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Cultivate the Skill of Undivided Attention, or “Deep Work” (2019) (letterstoanewdeveloper.com)
332 points by mooreds on March 22, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 100 comments

Caveat: I'm, of course, being a bit flippant here and there are of course people who've genuinely found a lot of this helpful. I'm actually a huge fan of Cal Newport as an author in general, but the deep work idea always didn't quite resonate with me.

Having looked at this topic quite a bit and generally being interested in productivity, I'll say this:

Deep work isn't complicated, in the same way that losing weight isn't technically "complicated": Eat better/less/etc. and maybe also exercise more. The difficult part is, of course, forcing yourself to stick with it.

Want to do deep work? Remove all distractions (physically, if necessary) and don't engage in any of them for a period of time. Have a goal in mind for this period of time. If you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the task. There, done. You're doing deep work.

Of course if one had the level of discipline to not indulge that urge to say, check HN, to begin with it's likely they don't need any concept of deep work in the first place (other than perhaps to remind oneself to engage in more thoughtful tasks).

That's not to say there aren't interesting tidbits here: Mindfulness is obviously a really useful skill, and sometimes physically removing distractions can be helpful in the same way that removing junk food from your household can be helpful in losing weight.

Still, it's a lot of discussion for something that ultimately boils down to "stop surfing reddit 4head".

My experience has been that an inability to focus on a task is usually more to do with my fears surrounding that task than my level of discipline.

If I can stop for a second and understand why I'm scared of the task (am I worried the best I can do won't be good enough?) I can employ strategies to work around that fear. One that's worked especially well for me is approaching a task as if I'm a complete novice. If I can pretend for a moment that I don't have years of experience, and start again from the very beginning, I give myself permission to make mistakes and "play" within the space. Approaching learning like a beginner, and letting go of any pretense around results or performance, seems to be the key to engaging in deep work for me.

I certainly think that's a major part of it. I think another important part is just not knowing what needs to be done immediately. The days where I have the discipline to compile a detailed list of things I need to do, I get a lot done. Days where I procrastinate heavily are typically days when I don't really know how to get started on a task or don't know what I don't know.

Extremely relatable. I call it "paralysis by fear". Minimizing FUD (fears, uncertainty, doubts) is certainly a good way to get productive.

Still learning how to do that effectively, though. In work context, talking to people and bringing every one on same page seems to help. Approaching the task a complete novice is an interesting way to look at it.

Agreed. Fear and other bad feelings (like guilt) also fuel my procrastination so that I don’t even get started on the most important tasks. But the bad feelings lurk under the surface and I don’t even realize I’m procrastinating – I just think I’m “too busy.” Only when I sit down to do the task do I realize “Oh yeah, this is hard. There’s a reason it’s taken me so long to get around to this. This feels really bad right now.” But once I identify the feelings, like you said it becomes a lot easier to deal with them productively.

Meister Eckhart: ”Be willing to be a beginner every single morning.”

I also have found the 'play for a bit' thing very useful. When I was younger and had a lot less experience, it felt much easier to write code, despite the fact I was quite green.

Now I find it much harder to get going because it's so easy to fall down the 'what if' and 'what else' and 'is this going to be good enough?'.

If I start 'playing' it typically works out... typically!

Also, break it down into subtasks, and only do the first one.

There can be a lot more involved than I (consciously) noticed.

There can be a lot less... just the scary chance of it being much worse.

Thanks for saying that. This is why I read digital minimalism first to understand the things that’s preventing me from deep work in the first place and came out with the same issue. I know it’s bad but sometimes that’s all my brain wants to do. And there’s no answer to find out the reason behind that and address the root cause. Almost all solutions are “just stop doing it.” My friend and I call these the “simple solutions”.

“I feel really sad”

“Don’t. You’ll be alright”.

“Phew. Thanks. I’m cured.”

If anyone here has solutions that are more than “Just focus” I’m interested. It’s starting to affect my work life especially now since a lot of my current work don’t have much meaning and I need to get through this for a few months at least.

Honestly I really don't think there's a solution. You can try everything you can to get yourself into a state of focus but sometimes your brain just rebels against it. I've sort of accepted that there are things that can't be controlled for. If Ive been particularly unproductive for a period of time instead of beating myself up about it I just accept that I've wasted a shit load of time and move on. That's sort of removed the stress part at least.

