Experimenting with Deep Work
A recovering perfectionist’s trials with taking a break
In Deep Work, one of my favorite books about getting into flow, Cal Newport writes about a surprising fact: If you’re being intentional with your time and energy, and managing to get into flow often during your day or your week, you will find that the human brain is usually only capable of 4 hours of sustained deep work per day. Like, whaaat?
Side Note: Flow is defined as “a state of mind in which a person becomes fully immersed in an activity.” When you’re in the flow, you’re completely immersed in an activity. Time flies, you’re having fun, and you’re getting sh*t done.
Once I got over the realization that all of my valuable work was probably being done in a very small part of my long and busy workday, a few things came to mind:
- Many of us, including myself, have too high expectations for how much time during the day we can really be in true flow (especially doing creative work).
- So much of what we do throughout our day, where we’re feeling like we are achieving something, might be the sort of busywork that is taking a lot longer than it should or could. And, perhaps I was viewing some of these things with too much importance and I should let some of them go!
I began to pay much closer attention to what I was doing throughout the day. I batched tasks into Grooves, which help me see how much of my day was true deep work. Lo and behold, my deep work was amounting to about 3–5 hours a day, and the rest was the type of work (largely admin stuff) that didn’t require being inspired or in the flow.
For a recovering perfectionist and workaholic like me, this was interesting —I realized that I didn’t have to be in full-blown deep work all the time, and that I could work with my brain’s own capacity, batching creative tasks together and then giving my brain a break later on in the day — without feeling bad about my lack of “output” during that time.
Once my expectations became more realistic, my workday improved. I didn’t feel that it had to be long to be productive, as long as I was really hitting the mark during a few good hours. In fact, when I had been aiming for more hours of intense work each day, I found I was actually not in top form.
It’s a fun experiment to try and track which hours of the day you’re most likely to be in deep work, and how much time you’re actually spending there. I wonder what you’ll find!