Going Deep

Going Deep

Consider me a convert. After listening to Ezra Klein’s interview with Cal Newport, author of the popular Study Hacks blog, I read Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The book is not written specifically for academics, but I haven’t read anything better about how to be one.

“Deep work” is cognitively demanding work requiring intense concentration. It is the sort of work that academics get paid to do, yet often find hard to accomplish because of the myriad other demands of the job. As with anybody who has been an academic for awhile, I have developed my own methods of going deep—parking myself where others can’t find me, leaving email to the margins of the day, that sort of thing. By and large, they have worked. Reading Newport’s book however, I realize that I could have been doing more deep work, and in less time.

I lived in central Europe for three years before moving to Berkeley for graduate school. When I left Budapest, I shipped 23 boxes of books back to the States. (Of these, nineteen ultimately arrived. Somebody in the Hungarian postal system has my annotated copy of The Wealth of Nations.) I read a lot during those three years, even as I worked often long hours at an NGO in Prague and in a research position at CEU.

The secret, I now understand, is that I quit work for the day when I left the office. I didn’t have my own computer, so there was no way to answer email (such as it was in 1997), clean data, revise a paper draft, or do anything else directly work-related from home. More often than not, I just picked up a book.

All of that changed when I got to graduate school; I have never since had a “normal” work schedule. I don’t bring work home so much as I never leave it. Through the miracle of Dropbox, my home machine looks exactly like my office one; my smartphone provides a portal to my job wherever I am. And so I work, even when I am not at work.

This is crazy, says Newport. If you bust ass during the day, if you close the door when you need to concentrate, if you minimize non-essential tasks—if you do all of that, there is no reason you cannot log off at 5 pm and go home. And before you say, that would never work in my job, please note that Newport is a (successful) computer scientist at Georgetown.

The social science behind Newport’s advice is straightforward: hard budget constraints promote efficiency. If you know that the workday ends at 5 pm, then you make the most of the hours that you have. And because you are not burning the midnight oil, you have the energy to work at a high level of intensity when you are “on.” Paradoxically, it may be easier to maximize hours of deep work when there are fewer hours in the workday.

The hard part, of course, is credibly committing to keeping the laptop closed after dinner and story time. But in my first week adhering to this schedule, it hasn’t been quite as hard as I expected. Reading more regularly means that I want to get back to the book I left on the bedside table the night before. At the same time, I know that if I take the evening off, I will wake up in the morning eager to get back to the deep work that I left at the office.

The Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away. The ability to transmit data to anyone, anywhere, at zero marginal cost has created unparalleled opportunities

for collaboration. Dropbox, Skype, Slack, ShareLaTeX—complex research projects with multiple investigators were far more challenging before we had such tools.

But the same revolution in communication has given us Twitter, Facebook, and continuously updated news sites. I have heard that submissions to political science journals are down since the November election. If true, this is testament to the ability of the Internet to distract us from productive activity. Speaking personally, I have found it especially hard to ignore Twitter on big news days—and lately, it seems like every day is a big news day.

Yes, following politics is part of the job description for a political scientist. But it is a slippery slope, and I know that I have slipped. The only time my job requires that I have up-to-the minute information is when I am doing media or a public event—and I don’t do a lot of either. The rest of the time, the firehose part of the Internet is a distraction. And so, I have decided to adopt Newport’s recommendation to remove the Twitter and Facebook apps from all of my devices. I still have the accounts, but to access them I need to log in from my web browser. That’s a speed bump just large enough to discourage frequent use of social media.

(Yes, I appreciate the irony that any readers of this post who follow my lead will be less likely to learn of future posts through Facebook or Twitter.)

The previous two recommendations help to ensure a productive workday free of distractions. But that workday can still be spent on “shallow” rather than deep work. To guarantee that it does not, I have implemented a version of Newport’s practice of keeping track of the number of hours devoted to deep work. On my watch, I now have a simple clicker app, which I advance by one every time I log 30 minutes of deep work. At the end of the week, I record the total and reset the clicker. Human psychology should encourage me to try to beat last week’s mark, creating a powerful incentive to maximize the time available for deep work.

Enforcing a hard end to the workday, quasi-disconnecting from social media, keeping a tally of hours engaged in cognitively demanding effort—taken together, these represent a fairly sharp departure from how I had previously organized my day. I’ll see how it goes and report back. In the meantime, what works for you? Have you read Cal Newport’s book? How do you avoid distraction and go deep?