Deep work. In our distracted world, it is a modern-day Holy Grail, a chalice of overflowing promise and potential. But there’s a catch. If you want to sip from it, you must first master the art of deep rest.
More than that, you must discover how not to work.
If you sometimes feel unproductive, uninspired or lacking in creativity for large chunks of your time at work, there’s a simple reason for this. You’re swimming – or let’s say treading water – in a sea of busyness. For many of us out there, it’s actually a way of life. In reality, however, it’s much worse, and we’re actually drowning in an ocean of distraction and misleading ‘productivity’.
You know what I’m talking about. Frantically jumping from emails, chats, meetings, stand-ups, conference calls, presentations, and projects. And then there’s all those networking (aka notworking) conferences. For the majority of knowledge workers out there, this is what we define as ‘work’. And it is anything but deep.
The one good thing
If one positive thing has come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, though, it is that this vicious vortex for many of us – myself included – was put on hold. Not completely actually for me, but enough to prompt me to stop, think and reassess what the hell I’m doing with my time – both personally and professionally, but mainly the latter.
Firstly, I realized that bigger projects which required deeper thinking and harder work were becoming more difficult. And I discovered the reason was because I am always so damn distracted. More importantly, however, I was not getting enough deep rest. Yes, not just rest, but deep rest.
No hibernation; just unplugging
Don’t get me wrong, by deep rest I don’t mean some bear-like hibernation. Although spending a few months in a cave avoiding our blessing-but-a-curse ‘culture of connectivity’ doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But no, the definition here is all about deliberately unplugging. Being meticulous about getting away from obligations, emails, trivial tasks, screens, and doing something completely different. Even if that ‘something different’ is absolutely nothing.
And over the past three months, I have seen that when I focus on getting proper deep rest, the sparks in my creativity and productivity return. Before we explore the key points about deep rest, however, first let’s sum up briefly the concept of deep work, its importance, and why we all need to find a way to drill down through our everyday distractions to get to it.
Deep work, deep rest, and the importance of doing nothing
Cal Newport, renowned author and computer science professor at Georgetown University, penned a 2016 bestselling book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He defines deep work as:
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Does it sound like the kind of work you do on a daily basis? If you’re anything like me, probably not. Conversely, as Newport points out, if we are not intentional about how we spend our time, our work hours slip away towards activities that he calls “shallow work”. Or in other words:
“Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Struggling with reality
Pre-lockdown I was really struggling to focus on harder work tasks which need deeper thinking. Why? It was two things actually. Distractions, and the human being’s natural condition to lean into something which is easier. In other words, what Cal Newport calls in his excellent book, Deep Work, The Principle of Least Resistance – In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
How do you do it?
A simple example is while trying to work on a detailed and important project plan or presentation, instead of deeply focusing on it for a sustained period of time, you find yourself drifting into checking your emails, work chats, and other trivial tasks.
Think about it. Even any minutes (or even seconds in some extreme cases) of downtime we have is usually spent checking our social media, or catching up on emails and doing personal admin. Yes we may squeeze in some time for exercise, a hobby and meeting friends and family, but even these things can be difficult if you don’t organise your time properly.
If, like me, you feel like this often, the important thing to realize is you’re not alone. I rarely do feel like this, but because of that, when I do it hits hard.
Deep focus mode
Understandably then, when I came across Newport’s book, it really struck a chord. While as the title suggests, it’s about trying to put yourself, and your mind, into deep focus mode. Many of us acknowledge that this requires intense concentration. As Newport points out, there are several different types of deep work paths to take. But one aspect is common: creating rituals as a means to making deep work a habit.
And this is what I want to focus on for the purpose of this post. Newport also champions the idea – and cites the scientific evidence to back it up – that in order to facilitate any deep work method, you also need to be just as deliberate and ruthless about your rest or downtime. He offers some rules to follow, some of which I include below with some added bonus extras:
That statement may sound strange, especially in our modern age where laziness and boredom is often seen as a vice. The fact is, however, that in order for your mind to recharge and achieve deep rest, and like Newport argues, you need to ensure that you are“injecting regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day, providing you with the idleness paradoxically required to get(deep) work done.” There are many ways to do this, one is having set times for completely shutting off from all devices and work to partake in an activity you enjoy – either inside or outside but preferably outside and including contact with nature. There’s reams of scientific evidence on this subject, but in short this kind of conscious unplugging for downtime helps in the following ways:
- it helps insights
- it helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply
- the work that your downtime replaces is usually not that important
Don’t fear boredom
Believe it or not, being fine with being bored can be one of the toughest things to achieve these days. As I previously mentioned, our culture of connectivity means that whenever we have any downtime whatsoever, we should strive to fill it – in any way possible. Be that consciously or subconsciously. But that’s the trick. Having some time to simply daydream or stare into space has real value in the road to deep work. Boredom by definition is deep rest. True boredom means that your brain is switched off (from work-related issues) and in standby mode. In order to ‘embrace’ boredom, Newport suggests that your goals should be:
- not to take breaks from distraction, instead take breaks from focus
- meditate productively – this could mean anything from running and walking, to listening to music and yoga, not just typical meditation
Quit social media, or at least limit its usage
Ah social media. The scourge our many deep work efforts. In his book, Newport cites the 2013 story of Baratunde Thurston, a digital media consultant, who opted to disconnect from his online social media life for 25 days. You can read about it on Fast Company here. It’s one of the top examples given on the Internet Sabbatical debate.
