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:

dailyplan-1-625px

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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Lack of Living

Today I’d like to explore the lack of living that I, and probably many of you, have experienced. We may get things done, we may even have a job we love, a strong relationship with a healthy partner, good friends and family, yet we may feel a lack of vitality.

Co-dependence

This lack of living is strongly related to your level of independence from your family and society. Though we may become conscious of many ways that we are co-dependent, there seems to always be more, hidden in the unconscious. Only by growing in awareness, giving utterance to our most highest desires and seeking the feedback of others can we unlock and loosen these subconscious dependencies on other people.

I’ll let Joseph Campbell take it from here:

Campbell talks of Babbitt, specifically the last line:

I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life

This may sound extreme, but it begs the question: how much of your decisions are influenced by other people? If they are at all influenced, even the slightest amount, then whatever you do, it will not be what you WANT to do.

Other people will always try and influence us. We may choose to take into consideration people’s opinions, chew on them, and then make our decision – but without the chewing, we are merely robots. Mechanical talking heads, repeating the desires of others.

Pain – our truest friend

Pain, physical or emotional, shows us the path to our liberation. But it’s so easy to reject the pain, to turn away, to distract ourselves with shiny gadgets and over-achievement and love and sex.

I can’t remember who said it, but someone once said something along the lines of:

When it comes to emotions, human beings are the most creative creatures on the planet. We’ll come up with almost anything to distract ourselves from an uncomfortable emotion

Why pain?

Pain originates from the soul. It tells us when we’re hurt and need rest. It tells us when we’re trespassing against our soul’s wishes. It tells us when we should have paid attention to what’s in front of us instead of the cute girl beside us through lampposts and traffic signs and cliff edges.

But the pain is too much

You are an infinite being in source. Your soul is formless and will remain after your body has dissolved into the earth from whence it sprouted.

Enough talking, let’s dance for a moment

 

The pain is still too much

And who’s responsibility is it to remedy that? Answer it truthfully.

If you answered yourself, you’re right.

If you answered someone else, you’re still right.

The truth, as always is somewhere in between. One thing I know is that you’ll probably have to take the first step. If you’re stuck in the same pattern, you’ll have to be the one to break out of it.

As Einstein wisely said:

Problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them

You may still have hope. Hope that “one day things will be different”. Forget that shit. You’ll be waiting your whole life, like the character in Babbitt:

I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life

Action step

Take the step. Call someone. Talk about how you feel. Already doing that and it hasn’t worked? Try something new. Reveal something even more intimate. Go to a men’s group. Start a men’s group. Still feeling stuck? Take a different approach. Organise a social outing. Quit your job. Wake up at 5am. Fast for a day. Go to the woods and refuse to return until the answer comes to you.

Life is dynamic, it isn’t a single question-and-answer. Dance with it.

I wish you luck.

 

Emotional Pain and the Modern Male Crisis

My story

I started this blog because of something the poet and author of Iron John, Robert Bly, once said:

The best way to learn something is to teach it.

I have spent most of my adult life with a feeling of emptiness and inner discontent. I have and still go through periods of intense depression, anxiety and despair. That’s not to say I have not had my happy moments, but I think if I were to be honest with myself, even in the happiness I’ve felt, there’s always been something missing. Something…off.

I have now come to a period of my life which REQUIRES radical change. For a while the pain and suffering in my life has been steadily increasing, and it’s now reaching breaking point. I believe I have hit the bottom of the barrel, and I’m either going to sack it off and hang myself OR learn how to integrate this thing.

I am someone who doesn’t have patience for inauthenticity. If something is not my calling, I won’t pretend that it is just to please other people or society. And I think this emotional pain is an indicator that I’m not living true to my highest self, that I’m not following my calling. Some people may just learn to live with the pain, bury it under distractions, and trudge on, day after day, until some tragedy wakes them up to the preciousness of life and forces them to change. As I said, I don’t have the patience for that.

What has all of this to do with the modern male crisis? And what IS the modern male crisis?

The modern male crisis is the pain of being a man in today’s society.

The pain and grief among men today is greater than ever before. Perhaps you’ve felt it. Perhaps you are moved to tears by a Disney movie. When you first started drinking you’d become wildly emotional over small things. When you broke up with your ex you cried for days.

Well, that’s me anyway.

Robert Bly believes that the industrial revolution is probably the root cause of all this pain. Because of the industrial revolution, fathers were separated from their sons. It used to be that the sons would work alongside the fathers at their place of work. And Bly believes that the sons gained something intangible, yet vital, from this interaction with their fathers. They learned how to be men.

If we do not know how to navigate life with strength, humour, love and purpose, i.e. to be a man, life’s challenges can overwhelm us

And here’s where we come full circle. Sometimes, I’m so very near to becoming totally overwhelmed by the dilemma of life, that I can almost touch the next world. This frightens me, as I feel that I still have plenty to give to this world, and I don’t want to depart prematurely.

I have had depression, anxiety, insomnia, despair, grief, derealisation, suicidal thoughts and all manner of physical and emotional pain. Undergoing all of these experiences has given me gifts that I want to share with the world. I have accumulated resources that help me live as a man, with an open heart, fully and authentically. I hope to aid you in living your life as fully and as authentically as possible.

Action step

If you are struggling from any kind of emotional pain, there are always actions you can take that can help you alleviate and understand the pain.

It’s difficult, but it’s one of the most effective ways I know of alleviating suffering. Expressing emotions is still seen as a weakness or a flaw by some. It actually takes tremendous strength and courage, and we should learn to celebrate the act of sharing emotions.

Here are some links to videos that have helped me during tough times. They were all chosen especially for their soulfulness and richness – you will only find deep things in these; things that have been crafted from a life well-lived, or from a place of courageous honesty: