being distracted all the time is bad, but some people want to be busy all the time.

“Oh, the emails and errands…I’m so busy!”

Let go of the phone for an hour, we will be okay.

Summary

  • The basic idea is that depth is better than shallowness.
  • We want to do what we intended to do.
  • Distractions subvert those intentions.
  • If that bothers you, Cal Newport, Jerry Seinfeld, James Clear, and Nir Eyal have some really good ideas on how to help.
  • Step 1: Figure out why you are getting distracted (probably a form of pain or boredom).
  • Step 2: Be specific about what you intend to do.
  • Step 3: Schedule a time and place to do it.
  • Step 4: Schedule a time and place for “distractions”.
  • Step 5: Experiment with the tactics above and your own.

See also:

Thanks to James Bunch and Sanam Makhani for reading drafts of this.

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