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A Guide to Deep Work

I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World when I was having trouble tackling important-but-challenging work (2016 post here). The book illuminated my challenges and helped me understand how to rebuild concentration.

While the ideas in Deep Work are fairly straightforward, it took me years to successfully put them into practice. In this post I will share my notes so you can more easily implement deep work in your life.

What is deep work?

Deep work is basically just focusing on one cognitively demanding task intensely for hours at a time. While it may take more than an hour concentrating exclusively on a single task to achieve real depth, don’t let the ideal be the enemy of good: I’ve found even 20 minutes of single-tasked concentration makes a difference, especially when you’re just starting to build your capacity for focus.

There’s a neurological context for single-tasking: focusing exclusively on one thing for a long time allows for only the relevant neurons to fire together, which leads to improvement of your ability to do whatever it is you’re focusing on.

The more that you succumb to distraction (wait let me just check Slack, maybe I’m needed!), the more you fragment your attention and lose your full capacity for concentration. If you momentarily switch to check Slack (or even worse have those distracting pop-ups), you’ll be thinking about your Slack messages in addition to whatever you’re trying to focus on, which reduces your total available attention.

I know I’m not the only one who has lost my ability to focus on challenging projects. We’re in a distraction epidemic and the culprit is no surprise: constant interruption by a barrage of personal and work chats and emails, plus the ever-present siren’s song of cheap dopamine hits via social media. Unfortunately, all of this distraction is rewiring our brain to be unable to sustain concentration on less dopamine-laced matters, and thus we’re losing our ability to achieve our most important work.

When’s the last time you focused on one thing intently for hours on end? Many of us have lost even the ability to read books for more than a few minutes. Those who can achieve intense focus for hours on end are now few and far between.

This means that those who can focus are more valuable in today’s economy. I’m convinced that in addition to IQ and EQ, there’s FQ—our ability to focus—and that it may be a hiring criteria in the future.

Intense focus allows you to accomplish more in less time, which the economy will rightly reward.

How to cultivate the ability to do deep work

If you feel you would like to cultivate the ability to concentrate deeply, you need to strengthen your ability to block out distractions and sustain the spotlight of your attention on the particular problem at hand.

Train your ability to focus

It’s obvious how to build your biceps, but training focus is far more vague. Here’s some suggestions, but look for opportunities in your own life for playing games with sustaining attention!

  • Read books (in text—audiobooks are great but they’re not going to train your attention in the same way). Start with whatever is fun that you’ll stick with, and work your way up to challenging materials.
  • Practice memorization. Memorization is challenging for your attention. Developing the ability to e.g., memorize a deck of cards will be a great workout for your attention muscle.
  • Do concentration meditation. There’s a variety of concentration meditations, for example counting your breaths. Or you can do ‘productive meditation,’ which is taking a long walk and mulling over a particular problem. Every time your mind wanders, pull it back to the problem.

In addition to supplemental concentration training, use your work and study hours to train concentration. To begin, pick a task, set a timer, and work exclusively on that task. You may need to start with just 10 minutes and work up to longer.

It’s helpful to know that often right before you get into a state of focus, you may have a strong sensation of needing to get up and do anything else, or reach for any distraction. If you’re cognizant of this phenomenon, you can remind yourself that you’re on the path and the sensation is simply a troll yelling “do not go there!” to distract you, the hero, from your rightful quest. Breathe and stick through that sensation for just a bit longer—it will pass!

Just like with beginning to exercise, focusing will be difficult in the beginning. But don’t worry about that, just keep trying. I found that online co-working (e.g., Focusmate) was the most helpful tool when I was first building the ability to concentrate, as I found focusing with someone else to be way easier than focusing alone. We’re social creatures and we can use our proclivity for social cohesion to help overcome our brains’ resistance to focus.

Remove distractions from your life

But it’s not enough to train attention and single-task on our work and studies to the best of our abilities. Sadly, notifications and social media actually rewire our brain and dampen our ability to focus.

Newport makes a compelling argument that we should entirely give up social media unless it gives us true unique and deep value. We might argue that, for example, Instagram enables us to keep up with friends’ lives, but one in-person visit will probably vastly outweigh all the hours we spend hearting and commenting on friends’ photos.

“If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.”

— Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson could argue that Twitter would improve his professional life by enabling him to broadcast his clever thoughts with fans and engage in intellectual debates with other futurists, he refrains from all shiny networks and makes himself nearly unreachable.

Beyond resisting social media, we must build our capacity to be bored. To be able to sit with difficult problems in our minds, our minds must be able to adjust to a state other than hyper-stimulation. Try taking walks without your phone (gasp!) as a way to greet this boredom.

