Three Changes I Made to Increase My Deep Work and Decrease My Shallow Work (revised!)


This is my third essay on Deep Work by Cal Newport. First I reviewed the premise of deep work, what it is and why it’s important, then we talked about the four disciplines of execution (i.e. how we actually make these changes on the ground).

Yet to optimize our ability for deep work we must also train our mind to tolerate and even ninja manage distraction. Here is Newport’s framing of the neurological basis for this needed change: “By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits – effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination”. (p37)

 Where’s the mind blown emoji? Deep work with a single focus can isolate the specific neural circuit you want to strengthen (or myelinate). Let’s myelinate people.

Before we continue with the example of my personal adaptations of cultivating deep work and limiting distraction, it’s worth noting that the changes I describe are uniquely me, crafted to my values and my work schedule. If you have interest in changing, your adaptations will look different, maybe drastically different. That’s no problem, there are many ways to deepen.

Top Three Things I’m Doing After Reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work

1. Shutdown Ritual

Per Newport’s suggestion, I now stick to a workweek daily shutdown ritual which includes (a) saying a thank you for the work I had the chance to do today, (b) writing out a simple hourly schedule for the next day with plans for my deep work and wildly important goals, then (c) closing my eyes and say “shut down complete”. Yes, I think this is just as amusing as you might.


2. Schedule Shallow Work, Schedule Deep Work, and Limit Distractions

I aim to have my default be a deeper focus, either in the room with a client or writing and reading alone, then I schedule my necessary shallow activity or my distractions.

  • My phone is now either turned off or on do not disturb between 8 AM and 5 PM Monday through Friday. The only time I receive phone or text message alerts is between 5 PM and 9 PM.

  • In my daily plan, I schedule necessary shallow work like checking email or sharing a blog post on social media. This scheduling structures how many minutes I will allow for this type of work. Keep in mind that I can always *revise* my schedule of allotted minutes, based on how wildly inaccurate I was based on my first assessment of how long a task would take. The intention isn’t to be a perfect predictor, it’s about engaging in shallow work with intention based on my needs versus allowing time to slip away into a Wikipedia wormhole.

  • I also schedule deep work with a single focus. This provides many mental reps of saying no to the discursive brilliance of my distracted mind. I don’t get to engage in shallow work each time a random to-do item pops into my head. Instead, I try to strengthen my ability to concentrate intensely and buffer against distraction (myelinating that neural circuit as mentioned above). Much like breathing meditation, the work and the practice is in the thousand times I turn my mind back toward deep work. More words on this point from Newport, “To summarize, the motivation for this strategy is the recognition that a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect”. (p227)

For anyone out there that is feeling especially demoralized about ever being able to do this, take heart! While typing this, I am battling the following juicy and attractive distractions: Is my friend going to give me his kindle and maybe I should just check my phone real quick to see if he texted; which lacrosse goggles does my daughter actually need and wouldn’t it just make more sense to buy them right now while I’m thinking about it? Am I thirsty? Do I want water? I should probably take a walk around to see if I can find a little snack.

In an effort to discredit my mind’s insistence that I will forget all these things if I don’t act on them immediately, I type “to do” items at the bottom of my text document, and that’s why I have LACROSSE GOGGLES at the bottom of this file on my computer.

3. Delay or Don’t Reply to Email

My default is no longer that I respond to everything. To adjust my email habits, I first clarified what my goals and priorities are for email. (Newport describes this as reorienting yourself to the fact that each of these technologies are tools – you get to decide how you would like to use this tool to meet your goals.) Within my professional life, my first email priority is that current clients who have urgent (nonemergency) needs can reach me quickly. My second priority is that colleagues and clients receive helpful responses to non-urgent queries within 5 business days. Now I have an automatic email responder that notifies senders that I review all emails approximately once a week (special thanks to Bike Shop’s comment asking for an example of this autoresponse - example now below). Current clients are encouraged to call or text me with more urgent matters, and are pointed to 911 or the Colorado Crisis Line for emergencies.

Autoresponse Example:

“Thank you for your message. I respond to email correspondence on Mondays. If you are interested in beginning therapy with me, please fill out this form.

If you are a current client and have a more immediate concern, please text or call me at 720-507-8061 and I will respond as soon as I can.

If you need immediate assistance or are experiencing an emergency, please call the Colorado Crisis and Support Line at 1-844-493-TALK (8255), call 911, or go to your nearest emergency room.

Please note that, due to time constraints, I also am unable to respond to emails that advertise services to me, or that request I list services on one of my websites. 

Dr. Kerry”

Realistically, I’m currently checking my business email daily, mostly because it’s hard to kick my email twitch and I’m still in the early stages of crafting this new email culture. Even with this frequent checking, I notice a personal relief and diminished “reply urgency”, because I know anyone who has emailed me has received an automatic response that adjusted their own expectations about when they’ll hear back from me.

What changes have you made in your own life that limit distractions and expand your focus?

Till next time, Kerry