Deep Work

Finally I was able to finish a book that I have been wanting to read but did not have the luxury to sit down for a prolonged period of time to finish it due to my field research in Indonesia. Now that it is over, I was finally able to check out this book from Singapore’s NLB in Bishan (for the wonderful collection in NLB I must say that I really LOVE the Singapore government’s commitment to build a knowledge-based economy and making books so accessible).

I have had a glimpse and sneak peek of this book from the TED talk that I watched online- delivered by its author Cal Newport – few weeks ago.

This book is a thicker and richer version of the TED talk. Though it did not have that instant ‘wow’ impact like some other books that I have read, many of the messages within resonate strongly.

I like the central thesis very much. It says that a deep life is a meaningful life and a life well lived.

Deep work – defined as the ability to focus on a cognitively demanding task with sustained and unbroken concentration for a long time – is an important habit to cultivate for anyone aspire to attain a successful and fulfilling life. I am not sure about how successful is defined (it is subjective), but I do very much agree with the importance of a fulfilling life. And many of us want to live fulfilling lives. And I agree with the author that deep work, regardless of one’s discipline or expertise or ambition or inclination, is one of the requisites towards achieving a life with meaning and purpose. With the PhD coming to the writing stage now, this book has a lot of resemblance to my current condition.  

One of the chapters that struck me the most and gave the most insights is the chapter on rule #1 of “Going Deep”. This chapter delineates the different philosophies of deep work scheduling.
1)  The monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling
2) The bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling
3) The rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling
4) The journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling

Monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling is arguably the most radical one – immersing oneself incessantly in deep work mode, and shun all unnecessary distractions which could include email and phones! People who adopt this approach are often unapologetically and dauntingly devoted to their beliefs and cause. Very often this type of deep work philosophy is needed to achieve ground breaking discoveries, or some of the most innovative and creative works that are earth shattering. The caution here is, the monastic style of deep work scheduling can also be an extremely isolating experience. I feel that without strong will and a clear sense of purpose, one could risk being perceived as a deviant by dwelling into this mode of deep work scheduling too soon. But then, who am I to make this judgement? Maybe it cannot be adopted sustainably by most people, but for a handful it can be practiced occasionally. Having been to meditation retreats, I appreciate the monastic lifestyle at times, and experienced first-hand how blissful and quiet one can be in that mode where everything else is shut down.

The second approach – bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling – is more commonly found. It is a mode whereby an individual alternate between deep work and ‘shallow work’, designating some defined stretches for deep pursuits while allowing other blocks of time to be open and flexible. For instance, one may devote four days a week to deep work, and the other three days free and open to all other possibilities. Notable people who adopted this mode is Carl Jung. Retreating to a stone house that he built for himself for serious writing and thinking is a way that Jung deliberately cultivated his deep work habit, in a time when he was toiling and tilling on his ground breaking work. Beyond the deep work life, Jung spent the rest of the time attending to his other professional and personal obligations in Zurich.

The rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling is somewhat similar to a bimodal philosophy, even though I would argue that it is milder, and more accessible to most working adults who have daily chores and routines to attend to. It is very much similar to cultivating a strong sense of discipline to schedule blocks of time within a day for serious deep work, i.e. blocking the first two hours early in the morning for serious research and writing and nothing else, before getting ready for a full day of other works and obligations. The author also shared a case of a busy father having to juggle his work life, personal life and finishing a doctoral degree at the same time. A rhythmic mode of deep work, coupled with a strong sense of determination, enabled this guy to finish his PhD on time, just by committing to a daily block for deep work which is needed in finishing his thesis. (I was very surprised by the fact that when one is in absolutely deep state with minimal interference, finishing one chapter within a week is so possible!)

The journalistic mode of deep work scheduling is also a mode that allows one to switch between deep work and other ‘shallow work’, even though the book argues that it is not easy to cultivate for most people without the ability to just turn on their writer’s mode (for instance) whenever they want to sit down and write. Truth is, most of us, myself included, struggled so much with keeping our mind still, quiet and focus after a full day of colourful activities - most are potentially distracting!

Putting aside all the above serious philosophies, I instead, like what Cal Newport said about adopting a monk mode morning that I found in one of his blog entries. While it is not possible to live the monastic philosophy or even the bimodal philosophy, a rhythmic philosophy of blocking my morning for 2-3 hours of serious deep work – cultivating focused and unbroken attention for deep reading, deep thinking and writing – before attending to many other ‘distractions’ in life, is possible.

There are many other valuable messages that I could not afford to record in this entry. Some other advices given is to enhance our capacity to embrace boredom, and consider quitting social media. While I agree very much with how social media is increasingly becoming more of a distraction rather than a meaningful tool, I am not sure if I am ready to give it up completely at this juncture. I will probably keep this reflection in my future entries.

For now, I find myself truly benefited from this book and here’re some of the messages that I remembered that I could share. If you are curious about whether there’s an alternative to handling an overwhelmingly distracting world with fast moving visuals and overloading information that is futile to increase our well-being most of the time, this is a book for you.


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