From a macro perspective though I've gradually come to the view that the average amount of work a man can get done if he's really trying is more or less the same. You might see someone else able to work non stop but that might be because he's doing mindless repetitive tasks. For things requiring more brainpower it's impossible to run 100%. You also get to a point where physical quirks might be the limiting factor. I've had a few times times where I've forced myself to push on with something, pulling all nigjters and what not, and suffered physical and mental burnout consequently which averages out the "productive" period before. Consequently I've taken on a more zen approach to pushing myself, try my best but don't overdo it cause sometimes it might backfire.

I tend to take a similar approach to trying to be productive for the sake of keeping my stress levels down (and motivation up!).

When I'm failing to feel motivated or keep focused, I generally stop myself and instead ask myself why that might be: have I been getting enough sleep/exercise/socialization/etc? And I generally find my problem lies there, and then I can try to correct for it in the future (get to bed earlier, eat healthier, exercise more, etc).

If I'm still not feeling it after making corrections, then it's time to ask myself if what I'm doing is something that I really want to be doing? It's always disappointing when the answer is that it's not something I really want to be doing (sunk-cost), _but_ I've found walking away is better than continuing to beat myself up over a lack of motivation.

> try my best but don't overdo it

It's like the dash readout in hybrid cars showing you when you're burning more gas-- there are times when certain maneuvers call for maxxing it out, but mostly you want to stay in the 'eco' zone. Otherwise you're not only wasting fuel, but prematurely aging your engine.

This was harder for me than I thought. It works really well some weeks and some other weeks I can’t stop blaming the lack of “work ethic” and you’re right that it’s counter productive.

I feel you. I’ll have weeks that are so unproductive and I’ll feel bad about it. But then I’ll list out all the factors contributing to my lack of accomplishment and realize that I have a lot of external factors working against me. It helps me have more grace with myself and focus on the areas I can control.

My personal trick fwiw is to treat it just like exercise.

If you're just starting out running, you shouldn't say "ok I'm gonna run a marathon". That might be your end goal, but the actual achievable goal in the meantime is to make incremental progress.

Schedule (yes, actually put on your calendar) time to engage in focused work. Start with 5 minutes a day. You won't get any actual deep work done at first, but that's fine. It's about building the muscle. Add 5 minutes a day, or every other day if you're struggling. It quickly adds up - you'll be at an hour within 2 weeks if you make steady progress.

If you fail to achieve your goal, note it and try again tomorrow. If you repeatedly fail, subtract 5 minutes and keep at that level until you're comfortable with adding more time.

Much like exercising, this small incremental progress is also something you may have to fall back on when you lose track of it for awhile.

> Schedule (yes, actually put on your calendar) time to engage in focused work. Start with 5 minutes a day. You won't get any actual deep work done at first, but that's fine. It's about building the muscle. Add 5 minutes a day, or every other day if you're struggling. It quickly adds up - you'll be at an hour within 2 weeks if you make steady progress.

That's what worked for me in developing healthy habits. After about 180 failed attempts of just completely overhauling my schedule and being perfect in all ways starting Day 1, I dialed way back and just focused on 1 new habit every 2 weeks. Sometimes if it was a simple one, I might add a new habit per week. But taking it slow and reducing bad behaviors (binge watching entire seasons of reality TV over the weekend) and adding in healthier things in their place (reading nonfiction, going to the gym) allowed me to slowly but gradually really improve my life.

Will try the incremental deep work focus this week- thanks for the idea!

Scott Adams describes a possible solution in "Loserthink" (there's probably a longer section on this in one of his other books: "How to Fail at Almost Anything...").

It's called "wiggle your pinky". If you're on the couch and cannot get up, just try to wiggle your pinky. If you have enough willpower for that, move your arm. Then move your legs, put your feet on the floor, and you're already halfway through getting up.

The same with a difficoult (programming) task. Just open the file in the text editor, without having the intention to actually do something. Then scroll a bit through the code. Something might catch your interest. After a minute, you're already in the middle of the task.

Summarized: Just do the tiniest step into the direction of your goal, without the intention of actually doing anything to reach that goal.

On MacOS I use an app called “selfcontrol” that temporarily blocks some websites.

Another approach I’ve seen on here is to use a VPN that adds multi-second lag to addictive websites to make them less addictive.

