In November 2017 I started washing my face. Ok I had always possessed a bottle of Neutrogena cleanser and moisturizer, but I found out that there’s a difference between a retinoid and retinol, and I paid attention to words like hyaluronic acid and vitamin C, not the kind you chew.

I started small with a bottle of toner and a pack of round cotton pads, then I added serums and acids. After a few months, I realized I stuck to a routine in the morning and evening. There were many things I did not do – wake up early, go to bed early, clean the kitchen before sleep, reading before bed, and on and on – but  every morning before I left the house I washed my face, and before I went to sleep I did it all over again plus a retinoid.

There was this small voice inside of me saying, You did it, you stuck to a routine. (The voice did not sound like Rachel Hollis’ just in case you think this post is about her or her book – it is not.) That was almost a year-and-a-half ago, but it was the first domino. The first habit that started the rest of them.

I’m no habit guru, and this blog isn’t a productivity blog. But I think you are a person in a middle space of life, navigating transitions and tensions, looking for stories of hope. And that’s where this story about finding helpful routines fits in my own life and hopefully yours.

Would you think I’m crazy if I told you that my life has more clarity and discipline in it because I started washing my face?

Well, it does.

And I think it could for you, too. Your small change may not be washing your face – it could be a slight adjustment in what you drink or eat, it could be a shopping habit, practicing piano, an evening walk, new ability to focus because of the Deep Work Challenge, meal planning, not checking work emails at home. Perhaps it could be something equally small, an “insignificant” part of your daily life like washing your face, but small changes have profound impacts.

The easiest routines I’ve built into my life in the past year-and-a-half somehow all tagged on to the face washing.

A year after I started washing my face with new dedication, I went back to one of my neglected journals. I call it a prayer journal, a place where I put the week’s worries and doubts. I started writing a gratitude list next to my weekly list of anxieties, and I did it every night before I went to sleep (it’s a similar practice to the Daily Examen).  I washed my face, and whatever time I went to sleep at night, I pulled the journal out and made a list of what I was grateful for in the day. Soon I started going to bed earlier. Not because I thought I should but because I wanted to. In February I started turning my phone off at 8pm, changing into pyjamas, washing my face, reading a book in bed, and writing my gratitude list. Now I’m offline an hour before I go to bed, a practice I’ve desired for years.

I feel peaceful when I go to sleep, I feel well when I wake up in the morning. You may read this and think it sounds ridiculous, but we all get to set the boundaries around what our lives look like. What would it look like for you to spend your time with intention in the evenings and mornings?

Don’t waste your time wondering why your life isn’t the way you want it to be.  You get to decide what works for you – you get to set the boundaries around the final hours of your day so that you end up with an evening that will work for you and the people in your life. Yes, you may have to negotiate with a spouse, kids or friends, but please do it.

(My Deep Work tools, I set them out every night on the kitchen counter and use them first thing when I get up to write in the morning.)

I’m on day four of the 21-Day Deep Work Challenge now, and there’s one thing I needed to make this work: Basic routines. Have you been joining the challenge? How has it been for you?

Whenever we want to make a change in our life – however big or small – there are supporting actions around it that need to adjust or change as well. When I started washing my face, it was not just about buying a product to use. It was also about making the time at both ends of my day to wash my face. I had to get up a smidgen earlier to make school drop offs work and use vitamin c on my face. It was a tiny adjustment because I only added one piece at a time, but those tiny adjustments one at a time took me in a new direction.

Here are a few questions to think about as you go about making Deep Work a lifestyle for you:

Where does Deep Work fit in your daily life? 

What needs to get moved around to make Deep Work happen?

Who do you need to talk to about helping you make this happen? 

Where do you need to take on more responsibility to free your time for Deep Work?

Where do you need to let go of responsibilities to free your time for Deep Work?

What is your face washing habit (the small thing you can do daily that may become an anchor point for future habits)? 

Now it’s your turn: How’s your Deep Work practice going? Are you encountering resistance? What helpful routines could you add to your life to help you stick to your deep work plans or just life plans in general? 

