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Deep work in practice: reimagining my workflow for radically less distraction (alexdenning.com)
220 points by sevenironcows on Oct 18, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments



I recently had to go through the process of "re-learning how to work." I didn't realize how bad I was at deep work, as the article references it as, until I quit my job and set out on my own full-time.

I found that I was replacing the normal interruptions of the office - meetings, email, phone calls, lunch; with getting distracted on social media, general reading, checking alerts, etc. It was like my brain was conditioned to expect a distraction and thus made me seek it out.

It took some effort, but making sure I am organized for the week has really helped as I know what I need to get done. Also, I've now been able to use my "distracted level" as a litmus test of how organized I am. I know when I'm not focused as much as I should, I need to spend some time on my planning.

edit: grammar


whew! you're nailing it, good thing you're not taking silly breaks like going on hacker news and posting comments instead of working!


Deep work is not only about spending maximum time on what you really want to do. It more on how you get the maximum efficiency out of it.

And oh yes, "deliberate distraction" is highly recommended while doing deep work. So there is nothing wrong posting comments related to deep work on HN. :)


I think self-control should be valued higher than self-restriction. With self-restriction I mean blocking bookmarks (hindering you), not muting the phone (removing outside distractions). To me this self-improvement through shedding responsibility is scary. It's the same for fitness tracker that tell you when to do. (I have to admit there is some grey area in between though. Some habit forming can be beneficial ((e.g. allways riding the bike to work))

Personally I like small breaks between the tasks, but only if I change work contexts anyways. Do people really have a problem just riding the flow and not heading off to hackernews mid-task (honest question)?

edit: here I especially don't get the "pomodoro" technique where you are interrupted by your own alarm every 20 min.

Btw: noisy music works wonders for me sometimes (other times it's Bach I admit, but even than: loud Bach)


It's a nice sentiment, but the products/sites/apps that aim to suck our attention are designed to exploit human weaknesses via dopamine release, variable reward etc. (see the book Hooked), making it exceedingly difficult and potentially expending your finite store of willpower on things you could much more easily avoid altogether.

Personally, cultivating the self-control to avoid checking facebook.com is less interesting to me than editing my hosts files to block it, and using my willpower for more rewarding tasks (exercise, learning piano etc.)

With that, I'm turning my block back on HN :)


Just a comment, the research on willpower as a finite resource does not replicate well. The latest I've heard is that it seems that willpower is like a finite resource if you believe it is, it is not like a finite resource if you don't believe so.


I think you're half right. Willpower is bolstered by a belief that it is infinite, but in reality, it is finite.

To go even further than that, those who believe they don't have a willpower limit are more likely to continue challenging it and developing it - paradoxically increasing it. Those who believe they have a limit may exercise it less.

The same effect can be seen in sports psychology. Those who believe themselves indomitable can squeeze out extra force/endurance in physical trails, whereas those who believe themselves fragile perform at a weaker state.


I kinda block my facebook newsfeed via CSS, but just to be able to access chat without having to read the feed if I don't want to (remaining just one click away from toggling it back on). (you can also do that my typing an invalid url and setting it as your facebook bookmark, e.g. https://www.facebook.com/asdfgwhatever )


News Feed Eradicator is really good for this. You can also use messenger.com to access chat without any other notifications - https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/news-feed-eradicat...


oh thanks, the web version looks good. I just tried the windows metro app and it failed to notify on new messages all the time...


Facebook runs the Web version of messenger on messenger.com

This is just the chat function - no need to edit CSS or anything.



Seconding that; this is what I keep open instead of Facebook for most of the time. For those who didn't click yet, it's an official Facebook Messenger, in-browser version. Only chat, without the rest of the Facebook.


Concentration and willpower are not the same thing.

Concentration rests on a foundation of relaxed awareness. Concentration states include flow, zone, etc.

Willpower is usually thought of as having to force your way through things. However, there are disciplines that reframe and retrain that. For example, the Taoist principle of Wu Wei is a good example. Wu Wei is usually applied in the West as Fk It, but it's more that you become the person whose will is naturally aligned and in harmony with the environment and the universe, and as such, you naturally (Zi Ren) do the things. There is a similar idea in classical, medieval Tantra from India.

