For us as moms deep work can be incredibly elusive, but I’m committed to finding a way to carve out time for meaningful, creative activities. I finally finished reading Deep Work, by Cal Newport, and while his paradigm is that of a male professor and he talks in terms of being an office knowledge worker, I found quite a few useful gems we can apply to this pursuit as women.
In the first few chapters he defends the necessity and value of deep work. I had already accepted his premise but found his evidence both interesting and compelling.
His first big point is that deep work is valuable but not commonly valued or prioritized today, and that this provides us with an opportunity. I think this is even more true as moms. We all have similar struggles and questions, but most of us will not create the time needed to do deep creative work generating and sharing the solutions.
Here are my 5 biggest takeaways from the book, which I found greatly helpful and encouraging, and I hope will assist you too in finding room for deep and meaningful work, and resisting the lie that for us this practice is somehow intrinsically out of reach.
1. See How Craftsmanship Provides Meaning
In the section where he gives a philosophical argument for depth, he mentions All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly, which is now on my reading list. In it they explore “how notions of sacredness and meaning have evolved throughout the history of human culture.”
He goes on to say that these authors are worried about a diminishment in our current time of sacred, shining things. Ever since Descartes we have moved away from the idea of “a God or king bestowing truth” and given that role to the individual.
He goes on, “For all its good in the political arena, in the domain of the metaphysical this thinking stripped the world of the order and sacredness essential to create meaning. In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism.” ( pg 87)
That is a whole thing it would be good to get into another time, but I think at a basic level we all know and feel exactly what he is talking about, and the point he makes from this is that craftsmanship, and the deep work that accompanies it, has innate value we can feel, even when there is so much we don’t know, or at least that feeling that too many important things are up for debate.
He argues that no matter your job, career, vocation, etc that you can find ways to see it as your craft, and that having the attitude that comes with craftsmanship will bring meaning into your life in a fundamental way.
I love this, I found it intriguing and helpful and I’m trying to figure out how to apply it to motherhood, but I do know that it helps explain why I love writing. Writing is my craft. A well-written piece of work soothes something in me that longs for beauty, for truth, for meaning.
2. Take a ‘Journalistic Approach’ to Scheduling Deep Work
He provides several methods for approaching deep work in relation to integrating it into your schedule. As a mom I found the journalistic one to be intriguing and the only one that’s really practical given the responsibilities of running a household. This basically means rather than withdrawing from society, or taking weekends, or working for a couple hours at the same time everyday, you fit in time regularly as you go. In this scheduling method he says you must be mindful of the energy it takes to switch from shallow to deep mode, as it can sap your willpower, and he says it requires “a sense of confidence in your abilities – a conviction that what you’re doing is important and will succeed.”
I find it deeply gratifying to know that I can assume the same schedule as he does as a professor, because he too has obstacles to working at the same time every day, in a consistent daily routine. But he basically warns that this is not for the novice or the faint of heart. I’ll need to manage my energy, and sense of necessity, that through my writing I’m doing important work that needs to routinely finished and published, to contribute value to the world.
3. Our Daily Capacity for Deep Work is 4 Hours
He talks at length about how to remove some of the shallow activity from your schedule to make room for deep work, but he says our capacity for deep work is really only 4 hours a day. We’re only trying to make room for 4 hours of focused, intense work that will move the needle on important projects.
I found this incredibly encouraging and reassuring. I know from logging my time in the past that when you are mindful you can often find an hour or two, and careful planning can typically create an hr or two more, for something that’s really important to you.
I may have kids and a house to clean, but also don’t have staff meetings or a boss. I completely set my own schedule. If I find room for close to 4 hours of deep work most weekdays I’ll have created the time resources that he proscribes. I’m certainly not there yet, but I’m struck by the idea that this is totally doable for me, if I choose to be disciplined and motivated.
4. Mental Rest = Subconscious Productivity
As a mom I found this one incredibly encouraging, and validating. It’s something I’ve sort of started doing naturally as a result of practicing gratitude and working on being present with my kids.
He says the research shows that when you fully unplug mentally from work in between deep work sessions, your subconscious does valuable work. It productively works through ideas and issues for you, at a different level and in a different way than when you consciously tackle a problem.
As I move forward and get better at my current method of time blocking, I am going to embrace the truth that when I research and ideate for an hour, stop to take my kids to the park, make lunch, and then come back to a solid afternoon writing session, if I fully rest my mind and relax and enjoy playing with my kids, this is both healthy for my psyche and productive for the project at hand.
Our brains are so incredible, they are always active on some level. When we try to consciously work through a problem when we are either mentally fatigued or in an non-conducive environment full of interruptions, we are embracing the lie that only our conscious mind can solve it and neglecting to enlist the aid of our subconscious mind in working on it while we tend to other important but often less noble-feeling activities.
5. Try Productive Meditation
As he talks about being purposeful about leisure and off time, he talks both about resting your mind, and also looking for opportunities for deep thought work, to practice something he calls productive meditation. Similar but different to mindful meditation, this is when you are doing a physical activity and you use the time to mentally work over a particular issue in your mind. What matters here is staying focused on that specific question, and bringing your mind back to it if it starts to wander or loop unproductively.
I’ve already found myself doing this some times, but now I feel I have terminology and a framework for this. I can think about how and when to strategically fit this in, and consider it deep thought time, always being mindful to pay attention to when I can tell I need a mental rest instead.
I now feel equipped with two good uses for all that extra time watching kids and feeling unoccupied but ‘on call’. One is to truly rest my mind and enjoy my children. The other, which is great for exercising or doing housework is productive meditation, where a physical activity is devoted to a specific, strategic mental exercise. For me this will most often be either working out the outline and flow of a post, or thinking more broadly about ideas in my recent reading and how they interact with other ideas to help form a new paradigm for how we think about life.
6. Embrace Being Active and Feeling Alive All Day
This is a good one. I really like where he talks about how we don’t understand human nature, when we resist structuring our leisure time. Humans actually love to feel alive and be active 18 hours a day. He quotes another author who says what energizes the human spirit is change, not rest. Giving your mind meaningful things throughout the day makes you more fulfilled. The mind fatigues from prolonged attention to one thing or in one mode.
Of course this is huge for moms. I’ve really been struggling and wrestling with the question of whether I should embrace just being on my feet all day, and focus on finding a few short breaks to recharge, instead of complaining or wishing for a life with more so called rest or down time.
So this belief that humans are meant to be active all day and that we simply need to be intentional in our choosing and then vary our activities really resonates with me and increases my hope that I’ll find a way forward that allows me to incorporate all of my highest values, without having to compromise something truly important to me.
7. Assess Your Attention to Social Media
He has a follow up book called Digital Minimalism, that I want to read which is devoted to this topic. But his advice on it in Deep Work is pretty straightforward. With social media, he talks about identifying your highest priority activities that move you toward your few biggest personal and professional goals, and then look at how social media adds or takes away from that.
I’m undecided on this, I think for many of us who spend a lot of time at home social media provides a value connection to friends and community. And for those of us who work for ourselves social media provides a value way to generate business and communicate with both clients and prospects.
My current approach is going to be to focus on the other strategies, and continue to streamline my life and business that allows room for deep, meaningful work, and then once I’ve consistently done that, look at how social media is a useful tool for distribution and discussion of what will hopefully be deeply meaningful ideas and insights that arise from this endeavor, new or re-worked ideas that really help us in our lives in some way, because that’s the whole point.