Hacking Deep Work with Project Step Labels


Hacking Depth

The equation is simple: the more deep work you do the more new value you create. And creating value, of course, is the key to a remarkable life.

Acting on this equation, however, can be surprisingly difficult.

Here’s a simple hack (that came out of my recent anti-planning stretch) that has helped me rack up more deep work toward my computer science research: I append my list of active projects with a code indicating the next step I’m trying to reach (see the left column in the image above).

Having this extra column greatly simplifies my transition into a deep work mode, as my goal for these sessions is now simple: try to advance to the next steps on these projects.

This hack also works, in part, because specificity is crucial for deep work (your mind needs a crystal clear target before it will marshal the resources needed to go deep). It also works because the simple positive feedback (updating my board every time I move to the next step of a project) taps into our brain’s habit circuitry (c.f., Duhigg).

When it comes to deep work, there’s no magic bullet that will make it effortless. This work is hard. But hacks of this type can help keep these efforts from sliding toward impossible.

13 thoughts on “Hacking Deep Work with Project Step Labels”

  1. I’m with John. This post feels like an introduction paragraph. What purpose do the codes serve? What’s an example of them in use? How can I apply them to my own productivity process?

    You’ve whet my appetite, and I want the meal! Please finish this idea so we can look at how this gets applied.

  2. Cal,
    I recommend reading the The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Although it looks intimidating, it actually contains a lot of very important and useful things. I found it at my college’s law library. It’s an amazing book, trust me. Just skip what you don’t want to read.

  3. I can’t help but feel that in the deliberate practice point of view, undergraduate college is a waste of time. The whole undergraduate college education system (along with elementary, middle and high school) is totally off if you look at it from the perspective of deep work and deliberate practice.

  4. As John noted, I am not sure I understand your hack without more context or specific examples. Can you explain the codes or provide an example? It sounds interesting but I don’t yet understand how this is different from a traditional project plan.

  5. The codes are specific to writing theoretical computer science papers. They are defined as follows:

    PS = problem statement (i.e., clear statement of problem and model, the results we’re seeking, how they compare to related work, and some sense that they would be important). <--- this is a key step that I too often used to skip to dive into the next, but it provides a strong foundation of motivation if done right, so I treat it, now, with more respect. R = results W = write-up

  6. Thanks, Cal. It helps to know what the abbreviations mean so we can see what level of granularity you find useful.

  7. Cal,

    This kind of sounds similar to what I’ve been doing when establishing goals/tasks for myself and others, learning from some management books I’ve been reading. Basically re-wording the task so instead of stating the problem it, instead, states the desired outcome/result (i.e. “website is missing some graphics” to “add graphic x,y,z to website.”) In a lot of ways it’s just a mind trick, but it helps you focus better and ensures you make tangible progress rather than fill time with work for work’s sake.

  8. Cal,

    Do you find that denoting the an aspect of a project such as a “problem statement” is really specific enough to help you to home in on focusing deeply on that task?

    More importantly, when you are truly working deeply, how do you incorporate outcomes into your preparation so as to work deliberately?


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