Having said all of that, I had removed the Facebook app from my phone years ago, only access Facebook through incognito mode without the benefit of passwords. I used to look at it once or twice a month, but now I kinda forget. Sometimes I want to level up my work and not level up my concentration skills.


Yes. Whether you have self control or not, a bouncing widget on your screen, accompanied by sound effects (or not), is distracting.

I do several things to help me maintain focus at work:

- No email notifications. Not even a visible count of unread messages. I check email at natural stopping points in my workflow.

- No social media notifications at all.

- No chat programs.

Those simple things really work to help minimize distractions that could break my focus. The only one I haven't managed to kick is the habit of people to just walk up to my desk and interrupt me (the biggest downside of an open office plan).


(Disclosure: I have ADHD, I've been using pretty much all the ideas in this article, and some others, for ages to supplement my meds.)

Perhaps you're of the minority who has discipline and self-control to resist all the modern world has to offer. Chasing dopamine hits, from net and phone distractions, is habit forming. As it has become a habit most people aren't realising how often they're doing it.

It's easier for me. I know I don't have self-control or sense of time. I set myself up to manage accordingly. I see it as setting up for success. Do you think the many who use headphones and music in office are self-restricting and should use some self-control too?

When I was working on fitness I had a personal trainer. I could have done it alone, but the extra accountability meant I tried harder and didn't skip sessions. I think everyone gets the same benefit.

Pomodoro just constrains the time. You only have to do 25 minutes of thing before you get a break. Taking breaks improves focus. Every 2 I stretch, walk away from the desk maybe grab a drink.


Thanks for adding your perspective.

regarding: > Do you think the many who use headphones and music in office are self-restricting and should use some self-control too?

Avoiding disturbances coming to you from the outside is another thing.


"I think self-control should be valued higher than self-restriction."

Well, I wish it could be that way. But it's not. Or, at least, it's not even an issuing of valuing one more than the other. Using self-restriction strategies is based on understanding and acknowledging that our self-control is not as strong as we want it to be, our level of self-control varies over time and may not be as strong in the future as it is right now, and our level of self-control is not wholly within our power.

What you call "self-restriction" strategies involve changing things so we don't need to assert self-control (will power) as much, but still get the benefits. Yes, this conflicts to some extent with (an old-fashioned, inaccurate, unjustified) view that ties lack of self-discipline to lack of personal responsbility. But the emphasis on self-restriction is actually an enlightened way of being _more_ responsible. You can (1) forego self-restriction and rely entirely on self-control and self-discipline as distractions come up, or (2) you can acknowledge, sadly, that self-control is limited and use self-restriction methods to reduce the need to rely on self-control as much. Which of those two is more responsible?

The author of the article ends it by suggesting that, although he hasn't found it, "there may be magical fix". That's wishful thinking. Yes, the "internet era" has made this stuff harder, but it has never been easy.


Your reply makes sense and triggered some further thoughts:

We need to push ourselves to do things with no immediate reward (because our instincts are a bit short-sighted).

I however still fear that (2) might cause some detachment from your "inner self". If you force your mood, your feelings, your body to step back to make the high-level goal possible you might burn out quicker. The high-level goal being something you imposed on yourself, like having a skyrocketing career. That in itself might be triggered by swelling fears you don't want to deal with (to stay productive and functioning, haha, here we are in a spiral). On the other hand effective working might reduce stress too and your career can avoid money trouble. It's hard to weigh in all factors. But as said, I think it's healthy to be a bit skeptic towards such self-optimization.

edit: Another thought: when I was young I used to play computer all day long for the first 2 weeks of the big summer holidays. After that, quite suddenly, it urged me to do something more fulfilling that might be considered more healthy. I think there is power for self-regulation, even on a subconscious level, but it might need some more freedom to keep that. In this case it needed a whole 2 weeks to waste on games before it made me feel empty and longing for something else. 2 weeks of time sadly is a luxury I just had once a year as a teenager and is hard to come by as an adult.


> I think there is power for self-regulation, even on a subconscious level, but it might need some more freedom to keep that. In this case it needed a whole 2 weeks to waste on games before it made me feel empty and longing for something else.

