Naas Energy

The Official WorldWideWeblog of Corey Naas

Book: Deep Work

This post was originally published on on 24 November 2017.

I love reading books about how to be more productive, because they let me get away with procrastinating by reading about how to not procrastinate.

I really enjoyed Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World. Two years ago, I bought an earlier book by him, How to Become a Straight-A Student. It’s a very good book, but I never felt like I got much out of it. In Straight-A he focuses a lot on strategies for studying and light methods for organizing your time, but I’ve never really struggled with how to study. What I have struggled with, however, is time management. Not necessarily how to budget my time between all my assignments (my solution to that is just to lock myself in the library each day until everything’s done and abandon any semblance of a social life 🙃). My struggle has been with how I spend my time when I’m not doing assigned schoolwork. And I think Deep Work and the ideas therein can help me with that. Maybe they can help you too.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of deep work, here’s a blog post and podcast by Thomas Frank, of College Info Geek. I’ve followed his blog for a while, and it is chock full of good stuff. If I ever feel like wasting time by reading about how not to waste time, CIG is my go-to site. Another blog post that touches on deep work and boredom is his post on deep work and boredom.

Here’s the Amazon link to the book. If you happen to be a LeTourneau student, the library has a copy, although you’ll have to wait a bit because I currently have it, and you’ll have to fight me for it. This review summarizes some of the main points nicely.

Here are some thoughts that I wrote down. I didn’t add page numbers, but anything that’s in quotes is either a direct quote or a cheap paraphrase because I have a love-hate relationship with writing by hand.

“If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive.” I like this because I believe that consuming is not enough. I can read all of the books in the world, but if I’m not doing anything with the knowledge they give me, then they’re of no help. This also comes back to my goal of “contributing” to the world someday (I have a secret not-secret dream of getting a Ph.D).

“The skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” I really like that word, “experience.” I’ve done a lot of thinking over the last semester about what it means to experience something. I’ve mostly thought about it related to listening to music, but I like the world experience because I think it implies not necessarily participation, but presence. The way I see it, life is going to happen. Good things, bad things, big things, little things. They’re all inevitable. Cal touches on this a little bit too, and we’re in agreement that it’s what you focus on that you’ll remember. If you wait only for the good big stuff, you’ll be waiting a long time, and wasting a lot of time. But if you can learn to look around and see all of the good things that are little, you’ll see that there are a lot more good little things that happen, and if you focus on those, then your overall experience will be a positive one.

“The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.” Sounds like a no-brainer, but I know that I at least have tried to go straight from my normal mindset into the mindset of a super-organized super-student… for a couple of days. It rarely works. The brain is a muscle. “Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.”

“Don’t take breaks from distraction; take breaks from focus.” I’m guilty of this one, just like everybody else. I wish I could quote the entire section, because it’s just so good. Instead of spending  an hour a day or something “media-free,” you should instead turn your mind around and set up your days so that they are filled with focused, undistracted work with a little break at the end. Just as dieting doesn’t work by eating healthy once a day, overcoming distraction won’t work if you try to focus only once a day for a fraction of the time. You can’t learn concentration passively.

“To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it is incredibly valuable.” Man, I hate it when people go and take ideas that I swear I had first and make better words with them. I’ve been thinking this semester about ways to make myself be bored, and one of the most obvious ways was to just not have my phone in my pocket. However, I’m a slave to my routines (my pockets always having their assigned contents being one of them), and so I couldn’t just not have anything in my left front pocket. I took my old phone, stuck only my music apps on it, and used that while leaving my actual phone in my backpack. I knew I had it bad because the first day I tried that, I went into chapel, sat down, and purely out of habit pulled out my phone to check Instagram. I only noticed that I had done this because the phone I pulled out didn’t have Instagram, and thus I was saved from ten minutes of boredom-bumping and free to just sit and watch everybody come in because talking to people is weird and I don’t know how to do it.

Distraction is an addiction, and I would argue that by constantly distracting ourselves we’re avoiding confrontation. We’re avoiding confrontation with ourselves. Maybe it’s a good thing; it’s no coincidence that I stay up because I really don’t want that half-hour of waiting to fall asleep where I can’t help but think about everything that comes to mind. But it’s probably not a good thing. The less we distract ourselves, the more comfortable we can be with who we are and the more self-aware we can become, and that’s absolutely an important quality to have in today’s world (in any world, really). I value self-awareness especially, because it seems to me sometimes that nobody else has it.

If you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative.” To this I would add “a quality and more easily accessed alternative.” The thing about Snapchat, Instagram, and Reddit is that they’re always there. What I’ve started doing is always having a book in my backpack so that when I get more than a few minutes somewhere, it’s just as easy for me to pull out the book and read it as it is to pull out my phone and waste time and energy.

“In Part 1, I quoted writer Winifred Gallagher saying, “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” I agree. So does Bill Gates. And hopefully now that you’ve finished this book, you agree too.” – Cal Newport, Deep Work