Deep Work: How do you do it? (and why I'd like to know)

I have a question for you all, but first I need to set some context on why I’m asking and why it’s important to me. My intentions here are to give a serious explanation of where my head is at and the best way I can explain to myself as to why, and what I think I need to do to move myself in the right direction for both my longevity, and my efficiency at Status.

The context (a personal one)

I have basically spent my entire life as a professional student, with very limited real responsibilities outside of deep study. It is quite natural to how my brain works, and where I find joy and fulfillment. I’m quite at peace by myself buried in a very hard problem. This is typically known as “deep work” and was popularized by Cal Newport in his book. It’s worth a read if you are unfamiliar, or google it to get the idea.

I then started to build a career out of this as I pursued my PhD in computational chemical physics, and went on to do a post-doc in the same field. My literal job was to not care about anything other than solving very hard problems, sometimes working very closely with a few people, but most of the time by myself.

Fast forward to today.

I have what amounts to my dream job: I work in a field I’m very passionate about and in a way that is very natural to me (without many boundaries as to how I do my job) and at a rate that allows me to support my family. I also get a chance to flex a myriad of skills I’ve tried to hone over my life to solve interesting, relevant, and potentially socially altering problems.

How the hell could someone be thinking about complaining about anything in any way?

I try to actively gauge my energy levels w.r.t. what I do regularly throughout the week, and measure how I spend my time, and that there is balanced in how I drain and replenish myself. Why? because I constantly worry I’ll fall prey to my parent’s life of successfully paving a road of “golden handcuffs,” and paving a road to a life they hated in order to maintain a status quo of “success.”

So as I’ve done this recently, I’ve noticed I no longer do any substantial “deep work.” My day-to-day seems to coast off the fruits of my prior career of deep work: Technical understanding, skillset, previous accolades, etc.

Furthermore, my time spent now is “managing” in a sense, where I triage, prepare, educate, decide, review, etc. I have found myself on the exact opposite spectrum of day-to-day than how I’ve developed myself in my formative years. I’d like to point out that I’m quite passionate about this work too, and its importance is equally high, and I feel I’m quite suited for doing it well. It is simply a very different set of skills, and way of thinking. It flexes different parts of the brain

This is a problem for a multitude of reasons:

  • I feel that this is not long-term sustainable to my mental health. I derive fulfillment and joy from isolating myself and doing very deep, work. It energizes me. If I don’t do it, to use an analogy, I’m always driving the car and never filling it up with gas.
  • I worry my ability to coast off the fruits of my previous life of deep work will run it’s course, and I will become “obsolete.” This space moves fast, and if I want to maintain a position of any relevance in expertise, I need to spend time understanding things deeply, not from a surface level. I also do not want the skills I use to fill my gas tank to atrophy.
  • Most of my energy is spent maintaining, not pushing forward and creating. I feel I have a potential to really innovate (it’s a very large reason why I left academia for blockchain in the first place), but am not spending any real time thinking creatively, building new things, and exploring.
  • Social culture and how we work tends towards pushing us to operating in triage mode: notifications, attention grabbers, emails, github PRs, meetings. The list goes on and on. It is easy to “productively procrastinate” these days, and you somehow find yourself at the end of the day without any real tasks done, but many more piled up. One has to actively block these things in a way to force deep work.

The question (finally)

How do you do it yourself? How do you balance the two modes of operation, both maintaining what you’ve built and are responsible for while including deep work regularly into your schedule? Have you ever thought about it? I’d like to try and learn from you all to explore how I can effectively incorporate deep work back into my life.

I admire all of you who I work with, and I feel lucky to work with such a wonderful group of people every day. I also try to take the time to learn from you as there tends to be a good amount of overlap for those that find themselves working for a company like Status.

Also, please understand that I am dedicated to my responsibilities at Status, and will continue to do whatever I am capable of to help push us in the right direction. Mostly, that dedication is what sparked me writing this diatribe. I want to make sure how I work is sustainable and maximally useful to pay tribute to the work you all do to do the same.

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Debugging is my never-ending pit of deep work. When I run out of serious bugs, I have optimisation ideas lined up. When it gets “you might have to fix the garbage collector” deep, I have architectural refactoring ideas lined up.

It’s a matter of balance. I need interesting work to balance the boring-but-necessary work and I need to put some limits on how much time I spend on interesting-but-not-a-priority stuff. Fortunately, this field provides plenty of opportunities to do that comfortably, as long as you don’t paint yourself in a management-only corner.

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Someone once told me their approach was to use the first hour of each day for themself and learning. I have tried this on and off and it generally works for “sharpening the sword”.

I would put deep work in as a type of learning. It’s usually just hard enough that you can work through the problems you encounter, which is an effective method of learning and has the added benefits of occasionally delivering something of value.