The best advice I can come up with is that it’s something that can be actively trained, and that it doesn’t come suddenly. Set up a temporal and physical space for concentration, and commit to leaving it if you feel the need to be distracted. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but the important thing is to associate that space with concentration at a visceral level. You’ll naturally start extending the duration you spend there as you get used to it.

I now have a desk and a separate work computer that I don’t use for social media. I’ve been trying to all keep my phone elsewhere and physically move to browse social media. Partial success.

To me, the War of Art has an interesting perspective and take on this problem. It approaches the issue of "creating art" by viewing it not as a simplistic problem, but a very deep, innate, almost spiritual issue. And thus it takes what feels to be a different approach to solving it.

Can you expand on that a little bit. I started that book based on a very strong recommendation, but found the first 20-30 pages to be defining "art" as a sort of amorphous everything that felt like it wasn't going towards a point. I decided not to finish the book, but have wondered if it would have been worth it.

The solutions require gaining a deeper understanding of the narratives you tell yourself and your habitual responses to those narratives. Thus, they are often best found out through a conversation because conversation can make those narratives explicit. When you put something into words, that gives you power over it.

Over the past year, through a combination of actually getting ADHD treatment, writing, and a course on Rapid Software Testing, I've learned a decent about this. So progress is possible, but it takes hard thought.

I highly recommend https://rapid-software-testing.com/ by the way. Honestly transformative for my mental health.

I've struggling through a shit load of issues and I'm now quite convinced half of these are a matter of belief.

The feeling is almost a communication sign to get care from others in order to diffuse the fear. The minute you exchanged with someone caring enough for you, distress goes down 50%.

When you're in deep depression, this system is distorded and you can't exit the pit with simple talk. But the truth is, ignoring your emotions at this time proves helpful. It's almost insane and puts your intellect through a lot. But I think that's the basis of "don't feel sad". You have to believe that the rainy day will fade, harder than the distress signal running in your mind right now

my 2 cents.

> If anyone here has solutions that are more than “Just focus”

A bit like telling someone stuck in a wheelchair after an accident to "just stand up", isn't it?

But after a longer period of regular, hard exercise, they just might.

Retraining your brain might take just as long. No "snap out of it" solution is going to work. Write down small goals, improve gradually, persist, feel good when you make progress.

Vipassana meditation to reveal fears and other mental processes that are hidden. Also to repair focus disseminated by the modern culture of constant distractions. Even 15 minute session is enough to feel the potential and become more aware.

Sometimes this awareness is enough to change bad mental habits. But there are other things that you continue to do even if you understand that you don't want it. These are "imprints" NLP terminology.

To change these imprints my friend does really long Vipassana sessions for more than 10 hours. She claims to change at least one strong imprint that was "panic when staying at home alone". Which is related to an event happened when she was less than a year old.

I have not tried so long Vipassana sessions and to change my imprints I do Connirae Andreas "Core Transformation" technique. It's easier to have other person do it to you, however with enough determination you can train to do it by yourselves. Unfortunately it's still a lot of efforts to learn it. Anyway may be that helps.

Here's how I have overcome exactly what you are talking about. (this got long, forgive me)

1. Be honest with yourself

If I can't even say "I need to lose weight" or "I should quit smoking" then there is no place to start.

This is a very, very easy step and require such minimal effort that I truly believe everyone in every state can do this step.

You can stop reading right now, pick something you have an issue with, and say it to yourself. (mine: "If I focus intently on work for even a short time, I know I will be better off long term.")

2. Repeat #1 forever... so be careful what truth you say to yourself.

With work focus, any time I got distracted (and I recognized that I was) I would repeat to myself that I would be better off being focused.

Again, I think anyone in any state of mind can do this step as well.

3. Remind yourself of past success.

If you have had no success in life at all, tell yourself others have done it. If you have, just say in your mind "I've done this before, I can do it again".

Remember, so far this is all internal mental dialogue. So I feel everyone can do these.

4. Do it once.

This is where it starts to get harder, but if you've done 1-3 for say _months_ one day #4 will be easier than it was in the past. It sounds stupid, but it's worth trying once, right?

So I "buckled down" and tried really, really hard to focus on my work. And I did for a few minutes... :P

5. Keep doing 1-3 even if you fail repeatedly at #4.

So, I focused once at working. I got into a groove and then I failed. Time goes by, I keep going back to it, trying again and again. Failing repeatedly. Sometimes I did a little more, many times doing poorly. Keep in mind I have had years where I worked like a dog, and was very focused, but I lost that drive, and I want it back. In some ways this is harder than starting from nothing. (my experience)

6. If you could do it once, tell yourself you can do it again.

Again, internal dialogue. I believe everyone can do this.