Interesting thought. I know the feeling, actually, as someone who tends to binge on computer games and TV series (and novels). It's sadly true though, that adult life is usually clocked even stronger than teenage years. I often feel that if I could only get one week away from work and people, I'd feel much better overall. Alas, it's hard to get a week off from being an adult.


It's a form of procrastination, especially frequent when you are tired, unsure of how to tackle what you're doing, or just don't like what you're supposed to be doing. The worst is when you run a compiler or something and it takes 5 seconds. You obviously can't just stare at empty space for that long so you go spend 5 minutes on the internet.

The slower your tools, the viciouser the cycle.

Opening the internet on encountering any sort of difficulty or setback in your task is a particularly vicious reflex. Sometimes I'm on my phone or checkinn slack or whatever before I even consciously realize whay I'm doing.

Pomodore helps bring a modicum of structure to that behavior by keeping me off the internet for 25min and then letting the flood gates loose for 5min. It fails in the face of slow tools of course.


Hehe, makes sense, I'm guilty of compiler-facebook checks.

But here is also the question if it wasn't better to listen to your body in the long run, instead of tricking it in to something. On the other hand we need to counteract facebooks trickery of course.


> Do people really have a problem just riding the flow and not heading off to hackernews mid-task (honest question)?

I find myself seeking distraction everytime I hit the compile shortcut and have to wait 10-20 seconds to test my code. The later in the day, the harder it is for me to resist the urge.

I think I need a faster machine or to compile less often.


Have a simple physical task that you do during those times, e.g. standing up and stretching, touching your toes, etc. Such things are not mentally distracting in the way reading news headlines or checking email is.


    Do people really have a
    problem just riding the
    flow and not heading off 
    to hackernews mid-task 
    (honest question)?
Yes, lots of people have problems staying focused.

I have on more than one occasion even caught myself thinking "now I'm really in the zone, maybe I should check reddit"... But why would that help anything?


Indeed. The "ALT+TAB, CTRL+T, n <arrow down> <enter>" combo is something I execute before my conscious brain notices it. However, I'm increasingly better at following it immediately with "CTRL+F4" and thinking "not now; after I finish this".


It's quite terrible. I have this habbit even with pages that I blocked via browser extension months ago. It goes away very slowly for me.


To me both the valuing of self-restriction rather than self-control and Pomodoro have similar reasoning behind them.

Self-control requires you to continuously spend willpower to resist, while self-restriction removes that continuous drain on willpower (a finite resource). Similarly Pomodoro tells you when to take a break and when to concentrate, no decisions required.

I'm not sure how valid this model of willpower is but it seems to have truth behind it. I personally find pomodoro breaks to be way too frequent, although I did do it for a while and found that it was amazing training for being better at focusing and falling back into flow after a break.


I too find Pomodoro breaks to be too frequent when I'm in the flow (and I often would skip them then), but when trying to make myself work on a difficult task, having the perspective that "it's just 25 minutes" was helping me to feel less stressed.


Yes, I'm in exactly the same boat but it felt like skipping breaks for hours at a time wasn't really the way the system was supposed to work and I wasn't sure if it helped when used in that way. Although perhaps just being "allowed" to take a break is enough of a benefit, that does make sense to me as I write it.


Certainly a valid model. I can't find it now, but there even was a study on how you would eat unhealthy after demanding tasks, so additionally cognitive load drains from the same pool, too.

edit: http://seriouspony.com/blog/2013/7/24/your-app-makes-me-fat (certainly that was a hn-post)


As I understand it, it's a decent pop psych model, and in this context it's valid and I think of willpower this way. But I remember reading some complaints from experts that we've gotten carried away with the "pool of willpower" metaphor and were applying it too broadly so I'm more careful now.


Self-control is hard, and at the end of the day, most people don't care whether they've made themselves into a stronger person in the course of doing their work. They just care that they did their work.

If you have goals in life, you’re probably going to need some sort of organization. Even if it’s an organization of just you, it’s still helpful to think of it as a kind of machine. You don’t need to do every part of the process yourself — you just need to set up the machine so that the right outcomes happen.

