In search of the deep

Are we there yet?

The problem

The other night Xeena mentioned a video on Facebook and asked if I’d seen it. I should have, because my husband Dave posted it. “Noooo,” I fake-apologized, in that way people do to let you know they are better than Facebook, “I haven’t been on.”

“Oh, are you taking a break?”

“No….,” I smiled coyly and tried to remember what it is I’m doing with Facebook right now.

“Are you just limiting your time?”


“Well, what? What’s the mystery?”

“I’m just kind of…scheduling my time on social media differently,” I finally stammered out. Ugh, that’s not what I mean, I thought. I’m making social media sound way more important than it is/should be in my life. I’m an adult for God’s sake. “I mean, I’m just trying to make it more an intentional part of my schedule so that I can focus on other things better, um…”

Xeena smiled, maybe wondering why we were still talking about this. She added, “I just kind of do what I want to do when I want to do it.”

Yes! That’s what I want, too! Only I have bigger wants and smaller wants, and too often my smaller wants (ice cream and online shopping) hijack the bigger ones (writing something longer than 7 pages).

The solution

I’m reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, and adapting the wisdom for my own brain and heart. Newport is a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of technology and culture. His writing has helped me think differently about my time and what I’m doing with it.

Here are the points that stuck out to me, that might be useful to you:

10 steps to the deep

  1. Plan every minute of my workday, Monday–Friday, from 7 to 5:30. Revise the schedule throughout the day as needed and don’t stress about the constant changes. Cross out 2pm writing session and replace with online shoe shopping. No shame, just recognition.
  2. Experiment to find the right format for this constantly changing schedule so it works for you. iCal is great for appointments, but I want something more tactile. I’m now using a steno pad with one page per week: schedule on one side, to-do list on the other. I like it but am still fussing with the layout.
  3. Block out 1–2 hours per day for deep work sessions. These are chunks of time when you work without interruption on projects that take extended concentration and imagination. What might you create in those extended chunks? You’ll only find out if you find out. Ultimately I’d love to have a 3-4 hour deep work session every day, but if I can manage an hour right now I’ll be happy.
  4. During deep work sessions, disconnect from the web. Do any research before that time. Maybe work in a different spot than usual.
  5. Don’t take a break from social media but instead, schedule it appropriately into your week. For me, an hour a week is enough to check in to Facebook/Insta/Twitter, and do the light kind of connecting those platforms afford.
  6. Free yourself from the reactionary frenzy of email. Don’t feel compelled to respond to every single message. This one is hard for me because not responding just seems rude. Who am I kidding, these are all hard for me. Make people work harder to merit a response. Eek.
  7. Compose emails in ways that reduce successive emails. For instance, give people choices of a time/place to meet and then say, “let’s consider your response a confirmation.” Try to do this without sounding like a tool.
  8. End the workday at 5:30. Yes, this sounds impossible. Try.
  9. Have a shutdown routine. It will probably take 15–20 minutes. During this time, review your to-do list and make any necessary revisions. Review the next few days on the calendar and make sure you’re aware of upcoming deadlines and commitments. Take care of any last-minute emails, since you won’t be checking email again until tomorrow. No, really.
  10. Finish your routine with a verbal confirmation. Say it out loud, as a cue to your beloved brain that it can move on to a freer rhythm, where it presumably will relax and make all sorts of powerful connections that don’t happen when you’re constantly thinking about work. “Shutdown Complete” is what Cal says. I’m still composing my own personal phase. If I were British I could say, “That’s me, done.” I think that would sound cool. But for now, I’m borrowing “Shutdown Complete” yet saying it in a robotic way that makes it my own.

Those are my takeaways. There’s a lot more to the book, including a streamlined version of the arguments in Digital Minimalism, which I read first but didn’t finish. That book is basically about how digital engagement doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It’s a matter of what’s of value to you. At a minimum, books like these invite us to acknowledge and engage with the power of seemingly small choices. If you check them out or experiment with similar practices, let me know how it goes.

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