I had to do this step for months on some of my problems before I could face them again.

6. Pay attention to exactly what is causing you fail at #4.

This is one of the hardest problems to face (not the hardest though). I found that if I ate lunch at my desk, I would watch a youtube video, because I couldn't work while I ate. But after I was done eating, I found my motivation to work was just slightly diminished. Not much, but some.

7. Tell yourself the truth about what caused you to fail.

This is a little hard, but not really. Internal dialogue again, it costs you nothing to be honest with yourself, and you have everything to gain.

The truth for me was that if I ate at a table away from my desk, I interacted with people (I _thought_ this was distracting before) and when I went back to my desk I wasn't _motivated_ to work, but also I was _demotivated_.

This was the needle in the haystack for me.

If I hadn't gone through all the processes before, I would not have discovered this tiny difference.

The truth was, I didn't _want_ to eat at the table, I liked watching youtube videos about machining during lunch, but it made me relax into my chair and forget about the technical issue I was working on myself in my code.

Where when I was eating lunch at a table, all I could think about was the coding I had done before, and what I was going to do when I got back. Even if I talked with people and got distracted, at least I didn't have to fight the urge to turn off a video and refocus my entire mental state back towards work.

8. Make a change

This is the beginning of the hardest part. The change I needed to make was permanently not sitting at my desk while eating lunch. A forever change.

A. I had told myself what the truth is, I want to focus at work...

B. I had gotten myself once to try and focus, and I succeeded once.

C. I told myself that I could do it again, repeatedly until I did it a second time, then a third, but failed for a long time.

D. While failing, I could clearly now see what caused the failure. Without failing I could not see what was wrong.

E. I told myself what was wrong. (videos demotivated/distracted me from my previously focused state)

F. I trusted myself _at least once_ to try something else (again, only once was needed) and found that eating lunch in a different location did not rob me of motivation in the same way.

G. Something should happen.... (right?)

9. Remind yourself of everything you've proved true. Especially, _especially_ when you don't want to.

SPECIAL NOTE: No major struggles existed throughout this process. None. 95% of this process is internal dialogue. Don't lie to yourself.

10. NEVER give yourself a way out with internal dialogue.

If you give yourself an out you will take it. Fail honestly. You can say "I know what the truth is, I just can't handle doing it today, I know I am failing" is just fine to day.

Do NOT say "Maybe I can't do this" or "This is just to hard, maybe I can try once in a while." Or anything that supports quitting of any kind. Why? Because this process is all about internal dialogue, and I believe this is the one place where "fake it till you make it" doesn't exist at all. True honesty with yourself isn't fake. And true honesty with yourself costs you nothing and takes an instant in time.

So, if you are having a bad day just be honest, say "I failed". You don't have to tell anyone, so I believe everyone can do this. I have failed thousands of times on some things I have worked at changing.

11. Share and remember your successes

Maybe you don't want to tell other people when you've had success, but you say it to yourself. The more successes you have, the easier it will be keep on track. And the easier it will be to tackle the next problem.

Failure is just fine. Why? Because you are failing right now, and you are 100% better off by trying and failing than not trying at all. So dive in and do terrible a 100 times.

What I learned from this was to be happy with other people failing while trying. I could see a spark of change that if encouraged could blossom into something complete new and better for them (or both of us) if they continued.

So, you may find through this process that things outside yourself may change in unexpected ways as well.

Conclusion: Be honest with yourself, 100% pure brutal honesty (it's in your own head, you can do this right now). Failure is expected and is totally ok! The only requirement is honestly acknowledging to yourself that you failed. Look for the cause of failure honestly, even if you can't deal with it. Tell yourself your cause of failure. Do something different once. Just once. (everyone can do something once) Tell yourself the truth about what was different. Don't give yourself an out of any kind. You don't need one from just being honest.

First time I started running, I ran in pajamas and crocs. I just did it. It was lame and silly, but I did it once. With work focus, I found _multiple_ things that were distracting me, not just eating at my desk. I have changed how I talk with people, developed more patience, lost weight, stopped swearing (almost entirely, eesh), and many other changes with this simple process.