Interestingly, I’ve found that as I’ve shut off notifications and slowly unwound from stimulation from news and social media, a sense of deep time has re-emerged. Life feels less busy and more sacred, and there’s room for me and my thoughts. I wonder how much our “I just feel so busy all the time” is a direct result of our attention constantly being interrupted by our own hands or by algorithms.

Get deep work in

Removing distraction and training concentration will help your mind reach a state of depth. But the other factor in doing deep work is just finding the time for it. Newport proposes different strategies:

  • Monastic, where you, like Stephenson, basically live in deep work mode all the time (swoon).
  • Bimodal, where you e.g., spend every Thursday-Sunday engaged in deep work and the rest of your week attending to meetings and emails, or taking every fall semester to go deep on a project.
  • Rhythmic, where you have a consistent daily schedule, e.g., do deep work from 9-11am. This is the one that probably fits most knowledge workers and may be the easiest strategy to maintain.
  • Journalistic, where you cram deep work in wherever possible. This may be the most challenging for deep work newbs, but could be the best fit for busy parents.

I’m increasingly curious about organizations that set up rules for deep work, such as deep work Wednesdays, or no meetings and responding to messages before noon. I imagine that, just like people, organizations that prioritize deep work will thrive.

You can tally your deep work hours for each week (you manage what you measure). Circling the tick every time you reach a milestone, such as completing an important project, allows you to see how many hours of deep work it takes to get something important done.

Deep work brings satisfaction, flow, and sense of meaning

So far we’ve talked a lot about the external rewards of deep work: you get more valuable work done work faster, and that brings rewards such as better compensation or grades, or achieving milestones in your business that lead to greater revenue.

But what’s equally important are the internal rewards. When I was unable to get my most important work done, I was living a nice life, but inside I was miserable. It felt like there was a potential I deeply wanted to live up to but couldn’t.

I was surprised to learn that there are studies that show that people who are engaged in a state of flow (which basically means a state of sustained concentration on a sufficiently challenging task—not dissimilar to deep work) are happier than those at leisure. I think this says something about the human condition: we want to be in a state of focus, and we feel satisfied pushing the edge of our intellectual capacities.

Beyond deep work

Beyond deep work, there’s the notion of the deep life.

To me, the deep life is about focusing with energetic intention on things that really matter — in work, at home, and in your soul — and not wasting too much attention on things that don’t.

Cal Newport

So in deep work you are using the spotlight of your attention to only focus on the most important task at that moment, in the philosophy of deep life you are using the energy of your life to shine with full strength on what is most important and meaningful to you. I think this is helpful context, as deep work is a technique to be more productive, but we should consider the context in which we’re employing it.

“The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.”

— Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

I’ve been working to integrate the ideas in Deep Work for seven years and the above notes are the insights I’ve received on my journey. I encourage you to read the book as I know you’ll find further insight there.

I wish you the best on your journey to focus and live a deep and fulfilling life. And if you found value in this post, please share it with someone you care about. 💗

favorite posts the truth about life

Things You’re Allowed to Do, That I Would Recommend

Sell everything you own and buy a one-way ticket
Arrive and have a panic attack
Regard this as one of the highlights of your life

Buy a new book, even though you have a stack of unread books
Add the new book to the stack
Admire the stack from afar

Make spreadsheets to critically think through your big life decision
Go with your gut feeling
Eat some chocolate, you deserve it

Take a walking tour of the city. It’s fascinating, everything you didn’t know
Don’t take the walking tour. Let the city remain a mystery
Stay in your hotel room. Browsing the internet in a new city is nice

Walk around with smeared eyeliner. It looked nice in the morning
Admire women who don’t wear makeup
Buy nude lipstick

Buy crypto
Panic sell when the market crashes
Laugh about the silly internet money (that you no longer have)

Become zero waste
Become vegan
Ask for a paper napkin with your grilled cheese. Hey, you’re only human

Resist taking a photo of the pretty sunset. Just be present
Nevermind, take a photo. Living in the moment is on your to-do list
Make the photo your wallpaper to remind your future self to live in the moment

contemplation favorite posts the truth about life

Letter to My Younger Self

Dear Younger Self,

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The bad news

You’re not a special snowflake. You’re not especially pretty, or smart, or talented.

You could take this news in stride, but American society has convinced you that you need to be special, extraordinary. Yet the odds of being extraordinary are slim to none, and the dice have not rolled in your favor. Your ancestors’ gifts to you were merely to ensure survival: a chronic fear of everything, a preoccupation with what others think, and a nagging self-concern that buzzes around your thoughts like a trapped mosquito.

