What I’m reading: Deep Work by Cal Newport

After subscribing to his blog posts for six months, I have finally got the book: as someone who right now is looking to cram in as much learning as realistically possible, it’s essential to also focus on optimising the learning environment. Deep Work offers an exciting idea: it is possible for us to learn new, hard things quickly, but first we need to change our environments and habits to support this.

As you read Cal’s book, you’ll learn quickly that he’s a pretty staunch social media refusenik; his hotly debated article in the New York Times puts forward a cogent argument as to why maintaining an always on connection to social media trains our brains to concentrate less; he argues that it is exactly this atrophying of focussing skills over time that negatively impacts our abilities to learn at speed. He provides some interesting examples of different academics and highly skilled creatives who have become prolific through producing huge amounts of work at high intensity.

There is a lot of truth in his view, as I also believe that learning itself will become a ‘meta skill’ which we will all increasingly be using a fast moving economy where automation will change how many of us work in the next 10 to 20 years.

For people in my sector of course, disconnecting from social media entirely is not viable; if you’re like me and work in the digital sector that Cal is so steadfastly avoiding, you need to have some level of connectivity in terms of knowing what it’s like to be exposed to certain ad formats.

But nonetheless I have found some helpful ways of taking on some of the learnings from this book:

  1. The Facebook and Instagram apps are no longer on my non-work phone — this enables me to control the amount of ‘dipping into’ social media that happens in a given day. Since removing it from my personal phone it has dropped drastically, and I don’t even log on every day. For me personally, the impact of social was more app based, so while I can technically still log on via desktop, I have things to do, so don’t.
  2. I use Twitter and LinkedIn for professional networking — I thankfully have never had the same addictive relationship with these platforms as I did with Facebook and Instagram, so I’m not driven to check these apps unless I have recently met with someone in my industry at a networking or social event
  3. Using pen and paper for intense work periods — when I was first introduced to this idea I thought it was ridiculous, but I have actually found that locking myself away with nothing but a pen, paper and whiteboard in a silent meeting room for an hour can work wonders for hacking away at a strategic problem. Incidentally, Cal is pretty staunchly against open offices, and in some ways I understand his reasoning (from a productivity perspective). I love them personally, for team building and collaboration reasons.
  4. I now use Cal’s deep work tally — this is Cal’s simple productivity tally, in which you keep a piece of paper to one side and log each hour you spend in a completely undistracted work mode. As you could imagine in an agency environment, it’s not easy to do. The first week I tried this I logged two hours — for the whole week! I’m hoping this week will be much more successful in that regard
  5. I swap email for face to face communication — I’m very much into collaborating to get tasks done, and I’m becoming aware of how tricky that is to balance with the necessary isolation required to do deep work. One thing I noticed was that I needed to stop using email as a primary collaboration tool, as it was a hub for distraction.

I look forward to sharing more with you on this as I read the book again. For now, if you want to discover more, you can check out Deep Work here.

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