Saturday, June 15, 2019

I followed Cal Newport's advice in Deep Work - this is what happened

Cal Newport's Deep Work offers advice for clearing your life of distraction, and upping your ability to get important things done. And just a few weeks ago I made it through the title, so thought it'd make for an interesting experiment to try out some of his ideas.

While the book laid out a variety of suggestions I figured the kicker for me was social media, as that's what takes up a lot of my time and attention. The thought was that if I could cut back on social sites my attention would naturally shift to more important things.

The Plan

In Newport's section on social media he recommended quitting your accounts for a month to get a sense of which were useful to you. But my plan took elements from a few of his chapters.

First of all I set out my deep work philosophy, which was to entirely separate my important work from leisure tasks. So for about a month I avoided killing too much time except for a few hours late in the day when I'd inevitably be totally worn down.

Social media was also central to this, but not in the vein of Newport's chapter on the same topic, only in the sense that this is where a lot of my attention tends to go.

Cal Newport
In the beginning

Starting out, I made a radical change at work - I'd only do useful things. If I had downtime between tasks, was waiting for something to run, or a bit worn out, I'd only let myself do things that had some kind of utility.

While doing this I couldn't help but notice how badly addicted I was to the usual sites. At times I'd type URLs before realizing I was doing it. And so it turned out that a big part of my habits were nothing more than visiting specific sites because that's what I'd spent so much time doing before.

But as I made an effort to focus I could feel my willpower growing. That instinct to check out different feeds faded, and my ability to focus was getting stronger. The key turned out to be breaking down the muscle memory that led me to time-wasting sites.

After a while

After a few weeks I got a sense of which accounts were actually useful to me - this being central to Cal Newport's section on social media.

Soon after the experiment started I deactivated my Instagram account and started a new one where I only follow intimate friends and family. I spent less time logging into Facebook. I realized that I don't have much use for Twitter. And internet forums are something that I genuinely value.

How I spent time on these sites changed too, in the vein of Newport's 'drain the shallows' advice. I started thinking more critically about what I shared and commented on. Before I posted I'd ask myself if I was adding value by posting or commenting, and also how much of my time the post was going to waste from fruitless conversation.

So when I realized my comment or post was just a drain on my time, I'd stop making it.

Embracing Boredom

I found this rule from Newport especially handy. It was a recommendation that when you find yourself bored or with the urge for the next adrenaline rush, to slow down and let yourself continue doing what you're doing.

So I started pushing myself to focus on what was happening in the present moment. And through this I recognized that just because I think about something doesn't mean it has to completely take over the task at hand. And so with time my willpower and ability to focus started a new, upward climb.

The Catch

Despite the above, after spending so much time focusing on work I recognized that constant concentration took a lot out of me.

So while it was great in theory to go all in and focus for long blocks of time, in reality the human mind can only expend so much energy all at once. Eventually fatigue would set in, and the things I'd been avoiding began acting as a stand in so I could rest.

I also noticed a trade-off while keeping instant messaging off of my phone. While I was definitely less distracted, there were a few times when people tried to get a hold of me and I didn't get the message until it was too late. And so it would seem like internet culture has dictated that people expect immediate replies, making it challenging to distance yourself from messaging apps without missing out.

Conclusion

By the time the month was up I had nearly forgotten that the experiment was happening. I had already realized a few things, and found myself slipping back into old habits.

And so if I were to change my relationship with the internet and other shallow parts of my life, Newport's suggestions would have to be an ongoing project. Fundamentally changing your habits can't be done in such a short time, they have to be worked on.

Moreover I learned that some of Newport's advice is definitely worth taking. I really did get more done, and I also discovered how much of my life, including time with friends and family, was being leeched by looking at internet feeds.

Once again, if this post interests you, I'd definitely recommend getting a copy of the book. If nothing else, it'll help you question some major parts of your life.