You’re also not brave. You prefer to live in your cozy mental assumptions than interact with the world to discover how it really is. 

For example: 

You decide (without asking) that Jordan from geometry class is not interested in going to a movie with you. In your beauty magazine logic, you decide that he would ask you out, if only you were thinner. So you dedicate most of your waking hours to achieving a thigh gap, never questioning whether this is a worthwhile goal. Your thighs eventually stand apart. He doesn’t ask you out.

But your biggest issue is not that you think the best way to woo someone is through silent starvation. No, here’s the rub: the universe is chaos. It’s immune to your affirmations. It will not rearrange itself to suit your fancy.

Your hard-won thigh gap gives way to entropy.

The good news

It turns out the beauty magazines were mistaken. Millions of years of evolution have ensured some opposite-sex members of your species will be attracted to your fleshy, fertile-looking body. Unlike your female ancestors, your poor judgment about who to mate with won’t haunt you. Your fear of everything, which ensured your ancestors lived to reproduce, now ensures you remember to take your birth control. First your ancestors were freed from hunting and gathering and then farming; now you’ve been freed from church and children.

So while you may not be extraordinary, this world and the time you were born into are. While your ancestors didn’t gift you with remarkable wit or beauty, they did suffer through disease, birth, genocide, poverty, and war to grant you a body so that you may stand, now, on this spinning rock.

Maybe you shouldn’t be so concerned about your thighs.

It turns out society is mistaken, too. You don’t need to be extraordinary. You don’t need to be lauded by thousands to feel loved; you’ll be content with a handful of genuine friendships. Nor do you need fame or fortune to feel fulfilled; just helping one other person will suffice. 

The world is far bigger and weirder than what you’ve seen on TV. Those ideas of better and worse are all made up, and you can author your own. For example: that the pinnacle of beauty is luscious, ample thighs.

And while you may ultimately be average, in the 21st century that entails being extraordinary. You can summon any piece of humanity’s knowledge by typing the right words into a search box. You can sit in a big metal bird and chomp bubblegum while flying over mountain ranges that armies once died trying to pass. There’s so much for you to see and learn and do. 

So please, don’t waste your time worrying that you don’t measure up to some societal ideal. Be glad for the lucky shoes you stand in. Walk those shoes out past your fears, past your self-concern, and right out the front door.

The world awaits, and you’re every bit good enough for it. 


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In Gifs: Breathing Techniques

Try the 4-4-4-4 box breath to foster a calm alertness.

Try the slower 5-5-5-5 breath for a stronger calming effect.

Try the 4-7-8 breath to reduce anxiety and get to sleep faster.

favorite posts ideas motion design

In GIFs: Centralized, Decentralized, and Distributed Systems

favorite posts psychedelics

That time I drank psilocybin tea with strangers from the internet

It started with a lingering sadness. My head was a lead balloon, my arms pinned by sandbag hands.

“I get it now,” I thought, recalling people’s tales of depression weighting them to the bed. Anxiety, my lifelong companion, looked productive by comparison. At least anxiety offered a nervous attentiveness I could use to fuel overwork. This depression seemed to not bear any gifts.

I made a pact with myself. Before losing myself completely to this void, I would fight. I would do everything everyone says to do to beat depression. I would get regular sleep. I would exercise. I would spend time with people instead of closing myself off. I would stop treating sugar and caffeine like major food groups.

And little by little, the depression lifted. But when I read Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, and how psychedelics help the brain find new routes instead of spinning the same faulty circuit, I decided to try it—if only for insurance against the void.

I did a quick Google search for legal psychedelic sessions. One of the first results was for a group psilocybin retreat in the Netherlands, a rare refuge where psilocybin truffles were legal, hosted by the UK Psychedelic Society. I wasn’t keen on tripping balls with a bunch of randos from the internet. I wanted an experience like Pollan had. He found an underground therapist who watched over him, 1:1, as he journeyed. But I was a millennial, too lazy to network and find one of these elusive practitioners. I filled out their short application.

Day one of the retreat arrived. In the first of many group check-ins, they asked how people came to be here. One by one, we recounted our tale. “I read Michael Pollan’s book. Then I searched on Google. Now I’m here,” said two people before me. I repeated the story, my identity as a unique snowflake melting.

According to the facilitator, the groups used to attract people seeking novel experiences. Now, with the changing perception of psychedelics, more and more people arrived in search of healing.