I have to admit I did not try this one during lockdown, but I did try to limit my use of it and keep it to set times at certain points of my working day. My key tactic was keeping my phone well away from me in another room while I worked for set periods, such as 2-hour blocks. How did it work out? Well, I found that it does help me to concentrate for longer periods on more challenging work tasks. In short, after a week of ritualizing, I was not reaching for my phone for a quick check at the first sign of difficulty, which is something I found myself doing A LOT in the not-so-distant past.
Hooked on social media?
I realize that for many knowledge workers, being on and using social media can be heavily linked to your job. Still, you must evaluate how important it really is. As Newport states, many people justify their use of social media as a network tool with the benefits it provides or their work. But often, the rationale is not valid. This is called The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out if you don’t use it.
If social media is important to your work, then of course don’t quit. Just limit its usage. The common sense suggestion, as also Newport points out, is to apply the Law of the Vital Few to your Internet habits. In short, this means narrowing down your social media activity to match your actual goals, personally and professionally. On top of that, don’t use it to entertain yourself. Seek out other mediums for your light entertainment, away from screens if possible. Most importantly, include rest in your entertainment repertoire, and you will be surprised by the results.
Spend downtime with those who inspire you
One thing which makes a huge difference to how effective you are at getting some deep rest is the close circle of people you choose to be around. This one can fall under the active rest sub-category of deep rest, because usually you will choose to spend time with someone to go somewhere or partake in a pastime together. Whatever you do though, try to stick with your goal of being around those people who inspire you. Whether that is because of personal qualities or what they may be achieving professionally. The result of spending some deep rest, or quality downtime, with such people is that you will have a happier and healthier body and mind. This will spark your creativity and productivity, and help you focus on deep work. And of course, you’ll have a great chance to nurture your talent better.
Without a doubt, the best deep work you will do depends on how much regular deep rest you manage to get. The challenge is a significant one. You need to train and rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting all the tempting stimuli that’s out there and around you. Every. Day.
The science is clear on one important aspect. That we certainly do not need to be constantly connected to be productive. On the contrary, the opposite is true. To truly reach our best productive and creative heights, that point when our brain is engaged deeply, it’s imperative to unplug, or disconnect, whatever you want to call it.
I outlined some ways and methods to try out in the previous section, but it is by no means an exhaustive list. To get rid of distractions, the best method I found was to put my phone in another room, not just have it on airplane mode for extended stretches of time. There’s also various other techniques, such as meditation, and work shutdowns – this is actually logging off and not giving work any of your precious attention from a specific time period, say from 6pm on an evening until the following morning AFTER you have gone through your relaxing morning rituals.
Rituals of all trades
Those rituals can come in many shapes and forms. Mine, for example, is waking up without looking at my phone (which is on silent), doing some stretches and walking out onto my veranda to get fresh air and touch the ground outside with my bare feet. I’ll be out there for several minutes. Then I come back in for a shower, get dressed and I’m ready to go. If you’re wondering about coffee, that comes after the school run and gym on the way back home. But the point is not what you do, but making it a habit.
One of the interesting but common sense tactics Newport suggests to avoid distractions is to schedule your internet usage (both for work and leisure) in small bite-size chunks and completely unplug and focus on your deep work task until your next scheduled ‘break’.
As humans we love shortcuts. Actually if you think about it, what’s the main reason behind most good and successful startups? They create a product or service which makes our lives more convenient and/or easier. And they are habit-forming and in many cases downright addictive. In other words, they can get you into the habit of being distracted or consumed by busyness, and worse still, NEVER BORED. Well, that may be my own twisted view but I stand by it.
Sprinkle in some deep play
If you have kids, this is perhaps easier. Making some time for deep play, which for me is deep rest. Remember, rest can also be active. And one of the most important things my 6-year-old son has taught me – especially during the lockdown period – is the value of deep play. When you work from home it can be hard to spend time with your child without having the phone, tablet or laptop far from your grasp. But in trying to implement the strategies recommended by Newport to achieve deep rest, it had the knock-on effect of giving me the opportunity to apply the same principles when playing with my son. Healthy doses of deep play. And I can tell you, building obstacle courses, forts, and looking for bugs (to name just a few) are a great way to unwind.
Rest like a child
Which brings me nicely to the end of this post. If you’re a parent, you’ll know what pediatricians and child psychologists – and from your own experience – tell you about your child. If you’re not a parent it doesn’t matter, you were also a child once so you will hopefully remember a few things. The most important thing children need is … rest. Deep rest. Time spent, well, doing nothing. Being bored is especially highly recommended. Allowing them the time to stare into space, be alone with their imagination, and even to be [heaven forbid] blank is actually good. Somewhere along the way, as “busy” adults, we completely forget about all this.
By using some of the techniques outlined in this post, you can take your first … baby steps again, but this time in re-learning the art of how to rest deeply. Be a kid again. Just without the tablets, smartphones and other devices children seem to have thrust in their hands from an early age these days.
Also, scare yourself a little. Think about deep rest as being your only means to an end of deep work and both professional and person fulfillment. Or go even further and listen carefully to what Newport suggests. That as the world advances, three kinds of people will survive and prosper:
- Owners of capital or people with access to it
- Those who can work with intelligent machines and technology
- Superstars in their field of work
Superstars at work
Deep Work focuses on the third type. To become one, you need to develop two skills: the ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. And to do that, you need to master the art of deep rest as well. Or at least to rediscover how to rest properly.
Go on then!
Summer is here, so it’s the perfect change to take up the challenge.
P.S. If you are hungry for more material on the concept of deep rest, check this excellent series of podcasts on Spotify from the authors of the forthcoming book Time Off.