Deep Work and Soul

What is ‘Deep Work’?

‘Deep work’ is the title of a book by Cal Newport and it’s a term he invented to describe:

the activity of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task¹

¹ The above quote is from an Art of Manliness interview which I’ll be quoting extensively from in the rest of this post

This may sound like just normal work, but there’s more to it. Key words are “without distraction” i.e. without checking your inbox every ten minutes, and “cognitively demanding” i.e. not reorganising your photo albums, or as Newport has put it (quoting from memory of the book)

The longer it would take for a smart high school graduate with no previous experience of the activity at hand to solve/fix/complete it, the higher the level of deep work

For more examples and clearer definitions, check his blog.

What does this have to do with soul?

I believe that the deeper the work you’re doing, the more soulful it will be, and the more you’ll be in touch with your soul.

Deep work creates VALUE. Value, richness, a sense of craftsmanship, a sense of mastery. The reason why I want to talk about this is because of the abundance of the OPPOSITE of deep work in today’s world: shallow work. Newport says of shallow work…

It doesn’t require intense undistracted focus. It’s work that tends to be a little bit more logistical in nature and that doesn’t really leverage your skills at a high level, that is someone else could replicate it pretty easily. That would include things like answering emails, meetings, maybe optimizing your social media analytics setup.¹

Shallowness and emptiness

You’ve probably experienced this type of work first-hand. The type of work that gives you hit after hit of dopamine as you tick off another ‘to do’ yet when the day comes to a close you feel empty, unfulfilled and ungrounded.

A necessary evil

That’s not to say shallow work is all guff and no good. Shallow work has its place and some professions are geared towards shallow work, particularly social media experts etc.

Newport’ll put it better than I ever could:

They both have their value, but recognizing that you need to do both, just having a different term for each. Making that distinction at least in my own life was a real step forward. It got me out of this trap of hey, anything that possibly has a benefit is work. I should just be doing stuff and be busy all the time. It gave me a more nuanced understanding of work where I see it more that shallow work is a necessary evil. It’s the stuff that allows you to keep your job, while deep work is the stuff that’s going to help you get promoted. It’s the stuff that’s really going to make a difference.¹

I’m convinced. Instruct me

To engage in more deep work you must carve out the time in your life for long period of intense focus on an activity that matters to you.

I’m still have trouble with the last part: I write these articles but they don’t give me as much joy as say, making a film or animation etc. It’s a question I’d like to ask Cal myself: can these more artistic disciplines be considered deep work? Are painting, drawing, photography etc. cognitively-demanding?

I’ve just posted a comment on Cal’s website and we’ll see what he (or most likely one of his blog’s followers) think.

Back to the issue at hand – how to work deeply?

Key requirements I’ve found for working deeply:

  • Plan out your day

The following image shows how Newport plans his day:


This page is divided into two columns. In the left column, I dedicated two lines to each hour of the day and then divided that time into blocks labeled with specific assignments. In the right column, I add explanatory notes for these blocks where needed.²

Nothing more needs to be said. Do this.

  • Find somewhere quiet where you will be undistracted

I stay in my bedroom and work at my desk, or go to the library, or the park, and the last resort is cafes/pubs. If you’re only faced with the last resort then you can bring some earphones and play some repetitive instrumental music (I like African or Chinese music).

  • Create a ritual for entering and exiting your work period

A ritual will train your brain to recognise that you’re about to concentrate intensely and it will help you avoid the desire to distract yourself by doing something other than the task at-hand. I get a hot cup of coffee or tea, clear my desk, close any unrelated tabs/programmes, and sometimes write a journal entry with my intentions for the deep work period and write down anything I’m worrying about so I can continue to worry about it AFTER I’ve finished working.

And then watch the soulfulness shine through.

I can’t praise this way of working highly enough. It has changed my life completely. The sense of satisfaction after tapping into the deepest recesses of your creative intellect to bring forth something deep, true and valuable is greater than any trite and fleeting happiness attained through years of shallow work or watching all three Star Wars trilogies in one sitting, or having a pissed night out with the lads or scoring with a hottie.

Action step

Basically, buy Cal’s book.

¹ Art of Manliness: Podcast #168: The Value of Deep Work in the Age of Distraction

² Cal Newport: Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of your Day

Additional reading

Robert Greene – Mastery

The Way of the Superior Man – David Deida

Additional viewing

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