I realize you may not believe this will work, but it's literally possible for everyone to try step 1 and takes nearly _zero_ seconds to do, so why not try it out?

(Sorry this got wordy and long, but you've brought up an issue close to me, and I've had too many hard times in the past with the "just stop doing X" or worse "X is your problem" (derp, derp) advice without a real method to consider to overcome my heart and mind issues with even getting started)

Thank you for taking the time to write this.

For anyone who struggles with “internal dialogue,” writing down your thoughts can help. (I find it hard to focus if I’m just thinking, but writing really helps me stay on track.)

Also if you do have someone who you can trust with these things, talking about them in actual dialogue can be really powerful. Also risky though, so you need someone who is really on your side and who has optimism for you.

Appreciate this.

Self-Therapy by Jay Early was the first book I read that gave me lasting, "non-simple" solutions. Totally changed the way I view my own motivations, and shined a light on how absurd the "stop doing it"/"try harder" mentality is.

I’m a little confused by your comment. Digital Minimalism talks a ton about root causes and solutions. I get if you don’t agree with them, but it’s weird to act like they’re not there.

This is my interpretation of deep work too, schedule a time with no distractions and repeat. Over a period of weeks you get better at this uninterrupted concentration. I think Newport's main concern was seeing hordes of students at school sitting in cafes and wasting their time since they were constantly being distracted, and would have been better off going to some library and working in the corner earlier so cafe time would actually be enjoyable or a time to casually talk about assignments instead of spending hours there appearing to study.

For example basic undergrad math proofs I couldn't figure out immediately during 'deep work' I found after a while doing this I could memorize them, so the rest of the day think about the problem in momentary downtime like being on a subway and often figure it out by the end of the day. Before I started Newport's advice I did distracted work and would have to re-read later as I forgot everything.

>,and also exercise more....The difficult part is, of course, forcing yourself to stick with it.

Is that really difficult? Not really, for me it is trivially easy. Do you find difficult to shower each day or clean your teeth? No, because it is a routine.

If you establish routines, the work needed for eating well and exercising tends to zero. And if you eat well you don't need to eat less, your body will be satisfied with much less.

If you eat badly, for example cheese puffs, the more you eat the less satisfied you are. Your body is not receiving the nutrients he needs, even while you fill your stomach.

The fact is that techniques that actually work do not need to require so much effort or discipline.

For example, reading HN. I read HN once I complete part of the work I need to do for a day, so it is a price, not something to be ashamed of.

BTW, reading HN is extremely useful for me. I do not expend much time on it, 20 minutes per day or so(I measure it), nor distracts me. I found something interesting, I save it to Zotero.

I read HN in batch mode, not in "notifications mode". For example I write this so someone could benefit from it. If someone replies I won't read it because I won't spend time outside my time window.

HN is extremely useful because when I am interested in a topic, say Lisp or Artificial inteligenece, I could check my Zotero and study for a week or so the material HN has preselected for me.

That's not enough. You need to be motivated and depending on task you probably need to be a bit creative. You can't just "jump higher" or "think harder". See writers block.

This resonates a lot with me. For example, a forcing function that works very well for me is putting distractions like HN on a block list on my mobile device. Whenever I am trying to access HN on my mobile mindlessly I am reminded that it’s probably not a good idea. Then, gently as you ascribe, I bring my mind back.

I’m sure I miss out on cool stuff, but then again I could read HN all day :-)

Before taking a shower, or going for a walk, load up your mind with the problem.

The Top Idea in Your Mind http://www.paulgraham.com/top.html

I have ADHD, which doesn't mean I lack the ability to focus -- for me, and others with my subtype of ADHD, it means I get deeply focused on random stuff. Some of it is worthwhile, and a lot of it is a complete waste of time.

I think a lot of developers have ADHD like me, because we can get totally lost in code for hours and hours at a time.

Now, before you envy me too much, the other side of the token is that when I'm given work I'm not interested in -- which is usually most of it -- getting started and seeing it through is like pulling teeth.

Inattentive-subtype ADHDer here. One thing I've found very powerful is to have a clear idea of the reason why something matters. But even then, sometimes it is far better to change projects than slog through something if the "why?" isn't really connecting with what you value.

Knowing the "why" can also be somewhat helpful for noticing and pulling yourself out of hyperfocus. However, sometimes the thing you're hyperfocused on has its own more-compelling "why".

