Deep Work and Deep Learning for Your Career and Your Life

Recently, I had the opportunity to read the wonderful book by Cal Newport. This book actually served as something of a capstone for a lot of thinking and reading I’ve been doing lately about my own professional and personal directions.

The Problem

The problem that really started this journey was my sense that my focus on the task at hand and my ability to learn new things was growing a bit dull.

Whether it’s my relative age or the ease of finding things to distract me or something else entirely, I noticed that I wasn’t finding it as easy to focus on my work as I once did.

It’s so incredibly easy to find things that distract me, whether it’s an interesting article, a debate on social media, a household task that needs to be completed, or an item related to one of my hobbies. Those things grab my attention and pull it away from writing.

The end result? I’d often find myself not finished with a week’s worth of writing at the end of a given week. My writing sessions would extend into evenings and into weekends, and unsurprisingly they became even less focused.

At the same time, I found that my own commitment as a lifelong learner was slipping. I still spent time learning things each day, but I had a strong sense that what I was learning was becoming more and more and more “shallow.”

For me, the tipping point of that sense of “shallowness” came during the run-up to the 2016 Iowa caucuses. I found that my understanding of political issues wasn’t as deep as it once was, and my usual response to that would be to study up. I’d “go deep” on those issues, figure out where I really stood on those issues, and have those results lead me to a candidate to support.

This time around? It wasn’t really working. I found it much more difficult to dig into those issues. I found it easy to get distracted. Even when I did engage myself in something, I found that I wouldn’t really go very deep at all.

For the first time in my life, I felt like my understanding of the world was shrinking rather than growing.

Here’s the thing: that kind of feeling is not good for earning money in the modern economy. Many, many jobs – even many entry-level jobs – thrive on being able to focus on tasks and complete them well as well as being able to learn new things quickly and efficiently.

If there is one skill that I would consider valuable for my own financial future and for your financial future, it’s the ability to focus, both on producing good work and on learning new things.

The Goal

So, there I was, realizing that my ability to focus on work and on learning was slowly slipping. Not only did those gradual changes leave me feeling deeply dissatisfied on a personal level, they also represented a negative impact on my income going forward and my professional trajectory.

For example, if my current writing gigs were now filling up all of the time I had available for writing because of my reduced focus, I no longer had extra time to try new things or take on new opportunities. In short, my lack of focus was strangling my opportunities to build new income.

Similarly, my lack of focus was cutting into my ability to learn and to draw useful and interesting conclusions about the things I learned, which also cut into the bedrock of my opportunity to make money. Without a strong and regular routine of learning new things, it quickly becomes impossible to find new angles and approaches to my current work or to find new things to dig into for future work. I’m not even talking about the negative impact to my personal desire to understand the world and be a lifelong learner.

My goal, then, was to rebuild my ability to focus and to learn in a deep way. Not only is that vital for my current earnings, it’s also essential for future projects and directions I might take on, it’s a key part of what I value in my personal life.

But how do I even go about doing that? Over the last several months, I’ve built up a three-pronged plan for doing just that, a plan that’s been working really well.

Step One – Minimize Distractions

The first step along this path of being able to work and learn in a more focused way is to simply minimize and, ideally, eliminate distractions. Anything that keeps me from working on the task at hand is a distraction, and when I get distracted from a task, I lose my full train of thought regarding that task (even if it doesn’t feel like it) and the quality of the work goes down (agan, even if it doesn’t feel like it). Often, I don’t even realize that the work quality has dropped until I read the final result or notice how much longer it’s taken me to complete something compared to how long I expected it to take.

Here are three tactics I’m using to minimize distractions pretty effectively when I’m trying to work or trying to learn.

Turn Off Electronic Devices

I’ve found that it’s not enough to turn electronic devices to “silent” or to simply close a browser window. Those “obstacles” are really, really easy to overcome. You can just hit a button to start up your cell phone again, or you can click your mouse once to restore that distracting browser window.

The key to really focusing is to turn off those devices entirely. You need to make the obstacles in the way of distraction as big as you can. Turn off the phone entirely and put it in another room. Turn off your computer entirely. Turn off the television entirely. Leave yourself as few distractions as possible from your work.

Go Analog, Not Digital

As a writer primarily for online publications (as most writers are these days), how exactly do I do that? This is a hard question for almost anyone who works in a connected environment. How can I do the kind of focused work that I need to do without these devices?