So you’re in. You want to try Deep Work out for yourself, March 11 is almost here, and now what? How do you get ready? How do you know you’ll be able to do this? This post is a practical one, full of ideas and tips. Read on, Deep Worker. We are only beginning this journey – treasures await.

What work should I pick?

Choose something you want to do. It’s going to be very, very hard to do something undistracted for 21 days if it is the kind of thing you don’t want to be doing anyway.

Choose something that has the possibility to create mental strain, meaning something that is slightly harder than what you’re used to. Here are a few examples:

Crafting (knitting, crocheting, sewing) – pick a pattern or a stitch you don’t already know or one that is slightly harder than what you’re already about to do

Practicing an instrument – pick pieces of music that’s at a higher level

Reading or Bible study – choose books (novels, poetry, non fiction, studies) that are harder for you to understand

Work-related projects – pick a complex one, maybe something that’s had you stumped for a while

Design – learn a harder software or technique, you know your ability, work to express your ideas in a better way from before

Art/painting/drawing – try a new technique for 21 days, pick a style you typically struggle with

Photography – find an area of it where you need to grow, do you need to get better at using light? Or a particular editing software? Do your compositions need work? Where do you need to grow as a photographer? Make your deep work pushing into that space.

Teaching – study a new teaching style, one you don’t already know. Develop a new set of lesson plans. Read in your area of study, but harder reading that what you normally do.

What is deliberate practice and why is it important?

In Deep Work one of the things Cal Newport says is, “to learn requires intense concentration…to master a cognitively demanding task requires this specific form of practice – there are few exceptions made for natural talent” (p34-35).

Newport also references the work of neuroscientists on page 36-37:

These scientists increasingly believe the answer includes myelin-a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits-effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this ist he only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.

from “Deep Work

You and I need deliberate practice in our life to master anythingAnything. This is how you learned how to ride a bike, this is how you learned how to write. Myelination. So wouldn’t it be great to get better at something we want to get better at?

How do I do this in a formal workplace? 

I’m assuming this means your Deep Work is related to your work (please don’t use work time to work on a personal project for this challenge).

Look at your schedule – where can you block out 30 minutes to an hour a day in the same place? Can you book a solo meeting room if you’re in an open plan office? Can you wake up earlier in the day and get to work before anyone else is there? Talk to your boss – explain that you want to try distraction-free work daily to see if it will impact your productivity. My guess is they will be all for it. Train yourself to keep work email, work chat or anything else that pings turned off while you do your work. And no Facebook.

Why do I need to achieve anything at all? I’m happy with my life. 

The 21 Day Deep Work Challenge is not about achievements. This is about training your mind to think without distractions, it is about changing our day-to-day operations from multi-tasking toward a deeper, focused way of living. For some of you, there could be a tangible achievement at the end of it – for me I’m hoping that this will lead to long-form writing that will one day be published. But you may spend the next 21 days reading daily – the achievement isn’t in how many books you read. It’s in the treasures you will find from reading without thinking about anything else, it will be the exercise of allowing your mind to engage with harder topics. Our brains are meant to be stretched past the point of mental strain. If we achieve something as a result, that’s great, but it’s more about giving our minds a chance to do what they were created to do.

But Devi, I’m already a deep worker. 

Good for you (and please leave comments about how you do it, we want to learn from you). But can you stretch your deep work time? Instead of 30 minutes, can you work with no distractions for one hour or two? Cal Newport says that more than four hours is a waste of brain space, so don’t push yourself past that. You can make this challenge whatever time limit would be a challenge for you – you do not have to stick to 30 minutes a day.

I’ve got small kids at home with me, I can’t do this. 

I wrote a post just for you – head over here to read about why Moms of littles should do this and how you can.

I can’t live without my phone. 

