Monthly Archives: February 2016

Deep Work

Over the past few weeks, I have read Cal Newport’s new book Deep Work.

As a tenure track assistant professor there are certain parallels and I found it an interesting read. I think it has relevance to the work of our lab and how and what we are trying to accomplish. I have read Cal’s previous book and quite enjoyed it and so looked forward to this one coming out in January 2016.

Cal’s basic premise in this book is that there are two types of work: Deep Work and Shallow Work.
Deep work comes about as you develop an ability to focus and is a skill that is increasingly important and harder to naturally develop in this connected time. As he says deep work is the kind of work that gets you tenure (or promotions) while not doing shallow work, he somewhat jokingly said, would be what gets you fired. Thus we all need strike a balance between these. Here are more detailed descriptions of the two:

Deep Work

The kind of work that Cal talks about as deep work are the complex tasks that require high skill and high focus. For him, that is theoretical computer science proofs. For me, that would be paper writing, study design, the qualitative analysis and careful synthesis I like to do related to health information systems / health systems and user experience. This is the work where you might experience flow and is the type of work that crumbles with interruptions.

Shallow Work

Shallow work are the interruptions. They may be important and often can be urgent.
Classic shallow work are things like: quick emails, scheduling meetings and often meetings themselves.

Deep Work routines

I like how Cal describes a number of deep work patterns he has seen be effective, from the “every day routine” to the go away, build a stone tower, and stay there for weeks every year to get the deep thinking done. I have used both (well, not a stone tower, but I went away to write my thesis. No clinic, no classes, nothing but 1000+ words a day, repeat until done).

My take aways from the book.

I think it is worth reading, especially if you are a grad student looking to get chunks of work done on your thesis and papers

My clinic work does not fit into deep vs shallow very well. It is a form of deep work in that it requires focus and knowledge and years of training but it is something that I do not get the luxury of focusing on one patient for 90+ minutes. Instead, I’m seeing 30+ patients in a day. It isn’t Cal’s classic deep work but it is not shallow work either. It is a different rhythm for me. I think that clinic work has helped me with the general technique of focusing but not sustaining that focus on a single topic. For that I can look at some of my other practices. I found that I was already doing several things in the book to promote deep work.

  1. I have a weekly / daily routine with deep work rhythms.
  2. I ensure a good chunk of deep work time each day (that is usually first thing in the morning before people are up in my house). I also block of chunks of deep work (often later in the week) and try to cluster meetings and clinical time in other parts of the week so I can do a bit of “mode shifting”.
  3. I have reduced many of the common attention sinks / alerts in my day (e.g. no buzz on my phone for every email).

I found I could do more – and that “more” for me meant focusing on my shallow work.

  1. I cluster meetings where ever I can (but I still have a lot of meetings)
  2. Email: While I have turned off automatic checking and bells and whistles when email arrives, I do check more often (manually) and I am often triggered by the little icon showing how many messages there are to be processed (rarely at zero these days).
  3. Timing: Cal does not get into timing too much but I know for me my best deep work is done early and I will work more to ensuring the mornings have 1-2 chunks of deep work before I get “too shallow” with calls, emails, etc.

My actions:

  1. Email notifications: I will move my mail app off my task bar and turned off the notification badge. That seems small but now I cannot see the 28 emails pending – even though it wasn’t pinging me actively, I would find it impossible to look as I moved between apps.
  2. Meeting my Email: I have fit email into my schedule whenever, thinking it small and squeezable. It’s true it is and that seems to work for days with meetings. HOWEVER, it can distract on days where I want to get into thinking rhythms. If it IS a habit to check email while, say, boiling the kettle, then I’ll be more likely to do that when I am in deep thought and boiling the kettle. Instead of getting a cup of green tea being a quiet movement away from a deep problem it becomes a phase shift. By booking email slots in my day, I can be more conscious of those shifts.
  3. One of the things that has been on my “deep work list” (long before this book) is to take a reading holiday. That is, take work time to get away and take with me a set of books / papers that address a big issue and not let myself be distracted for a large chunk of time. Bill Gates was known to do this and I have been meaning to try this. That will be one of my actions – maybe not for a full week, but at least several days to start.