For me, the key is to use analog tools for as much of the process as I possibly can. I’ll sit down with a pile of personal finance books, a couple of pens, and a notebook, and I’ll start reading. I’ll jot down potentially interesting seeds for topics, and if I start seeing some connections with other things I’ve written down from other books or if I can relate those ideas to my life experiences, I’ll start fleshing out those ideas.

All of that is done with pen and paper. I’ve started doing 99% of the heavy lifting for the things that I write on a piece of paper first. I’ll organize my thoughts, make something of an outline, and sometimes even “pre-write” the article down to the level of individual sentences before I turn on the computer to actually draft the article, at which point it usually comes together really quickly.

This can actually be done with a lot of jobs. I used to write a lot of computer code and, when I think back on that experience, many of my best ideas weren’t created in front of a computer. They were created at a whiteboard with a marker in my hand, with no electronic devices in sight.

Obviously, this is also a great technique for studying and deep learning. I essentially do the same thing when I’m trying to learn about a particular topic. I’ll get out a notebook, surround myself with books, jot down ideas I consider important or that I want to retain, and also write down the connections I see and the questions that I have. I try to do as much as possible without any electronic devices at all, only turning to devices when I’m trying to answer questions.

Recognize that the “Urgent But Not Important” Things Really Can Wait

One of the scary parts of doing this is the idea that you’re going to miss some kind of highly urgent email or text message. What if your boss needs to you? What if a friend wants to let you know about something amazing that’s happening?

This used to bother me a lot. Having my computer off and my cell phone off meant that I was unconnected. What if something happens?

Here’s the reality: it doesn’t matter if something happens.

The vast, vast majority of urgent things that you’re ed about really aren’t that urgent and really aren’t that important, either. They can wait. If you’re really concerned about it, just send your boss a message before you start saying that you’re going to go offline for a bit to focus on working on this project.

Turn off your phone, turn off your computer, and get to work. That’s been my mantra as of late, and it’s actually worked quite well. Sure, when I return to my phone and my computer, I usually have a pile of messages waiting for me, but then I can deal with all of them as a batch – and, honestly, there’s rarely an urgent one in the bunch.

Step Two – Have “Deep” Sessions, Both for Work and for Learning

So, you’ve turned off distractions for a while. Now what?

Now it’s time to dig in deep to the topic at hand. The goal of a “deep” session, whether I’m working on a project or learning something, is to get so lost in the topic that I genuinely lose track of time and of my environment. Often, I set an alarm of some kind to end the session because without that alarm I could stay in that mode for quite a while.

The truth is that I do my best working and studying when I’m in that “zone,” where I’m just using my mental and (sometimes) physical faculties to the best of my ability. I’ve let go of distractions and the only thing on my mind is the job at hand. If I’m setting aside time for “deep” work or study, then I have that perfect window for getting sucked in.

Here are three tactics I use for making “deep” sessions really useful in my life.

Set aside devoted time on a very regular schedule for deep work and/or study

Lately, I’ve been using the first two hours of the day after my children leave as a “deep” session for work, and then a one to two hour period right after lunch for “deep” learning on a subject of interest, usually something I can turn into something of use professionally in some way or another but not always.

I’m trying my absolute best to maintain this schedule through all distractions. If I have appointments, I’m scheduling them for the late morning or in the middle of the afternoon. My goal is to make those periods as untouchable as I possibly can and, for the most part, I’ve been successful at it.

During the morning sessions, I pull out a big pile of personal finance books from the library and other documents of interest and do a reading/note-taking session akin to what I described earlier in this article. Some of the stuff I read is pretty dry, so I try to look for ways to humanize it or to try it in my own life.

During the early afternoon sessions, I do the same thing, but usually with a few books on the topic I’m studying at the moment and without the focus on trying to come up with article topics and facts and structures. I’m just trying to understand ideas and put them together on paper and in my head.

I’ve discovered that I have to set a timer during these sessions or else they will go on and on and on. Every once in a while, that’s okay, but I often couldn’t afford to have those sessions go on forever. So, I set an alarm using an old-school AM/FM clock radio to alert me to when I needed to stop my work sessions. I sat the alarm clock in a place where I couldn’t stare at the time, but that I could definitely hear the alarm noise.