What are you worried about? Identify that and you’ll know how to proceed. I know that the kids’ school has my hubby’s contact information, so they will call him if they can’t reach me about one of our kids. They also have two other (trusted) emergency contacts. Try going without your phone for 30 minutes several days in a row, I promise, you will be ok.

How do I know I can discipline myself to do this? 

You don’t know, but the rewards of doing something you thought you couldn’t are enormousFor me distraction number one is my phone, so I’ve started leaving in the car when I come in to do my work. I go get it when I’m done or if I need it for something. I’ve learned to stop clicking to different browsers when I’m on my laptop. When I struggled to even do that, I close the laptop and write by hand. I’ve turned off the wifi in our house. I’ve gone somewhere with no wifi to work. You know what your distractions are – find ways to eliminate them slowly.

Your brain can learn new tricks, you can acquire new habits. You are stronger than you realize. You can do this.

Also, a quick reminder, this is 30 minutes. Allow yourself to be distracted the rest of the time. See which one you prefer (wink).

Can I do this for longer than 30 minutes? 

Absolutely. The recommended time is one hour to 90 minutes and no more than four hours.

Now it’s your turn: What other questions do you have? Please put them in the comments – I’d love to hear them. 

Nearly six years ago, there was a boy and a rock that said, “You did it.” He was my then-two-year-old. We moved to Sweden early August 2013 with him and his baby brother, and it was a flurry of delightful, stressful activity. Driving on unfamiliar streets on the right side of the road, navigating new supermarkets, getting used to life with two children and the demands of a baby, the list of things I felt I could not do was unending. But there was this one morning when my two-year-old and I walked down to the water near our house with the baby in the stroller, we threw rocks into the water and watched the splashes.

My son tried to reach his favourite big rock, and he said he couldn’t do it. But he stuck with it, he tried, he reached further. He did not give up. And soon enough his tiny fingers grasped the edges of this rock, he grabbed it.

He did it.

The story became part of our family legend as The Rock That Says “You Did It,” the mantra I’ve repeated to the kids when they have to reach within them to find an extra piece of courage for whatever challenge they face.

That boy is almost eight now. He reads for hours and tells me how time travel could work one day. It took him a few years to learn how to ride a bike, he fell off, his confidence shattered, he had to find something else deeper inside of him. He did it. He can ride almost anywhere. He learned how to swim. He plays soccer. He learned how to lose at games and how to play people who are better than him so he can learn how to win.

I’ve watched from the sidelines of his life as he learned and mastered anything he wanted to learn. How did he do it? How did his brother (now nearly six) learn to do anything? They disappeared into a quiet, focused place. They set their mind to learn, it was like the world around them vanished while they repetitively drew letters, sounded out phonograms and pushed their bodies.

And I watch them with a silent envy. Why is it so easy for you? Where do you get your energy for this? Where did these reserves come from to work hard? How are you able to overcome failure?

I wrote about the 21-Day Deep Work Challenge yesterday, but if I’m honest, there is one group of people I thought about more than anyone else: Mothers of small children. Yes you, the one who read about this Challenge and thought, “Not for me.”

I can imagine that you thought the idea of 30 minutes of time without distraction is a fantasy, and that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Yes, both my children are in school in 2019. Yes, it feels like the absolute greatest luxury of my life. But no, I haven’t forgotten what it was like. When my kids were still with me at home, it didn’t matter what their age, the idea of undistracted time was a fantasy.

I started a load of laundry.

Someone needed food.

I folded a t-shirt.

Spilled milk had to be wiped up.

I read to my kids.

Their noses needed wiping.

I put one to sleep.

The other needed help on the toilet.

Then I stepped on a piece of LEGO with my left foot while my right foot landed in a squishy pile of breakfast oatmeal on the floor. Obviously.