I came hoping to chill out, trip, and bounce, but the facilitators—beautiful bright beings you couldn’t help but like—had other plans. They coaxed us through one group exercise after another. The activities prodded us into dropping our defenses. We gazed into each other’s eyes and traded closely held secrets. Reluctantly, I engaged. There was something healing about being a part of a group of people sharing openly. I became less trapped in my own little story. Maybe I didn’t need psychedelics. Maybe I just needed a dose of humanity, a sense of belonging and sharing the truth of what living feels like.

But all this authentic relating was a bit intense. My mounting anxiety about the trip was slowly being outpaced by a desire to be left alone.

At last, it was time. We settled onto mats and were handed eyeshades and cups of honeyed ginger tea to pour over our shrooms. Almost immediately, swirling shapes appeared over my vision. My heart beat rapidly, a chunk of icy fear growing in my chest. Clinging onto reality, I downed what I perceived to be the minimum dose.

I donned the black silk eyeshades and shut out the room. Closing my eyes, a universe appeared. It was dark, but there existed… something. Swirls of colored smoke entwined around the edges, framing a stage. Scene after scene of never-ending strife unfolded on this stage. Scenes of galactic wars were followed by scenes of factory-farmed animals who never knew anything but a cruel and wretched existence. In one scene I clung to my boyfriend as bombs exploded in our city.

There was no escape. I had been mistaken about life. In the end, this eternity of suffering was all there was.

I was vaguely aware I was tripping, that this kaleidoscope of horrors would end sometime, and that I had the option to never ever do this again. That sounded nice.

The facilitators were there for us in case we should want help navigating troubled waters. They so sincerely wanted to help. But… what could they do to stop all reality from ultimately being endless strife and darkness without redemption? There was no help. I was quite certain that this was all that existed.

Then a thought sprang into my awarenss: “The only good in the world is that which we create.” This sentiment was a spark that pierced the darkness. There was still the darkness, but now also the kindness created by those who care. I saw that there was still time for me to join that group and use my life to make life better for others. Such precious grace! I recommitted my life to altruism.

The golden rays of the setting sun filled the room. We were coming down. The facilitators took us on a walk, which turned out to be less of a walk and more a herding of newborn kittens with stumbling legs and awe-filled eyes.

Overhead, a giant sky was streaked with voluminous spiraling purple-blue clouds so majestic they looked shaped by Zeus himself. Everything looked realer than real, like we had taken the offramp from Flatland. Does the sky usually look like this? How could I not have noticed before?

It was October and the start of fall. The leaves on the ground stretched the gamut of sunset hues. How could the leaves fall so perfectly, with each square foot of ground like a Monet? Again, I wondered how I could have walked this path before without noticing such immaculate beauty.

At the sharing circle that night, I learned that I had one of the more trying experiences of the group. Some people had full-blown mystical experiences—love and light, deep insights, whatever.

I tried to contain my envy.

I wasn’t sure what my trip taught me. Ok, I should be a better person and use my life to improve others’. But it still seemed horrible and dark. It seemed clearer what the retreat taught me: how to be. I realized I spent my life rushing out of the inadequate present to some perfect future that… probably didn’t exist.

The retreat was all about taking time to be. At a group activity, I would think: “Okay, this must be the end of this activity.” No. “Now this must be the end.” No. “Now this must be the end.” Nope. With nothing else to do, I started leaning into the moment instead of rushing to the next.

Centered in the moment, I breathed deeply, feeling through my emotions. To my surprise, I discovered a whole store of very old emotions stuck waiting to be felt. I breathed into the emotions of myself as an alarmed infant, screaming alone. Maybe in my never-ending rush for accomplishment and self-acceptance, I had never learned to just be a human, breathing and feeling. Now I sat breathing in the moment as it was, with all its wants and faults and hurts.

I realized my anxiety was nothing more than a mounting queue of unfelt emotions, and that if I took the time I could breathe through the debt of feeling, like patiently combing through tangled knots of hair.

There were too many aspects of my life that changed around this time to objectively tell what effect the retreat had on me. But depression, my original motivation for the trip, didn’t visit me again.

A year later, as I once more waded through autumn leaves, I realized what that trip had been about: it was all of my fears about the world. All of my fears were offered to me so I could confront and integrate them. From that perspective, the trip looked less like a nightmare and more like a very kind offering. Maybe the world wasn’t so dark after all.

Many thanks to the UK Psychedelic Society for facilitating the retreat. While these retreats may not be right for everyone, I felt the retreat helped me become more emotionally integrated and more capable of contributing positively towards society.