by Bar Franek

Going Deeper on Deep Work: Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy

“Respect your craftsmanship” by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash

A Few More Reasons To Love Deep Work

I had no idea my first article about deep work and the Pomodoro technique would resonate so well with people. I don’t know what Medium considers viral, but over 50,000 views in 10 days must mean you’re interested in this topic.

If you’re not familiar with deep work, I can’t recommend Cal Newport’s book Deep Work enough.

The thesis is simple. As human beings, we get distracted. More than ever because of the technology that’s designed to get our attention and engage us.

So we have to take responsibility and fight back. We have to shut off and block the things that are going to distract us.

Not forever, but certainly during the time we’re learning or working on hard things.

Hard things are the disciplines that need weeks, months, or years of in-depth practice. Programming is a hard thing. Creativity is a hard thing. Writing is a hard thing. (The struggle to write this article without repeating myself has been a very hard thing.)

Removing distraction is a small, albeit very important, aspect of deep work.

To get the most out of your talent and skills in today’s economy, you need to get great at two more things.

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy

1. The ability to quickly master hard things
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
Deep Work p. 29

Let’s break these two abilities down.

1. The Ability to Quickly Master Hard Things

What exactly, should you master?

For programmers, this depends on the person and where you’re at in your career. It’s going to be different for everybody, but I want to put emphasis on focus once more.

You don’t need to learn every new language and framework, backend and frontend, that comes out. That is a recipe for having shallow knowledge of a lot of things. What’s the saying, “jack of all trades, master of none”?

Master the basics. Master the fundamentals. Master the best practices. Master soft skills like communication.

Master the skill of deep work. It’s a tool that gives you the ability to learn something hard in a reasonable amount of time.

Then, master one aspect. It can be frontend, backend, databases, data visualization, build processes, testing, whatever. If you’re in user experience, master prototyping or conducting user interviews. If you’re into writing, master copywriting or fiction.

For programmers, yes technology moves fast and requires change within an organization. But a large majority of your time is spent in one aspect of the development process. When needs change, you’ll need to know how to learn and master whatever the new need may be.

As your knowledge of one specific aspect grows, your domain knowledge grows at the same time. This makes you more of an expert and makes mastery of the next specific thing easier.

For freelancers, specialization is even more important.

Do you like spending time applying to tons of jobs, never getting them because there are always specialists better than you? Do you like using non-billable hours getting “up to speed” on some software or tool when you finally land a gig? Do you like spending a month to deliver something that would have taken a week if you knew what you were doing? Do you like never being able to raise your rates?

Or would you rather be a “$90/h Laravel expert” or “$125/h copywriter specializing in the medical field”?

For side projects and single founders, you actually might end up with a general knowledge of a lot of things.

But really you’re mastering the art of problem solving and shipping. This means getting your stuff out in front of people, getting feedback, and solving problems. Then iterating and improving, getting a better version of your stuff in front of more people.

2. The Ability to Produce at an Elite Level, in terms of both Quality and Speed

Beginners will spend most of their time learning, but eventually it will be time to go pro.

There are so many great sites on the internet for learning something that it can be overwhelming. freeCodeCamp is just one resource that teaches you very valuable programming topics, for free. Hundreds of sites, free and paid, have sprouted up over the years.

You can be learning forever because the rate that this stuff is produced is faster than the rate at which you can take it in.

In a way, its another distraction that we have to train ourselves to manage or avoid.

Knowledge without implementation is useless. If you’re not creating and producing based on what you learn, then you’re procrastinating because of fear.

You’re scared to Show Your Work. You’re scared that you’re not good enough or no one will like what you’ve done, or worse, no one will care.

It’s safe to keep learning and never make anything.

But you have to produce.

The words “produce at an elite level” seem daunting. Are you not good enough if you’re not one of the best in the world? Absolutely not.

At the very least, let’s start with the job you were hired to do.

Delivering good work, on time, is good, if not great, for most companies. Delivering great work, on or ahead of schedule, is considered elite. Deep work allows you to do that, even as a beginner.

When you get better at deep work, and when you get better at your skill or field over time, that’s when the quality and quantity of your output grows exponentially.

Think of a flywheel. At first, you apply a lot force to rotate it a little. But the energy you spent is still there, stored in the momentum. When you stop applying energy, it begins to slow down. When you apply more energy, it moves faster and faster. Keep applying energy to the momentum and at a certain point its moving so fast it can’t be stopped. (Physics people don’t be mad if I butchered this analogy)

Multiply the force of deep work with the force of learning something hard, to produce higher quality at a faster rate.

Feedback is Essential for Quality

One quick note on feedback. You have to get feedback to measure and improve your quality.

Quality can mean a lot of things. For example, code quality:

“Beautiful code is short and concise, so if you were to give that code to another programmer they would say, ‘oh, that’s well written code.’ It’s much like as if you were writing a poem” — Deep Work p.89

Quality is broader than that though. Quality is how the outside world views and reacts to your output. You may have a quality product, but if no one wants it, that’s poor quality (in terms of your bank account.)

If you work on a team, you should always be getting your code reviewed and communicating with your colleagues, managers, and product people to ensure you’re going in the right direction. It doesn’t matter how fast you write code. If the code causes more problems then it solves, you won’t last long.

If you’re a founder or working on a side project, you have to get your product out in front of the public to start getting feedback. The feedback will tell you if people like or don’t like your product. That’s quality, in terms of product-market fit.

You cannot disappear to a basement for six months to build the next cool thing that everyone will want. That is not deep work.

That is your ego cheering you on, fooling you into thinking you’re doing the right thing. But that is how you disappoint yourself when you finally emerge and the world tells you buzz off.

