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The Joys and Sorrows of Deep Work

October 23rd, 2012 · 28 comments

An Autumn Adventure

To help increase the attention I dedicate to literature-driven research projects, I’ve spent the last couple weeks immersing myself in a new area of my field. Today, for example, I thought the warm weather called for some adventure work. As shown above, I took some papers, a notebook, and my dog into the woods to grapple with some of these new ideas.

Here’s the thing: this type of immersion can be frustrating.

I spent hours today doing intellectual battle with a set of formalisms that still largely confuse me. In the long run, I know this type of battle is crucial (past experience has shown that even just a few dozen hours of such grappling can lay the foundation for multiple publications). But in the short run, it leaves me feeling like I accomplished nothing concrete with my day. (An unfortunate corollary of intellectual immersion is that it doesn’t work if you take time off to answer e-mails or do laundry — ensuring your to-do list remains untouched.)

So here we face a paradox. The very type of deep work that provides the nutriment for remarkable results also defies all our instincts for how a productive day should feel. I don’t have a specific set of strategies to suggest here. Instead, I just want to point out that when it comes to our understanding of how to build towards something important in our working life, there is a lot that our current conversation about work — which focuses on themes like courage, passion and productivity — seems to be missing.

28 thoughts on “The Joys and Sorrows of Deep Work

  1. Joshua Smith says:

    Have you considered treating yourself to a nice single malt as a reward?

  2. Study Hacks says:
    Have you considered treating yourself to a nice single malt as a reward?

    This is my new productivity hack: for every hour spent immerse in deep work, add 5 years to the scotch you drink in your leather chair at the end of the day.

  3. Evan Sendra says:

    You point out a big fallacy about “productivity” that I have pondered before. We should slice this word in half. Suppose there exist trivially productive and significantly productive tasks in a person’s day. The trivially productive might be attending meetings, sending e-mails, and things of the like; the significantly productive tasks might be developing a new marketing strategy, improving an algorithm to run in less time than its predecessor, or piecing together a logically-flawless argument in a paper.

    While the trivially productive tasks are easily accomplished and perhaps necessary, they are trivial. I believe the trick is to set aside time to do strictly significantly productive tasks (with absolutely no distractions from the trivial tasks, like your trip into the woods).

    If people, schools, and companies recognized these vastly different types of productivity, they could account for them by, say, increasing the amount of time spent on ONLY significantly productive tasks (i.e. no trivial tasks allowed), and devoting other time to just the trivial tasks of the day. By no means does every task require intense immersion, but the tasks that do require intense immersion should not be mixed with trivial tasks.

  4. Great post. I was just thinking about how I felt after doing research some days and your post was worded perfectly. There are days where I feel like I get no where concrete with my research but down the road I’m able to draw from it and better understand some situations.

    Keep up the great work

  5. Rebecca says:

    Actually I don’t find this at all surprising. I think it is the nature of the work. Many jobs involve a lot of small tasks strung together; things that can be broken up like a project manager might break them up. But creative innovation requires a firm foundation on which to build. When a programmer starts working on a new piece of software, they generally already have the background they need to build it. But when an academic starts working on a new idea they are creating a new path, and therefore need that new background to make something innovative.

    I guess what I’m thinking is that most workers, even knowledge workers, have the base they already need in order to break down the work into small, manageable chunks. But the nature of certain types of jobs, such as academics, is that we shouldn’t HAVE all that base knowledge when we start. If we do, we are just treading old ground. It is the process of adding the new knowledge that allows us to come up with something unique.

    The deep work you are talking about is somewhat unlike the deep work that is done in most jobs because it involves a great deal of learning of new material. That invariably takes time, effort, and is more difficult to quantify into an easy-to-check-off list.

  6. Bobby says:

    How would you suggest “deep work” or “deliberate practice” for the Computer Science field? I read your book and you seem UNIQUELY qualified to answer this! I’m teaching myself programming, specifically iOS development and it would be great if you had any suggestions on how to shorten this learning curve. My goal is to be able to create iPhone apps and eventually my own video game (not just on iOS but on computers or Xbox live arcade). Thanks!

