My name is Devi, and 2019 is My Year of Deep Work.
I’m typing this on a laptop with a piece of chocolate in my mouth, in bed and my iPhone within reach. Surely I’m not the only one here who feels chronically distracted? I started reading Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work a few weeks ago, and it is slowly shifting my thinking, and I hope, my way of living. This is a long blog post, chatty in parts, ranty in others, and I end it with a 21 Day Deep Work Challenge starting March 11 for all of us. I hope you’ll get to the end because that is the good part.
Newport defines deep work as:
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.
Cal Newport, Deep Work, page 3
But there was one thing that nagged me as I read inspiring example after inspiring example of people who worked deeply.
Newport’s examples of people who “do” Deep Work are almost all men. (I give you my scientific post it note annotation method – the red ones are anecdotes about women, the white ones are male examples. It’s worth mentioning that two out of the five anecdotes featuring women are negative.)
The book opens with famed psychiatrist Carl Jung going off to his retreat place for weekends of uninterrupted work. There’s an MIT genius who stares at a whiteboard covered with math problems for hours just to think about the problems (YES! Hours! Math problems!). And Cal Newport himself, who is tenured at Georgetown University, has published multiple books but finishes work at 5:30pm, plays with his kids and even gets to read real books in the evening. But I have questions, namely:
GUYS, WHO DOES YOUR DAMN LAUNDRY?!?!
My guesses — a wife, a mom or a housekeeper (and if it’s a girlfriend, girl, time to find a new boyfriend). Newport’s book is excellent, but it is saturated with the privilege of wealth, education and gender, a kind of “I just do what I want to do when I want to do it” attitude.
I don’t know many women – or men– who live in this universe. Most women I know, regardless of their status are expected to do multiple things at once. At work they juggle calendars, reports and emails. At home they juggle teething babies, diaper changes and school drop offs.
Newport doesn’t say it is easy to focus on deep work. He makes the case time and time again that it is a cultural majority that are distracted, male and female, wealthy and not wealthy, educated and not educated. But he never gives space for the non-digital reasons why people may be distracted. He is glaringly ignorant of groceries and laundry and pets and income and KIDS who GET SICK and HAVE BEDTIMES.
I had to flag this while reading because right now for me I have only one stretch of time where uninterrupted work is possible, 9am-2pm. And that’s without ever doing groceries, laundry, and cooking. In the first six years with kids, I didn’t have a stretch of more than an hour or two. If you’re a woman with children to care for, however equal your arrangement is with your partner, productivity has always looked different for us.
I read Cal Newport’s book with two thoughts in my mind. Where are the women? And how different would my work be if I worked in the way these men in his book worked? How different would my life be?
I’m a writer, I want to create longer form pieces of work, and I want to publish those essays and books. I know that many of you long to have stretches of time for your work – research and writing, painting, building a business, preparing material for the subjects you teach, design projects, and so many other fields of work. Because here is the important part:
I’m convinced now that deep work is the secret to lasting, meaningful work.
Newport talks about Deep Work as it relates to the professional world and as it relates to pushing yourself mentally in what and how you think about it. To bring your brain to the point of mental strain and push past it. I realize that for many of us, this world of mental work is simply not our world, and that is fine. But I wondered what would happen if we set aside the time daily to build a Deep Work Habit regardless. This time would be as distraction free as possible, and we work on the one thing.
I wonder what your ability to focus is like. Maybe you work full time, one tab of your browser is a report you need to write, and on another is your email. Your report takes you five hours to work on, interrupted many times during a morning by emails. Maybe you’re in management, and you have to figure out ways to get your work done in between meetings and phone calls. Maybe you’re a writer who needs longer chunks of time to write complicated articles but have to maintain a presence on social media as well.
Or you’re a woman with small kids, at home or not, and you just want a sliver of time to breathe without a snotty nose to wipe. You just want a second to think about what you might want to do that doesn’t involve meeting someone else’s needs.
I have a hypothesis – women are expected to multitask at work and are rewarded for doing so. But maybe we are the ones who aren’t benefiting from what we’ve developed as a “skill.” Whether or you’re a finance manager replying emails while working on a presentation or a stay-at-home-mother trying to finish family laundry, maybe all of us would benefit from learning to deepen our ability to focus on something.
So here’s the 21-Day Deep Work Challenge. I wanted to do it for myself, and then I thought – maybe you want to join, too?
Pick your deep work, mine is writing fiction
21 Days starting March 11
Set aside 30 minutes minimum to do the thing, push yourself to 60 minutes if you can
No phone. No people. (Mums, we are going to talk about what to do with the kids, I promise.) If you’re working on a computer, close everything but the thing you are working on. GOODBYE FACEBOOK AND EMAIL.
Set a timer.
Do your work.
Use the time for whatever deep work you need to do – only you will know what this will be for you. Daily report writing, reading, writing, painting, sewing, gardening, analyzing statistics, reading your Bible, wrestling with theology. What doesn’t matter, but the depth and single-mindedness of your attention does matter.
I’ll be writing the following posts here in the coming days and weeks:
Social Media in a Deep World Universe
Make Your Own Village
A new way of seeing shallow work
Why Deep Work isn’t everything
I’ll also be posting on Instagram and Facebook daily during the 21 days – feel free to join in there or ignore all together if it doesn’t help you work deeply. It’s not my desire to make this some big social media thing because our goal here is focus, and social media can be a distraction.
But sometimes it feels good to be part of a community, cheering each other on, and if you would like to do that, please use the hashtag #mydeepwork.
Now tell me: What do you think? Are you joining the Deep Work Challenge? I so hope you will – let me know in the comments or via email what you’ll be doing.