Using deep work to learn hard things quickly and produce at a high level is great for your career. But did you know its also great for your mental health and well-being?

Deep Work Lets You Love What You Do

“It follows that to embrace deep work in your own career, and to direct it toward cultivating your skill, is an effort that can transform a knowledge work job from a distracted, draining obligation, into something satisfying — a portal to a world full of shining, wondrous things.” — Deep Work p.91

What’s a better way to approach your work? Staring at the clock waiting for 5pm so you can go home and binge Netflix?

Or being really good at something, and getting recognized for the skills and abilities that you’ve build up over the years?

That should be a easy decision.

There’s a popular saying that you should “follow your passion so you’ll never work another day in your life.”

That’s simply not true for most people.

For one, a lot of people don’t have passions. Maybe we do, but it’s very hard to define. I’m one of those people. I enjoy and love a lot of things, but I couldn’t tell you one thing that I’m truly ‘passionate’ about.

Next, monetizing your passion is a great way to start hating your passion. There’s a whole lot of not-fun stuff involved with running a business. When it doesn’t go well, you start to resent the passion that got you into the mess in the first place.

It’s a risky bet to “follow your passion” when its not genuine. It’s also risky bet to commercialize your passion too much (like when artists “sell out” and start hating what they do.)

Instead, you become passionate about something when you get great at it.

You end up loving the challenge and the sense of accomplishment that doing your work brings (see the next section on flow).

I’m not passionate about programming. I will never write a book about algorithms or coding patterns.

But I love what I do because I’m good at it. Everyday I stretch my skills and understanding a little more than yesterday. Some days I concentrate on learning something new (like finally figuring out how to configure Webpack). Others days I revisit some shoddy code I wrote a year ago to try and make it better.

Yes, some people do have passions and do make a great living with them. People with natural talents like singers and athletes fall into this category. But natural gifts are discovered early, so the feedback loop of challenge and reward develops much sooner.

For the rest of us, its disingenuous to tell people that the only way they’ll ever be happy in life is “to follow your passion.”

Deep Work Creates Flow

“little girl discovers flow before it was cool” by Tong Nguyen van on Unsplash

Before you even heard the word flow or deep work, there had to have been a time in your earlier life where you were lost in your work or hobby. When hours flew by. Perhaps you were learning an instrument or getting into painting. Or you just discovered and crushed 10 lessons in a day.

For some unexplained reason, you felt happy. And you were proud of what you ultimately created, and that made you happy too.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied and popularized the term flow back in the 80’s and 90’s. If you want to read more about flow, he’s written a few books on the topic.

“‘The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.’
[…] studies confirmed, the more such flow experiences that occur in a given week, the higher the subject’s life satisfaction. Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.” — Deep Work p.84

Finding flow can be very elusive. It’s hard to quantify and its definitely one of those “you’ll know it when you see it” type of things.

“In work (and especially knowledge work), to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.” — Deep Work p.82

You are guaranteed to find more flow doing deep work than you ever will when living a distracted life.

Deep Work Makes You Better at Avoiding Distraction Elsewhere

When you train the deep work muscle, it overflows into other aspects of your life.

You get better at avoiding the trivial distractions that make us feel like crap. Is there anything worse than feeling like you’re not good enough because you scrolled past someone’s vacation post on Instagram? The fear of missing out is a real thing.

Facebook, Instagram, and all the rest are highlight reels. We filter out all the crap in our lives and post only the best moments to these platforms. So you’re comparing this very second of your life to someone’s best moment of their best day of the past few months? What’s that going to get you besides some misery?

Instead, learn to go deeper with your leisure time. Reading a fiction book, gardening, housework, whatever. Turn off your phone and do only the thing you’re supposed to be doing until its done and done well.

Deep Work Creates More Time for Important Things

Focused, deep work is concentrated time. When you’re doing it right, you create more time for your family, friends, and leisure.

Compare that to a life that’s wired for distraction, so much that you look for distraction to feel good. Or a life that doesn’t shut off from busyness. When you’re constantly checking email, getting pinged by notifications, and dealing with non-emergencies, you can seem “busy” from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep. “Sorry I don’t have time for you, I’m busy.”

What are we doing this all for if its not to enjoy life and the people around us?

Not only can you free up more time, but you can go deeper on your relationships too.

I (well, most developers) cannot stand the 90% of recruiters who spam cookie-cutter job descriptions. They send the same message to dozens of other developers, changing only the first line. [Hi, First name!] There’s zero quality to the relationship because they’re only focused on quantity.

But I will absolutely work with a recruiter that has read up on my background, and understands what kind of jobs I would be a good fit for. Great recruiters take you out to lunch to have a thoughtful conversation.

It’s so rare but so valuable. And its valuable because its rate. Its not easy to learn to listen and put some effort into a relationship. In a way, it’s deep work.

Any freelancer can do the shallow work of emailing 100 random businesses with a copy-pasted cold email. “Hi, this is all of the work I’ve done and how great I am. You should hire me!”

It takes a lot of effort to carefully review ten business websites so you can provide each one with free advice on how to improve their business.

Or it takes a lot of effort to organize a meet-up for developers in your area so everyone can learn from each other.

The point is creating value for others isn’t easy. Learning to have a conversation and a meaningful relationship isn’t easy. But doing these things are far fulfilling and effective than living a shallow life.

Before You Go

If you liked this article, give me a follow on Medium (Bar Franek). It lets me know that you fine folks enjoy my writing and I should do more of it. I have one more article in the works about the types of deep work with a few more actionable techniques.

The books I talked about in this post