How to do more ‘deep work’


Alex Denning is on a mission:

Distraction is a problem. We’re probably reliant on or addicted to the internet more than we’d like to admit. Fixing this will be a work in progress, but acting now, recognising the problem and consciously trying to fix it is as good a first step as any.

It’s a short post, so I’ll forgive him the fact of not arguing well for his conclusion. It does, however, contain some actionable advice — some which also appears in Chapter 1 of my new audiobook.

Here’s what Denning has done to leave him ‘less distracted in general’:

  • Delete social media apps from my phone (that aim to be addictive). I can still access from the mobile browser if I want, but its inconvenience puts me off.
  • Ban my phone from the toilet. Yup. This is actually a big one.
  • Stop keeping my phone near my bed. Check your email before you get out of bed? If you can’t reach it, you can’t.
  • Stop carrying my phone in my pocket. Keeping it in my bag instead makes it less convenient and me less prone to picking it up.

I’m doing the first and third of these and they do make a huge difference. Overall, though, it’s about training yourself rather than banning things. In that regard, although it’s not cool to say that postgraduate study is in any way useful these days, when you have a defined period of time to do the research to write a doctoral thesis, you either do the deep work and get it done, or you never finish.

That being said, I wouldn’t advocate anyone enrols in a PhD in Ancient Greek Civilization just to get over their mobile phone addiction. Denning’s other advice about the Pomodoro Technique is an absolute winner when it comes to cranking things out. 

Finally, it’s easy to fetishize ‘deep work’ because it sounds serious and important. It also perpetuates the myth of the lone genius. The truth is that, while we do perhaps need to tip the scales the other way, collaboration, serendipitious connections, and speed is just as important as the skills it was possible to hone in pre-internet times.

Image by Sven Scheuermeier