Whenever I look up the definition of ADHD, I can't find myself in it. But I share one thing: Disability to focus on things I don't care about. That is, sadly, almost everything, including coding. At some point, sheer necessity and time pressure together start to cause me so much mental pain, that I'm able to push through regardless.

Now, with all that said. Sometimes, I actually can focus on coding. Maybe even enjoy doing so. But that'll never be enough to catch up with people who genuinely like doing that all day, every day.

How do ADHD people deal with this? Knowing that you never will be consistently good at your job?

I don't know. There are a lot of frustrations associated with it, and that's sometimes one of them.

Did prescription drugs help with this?

Does anyone know if there are any published stats / estimations about the prevalence of amphetamine prescriptions in the United States.

I have this gut feeling it's pretty high, at least in the tech industry. I don't believe this is problematic but it feels like a taboo topic. If use is common we should be better about talking openly about it.

They definitely do. They make my hyperfocus into megafocus. I still have bad orinlems with procrastination but when I'm on, I'm really damn good so it hopefully makes up for my inconsistencies.

We are descended from creatures that poised, concentrating on making no sound, waiting for a perfect moment to strike.

We are descended from creatures that sat by a lake in Kenya for millennia, carving and crafting arrowheads.

We can all concentrate like a boss.

It's distractions that are the problem. Our ancestors split shift on kids, which is still the biggest distractor.

But they never had neighbours, phones, TV, or better things to do.

Perhaps one day we shall fine distractors like we fine polluters. Till then its a question of quiet offices.

distractions AND lack of clear path to clear benefit. You can craft arrows forever, because you clearly know that this will benefit you immensely: you'll get food and you like getting food. It will even make you a perfectionist because you don't want your weapon to break, fail, miss on you. You'll make it stiff, sharp, easy to handle.. it's almost not work it's protopleasure.

That's why primitive life is somehow easier[0] than modern life, you own your struggles. Here, it's dilluted in space, time and society. You have to negotiate, compromise, wait, be a cog in an absurd machine, swallow others belief and limits.. it wears you off


Motivation is natural for us animals, else we wouldn't survive.

  Fish gotta swim, Bird gotta fly
  Man gotta ask himself Why why why

Be sure not discount stress and emotion.

I don't like assumptions based on very early Hans did or not did 10.000 years ago.

Indeed. Early Hans were not genetically distinct from us, but they did not have iPhones to distract them.

Solution? Throw away your iPhone.

If I end up carving arrowheads by the river, that won't help me much :)

It's true that distractions were fewer but the work we expect ourselves to do is also very different. It's unclear to me that just getting rid of the distractions would be enough.

The flip side of focused mode thinking is diffuse mode thinking, and they are symbiotic. Your brain needs a chance to work silently in the background on hard problems while you do other things (walk, sleep, play with the kids). Then when you re-enter focused mode, you are fresh and your brain often presents solutions uncovered during your diffuse time.

This concept is articulated really well in "A Mind for Numbers":


Being able to tell when you are frustrated is such a powerful tool. Doing literally anything else will be more productive in and of itself, but it also opens the window to let a little diffuse thinking sneak in.

How many times have you done an hour worth of work one morning to untangle a mess you made the previous afternoon? Diffuse thinking saved you. Invite it in.

I’ve been establishing my own focus system for the past few months. Loosely based on Deep Work, Pomodoro technique, and a few other writings.


Great post. Recently noticed DND is not enough. As you mentioned, you actually have to quit the app in OSX so it's not in your app list when tab switching (with a red notification).

Thanks, and yes! Super infuriating. IIRC it’s possible to disable the red badge per-app in Notification Preferences but then becomes difficult to understand which apps have new info so I waste a bunch of time checking all of them.

Loved your post. Thanks for writing it

Glad you enjoyed it!

Great writing, enjoyed it

Thank you!

> The ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed, are two core abilities for thriving in today’s economy.

I absolutely disagree with this statement. You cannot master things quickly and any attempt to do so is simply playing into George Leonard's concept of the Obsessive student [1]. Once learning gains begin to lessen, you'll conclude you've mastered the topic and move on, regardless of actual ability.

[1] https://jamesclear.com/book-summaries/mastery

I miss being able to focus on things... you can do a lot of other things while caring for young children... the one thing you can't do is focus on something, because you always need to keep one eye on the kids, and are continually having to stop what you are doing to do something for them, and have to always be watching they don't do something dangerous.

