deep work tips and tricks

So you’re in. You want to try Deep Work out for yourself, March 11 is almost here, and now what? How do you get ready? How do you know you’ll be able to do this? This post is a practical one, full of ideas and tips. Read on, Deep Worker. We are only beginning this journey – treasures await.

What work should I pick?

Choose something you want to do. It’s going to be very, very hard to do something undistracted for 21 days if it is the kind of thing you don’t want to be doing anyway.

Choose something that has the possibility to create mental strain, meaning something that is slightly harder than what you’re used to. Here are a few examples:

Crafting (knitting, crocheting, sewing) – pick a pattern or a stitch you don’t already know or one that is slightly harder than what you’re already about to do

Practicing an instrument – pick pieces of music that’s at a higher level

Reading or Bible study – choose books (novels, poetry, non fiction, studies) that are harder for you to understand

Work-related projects – pick a complex one, maybe something that’s had you stumped for a while

Design – learn a harder software or technique, you know your ability, work to express your ideas in a better way from before

Art/painting/drawing – try a new technique for 21 days, pick a style you typically struggle with

Photography – find an area of it where you need to grow, do you need to get better at using light? Or a particular editing software? Do your compositions need work? Where do you need to grow as a photographer? Make your deep work pushing into that space.

Teaching – study a new teaching style, one you don’t already know. Develop a new set of lesson plans. Read in your area of study, but harder reading that what you normally do.

What is deliberate practice and why is it important?

In Deep Work one of the things Cal Newport says is, “to learn requires intense concentration…to master a cognitively demanding task requires this specific form of practice – there are few exceptions made for natural talent” (p34-35).

Newport also references the work of neuroscientists on page 36-37:

These scientists increasingly believe the answer includes myelin-a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits-effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this ist he only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.

from “Deep Work

You and I need deliberate practice in our life to master anythingAnything. This is how you learned how to ride a bike, this is how you learned how to write. Myelination. So wouldn’t it be great to get better at something we want to get better at?

How do I do this in a formal workplace? 

I’m assuming this means your Deep Work is related to your work (please don’t use work time to work on a personal project for this challenge).

Look at your schedule – where can you block out 30 minutes to an hour a day in the same place? Can you book a solo meeting room if you’re in an open plan office? Can you wake up earlier in the day and get to work before anyone else is there? Talk to your boss – explain that you want to try distraction-free work daily to see if it will impact your productivity. My guess is they will be all for it. Train yourself to keep work email, work chat or anything else that pings turned off while you do your work. And no Facebook.

Why do I need to achieve anything at all? I’m happy with my life. 

The 21 Day Deep Work Challenge is not about achievements. This is about training your mind to think without distractions, it is about changing our day-to-day operations from multi-tasking toward a deeper, focused way of living. For some of you, there could be a tangible achievement at the end of it – for me I’m hoping that this will lead to long-form writing that will one day be published. But you may spend the next 21 days reading daily – the achievement isn’t in how many books you read. It’s in the treasures you will find from reading without thinking about anything else, it will be the exercise of allowing your mind to engage with harder topics. Our brains are meant to be stretched past the point of mental strain. If we achieve something as a result, that’s great, but it’s more about giving our minds a chance to do what they were created to do.

But Devi, I’m already a deep worker. 

Good for you (and please leave comments about how you do it, we want to learn from you). But can you stretch your deep work time? Instead of 30 minutes, can you work with no distractions for one hour or two? Cal Newport says that more than four hours is a waste of brain space, so don’t push yourself past that. You can make this challenge whatever time limit would be a challenge for you – you do not have to stick to 30 minutes a day.

I’ve got small kids at home with me, I can’t do this. 

I wrote a post just for you – head over here to read about why Moms of littles should do this and how you can.

I can’t live without my phone. 

What are you worried about? Identify that and you’ll know how to proceed. I know that the kids’ school has my hubby’s contact information, so they will call him if they can’t reach me about one of our kids. They also have two other (trusted) emergency contacts. Try going without your phone for 30 minutes several days in a row, I promise, you will be ok.

How do I know I can discipline myself to do this? 

You don’t know, but the rewards of doing something you thought you couldn’t are enormousFor me distraction number one is my phone, so I’ve started leaving in the car when I come in to do my work. I go get it when I’m done or if I need it for something. I’ve learned to stop clicking to different browsers when I’m on my laptop. When I struggled to even do that, I close the laptop and write by hand. I’ve turned off the wifi in our house. I’ve gone somewhere with no wifi to work. You know what your distractions are – find ways to eliminate them slowly.

Your brain can learn new tricks, you can acquire new habits. You are stronger than you realize. You can do this.

Also, a quick reminder, this is 30 minutes. Allow yourself to be distracted the rest of the time. See which one you prefer (wink).

Can I do this for longer than 30 minutes? 

Absolutely. The recommended time is one hour to 90 minutes and no more than four hours.

Now it’s your turn: What other questions do you have? Please put them in the comments – I’d love to hear them. 

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