For example, let’s say you want to build a treehouse in the backyard. You’re great at sawing and hammering, but architecture is not your forte. You build and build, but the treehouses keep falling down. Sure, you can try to get better at architecture, develop a better design, but you can also step back, look at the machine as a whole, and decide to fire yourself as the architect. Instead, you find a friend who loves that sort of thing to design the treehouse for you and you stick to actually building it. After all, your goal was to build a treehouse whose design you like — does it really matter whether you’re the one who actually designed it?

Or let’s say you really want to get in shape, but never remember to exercise. You can keep beating yourself up for your forgetfulness, or you can put a system in place. Maybe you have your roommate check to see that you exercise before you leave your house in the morning or you set a regular time to consistently go to the gym together. Life isn’t a high school exam; you don’t have to solve your problems on your own.

http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/nummi


This. I tried StayFocused [1] and Forest [2] (both excellent btw) but self-restriction is no substitute for self control.

I'd be restricted, but still unable to focus. And when I could focus, those restrictions were distracting.

Interesting you mention Bach. My background music as we speak... [3]

--

[1] https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/stayfocusd/laankej...

[2] https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/forest-stay-focuse...

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqhR37qSUMA


Forest is hardcore.


Hmm.. I know self control has been shown to be something like a muscle that requires work and is fatigue-able. That work in itself is distracting. It's like part of you is being detoured already for your internal battle. Maybe a better strategy would be to learn how to trick yourself into really WANTING to do the work your aiming at. We're good at convincing ourselves to view things in whatever way is beneficial, and once you do that, you can focus your whole self on the task. Doing something you want to do is much more productive than doing something your trying hard to control yourself to do.

But this comes down to choosing between magnifying your talents or working on your weaknesses. We are evolutionary programmed to be very susceptible to interruptions. They were important once upon a time. We can spend effort trying to reprogram ourselves I guess. But I'd rather spend that effort elsewhere.


Also, when you're changing tasks, it's important to reclaim your attention from the previous task, so it can be fully reallocated.

More than just crossing off a task and taking a break, I take a moment to really notice my progress---what I accomplished, learned, implications, etc---and then write it down.

This little bit of reflection feels good (a small win!) and helps me close the task out from my attention. So then, I'm refreshed and ready for the next thing (after a glass of water, play with the puppies, etc).

The long term result is that I can look back at any day and see what I actually accomplished. Which is pretty sweet.


The way I do it is with a technique from Buddhist meditation. I watch the urge to switch to something, and intercept it by making note of it.


This is such a great principle, just observing what you are actually doing/feeling. But you need to be in the right mindset or trained to do it.

Pain is a good example: If you begin to observe it as a simple reaction by your body, not as a state of yourself, it can become very bearable. If the pain is too strong however or you don't have the relaxation it takes to do this it doesn't work. To become an observer is hard with strong headache on a busy day, first you have to remember to become an observer and than it still might overpower your state of mind.


I sometimes use the "pomodoro" technique as a trigger, a way to beat procrastination. Often I have trouble starting to work on a problem if I'm unsure about what to do, I think it's similar to writer's block. That technique forces me to start working and once I'm started I can usually continue normally without need to use the timer.


Ah right, I forgot that it times the break too XD


As I get older, I find more value in choosing the most energy-efficient (mentally speaking) solution. Sure, I can simply use willpower to avoid distraction, but if I put the phone out of reach, then I get to use that willpower on other things instead.


Since February 2016, I started working with a timer.

I have an agreement with myself that if a timer on my phone is set for 15, 30, 60, 120, 180 minutes, I should work non-stop without any distractions (no food, no music, nothing except my work).

Since then, it's much more easier for me to work really hard and be very focused.

If I'm too lazy to set timer for 3 hours, then I set for 15 minutes. It's easy to convince yourself to work hard during 15 minutes. Then I usually become warmed up a bit and set a new timer for 30 minutes, then for 60 etc.

