What You Lose With ‘Deep Work’
In the war against distraction, it’s easy to close yourself off from new conversations, ideas, and opportunities
For the past few years, I’ve blocked off large parts of my days for what the author Cal Newport calls “deep work” — the act of focusing, without distraction, on a cognitively demanding task. The case for single-tasking is clear: We’re lying to ourselves if we think we can effectively do multiple things at once. Studies show that interruptions create a more stressful work environment, and that our brains need time to recover from each one.
So for a while, I doubled down in my war against distraction. I avoided social media, kept only the most essential meetings, and deleted every unsolicited email that crossed my inbox. Deep work has been one of my most valuable practices — since eliminating everything I’ve deemed it essential to my productivity, I’ve been able to write hundreds of articles, build an editorial studio, and work on a bunch of fun side projects.
Lately, though, I’ve been having more mixed feelings about this laser focus. I wasn’t sure how to explain my gnawing ambivalence until I came across a speech by mathematician Richard Hamming: “I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most,” he said. “But 10 years later, somehow you don’t [quite know] what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance.”
The point hit me like a freight train. Sure, I’d come up with tons of writing ideas during my deep work sessions. But when I pitched them to editors, they’d often fall flat. I started to realize that by putting on blinders, I was letting my tacit, implicit understanding of the world fade. I was reading plenty of books, but had very little exposure to new, cutting-edge ideas and conversations. Not only that, I had no place where I could challenge my assumptions, gut-check my sense of thinking, and refine my arguments.
Right now, with many of us working from home, it’s becoming easier to shut out the chatter of people around us simply by deleting apps or turning off notifications. This can be a great thing, yes, but there’s also value in staying connected with the world in a way that allows for serendipity — happy accidents that only a collision of interruptions can bring about. Hamming went on to say: “He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.”
In the past few months, I’ve been able to find a happy balance. I’ve created my own, more flexible version of deep work. Here’s how I now work with the door cracked open:
- I reframe unsolicited messages as opportunities. While I used to mostly brush aside cold emails, requests for advice, and Twitter replies, I realized I was missing out on conversations that may offer valuable feedback or new ideas. I’ve changed my thinking. A stranger sharing one of my articles on social media can be an opportunity to find out what they liked about it. An email from a young writer asking for advice can be a chance to remember and strengthen the lessons I’ve learned.
- I use social media in moderation, instead of blocking it entirely. I use LeechBlock for Reddit and News Feed Eradicator for Facebook. I still leave all notifications off, and I always log out of the platforms when I’m done reading them so that it’s inconvenient for me to log back on.
- If I find something interesting online, I don’t mind slightly delaying a deep-work sprint to investigate it. But now, I make the most of those departures: I write a note whenever I see something interesting, which encourages me to deliberately make mental connections I otherwise wouldn’t have.
- I do my best to expand my filter bubble. I’ve been following more people who hold different beliefs and values. I listen and sit with the opinions of others before sharing my own. I read Ground News to get a view of the bigger picture.
- I don’t let a lack of unbroken time stop me from getting started.
- I make time to stay outbound. I start conversations with people I haven’t met before. I get to know acquaintances better. I prefer email for this, since it’s what I respond to most often (just a few times a day) .
I’m already seeing results from the more flexible approach to deep work. I can come up with ideas more effortlessly and revisit old ones thanks to my notes. And I no longer chastise myself for caving into distraction. I know the value of it.
Sometimes, it really does take 10 hours of solid thinking and research for a breakthrough to happen. Other times, they come in moments of deep relaxation, or while putzing around on Twitter.