Sometimes we get caught up in tasks that we forget to take a step back and look at the bigger picture to ask if these tasks are supporting a larger goal. The appeal of decentralization is that it supports people working in the ways that best suits them to achieve larger goals rather than making individual tasks themselves the goal.

The Status principles are what ultimately everything we work on should support. Often we work on things that support a chain of things and it’s could be easy to lose track of the chain. A simple rule for determining if an item is helpful is asking “how” 5 times. One can ask “how does this support our principles”, “because it supports item B”, “How does item B support our principles?”. Usually by the 5th “how” you would have come to the conclusion if it makes sense to double down or abandon the task.

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Thanks for posting this @petty! Balancing modes of operation is a daily challenge for me.

Personally I find a lot of opportunities for deep work, just the mere complexity of some of the things we work on demands it of me. I don’t have difficulty finding the motivation or opportunity to get into a deep work mode and I can also quite easily flip the switch if I want to. I realize finding focus for voluntary deep work can be a challenge for some. For me it’s quite the opposite. I generally just hate getting pulled out of it :sweat_smile: Challenge for me more is to select opportunities I feel are worthy enough to ‘slack’ on other tasks and flip the switch. Basically to allow myself to go into deep work mode.

What usually helps me is to:

  • Add deep work tasks to my TODO list to give it the same level of importance as other tasks
  • TODO list is created by me, not notifications. I work from this list not from an INBOX
  • Reading fresh perspectives from CC’s who haven’t been involved in a given design or project. Basically others asking ‘Why?’
  • Marking some days as ‘call’ days. No deep work on those days :blush:
  • Small somewhat confined places and a closed door work for me most days
  • A change of scenery to go with the change of mode. Could literally be sitting on the floor or taking notes while walking. Point is, it needs to actually be different and a desk usually isn’t!
  • A recent question by a friend helps me as well “What does success look like”. It tends to help me shift my thinking in how I can contribute beyond my convictions
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I know what you mean when you mention “productively procrastinating”. There’s plenty of opportunities in this field - and especially when in charge of a broad category of work like “security” - to be constantly distracted by smaller tasks. Those are work, but not as impactful as building something from scratch/completing something.

I tend to work split tasks into 3 categories:

  • Firefighting - Things that need to be fixed right away or soon
  • Vital - Usually longer term tasks
  • Extra - Nice to have that can wait

I usually tend start on vital tasks early in the day until I get distracted by the need to do some firefighting. If I get stuck on a vital task after making some progress I usually let it go and do some extra stuff until I get bored of that.

BUT I do find myself being most productive with long term vital tasks if I can at least finish all the stuff that sits in the back of my head just occupying space. Helps me focus on the “deep work” as you call it. Usually my most productive “deep work” days happen when I managed to clear all the small stuff the previous day(s) and I’m essentially force to entirely focus on that task.

On the other hand, doing smaller tasks can be a good way take a break from a difficult problem you’re stuck on and just makes you angrier the longer you think about it. Unfortunately some problems can be only solved by repeatedly hitting your head against it until one or the other gives way.

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I just heard about the idea of an untouchable day. https://medium.com/@neilpasricha/why-you-need-an-untouchable-day-every-week-and-how-to-get-one-fad529d04aae

By rearranging a week of firefighting tasks and meetings to one day of pure creative deep work pursuits it can change work habits. I’ve never tried it, but sounded like a potential avenue.

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@petty your post resonated with me a lot.

I used to think of deep work as a sort of mental equivalent to powerlifting. I used to do it a lot. The other kind of work, “managing” as you call it, can be equated to some mild morning exercise or whatever.

I think that feeling of accomplishment derived from deep work is connected closely to the process of growth. I read recently Yeats’s quote “we are happy when we grow”. This clicked for me! Or alternatively, i think it was Seneca who said that our purpose in life is to die as better humans.

Meaning - i’m happy when i feel that i’m doing something that makes myself better. Lots of work that has to be done can be qualified as churn - something that has to be done, does not make me a better person, more complex and smart, but has to be done nevertheless, so that i can focus, undisturbed, on really complex things.

Been trying hard to do more of deep work recently, for me it boils down to managing several consecutive hours of attention. No digressions at all. Also, allocating morning hours is preferable. I read a study that compared life habits of famous scientists, and a common feature was that they tried to allocate first half of the day to their research, and the latter half of the day to correspondence etc.

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I have to say thank you all for your responses and thoughts. One issue I face is that my mornings are always best spent syncing with the team as I’m in the EST timezone and most others are wrapping up their days as I start mine. If I allocated my morning to deep work, then I lose a very productive time window for things that need to be done.

Maybe I could try using my afternoons by shutting off comms, and use one or a few mornings completely cut off from most notifications, leaving emergency lines open.

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Or you could move to Europe…

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I’m on EST as well. I found going to bed early and waking up at 4am to work well. Your local world is still asleep so no distractions or interruptions there and personally I find those first few hours of the day to be my sharpest.

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