Why “Deep Work” has changed my life

“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four hour days.”
― Zig Ziglar

“As we’ll see, the greatest shortage in our society is an instinct to produce. To create solutions and hustle them out the door. To touch the humanity inside and connect to the humans in the marketplace.” — Seth Godin, Linchpin

This wasn’t the post I meant to write; but I’m compelled to do so. I don’t mean in the sense I’ve no other choice, but, instead, born of a need to share my mistaken view about the way I’ve lived my life, pursued a hotchpotch career plan (that’s often left me exhausted) and how a book called “Deep Work” has caused me to fundamentally change the way I use my time and plan my days.

Of course the post is personal — it’s my blog after all — and, to that extent, I’m sure you’ll ask the inevitable question, “What does Summerhayes’s issues have to do with me?”, but I sincerely hope that by sharing my failings and experience, you might take time to reconsider if there are better ways to use your time and do great work — the main takeaways of this post — and, as a result, live a more fulfilling life. I’m not saying that you must do anything different, but, at the very least, I’d like to think you’ll investigate where your time is going, and if, by better planning, you could achieve more. And, no, I’m not about to turn myself into another productivity guru — think GTD and The “4-Hour Work Week” — but there’s a strong link between true self (see “New Seeds of Contemplation” by Thomas Merton and “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life” by Parker J. Palmer) and making the most of our time, particularly as it applies to the knowledge worker, entrepreneur or artist.

Actually, I can go further and say, with some confidence, that all great artists — e.g. writers, filmmakers and composers — apply a rock-solid daily routine to achieve said greatness. In this regard, I’m fortified in having read “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey which sets out at some length the daily rituals of “161 inspired, and inspiring, minds — among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians — whose daily rituals [underpin their success]”.

(On a piece of paper you might want to ask yourself if you’ve a daily ritual and if it aids or hinders your life.)

If there’s a health warning to this post, it’s simply to say that it’s long — I think it’s the longest post I’ve ever written on this blog or elsewhere — and you may want to print it off, and set aside around 30 minutes to read it through. Better still, make yourself a coffee or pour yourself a glass of wine and find a quiet place to digest the contents.

Just to be clear. I’ve also written another blog post to pick up the points in last week’s post, but I thought that this topic was more important right now. I’ll still share my original post, and I’ll probably do so in the next few days, rather than waiting until next Monday — the day I now publish my blog.

I’m an inveterate reader of books — both in paper form and Kindle (349 at the last count). And not just any books, but the type that I (often) hope will transform my life. That’s taking it a bit far. What I hope for is something to wake me up from my narcissistic torpor, and give me a path to follow different to the one that others have predicted would be good for me, or I’ve followed out of habit.

I’m sorry to say that very few books I’ve read fit the bill. In fact, right now, I can list them on one hand:

“New Seeds of Contemplation” by Thomas Merton
“Linchpin” by Seth Godin
“In Search of Excellence” by Tom Peters
“Love is a Dog from Hell” by Charles Bukowski
“The Most Successful Small Business in the World: The Ten Principles” by Michael E. Gerber

For various reasons, each one of them has found a place in my heart. Yes, admittedly, they’re an eclectic mix but, in essence, they all go to one thing, namely, to shine a light on something bigger than our egoic self. You know the person who thinks they know everything, but in truth is deeply insecure. To my mind, they go further than that and compel us not to live to an ideal ‘type’ but to push ourselves further than we think humanly possible, so that when time is eventually called on our lives, we’ll know that we’ve lived mind, body and soul; and we’ve stood on our own two feet (a favourite expression of Thomas Merton).

The sad thing is there are hundreds of books that have done nothing for me. It’s more than falling on deaf ears: they’ve made no connection whatsoever. I don’t know why but, more often than not, it’s because the philosophy seems out of kilter with reality. Oh, and probably more to the point, I’m always left wondering, “If I follow your modus operandi, what then?”

In addition to my reading, I also use Audible for audio books. (I had a subscription for a year but I cancelled it because I couldn’t keep up with the amount of books I was supposed to buy.) I’ve listened to some amazing books like, “Little Big Things” by Tom Peters but, I’ve also downloaded, mostly on a whim, some howlers. Truly bad. (I’ve got a Julia Cameron book where it sounds like she’s talking from 20 feet below sea level and makes the two hours of creative exhortation exceptionally difficult to bear. Shame on you Mr Producer.)

