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Jul 02, 2018

On deep work

Just started Cal Newport's Deep Work. The premise being that we're all thoroughly distracted and if we hope to get anything productive done, we need to give ourselves over to something between two and four hours of serious, focused, uninterrupted work.

Reading over this opening paragraph, it occurs to me that I might sound a little contemptuous of the thesis here. I'm not. It's true that we're immensely distracted these days. So long as we're not asleep (and even sometimes then), we're connected to the outside world through our phones, our email, our social media accounts, and across various feeds. So like, Newport is right.

(And I'm not immune to the problem, even on my high Facebookless horse: I'm trying to type this while my attention wanders off to 24 Hours in Police Custody on the television.)

Throughout the book, Newport details the travails of various paragons of deep work: an academic prodigy, a metalsmith, and curiously, creator of Ruby on Rails David Heinemeier Hansson (but for the grace of DHH go I).

But work doesn't necessarily have to be intellectual to be deep. Deep work is just as much a question of sitting down and producing some work of genius as it is of producing some work of focus. Does that make sense. Like the work doesn't necessarily have to produce something. You don't have to have, inevitably, some paper, or book, or thesis, or, in one case, a literal flaming sword held overhead1 as emblem of your work's depth. It's possible for your deep work to produce a frame of mind or a sense of focus. The work of choosing what to focus on, and what to think about, is also deep work.

Somehow I feel like this is actually easier to access. The book starts with the story of Carl Jung's Bollingen Tower and the incredible deep work that Jung produced there. But I can't relate to Jung (although this might have something to do with the fact that I haven't ever actually read any Jung :/). The deep work that Jung is doing is something to aspire to but not something that I feel I can grapple with.

On the other hand, a little later on in the book, Newport dives into the idea of choosing what to focus on as deep work: of encouraging the formation of positive reactions to any given situation, as opposed to negative reactions. He gives the example of an ugly fight with your partner; you could view the negative in all the terrible things you've said to each other; or you could view the positive of having aired grievances and being ready to move through them. The situation is the same, but neurological studies have proven that the way that you think of that situation will colour your ability to move onwards from it.

In that way, life isn't so much a sequence of things that happen to you but a sequence of choices about how to perceive what happens to you. Life isn't the objective fact of occurrence, but the subjective experience of occurrence.

Which, like, I'm putting it in English-majory words right now but it's a pretty self-evident truth. I'm not uncovering anything new. But somehow I feel as though I'm being told it in a way that resonates in me. Maybe it's because it's being framed as work.

Because it's being framed as like, I can work to choose how my life goes, regardless of what's ahead of me. (Within reason, obviously, but I live a blessed enough life that I don't expect to have to face circumstances so hard that they'll rock my ability to work, anytime soon.)


1 Deep Work, ch. 3