One of big insight for me was finding out that there are two types of work: shallow work and deep work. Shallow work is typically characterized as mundane, repetitive, unfocused and very segmented work. For example, answering customer service mails with frequent phone interruptions. On the other hand, deep work is focused, uninterrupted work, where all your attention goes to this one single thing. For example, turning off the phone and writing your novel for two hours straight. That’s deep work.
In Cal Newport’s book called Deep Work (very recommended), there is a notion that deep work can’t really be sped up. In other words, you have to dedicate a significant and uninterrupted chunk of time to work deeply if you want to reap the benefits of such work. Deep work will come, but focus takes some time, and you have to give it the time it needs.
Now, why would you want to do that? Working deeply on things is extremely important, and this is why:
- deep work ensures that you’ll successfully complete very complex tasks or very creative tasks
- deep work enables you to learn very complex new skills (i.e. coding) and in less time
If you are trying to improve your practice of anything, you would most certainly benefit from a dedicated practice of deep work. For example, you want to start exercising, so you watch this very good video and start applying its wisdom: build momentum instead of going for intensity. All is well: you start with maybe a couple of push-ups per day, then you progress to learning some martial arts, and soon, you get a couple of 1 hour sessions of boxing in. You start learning this new skill, boxing, and you start to get better at it. Your training sessions are around 1 hour long now. All of this is as it should be – you are building momentum.
But say that you want to get really good at boxing. You have momentum, you don’t want to build it any more, just keep it where it is, and you want to learn the skill now. If that’s the case, two sessions lasting 1 hour (a total of 2 hours) could be less good than 1 session of 2 hours. There are certain things that can only be learned by long, uninterrupted, deep practice.
1 hour of meditation brings something that 5 x 12 minutes of meditation cannot.
2 hours of playing the guitar get you somewhere where 4 x 30 minutes can’t.
So, practically speaking, when you’re organizing your day for tomorrow, you should probably reserve at least 2 hour chunks for deep work, whatever it may be in your life. It could look like something like this:
- 7 – wake up, hygiene, meditation, food
- 8 – 10 – uninterrupted coding session
- 10 – 11 – communication, shallow work, stretching, snack
- 11 – 13 – uninterrupted coding session
- 13 – 14 – lunch
- 14 – 18 – shallow (but necessary) work
- 18 – 20 – uninterrupted boxing session
- 22 – bed
Optimally, your entire day would be exclusively filled with deep work sessions, but obviously, not everyone can do that. The second best thing is to organize things in chunks, not in sprinkles.
For me, I’ve found that work sessions have this effect:
- up to 30 minutes: maintenance of a skill. A Parkour session of 30 minutes is basically just “greasing the groove”. It’s for not getting any worse, but not really progressing.
- 30 minutes to an hour: mostly maintenance, but some acquisition also. A Parkour session of 1 hour will refresh my skill, and I may learn some new things also.
- 1 hour to 2 hours: learning a skill. Provided it’s uninterrupted, this is a big enough time frame to get better at a thing.
- 2 – 4 hours: deep work on a skill. Now you’re really shifting into gear. If you manage to regularly (this is important! sporadic interventions don’t work!) do 4 hour uninterrupted sessions with the skill you have chosen, you will be become great at it, no question about it.
- more than 4 hours: I’m not sure. I think that there might be a time when it becomes too much, but since I haven’t actually had a very long uninterrupted session of something other than Skyrim, I can’t really tell.
When you’re organizing your day, take care to invest at least one deep work session per day, and more, if you are able to. Also, it’s better to do 20 minutes than nothing at all. If 20 minutes is all you can spare, spare it. But try your best to consolidate a couple of 20 minute intervals into a bigger chunk. You will actually get better at the skill, be it coding, boxing, cooking, whatever.
This is your task now: find 2 – 3 most important things that you want to be doing, and organize the next day with 2 – 3 sessions in mind, each lasting 2 hours. Ensure that you are free from interruption: turn off the phone, scare away the children, threaten the mailman. Do the things you want to do in theseuninterrupted sessions, and, in the meantime, organize the day after tomorrow in the same way. If you keep this practice, who knows where you might finish.