When I started my first job as a developer, I realized I needed to learn several hard things–and fast.
Before that point, I had only worked on small apps. In my new job, I was suddenly faced with a huge, complex application that an entire team of people worked on. I barely knew how to navigate through this app, let alone how to add to it.
I decided to create a habit of doing Deep work.
Deep work, Cal Newport writes, is the ability to focus on and learn hard things. It can be done in many different ways, but the idea is to put yourself in a distraction-free environment and work on tasks that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit.
I chose a time each day to sit down at my desk. I turned off all notifications. I hid my phone and put on noise-canceling headphones. I set a timer on my computer for two hours. Then I concentrated for those two hours on trying to solve one coding problem.
Or I tried to.
After two minutes of focusing on a hard problem, my thoughts drifted away. My mind felt like a toddler that kept crawling away from me to look at whatever shiny new thought popped up. I constantly had the urge to check social media or think of something easier than the task at hand. Focusing felt impossible.
As Newport points out, our minds have become addicted to new stimuli and we’re constantly looking for what’s next. We use rushing from task to task and being ‘busy’ as a proxy for productivity. Yet it is by focusing deeply for long uninterrupted periods of time that we usually best learn the difficult skills that are most valuable.
Today, doing deep work is a little easier. I still have to actively bring my thoughts back to what I’m working on. I still have the same urges to check my phone or chase after a new, easier thought than the hard problem that I’m facing. Each time that I resist the urge to follow after a new thought or grab my phone, I train my mind to focus. Slowly, I can focus a little bit longer each day. As a result, I’m learning the things that previously seemed so difficult to understand.
From coding to writing to drawing, doing deep work helps me hone my ability to focus and learn hard things. It’s not about natural talent or being a certain kind of smart. It’s about how well I can focus deeply on the task at hand.