The difficulties of doing “deep work”

These past two weeks I’ve been on leave, staying at home and being a dad to my 2-year-old son.

He’s got quite a standard schedule: the wife and I bring him out in the morning to let him “see the world”, have breakfast, and/or visit the grandparents etc.; he comes back around noon, takes a snack, sometimes a full lunch, then goes to bed for his afternoon nap.

Depending on how tired we manage to get him before his nap, he’ll wake up between 5-6pm. Sometimes though, he surprises us and wakes up at 3pm or earlier. It’s happened enough times for us to unconsciously be in a constant state of high alert throughout his nap, hearing out for his cries.

(I wonder if it’s something akin to gambling addiction, where the release of dopamine is increased when winning is intermittent or unpredictable. Just in this case, it’s more of the opposite in that we’re always in fear that the boy wakes up before schedule!)

What I realised was that during this “high alert” phase, I’ve always found it hard to do anything that requires more than a cursory time commitment, anything that would not be considered “deep work”.

Deep work – 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 requires a commitment of uninterrupted time. Going into a cognitively demanding task and then being interrupted halfway through often means that whatever you’d done up till then is wasted, or at least any progress made set back considerably.

I remember once making good progress on a machine learning project I was doing for work. Suddenly the boy cried and I had no choice but to stop. When I resumed my programming in the night, I found it almost impossible to resume where I left off. What made so much sense just 8 hours earlier made little sense now, and getting back up to speed was a slow and painful process.

What this means is that when I’m in the midst of “expected interruption” I’m gravitating toward activities that are not subject to such a regression. For example:

  • Instead of reading complex works of non-fiction, I’m reading “lighter” books that I can easily dive in and out of, especially great are those where the chapters are short or where stand-alone ideas are wrapped up within a couple of pages.
  • Instead of practicing my technical data science skills or actually writing code, which tends to require a heavy commitment of uninterrupted time, I’m practicing typing on typeracer.com, where within seconds I’m racing against my typing peers and getting an instant hit of dopamine since I win so much but not all the time (see: above link on “gambling addiction”!)
  • Instead of setting my goals for the new year and how I’m planning to achieve them, I’m thinking about what I feel like having for dinner and how to cook it.

Though I always knew this problem also existed at work, I’m now more aware of the impact it might have.

For those of us constantly barraged by “urgent minutiae” or unscheduled projects (i.e. pretty much all of us I bet), the lack of a system or structured approach toward addressing interruptions could lead us to a lifetime of firefighting at the expense of actually doing the impactful, deep work we were brought on board to do.

Personally, these are the things I do to prevent myself from drowning in urgent minutiae:

  • Relagating of e-mails to an hourly or two-hourly affair, which helps you avoid being interrupted mid-thought or while putting the finishing touches on your magnum opus.
  • Scheduling of a “meeting with yourself”, which blocks your calendar and allows you to work, guilt-free, on your most important tasks.
  • Addressing anything that takes 2 minutes or less immediately, which frees the mind of unnecessary clutter, something I picked up while implementing the wonderful Getting Things Done methodology.
  • Focusing on your highest priority tasks while ignoring everything else for the day, which is dangerous but oftentimes necessary.

(PS: To date I haven’t quite found a “hack” for myself at home, though. My kid doesn’t respect my calendar, nor does he bother with e-mails, and he’s just about impossible to ignore.)

(PPS: Above definition of “deep work” found on Cal Newport’s website, whom I *think* coined the term. The term itself came into my consciousness after it was first mentioned to me by S on my team at work.)

Feeling good about one’s work

I was just “thinking about things” when this thought came into my head: To feel good about one’s work, there are two sides of validation: the internal and the external.

  • External validation: somebody tells you, “you’ve done well. This is excellent!”
  • Internal validation: you tell yourself, “you’ve done well; you’d set out to do something well and you did it.”

This past year I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on my work. Still, something was missing.

“This is great work,” they’d say, and I’d smile.

Was it really? I’d think, feeling less than satisfied, tinged with impostor syndrome.

Luckily the opposite was true, too.

The work my team and I do are quite regularly behind-the-scenes “enablement” work. Nobody but us knows; no rah-rah; no fanfare.

They’d say nothing, even after I’d done something I thought was remarkable.

Still, this is awesome! I’d think.

And I’d be satisfied. Almost happy.

Winning first place without ever being first

Or: what I learned from playing too much DiRT Rally (one of my favourite rally racing games.)

So here’s the context: I’m playing “career mode”, in which I buy a car, hire a couple of engineers, and go out to race. In order to win the championship, I have to have the best time across six “stages” or legs. Each stage is located in a different place so they all have their peculiarities: different areas of easy and difficult sections, some more suitable to the car’s set-up than others.

The thing about the game is that unlike real life, you have an unlimited numbers of do-overs – if you crash your car or get a time you don’t fancy, you can simply restart the stage.

When I first started playing this game that’s what I did. A lot.

I was intent on always finishing first for each stage. If I didn’t manage to finish first I would restart the stage. At times I found myself playing each stage close to 30-50 times; some stages I would spend an hour or two on and still not have the fastest time.

Then one day there was a stage in which I just couldn’t be the first for no matter how many times I tried.

I gave up. For that stage I ended up 5th and I accepted it*. The following stages were not much better either, with me ending up no better than third.

* (Side-note: actually my saying I “accepted it” is not really true. It was more of just getting the championship over, closing this chapter of my life, and uninstalling the game.)

Of all six stages of the championship, I ended up winning none.

And yet *drullroll please* I won the championship.

“But how?” I asked myself. “How??”

I couldn’t quite believe it but the overall time I had was faster than all my competitors. I won by virtue of consistency and not completely fouling up. Those who had won a stage had performed poorly for at least one of the others.

To me this was revolutionary and extremely zen: I won by not winning.