I really miss daycare.

I feel this. I’ve been working part-time from home while also being the main one caring for my kids for the past few years. Fortunately my work is amenable to the distractions – it’s very atomic and I’m able to do it with only one hand and half a brain. But I miss being able to let my brain loose on some complicated problem.

On a side note, after reading the article I finally learned the difference between leading and lagging indicators.

I always had this abstract idea of what they represented, but never really took the few seconds to try and understand what they mean.

Now I can play with the concepts. My world got a little bit wider.

Can you elaborate? I found the description of the two quite fuzzy.

My summary of the example from the article:

If you want to know if someone has learned the material from a course, have them take a test. The test result is a lagging indicator that shows what has happened.

If you want to know if someone will learn the material, compare their study habits with the study habits of proven good students. Their study habits are a leading indicator that shows what is likely to happen.

PG wrote about this http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html and was referenced in this NYTimes piece Productivity Isn’t About Time Management. It’s About Attention Management. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/28/smarter-living/productivi...?

What prevents me from doing deep work is not lack of focus but it’s alway external factors. I’m either stressed about something else like relationship stress or health issues or am too tired or the task ahead of me is too big or I just don’t like this task because it was forced on me for example. I don’t have the data to back this up. It I suspect for most people it’s the same; people with ADHD and other conditions notwithstanding

I feel like you said that it's not from a lack of focus, and then described all the things that prevent you from focusing.

As a developer with ADHD, I have a few insights into the skill of attention-management.

1) Shifting into undivided attention isn't the only skill you want. You also want the skill of knowing when you should divert your attention. Otherwise, you end up going down a rabbit hole before you realized that you've been focusing on the wrong thing for a while. If you get stuck, it can be very useful to take some time away from the keyboard and let some other ideas float in and out of your working memory.

2) A key question to answer is "What should I focus on?" One thing that can make this much easier is if you have a way to find out from your team:

- Why does our team exist?

- Who are our stakeholders?

- What are our goals? Why do they help our stakeholders?

Getting this information can be quite difficult, depending on your company culture.

If you are feeling distracted while writing an essay, see if you can imagine that someone asked you a question on reddit.

3) Another useful question to answer is "What does better look like?" for any given task. Essentially, jot down a leading-KPIs for the next couple hours...or next minutes! This is one reason why writing automated tests is useful, even if they are only mental scaffolding that you refactor away before committing.

For writing, it can be helpful to do "question-driven drafting" where you write your first draft as a dialogue between someone who is confused and someone who understands. That lets you look at your explanations and treat "does this seem like a good answer to the question I just wrote?" as your leading-KPI to shoot for.

4) One thing that can impede deep work is when you intuitively suspect that your pursuit of your current goal puts other things you value at risk. This tempts you to keep checking on that thing, forcing you to shift attention. One approach to that is to tell yourself "don't worry about it." I've rarely found that approach valuable -- indeed, the knowledge that I'm just not handling a risk I'm responsible for makes me more tempted to check on it. I've found it much more valuable to set up something which would detect the risk for me and could shift my attention at that point. This is another reason why automated tests are useful.

But you can also just have a checklist that you add to as you go along and check at the end.

"why does our team exist" is a rabbit hole for me. It goes to "why does our company exist" to "why does this industry exist" and "what am i doing with my life" and why does any of this matter".

Right. At an individual contributor level, you should be able to

1) ask your manager what the team's responsibilities are.

2) hear why the company exists at every quarterly meeting.


> Rather than focusing on a list of things other developers have learned, and targeting that list, I humbly propose that a leading indicator of acquiring this kind of knowledge is “hours per week spent in a state of intentional deep work”.

So he's just proposing that one should just spend time to cultivate those skills?

> Imagine two equally knowledgeable early-career software developers. They have the exact same skills on January 1, 2020. If the first software developer spends four hours a week doing deep work, while the second software developer spends fifteen hours a week doing deep work, their trajectories will be quite different, and that second developer will quickly gain technical knowledge and proficiencies.

This isn't rocket science. Just spend time developing skills in addition to the work you have to do already. Great!

I was having some health problems that negatively affected my ability to do deep work. After six years of it creeping up on me, I finally got sorted out last year, thankfully.