In those early years of motherhood, I was distracted by something necessary every few minutes. A stream of activities that were constantly interrupted all day long, all week long.
Into this mix came my smart phone in 2014, and when I had a few minutes to spare, I had a piece of technology in my hand that connected me with family and friends around the world. There were beautiful things, like seeing photos of my new niece a few hours after she was born, but it only heightened my distraction. I found myself unable to pay attention to almost anything for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time My kids got older and had activities, but I would sit on the sidelines of a swimming lesson, bored, and scrolling through my phone for no reason. Fast forward to 2019, and I’ve found myself watching a movie on Netflix and looking at Instagram at the same time.

Ladies, there is apparently scientific evidence out there for the fact that this was killing my brain cells. In Deep Work, Cal Newport quotes late Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass’ NPR interview on the subject of multitasking. Nass studied behavior in the digital age. Newport says on page 158, “Nass’ research revealed that the constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain.” To NPR’s Ira Flatow, Nass said in 2010:

“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand…they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

from p158 of “Deep Work”

I don’t want to be a mental wreck. I don’t want to multitask anymore. I want to take what time I have and devote it toward focused work, whatever that work may be.

Nass is talking about people who choose distractions while they are working. As moms, there are many distractions we don’t choose, our children are a natural, wonderful (and not) part of our lives, they are packages of distraction, and that is just fine.

But what about the way we choose our distractions? The texting, the apps, the cooking while filling out forms? The emailing while doing a bank transfer? The Netflix watching while social media watching?

I want present in my life today the same resilience and brilliance I see my in my children. The way they attack a task and focus? It’s how to learn. It’s why your kids and mine go from not reading to reading. It’s how they learn the monumental task of writing real words. It’s how they learn to ride bikes and swim. They repeat a skill they did not know over and over and over again without doing anything else at the same time.

They believe they can do it. You know why? You and I are on the sidelines cheering them on. Telling them to try. Encouraging them to move past their failures and struggles. Telling them to keep going, reach further, the rock is within your reach. You can do it, kiddo.

Hey Mum of small kids, that message is for you, too.

You can do it. You can reach further. That skill you want to learn that you think is too hard? You can learn it. It is not too late.

I want to dare you to take this challenge. However hard it may be for you in this season of your life. The care and nurture of your children is important. Your role in their lives is irreplaceable. But it is not the only thing in your life. Don’t let your mind go to waste. You need your brain to function for a long life of meaningful work, however you choose to define the word “work” in your life.

This is not the time to be more distracted because there are already things that will distract you. That should distract you.

Push yourself to do mental work that will challenge you. It doesn’t have to be for money. It doesn’t have to be for a boss. Make yourself think harder. When you’re bored (and lord knows, I was bored a LOT with small kids), push past the urge to scroll mindlessly through your phone. Pick up a skill instead.

Tips on How To Work Undistracted When You Have Small Kids

  1. Pick work that you genuinely want to do – don’t pick something that you feel you should do
  2. Talk to your partner if you have one – tell him about this in detail, ask him how he can help you
  3. Set aside the time – I think the same time daily is what will work best
  4. Wake up before your kids – be honest with yourself, can you really do this?
  5. Plan to do it after they are in bed (be honest with yourself – are you someone who can work at night? Don’t do it if you cannot)
  6. Give your kids 40 minutes of screen time
    1. Take them to the toilet before, put a large snack out for them and their drink bottles.
    2. Explain to them that Mommy is going to have alone time as well
    3. Go into a different room and close the door.
    4. You get 10 minutes to prepare, and 30 minutes to do your work. Set a timer and do your work until it ring. I wish I had done this when my kids were smaller.
  7. During the three weekends, ask your partner to take care of the kids while you do your deep work, maybe try to push yourself to 60 minutes.
  8. Find a friend with small kids to do this with – encourage each other, swap kids to help each other do your deep work

Now tell me: If you’re a mum of small kids, what could you focus on for 30 minutes daily for 21 days? What would you love to do? How could you do it? If you don’t have small kids, do you have a lady friend in that stage whom you could help out? Could you pass this on to her – encourage her to try?

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:


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:

Mums of small kids, undistracted work is for you, too

Deep Work Tips & Tricks

Routines to help create a deep work habit (Girl, I washed my face)

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.