I also keep track of how much time I spend daily. For example, in October, I worked purely on algorithms like this:

01.10.2016 4

02.10.2016 6

03.10.2016 1.75 2

04.10.2016 2 0.75

05.10.2016 0.5

10.10.2016 0.5

11.10.2016 0.5

12.10.2016 1

13.10.2016 0.5 1

14.10.2016 1.5

15.10.2016 1 2.5

16.10.2016 0.25 2 2.5

17.10.2016 1.25

18.10.2016 0.5

Numbers are hours. I.e. 0.5 = 30 minutes. Several numbers mean that I had pause/time gap in between.

Algorithms/math and problem solving olympiad problems require a lot of really hard work. With a timer, I'm working much more effectively like I never did before.

P.S. Why timer on a phone instead of a computer? Well, it's easier for me to just click and close window on the computer. If timer rings on phone, I have to get up and walk to the phone (I intentionally put it on the next table).

By the way, it's very good to keep a journal because overtime your collected data about yourself become valuable. For example, I plan to draw a graph with moving average, so I would see overall picture how dedicated I'm. If you don't have such data, it's easy to fall into trap convincing yourself how good you are (like I did before).


A key skill in focusing on something is realizing when you have become distracted and bringing your attention back to the task at hand. The sooner you do this, the better. Usually we tend to get carried away by stimuli and become "lost" for long times at stretch. This not only eats up time, but also consumes mental energy that we could have otherwise used for productive work.

I have been successfully using meditation as a "model problem" to train my ability to become aware when I have become distracted and bring my attention back to the object of focus. A classic analogy of mindfulness meditation is that of an elephant (your mind) tied to a post (your breath or whatever is the object of your focus) through the rope of mindfulness. When the elephant strays, the rope pulls it back to the post.

While there seems to be some scientific evidence that meditation does indeed improve your ability to concentrate on any general task, my own conviction arises from seeing first hand the similarity between countering distracting stimuli during meditation and during general work.


The irony of Hacker News articles on productivity and focus is not lost on me.


I tend to fall into the distraction trap for days/weeks at a time. It's hard to notice until you take a step back and realize how little was accomplished over a given time period.

"This is all a lot easier if you’re working on interesting and important things." Definitely one of the more important points made at the end of the article and, unfortunately, not always something within our control.

I was recently reading about learning theories (during a period of distraction) and noticed a possible relationship between Vygotsky's Zones of Proximal Development [1] and distraction. There must be a point of inflection between "completely distracted" and "deep working focus" where we feel compelled to switch off a current task or procrastinate. Maybe a similar scaffolding approach can be used to ease you back on task.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_proximal_development


My experience is pretty similar to the author's. The number of distractions that exist in my life have been pretty constant since I started using dial-up BBSes in the early 90s. I could chat with friends instantly, download games/porn, war-dial and find new systems to (unlawfully) play with.

However, when I was away from my computer I was less distracted and could get a lot of (high school) work done. Cell phones are pretty much the only technology that has made distraction ever-present. That giant box with the 12-lb keyboard that used to sit on my desk at home is now shrunk down and within arm's reach at all times. It does pose a problem.

Also, the modern office is a place of distraction; especially open-format offices. I work in one of these and I generally avoid coming into the office if I have some detailed work I have to do. Managers don't seem to realize what an awful place those types of offices are for actually getting work done. High ceilings that bounce noise, inconsistent temperatures, seeing frequent movement out of the corner of your eye, people goofing off two rows away.

I've already picked up some of the behaviors the author details. I don't use social media (except LinkedIn, very infrequently). I silence my phone while working. I take breaks every 90-120 minutes. I keep a calendar of all my appointments and meetings, in and outside of work.

One other suggestion I think is good: have a "work" computer and a "play" computer/device. If you have a work laptop, then this is pretty easily done. I equate this to the advice given about beds. Beds are only for sleeping and sex. Don't study in a bed, don't eat in a bed, don't work in a bed. I find when I'm in front of my "work" machine, that I'm more naturally prone to doing "work" things and not "play" things.


This is the first I've heard the term "deep work". Is this a more common term or something coined recently?



+1 for the book - really good!


This is the blog post that (I believe) coined the term:

http://calnewport.com/blog/2012/11/21/knowledge-workers-are-...


I was new to it as well when a commenter on my YouTube channel recommended the Deep Work book. Listened to the audio book and really, really appreciated it. Deep work is now something I aspire to get better at because I'd been feeling it was something I was missing for a while now.