  7. Reid Wilson says:

    Cal,
    Really enjoying the blog. Email, task lists, & time oriented (8 hours) work tarnish our picture of a productive day. The fallacy that lies in the above list inhibits our ability to discover the deep meaningful work where we create. Keep getting outside. When I fly fish, I carry a notebook. Sometimes ideas flow.
    Also, just wanted to pay you this compliment: So Good… is a great book. I am just diving in and instantly enjoying.
    -Reid

  8. Jones says:

    Yes. I’m a graduate student, and I’ve had this experience a lot. The ultimate thing is that there’s a divergence between what feels like work, or what we’re supposed to imagine as work, and what is actually work. But there is a moral capacity involved here – the ability to persist in the face of enormous, long-term frustration.

  9. Piyush says:

    Hi Cal,
    Specific question. When “thinking hard”, I tend to look at the problem from different angles. Visualize, check for solutions in various domains, check why the problem can’t be solved with simpler methods etc. But soon, I become overwhelmed with the chain of thought and keeping track of those. Writing them down impedes the free association for me.
    Have you faced similar issues? How did you overcome it?

    Thanks a lot.

  10. Sara Martin says:

    I like to think of immersion as making space. Innovation and creative expression take up room in our brains (hearts, spirits, etc.), and if there’s no space available, they continue to elude us. It doesn’t feel quite the same as traditional productivity, but making space — blocking out the distractions of your inbox and to-do list — is a key ingredient to forward momentum. Great post!

  11. Study Hacks says:
    While the trivially productive tasks are easily accomplished and perhaps necessary, they are trivial

    You’re on to something interesting here. If a task is something that basically any reasonably educated person could pull off, then you’re not leveraging what makes you valuable, and therefore should be treated with great suspicion.

    How would you suggest “deep work” or “deliberate practice” for the Computer Science field?

    I see deep work as strictly more general than deliberate practice. If you’re focusing on a learning type activity, then deep work should essentially be deliberate practice, but if you’re focusing on a productive type activity — i.e., writing code in a language you know well — it’s about extracting the best possible result out of your current capabilities.

    In terms of how to foster more of this work in a field like computer science…I’m working on this idea (though I give some hints in SO GOOD).

  12. DR says:

    For me, I don’t have a problem making a “deep work” day feel as productive as a “trivial” work day. However, what nags at me is the concern that the deep work won’t actually lead to anything. What if you continue to read and master the new subfield, but can’t seem to come up with new, compelling research to do, within a reasonable time frame? That hasn’t happened to me yet, but whenever I undertake new challenges like this, the uncertainty about the outcome (and possible time wasted) causes me a bit of stress.

    Have you had any doubts about whether you are wasting your time?

    By the way, I came across this blog about a month ago, and I love it. I’ve been slowing going through your old posts. Thanks.

  13. Bobby says:

    Thanks for the response regarding computer science. In this 2 minute video interviewing Richard Stallman (GNU creator) he talks about the same kinds of things you do, namely that you have to work on real, difficult, messy projects instead of simple, clean academic projects. Let me know if you have any other good pointers!
    http://youtu.be/qN7u1j44QTo

  14. Nick says:

    Let me know if you have any other good pointers!

    In regards to Computer Science and deliberate practice (and this applies to other fields as well)… I’ve noticed an odd pattern:

    The times I learn the most, and make the greatest strides forward not only in building my skill-set, but also in building my overall understanding, confidence and determination in that field…

    …are the times when I’m responsible for a project of massive importance with a hard deadline that is way over my skill level. It’s stressful, and crazy, and in the middle you think to yourself: “Why do I let these things happen to me!!”

    During those times I’m FORCED to quickly identify the key problems in myself or in the project that if solved will yield the greatest improvements. And I’m forced to do deliberate practice close to 100% of the time on that project.

    So the closer you can approximate this environment, the faster you will get to wherever you want to go. Maybe you go out and build an app for a client – or you work with an app developer and are forced to ship hard apps. Or maybe you build a bunch of really small apps and SHIP EVERY SINGLE ONE to the app store… you do whatever it takes to get yourself in that space where you have 2 options: Build your skill-set and Get Better, or Go Home.

  15. Nick says:

    So the closer you can approximate this environment, the faster you will get to wherever you want to go.

    And I don’t mean go out and try to build Half-Life 3 from the first try. You want something that’s a couple feet or yards over your head, not miles over your head.