One of the reasons I’ve invested in audio books is because I like to make the best use of my time when driving or walking our two dogs, Alfie and Fidget. I don’t always have an audio book playing — I do like to hear and connect with nature from time to time — but, more often than not, I’ll be listening to or re-listening to a book, and I may even be reading the book at the same time — not whilst driving or walking!

The reason I’m giving you this background is to highlight that there’s nothing systematic about my reading. It’s not like I’ve invested time scanning the abundance of Amazon.co.uk bookshelves (where I buy 99% of my books) and then decide to buy every book of a particular genre, although undoubtedly I’ve a lot of similar books from years of buying. And that makes it all the more remarkable that I would have read and now downloaded the stunningly insightfully book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport.

Before I explain how I came to it, and the significance to you — my strongest recommendation is that you buy a copy — let me call in aid the exact wording from Cal’s website of the various luminaries who’ve been kind enough to put their name to it. Please suspend the cynicism when reading the quotes because, unlike the usual “Go grab this sucker now or risk losing everything”, I can honestly say that if you take his various rules to heart, it could transform your life — both personally and professionally; and yes, believe it or not, and as flacid as it might sound, that’s what it’s done and will continue to do for me.

‘Praise

“As a presence on the page, Newport is exceptional in the realm of self-help authors.”
—New York Times Book Review

“DEEP WORK accomplishes two considerable tasks: One is putting out a wealth of concrete practices for the ambitious, without relying on gauzy clichés. The second is that Mr. Newport resists the corporate groupthink of constant connectivity without seeming like a curmudgeon.”
—Wall Street Journal

“Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem.”
—The Economist

“This is a deep, not shallow, book which can enrich your life.”
—The Globe and Mail

“A wonderfully entangled, intertwined, and erudite series of strategies, philosophies, disciplines, and techniques to sharpen your focus and dive deep into your work.”
—800-CEO-READ

“What emerges most powerfully is the sense that it’s wrong to think of deep work as one more thing you’ve got to try to cram into your schedule. Truly committing to it, Newport suggests, transforms the rest of your time – so you’ll crank through shallow work faster, be more present in your home life, and eliminate time wasted switching between tasks. Depth, in short, isn’t at odds with a full life – it facilitates it. I’m persuaded.”
—Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian

“In this strong self-help book, Newport declares that the habits of modern professionals-checking email at all hours, rushing from meeting to meeting, and valuing multitasking above all else-only stand in the way of truly valuable work.”
—Publishers Weekly

“As automation and outsourcing reshape the workplace, what new skill do we need? The ability to do deep work. Cal Newport’s exciting new book is an introduction and guide to the kind of intense concentration in a distraction-free environment that results in fast, powerful learning and performance. Think of it as calisthenics for your mind-and start your exercise program today.”
—Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and To Sell Is Human

“DEEP WORK makes a compelling case for cultivating intense focus, and offers immediately actionable steps for infusing more of it into our lives.”
—Adam M. Grant, author of Give and Take

“Cal Newport is a clear voice in a sea of noise, bringing science and passion in equal measure. We don’t need more clicks, more cats, and more emojis. We need brave work, work that happens when we refuse to avert our eyes.”
—Seth Godin, author of What to Do When It’s Your Turn

“Cal Newport offers the most well-informed and astute collection of practical advice I have seen for reclaiming one’s mental powers.”
—Matthew B. Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head

“Just when you think you already know this stuff, DEEP WORK hits you with surprisingly unique and useful insights. Rule #3 alone, with its discussion of the ‘Any-Benefit’ mind-set, is worth the price of this book.”
—Derek Sivers, founder, Sivers.org

“Here lies a playbook for professionals of all stripes to achieve true differentiation in a crowded talent marketplace. Cal Newport’s latest shows why he is one of the most provocative thinkers on the future of work.”
—Ben Casnocha, co-author of The Start-Up Of You’