For me, these sessions are working really well. A two hour session of “deep work” in the morning and a one hour session of “deep learning” in the afternoon, completely without distraction, is doing a great job of setting the stage for writing articles incredibly quickly and efficiently. I now create a first draft of an article almost as fast as I can type it because all of the “heavy lifting” of the post is finished for me on a couple pages in my notebook. I’m also finding value in the discovery of new ideas and it feels like I’m putting together ideas more efficiently more than before.

Experiment with different lengths of devoted time and find what works for you

Different people are going to have different constraints on the periods that they can devote to “deep work” and “deep learning.” Often, these constraints are put in place by professional demands – they can’t stay away from email or texts for more than a couple of hours or their boss loses it. A person might also find that their personal focus doesn’t last all the way through the period they’ve set aside for deep work or deep learning.

The solution here is to experiment with different periods for deep work and see what works for you. Try shorter sessions. Try longer ones. Try different times of the day or even different days of the week (I tried devoting all of Fridays to deep work, but it didn’t really click with me).

Just experiment. You’ll know you’ve found the right period of time when you can pretty easily fall into a “zone” where you lose track of time and either an alarm or a natural break in focus causes you to end that focus at a particular time.

Ritualize the session

For me, making a bit of a “ritual” out of the session really helps shift my mind into doing deep, focused work or study.

For starters, I usually do this at a different location – our kitchen table. I’ll get out all of the materials I need – a few pens, a notebook, several books – and get them all out for easy access. I’ll make myself a big mug of tea (I usually make red tea with a bit of honey in it) and put that at arm’s length but not too close to my work area, and I’ll usually eat something small with protein in it just before I start, like a couple handfuls of nuts.

Going through that process signals to my brain that I’m getting ready to do some focused work and it somehow becomes much easier to switch into a deeply focused state where I lose track of time.

Step Three – Set Higher Production Goals

If I’m setting aside time for this kind of “deep work,” that time has to come from somewhere, right? It’s coming out of a traditional work day for me, where my main goal is to keep up with the terms of my various writing contracts.

In order for me to be able to cut those blocks of time out of my day, they have to be giving me something of value in return. What I’ve found is that those sessions of deep work and learning cause me to be far more efficient when I’m actually doing the writing at my computer.

In fact, I’ve found that my actual output has increased significantly from where I was at before I started this. To take advantage of that, I’ve actually changed my goals for how much work I produce in a given week.

Push yourself to go past your current production level, or to establish something new

Prior to adopting this new “deep work” system, my writing goal for Money360 in a given week was to write all of the articles you read one “emergency” article that I could submit in the case of an emergency. Prior to vacations and so on, I would have to write a lot on weekends and then also tap my “emergency” articles in order to be able to have time with my family without the regular work routine.

After adopting this system, I’m currently using a goal of making two “emergency” articles each week and, most weeks, I’m exceeding that. I’m tempted to bump that goal up to three per week, which essentially means that I could write for two weeks then take a full week off from writing for Money360 if I wanted to burn all of my emergency articles. This might end up being a window to experiment with new endeavors in the future.

I launched this by establishing that new goal of two emergency posts per week (beyond my normal writing) during the very first week of my “deep work” routine. I called upon myself to do more than I was doing before and to use this “deep work” practice to make it happen – and it worked.

When you try out a new routine based around “deep” sessions, try establishing new work goals that are a bit more productive than before.

Learning something new makes you more capable at any job and any task

What about the “learning” part, though? How does that really help with my professional life, especially if that learning isn’t directly related to writing or to the topics I happen to be writing about?

Here’s the thing: the act of “deep” learning encourages a lot of positive things in your brain. It provides exercise for that “learning” muscle, meaning you’ll pick up ideas at other times faster. It also exercises your brain’s capacity for putting ideas together in useful and interesting ways, which again comes up over and over in other aspects of life.

Both of those things actually improve my efficiency at everything I do professionally and even many of the personal tasks I take on during the day. I feel more efficient at solving problems and coming up with solutions for the things that life hands to me.

Final Thoughts

If you’re finding yourself running in place in your professional life, I encourage you to give a daily session of “deep work” a shot. Disconnect from your distractions for an hour or two and try to solve your problems without the browser window or the cell phone to interrupt your focus. Instead, work on your tasks using just analog tools and the power of your mind.

Give it several sessions over several days and see how this change in routine works for you. It might just be the breakthrough you need to become more effective at work and help guide your career to the next big step.

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