In that time I built up a whole new set of coping mechanisms that I’m trying to walk back, because I’d almost forgotten the other side of deep work, like accidentally working late (up to and including insomnia), missing meetings, forgetting to exercise or eat. When you can’t work for more than two hours straight, juggling periodic tasks is easy. Almost a consolation prize.

From 2019. It's okay to not cultivate this skill during a pandemic.

On the flip side, there is very little personal agency vis-a-vis the pandemic and reading the news/twitter may accomplish little beyond stressing you out as the practical limit on what most people can do is "stay home".

Closing all those scary browser tabs, emails, and focusing on an unrelated problem can provide a welcome respite from a world out of your control, and likewise give you tangible mental health benefits. Skill building may be viewed as a secondary gain adjacent to the primary goal of maintaining sanity.

So no, you don't need to become a brainiac genius during the pandemic, but working on skills is also a fine way to distract yourself.

Yeah, but it can be really helpful, too. Checking out from the news for a few hours and doing something productive can benefit your mental state, at least it benefits mine, quite a bit.

On the other hand, I can't do any of my hobbies and contract work has dried up a little bit. I would like to be able to "deep focus" at will now more than during life-as-usual.

Thanks, I updated the title.

And 100% agree that right now everyone deserves an anxiety pass (I certainly need one!).

Meditate. If you want strength, lift weights. If you want undivided attention, practice meditation.

It also helps with noticing distractions before they grab you. This way at least you have a chance to actually think before reacting to the urge to check HN or whatever.

I meditate quite a lot. It doesn't alter the number of things that stop me concentrating at work - mainly meetings that are nicely spaced out so that you never get more then an hour an a half in one go.

Does it matter what kind of meditation?

Probably not. Mindfulness meditation apps are fine. You could go to full-blown 2 hour long zazen meditation sessions multiple days a week, where you have the option of being hit with a stick when you start to lose focus/doze off; and you might gain some benefit from it. But unless that's something that seriously interests you, it probably isn't worth the considerable commitment.

There are all kinds of religiously inspired meditation practices, which are, again, probably fine if they're your thing.

Main point of any meditation that I know of, is cultivating awareness. You can do that in formal meditation classes, or you could do that while going fishing. It comes down to preference and perseverance.

Not really in terms of results . Best is to pick one you connect with so there is a chance you will keep doing it.

Not in the beginning. I recommend starting with any guided meditation with the focus on the breath. Then tweak what works for you: posture, counting or not counting the breaths, eyes open or closed, etc.

Does anyone else want to engage in deep work, but can't for organisational (not personal) reasons? Heading into this article I thought I'd find some commiseration, but the first dotpoint was:

> Breaking complex unknowns into simpler unknowns that can be further split into individual tickets

Jira is precisely the attention divider I wish I didn't have right now. It gets real tiresome trying to work on something big and important that takes 2-4 weeks (e.g. fix the test suite), but getting steered away from it by management towards smaller tickets.

I have given up even trying these days. Constant questions or meetings or chat messages, its utterly pointless in most places I have worked.

I use https://deepwork.me/ [1] to follow Cal's "schedule every minute of the day" suggestion and it has definitely improved my productivity quite a bit. It's like markdown for scheduling.

[1] I made it one weekend years ago and I've used it almost everyday since then.

I've recently published a piece on my tricks for keeping focus and blocking away distractions at work https://pawelurbanek.com/mobile-internet-addiction-focus

What never resonated to me is: as a regular employeee without any stock or profit share why would I care about being more efficient? If you already can match your job goals I see no point in doing that.

Oh how I wish I could just focus on something and get good at it. I feel like it's impossible to study something and become expert in a corporate environment.

Any suggestions on how to keep away distractions on your laptop, which don’t involve outright restriction or blocking?

Putting certain apps into different workspaces, Etc?

Are there any other links to guides for young developers starting out in the industry?

So what's the link to undivided attention?

I have ADHD, and a back that gives me trouble, and Pomodoro helps with both. It is a practical, get-started, thing a person can do.

In my desk diary I have a target of x number of pomodoro's for the week so that adds a goal to it, which I know helps motivate some people.

You misspelled Adderall.

I hear it helps with IF too.

Pills don't teach skills.

I'm genuinely grateful to have finally been able to get a dexamfetamine prescription, but there are still skills to learn once you have the hardware.

but what happens to those skills when you stop taking the pills?

They are harder to practice... or they fall apart.

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