I’d like to say that finding the book was exactly what I was looking for but it was pure chance. I came to it from re-listening to Cal’s earlier book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, which, in essence, challenges the exhortation ‘follow your passion’ as the genesis for developing a successful career. You might ask, why I was re-listening to his other book? It’s a good question but probably has something to do with the fact that I’ve gone back into legal practice as a solicitor. On first blush, that last point seems hardly worth making, but if you’re a long-time reader of this blog or followed me elsewhere online or heard me speak, you’ll know that when I left legal practice in 2010 and for the last six years I’ve been doing my level best to persuade the profession (and everyone in it!) to change its ways. In making the move back into practice, it’s not that I’m ashamed to admit I was a bit hasty to leave or that I could or should have done things differently, very differently in fact, but it’s more a case of saying, “If I’m going to go back to practice, I’d like to think, based on what I’ve learnt, that I’ll practice in a different way.” More than that I’d be a better person than I was before. (Trust me, I swear a lot less than I used to, and no longer run around in a fog of confusion, trying to understand what the hell I’m trying to do in sorting out one ‘fine mess’ after another.)

On listening to “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” on Audible it reminded me of the importance of applying the craftsman’s mindset, and the need to stay focused on my work so that I didn’t succumb to the myriad distractions that had engulfed me for the past few years. In addition to listening to Cal’s book, I also read a few of his blog posts and saw that he’d a new book out called, “Deep Work”. As per usual, and without too much investigation, I decided to buy it.

So far so good.

But actually what I’ve described to you, whilst true, doesn’t go to the underlying issue that I hoped his new book would address; namely, how was it, despite reading a slew of books on happiness, GTD, getting better, creativity, shipping our best work and working mindfully, I’d achieved practically nothing in the creative department or otherwise in the last six years? I’d known, as night follows day, that I’d lived a distracted life these past six years (and well before that — going back to my early teens), and I wondered if there was a way to get myself out of the sh*t and start producing my best work.

Let me be clear what I’m trying to say. In case you don’t know me, I’m a competitive guy. No more so than a lot of people I guess, but once I’m bitten by an idea, I’m likely to give it everything until I either die of exhaustion or achieve my goal. Leaving law and starting out on my own was no different. Likewise, trying to position myself as a writer, blogger and speaker. But in hindsight, by ignoring the advice in Cal’s book, “Deep Work”, I ended up being superficially busy, arguably productive, but I’d not built or shipped a damn thing. That’s not completely true. I did, with a coach, manage to self-publish one book of poetry and a summary of one year’s worth of blogs, but that it was it. As regards my desire to grow my self-employed practice, and despite the various plans I played about with, producing copious lists of Things To Do and generating more heat than light with my business development, all I had to show for it was a rag bag of assignments, a few speaking gigs and three longish client assignments.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disappointed with what I achieved but, in reflecting on my modus operandi, I now see how I was distracted by social media, endless unproductive meetings and never getting past the point where I could say that I’d beaten Resistance — see “War of Art” by Steven Pressfield and “Linchpin” by Seth Godin.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m not looking for sympathy. Hell, no! In fact, I wouldn’t mind if you said, “I told you so you, idiot”; but I can’t help wonder what might have been if I’d actually listened to a few the people that I so assiduously read.

(I think Seth Godin nails it with this quote from “Linchpin”:

“When you set down the path to create art, whatever sort of art it is, understand that the path is neither short nor easy. That means you must determine if the route is worth the effort. If it’s not, dream bigger.”)

If there was an Aha moment when reading “Deep Work”, it was an understanding and appreciation that I’d never engaged in deep work neither over the previous six years or most of my adult life!

Yikes!

Just so that we’re clear on the meaning of deep work, I quote from Cal’s website:

“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.”

I accept that that definition can be a bit misleading — it sounds like another time management hack — but having now adopted a few of the practices outlined in the book — the one that I’ve found most empowering is the use of time blocking — I can already see how it’s inculcated its way into my life in a measurable and profound way.

Although you may not be familiar with time blocking, all it means is adopting a routine where you write down what you’re going to do the following the day by breaking the day up into one hour chunks, looking at your most important things that you need to do professionally, personally and on any other basis (I have a list called ‘family’) and then focusing 100% of your effort on those blocks. During those periods there’s nothing else to do, and you eliminate all distraction, e.g. telephone calls, email and, most especially, social media.

Just in case you don’t think this allows much freedom, let me say that nothing is immovable and it’s not that the system doesn’t allow for interruptions but what you’re doing is trying to build up you stamina and willpower (which is finite — see the work of Roy F. Baumeister) in such a way that when you look back on the week, you can see, at a glance, how many deep hours you’ve devoted to your most important things.

