On Deep Work and Shallow Shoals

I have not read Cal Newport’s latest best-seller, Deep Workmy reading list is already too long — but I did attend a seminar recently that summarized the concept with a focus on how one’s job can be part of a meaningful life.

Newport’s “rules for focused success in a distracted world” are meant to help people train themselves to block out all distraction and get into a frame of mind to make new discoveries — forming muscle memories that turn us from philistines and dilettantes into true experts and craftsmen. In Deep Work mode, the objects we work with become our teachers as we conceptually grasp the true meaning of these things. The craftsman can’t verbalize his understanding of his rarified skills, because the knowledge is transferred from the objects he works with into his neurons through a progressive myelination process. Focused practice is the catalyst for accelerated subconscious learning.

Deliberate practice cannot exist alongside distraction. You get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. Therefore, to be good at something is to be well myelinated. Through deliberate practice and by focusing on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific circuit relevant to that skill to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive process triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to start wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits, which in turn effectively strengthens the skill.

The Importance of Deep Work & The 30-Hour Method for Learning a New Skill

Thanks are due to Professor Karl von Bibber for his helpful condensation of *Deep Work*

The secret of deep work is that we all can have a meaningful work life— line chef, coder, and the lawyer alike — if we are willing to eliminate deadweight distractions like constantly checking Facebook and email. Deep work has two requirements:

  1. space/time. Long, dedicated temporal (and physical) spaces are essential for the ritual and rhythm of focused work.
  2. feedback. We need mechanisms for working on the right tasks. This can include To-Do lists that separate administrative functions from Deep Work, and collaborations that keep us accountable to a team.

Against these rules, lawless social media intrudes on our productivity and turns us into autonomous individuals, betraying its promise of greater connectedness. The terrifying flip side of Deep Work is that spending doing Shallow Work, like checking email, permanently weakens your ability to focus.

Thus, the Deep Worker of the future will be a digital minimalist — employing the smart phone for a small number of tasks, and using social media strategically but never for entertainment.

My initial reaction to the seminar was that I am failing at my attempts to work deeply. I rarely work in chunks of an hour or more on a single thing, and often spend whole days bouncing between tasks that blend high-intellect with high-attention-to-detail processes. Think of writing versus editing/formatting; artistic creation versus social media marketing. Bouncing between tasks means you end up with attention residue (from your previous task) all over your current focus.

On the plus side, I do experience a certain flow while multi-tasking. Like a chef overseeing a multi-course meal, I am often filling the lag time of certain tasks (i.e., uploading files) with other tasks that can be wrapped up in a few minutes. I have mastered the art of keyboard shortcuts to toggle between tabs, windows and applications, and make liberal use of the Jumpcut extension (a clipboard with a memory) to copy-and-paste up to 15 things at once. Could there be a Deep Work experience of flow between tasks, or am I freaking out my brain and scrambling my oligodendrocytes?

The view from my office

It’s tempting to quit social media and invest all of my time in the thing I really enjoy: sailing. I feel myself approaching the steep part of the learning curve, where I can acquire skills exponentially due to my ability to get out on the water relatively easily. My new favorite sail is just out past the breakwater, through the pier, and around the bend to the South Sailing Basin, where I can anchor on the sheltered shoal and spend a couple hours working on a cell phone hotspot. The data constraints make it costly to abuse the Internet, and the ritual makes it easier to get into a good work flow.

Jump down, turn around, steer the boat, don’t run aground!

Getting in and out of the marina are two of the most difficult skills to acquire in single-handed sailing, and they also happen to involve multi-tasking. There is stark difference between this kind of multi-tasking and the keyboard jockeying I do for a living.

Speaking of books I haven’t read, I also heard The Shallows is also informative regarding what the Internet is doing to our brains:

I assume it’s not good.

Deep Work is optimized between 3 and 8 hours a day. It’s always a good day when I get out and sail for 3 hours or more. Even if my other work suffers, I still feel like I’ve accomplished something.

Boats and water are an analog alternative to the digital networks that threaten to enslave us through our voluntary compliance. But we need not succumb to the nihilism of autonomous individualism! We can go sailing — alone, together, whatever — and cast our nets in deeper work and deeper waters.


Follow my misadventures, and use social media to escape social media here.



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