I think of it like getting in the zone with coding where you get deeply valuable work done without distractions.


I feel like the hype around deep learning is slowly spreading to all "deep [Noun Phrase]" phrases.


We're in deep shit now.


It's pretty unrelated to deep learning.


That's my point....

Remember how in the late '90s, everything was e-/i-/cyber, even things that were only tangentially related to computers or networking? It feels like that.

Today, I've seen posts and ads for "deep work", "deep analytics", "deep thinking", (not using anything recognizable as deep learning), and a few other things. Most of these are more-or-less idiomatic, but I think they would have been called something else 5 or 10 years ago.


I can't really speculate on what might have happened 5 or 10 years ago, but I've read the book and have been following Cal Newport for a while (I read his previous book too) and it doesn't strike me as an attempt to capitalize on the "deep learning" trend.

I mean, it's not even tangentially related other than that the author happens to be a computer science professor (who works on distributed systems, not AI).


I think it's a new term for something very old.

People who needed to do serious work went to monasteries or lived in caves.

The biggest distraction for many people is other people. Solitude is the way to get real work done.

There's a lot of interesting stuff here: http://www.hermitary.com/articles/


Recently, I have been working on something exactly similar - An app to schedule your day: https://github.com/mitul45/ta-calendar

Check it out and let me know what you guys think!


Looks good! I built a similar free app for iOS: http://longdayapp.com


These are tricks and "hacks," which are certainly useful. But they are only band-aid fixes. The external environment will continually evolve to find new ways to blast stimuli at you. The only real defense is training your mind.


Absolutely. I try and address this in the post when discussing the Pomodoro Technique, which is probably the most frequently cited "band-aid fix". But – these band aid fixes are a decent way of starting to train yourself to resist distraction, so aren't to be immediately dismissed.


I think this applies to escapism in general. Escapism is bad, but stopping it won't solve why you're escaping.

Stopping the escapism is still important.


Like what people are saying about mindfulness. Ideally, we can notice ourselves drift and self-correct at that moment.

Also think fear plays a role. Hard work can be scary. This video on procrastination from School of Life comes to mind https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QetfnYgjRE

Personal favorite tip: Breaking things into bite-sized tasks! I have a whiteboard for just this purpose.

Timewarp is going to help me. Set some wormholes up with quotes like "Stop playing the slot machines"


I only heard the term "deep work" yesterday, listening to Cal Newport on James Altucher's podcast.

It's a pretty good introduction and he talks about his own approach to work. He's also a professor of computer science!

They talk about his other book first (also interesting), so you need to skip a little way ahead for the deep work stuff.

https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-james-altucher-show/...

http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2016/09/cal-newport/


For macOS users, there is a very lightweight app called, appropriately enough, SelfControl [1]. Add the domains you'd like to block to the blacklist, then set the amount of time you'd like them blocked.

Another thing that helps me focus is Chrome's user profiles (and the main reason I haven't migrated to Safari). I maintain both 'Work' and 'Play' profiles -- that separation helps limit the urge to cycle through my bookmark bar.

[1] https://selfcontrolapp.com/


He uses 'decline in productivity' as evidence. Output per hour is measured in dollars, not %. I think he's giving us productivity growth. This is the wrong stat to use.


Installed SelfControl app for Mac, and blocked every website that doesn't contribute to my work for two 4 hour periods during the work day. The first few days it's AMAZING how many instinctual visits to those blocked sites I made. After a couple days I stopped with the distraction and it actually helped me concentrate on my work.


Just realised I was reading this article whilst listening to a TED talk in a different tab. I guess he has a point here.


My takeout from this: positive unknowns are addictive to your brain. Everytime you checkout a website too often you're mostly like a kid before christmas. For a second it defused my own behavior pattern, I may be able to stop losing hours of void refresh per day.


I find that I am actually more productive with constant stream of minor distractions. Although I do find real work distractions to be more effective, e.g. background conversation, people walking by.


Add to the list of distractions: work situations that have a policy requiring a developer to keep a chat or messaging app open and monitored while working, either at the office or at home.




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