In a subsequent post, I’ll share with you my daily planning, suitably redacted, but you’ll see it’s practically the same as Cal’s: I use an A4 pad where I divide the page in half and write down on the left-hand side the hours of the day starting at 5am (when I get up) and finishing at 10pm (when I now go to bed).

In writing about and briefly explaining “Deep Work”, it’s not to make me appear clever or better than anyone else. All I’m doing is sharing my profound insight that’s caused me to challenge my assumed thinking, given me a better way to live my life and bring more clarity to what I’m trying to do professionally, personally and with my family.

Let me reiterate what I said at the start of this post, namely my admission “[of] the way I’ve lived my life, [and that I’ve] pursued a hotchpotch career plan (that’s left me exhausted)”. I might not be making a good fist of explaining this, but I now feel, both in the career planning and work departments, that I’ve made a mess of my life. I mean, who in their right mind would start out in engineering, move to recruitment, then to law and finally adopt a practice of moving here, there and anywhere because I wasn’t prepared to sit down and do the heavy lifting to grow a business or become a writer?

Me! (You fool.)

But let me cut to the chase. I needn’t have read any book to have this epiphany. All I needed to do was acknowledge and accept, based on my ‘actual’ experience, that absent focus and commitment to one thing or a very few number of things, my life’s drifted before my very eyes. If there’s a way to describe this I can think it can be found in one of Cal’s blogs called “Study Hacks on Campus: Discussion #2: Control” where he said:

“The control philosophy has you decide in advance how to spend your hours. It rejects the default approach of allowing your days to unfold in a chaotic and inefficient manner.”

Now, save for very few times in my life, where I did have a plan or was immersed in something tremendously satisfying (e.g. trying to build my first business, Ambassador Recruitment Ltd.), I’ve never tried to control anything. Instead, I’ve been controlled by everything.

If this sounds similar to the approach that Michael E. Gerber and others prescribe, namely the most successful people go to work on their lives rather than being carried along in the flotsam and jetsam of daily existence, then you wouldn’t be a million miles away.

I know I can’t go back on my life, and hell I’m nearly 50 years of age, but one thing I (now) know is that there’s a way to change the way I work without changing the way I work…if that makes sense. I suppose all I’m really doing is taking focus to the extreme — hence why I no longer engage with social media — but I could equally pick one huge, important goal like shipping my first book and giving that my best hours, whilst still allowing for all the other things in my life.

All I know is that whether I’d read “Deep Work” or not, something had to change. In fact, if you go back through a few of my late-2016 blog posts, you’ll already see how I was unsettled by how little real work I’d done and the need to cut back on my blogging, change my daily routine and bring more joy into my life. Well, at least now I’ve found a methodology, based on actual and real experience that so far I’ve found the most amazing, transformative experience of my life.

In terms of my goals for 2017, I don’t have any but I do have three very short lists — work/professional, personal (i.e. creative) and family — whereby I now use those to enable me to block out my deep hours each day. (I write out my plan the day before — it takes me about 15 minutes.) I’m also in the process of planning my weeks, and making sure that I pick up some of the key things that I need to deal with this year.

You might think this all a bit sterile and denuded of life’s rich tapestry, but it doesn’t feel like that in the slightest. If there’s a sense of anything, it’s having sat down to work for an hour or so, and knowing that I’ve done my best work towards a larger goal. The closest experience to this is meditation. Yes, that’s it. It’s a meditative experience or  it feels like regularly getting into a state of flow — see the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-me-hi).

That’s enough for now. If there’s a key takeaway, it’s to check out Cal Newport’s blog and see what you think. Here’s a link to one of his posts on time blocking and a link to the book, “Deep Work“. If you do decide to read his blog or the book I’d love to hear from you and what you think.

Oh, and one last thing. If you’re on social media this Tedx talk of Cal’s is a must watch. I didn’t watch it before I pulled the pin on social media but, having watched it, I’m more convinced than ever that, certainly as regards our children, we’ll come to regret the invention of social media. And, yes, I’m well aware that’s a volte face my previous position, when I was selling the paradigm, but I’m not that conceited or bone-headed to know when I’ve made a mistake. The only caveat to my abdication from social media, is, much like Seth Godin, I’ll continue to share my blog and podcasts on Twitter.