  16. Reid says:

    “How would you suggest “deep work” or “deliberate practice” for the Computer Science field?”
    -the hints in So Good are motivating me to develop this skill. I am a biologist, advisor, and coach. However, I am enjoying the thinking and learning with Computer Science. With my entry level knowledge on Comp. Sci, I would suggest that deep work in this field I have already experienced is similar to my study of Spanish. Rather than just trying to produce immediate results in communication, I desire to create neural patterns that understand the conjugations and flow of the language. I have felt the urge in comp sci to get immediate “cool” results, but the discipline to feel understanding has taken over (and led to a new passion for a skill).
    -Reid

  17. Amy says:

    It was easy to write when I was abroad, away from everything. Reading in a.m., writing up the notes from that, then reading at night, planning the next day. I think finding your way into the protected, productive space is a task in and of itself. Yesterday I planned a work day. One errand I had to do while I was in town, turned into a second errand I could conveniently run, then sat in a cafe, and oh, I need to vote, don’t I, researched all the ballot propositions, finished that, sent a few emails, looks like the validated parking is running out, so, leave, realize I need to meet up with family in two hours, so the day is shot for thinking, so I sat down in another cafe and did 1.5 hours of a project that needed to be turned into my department. So even on a full free day, the little things creeped in. I feel this is my main problem ~ my own failure to do “strategic time blocking” (phrase from a book called The Mnk Who Sold His Ferrari). Though I did outline the beginning of the article I intended to work on while on my yoga mat in the morning, and have been carrying that slip of paper around for 24 hours. I think it’s just really challenging in this day and age.

  18. Reshmi says:

    Hi Cal,
    Loved your talk in Google Talks!

  19. Bobby says:

    Thanks for the comp sci advice guys.

    @Nick I think I will just try to put more apps out there to get some stuff going, but I’m still waiting on Apple to approve my first!

    @Reid How would you suggest understanding the flow for comp sci? I minored in Spanish so I understand how it applies to learning that kind of language, namely hearing it and interacting with it, but how are you doing that with programming?

  20. Reid Wilson says:

    @Bobby
    I am speaking with light experience in the Computer Science field. However, through a passion to always be digging deep into learning I have a thought for you. For my learning, Spanish flow is relating to programming with my progressive learning in web development. I am starting with the HTML basics and moving to CSS. I want to fully understand the functions. Similarly, I want to fully understand verb conjugation. I want to get in and out of tenses. No shortcuts. Though, the flow can be elusive in any subject matter. However, when you commit to deep understanding, your brain becomes engaged with the skills necessary to obtain understanding. This puts you into a rhythm as you begin to lose track of time and enjoy the learning flow. Think about “the zone” great athletes achieve. Jordan for 50pts. Sunday Tiger comebacks prior 2009. Bobby, please reach out. My email is on my website. I would like to try to elaborate a bit more and also ask you about your apps. I just build one myself and have some great authors on my website.

  21. Reid says:

    Cal,

    a p.s. here-I dipped into how to be straight A student yesterday and almost done. Can’t put it down. Testing the schedule trick with my work now. It’s working on day 1 and I will persist. I will be using this to help my Student Life employees and create some activities based on the content. Thanks for another great one (sorry I didn’t discover it when I was in college, but I will utilize the concepts next year at grad school)

    Appreciative of your creation,

    Reid

  22. Dubs says:

    Cal,

    Thanks for the post. I recently presented the traditional literature presentation at group meeting (5th year grad student). I have a reputation of giving solid presentations, but last I gave a poor performance. The topic I choose was very different from what my group and I would be considered an expert on. As a result, I was uncomfortable with the material and spent more time trying to learn the material than preparing slides so it was also an ugly .pptx file.

    Obviously, I was disappointed and frustrated, but I found your post to be inspiring. In retrospect, I learned more from this making this presentation than my previous ones. Additionally, despite the poor group meeting, I feel that after a few more nights studying I could really be comfortable with the material so much so that I could be a competitive post doc in the area.

  23. Carolyn says:

    Hmm, this post perfectly captures the kind of ‘working’ day I had today. PS – After 1+ years of closely following Study Hacks online, I decided it’s time to start supporting your written works too. I look forward to reading my newly purchased copy of your book!

  24. Seraphim Larsen says:

    I seem to be getting into a routine where I focus deeply for a few days, then come up to breath and work through my list of odds and ends.

    Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow helps with this – I can block out whole days for deeper work, while still capturing the other stuff all in one place. http://markforster.squarespace.com/do-it-tomorrow/

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