On Deep Work: a letter from my final afternoon at the studio

This afternoon is the last in my studio in Nashville and I’m here, in part, because of a chapter in a book.

A little over a year ago I read Deep Work by Cal Newport. Deep work is the valuable, rare, and meaningful ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task: a critical skill for developers. Yes, critical–but scarcely practiced in part due to chronic distraction.

I’d also just finished reading The Shallows and was worried about how social media and devices were changing my brain for the worse. I was relieved to learn from Newport some rules I could use to train my mind and reverse old habits to make deep work possible: work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media, and drain the shallows (manage your time).

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

Rule #1, Work Deeply, starts with a conversation between the author and a pretty eccentric-sounding architecture professor. They’re sketching out the Eudaimonia Machine, a building designed for the sole purpose of enabling the deepest possible work. I recognized the name as coming from the Greek eudaimonia (the state of human flourishing) because I majored in philosophy and was, as a recent look through some old pictures revealed, a heartbreakingly nerdy student who painted the word on five feet of rough craft paper and hung it in her bedroom for inspiration. Eudaimonia in building form, the professor exclaimed, could be “deep work chambers” protected by eighteen inches of soundproof insulated walls. Sounds pretty nice, but only a fantasy, an attention-grabbing opener. …right?

Maybe not. Later in the chapter Newport talks about the “grand gestures” that authors and artists make in order to support their work–J.K. Rowling spending $1000 a day at the Balmoral Hotel to finish The Deathly Hallows; physicist William Shockley locking himself in a hotel room in Chicago til he’d ironed out the details for a better transistor design, for which he shared the Nobel Prize.

And there’s a bit of this that rings familiar, right? Have you ever thrown your hands up at the terrible airplane wi-fi and used a long-haul flight to go deep on an idea, just because you finally had the dedicated time and space to do so? Maybe you landed with a chapter written, a talk outlined, or a prototype sketched.

This Nashville studio was my grand gesture, my concession to deep work. And a risk.

Now, I’m no stranger to taking risks for work. A little over two and a half years ago I started commuting 400km one way, twice a week, for a job I hoped would launch my career. I had non-negotiable family obligations in Atlanta, and a non-negotiable co-located job in Nashville. So I rented a bedroom in a Nashville house with multiple roommates and drove to Atlanta on the weekends like a freshman going back to her parents, sans overfull laundry basket. Oh, right: I almost forgot the fun detail that my crumbling car was over 10 years old, had over 200,000 miles, and was well into its fifth alternator.

The risk paid off. After six months of working long days in a tech support call center, and weekly making that drive to and from Atlanta, I was promoted to the engineering team. A year later, I joined another company as Director of Engineering. Splitting my life between two cities 400km apart sounds beyond stressful and the truth is, it was. It was also worth it.

The studio was a different kind of risk.

By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.

It was a risk to enable deep work. Yes, I could have kept looking around Nashville for multi-roommate situations. I would have saved a lot of money. And perhaps it would have padded my conscience a bit, too–I pride myself on being someone who doesn’t need a lot, who’s lived happily in a number of alternative living arrangements. (Ask me about the renovated nuns’ quarters sometime, or my roommates during grad school).

Deep Work wasn’t the only voice in favor of this big – to me! – change. Now I cringe to remember the hand-wringing conversations I had with my best friend, who is typically gentle as a lamb but nearly had to bullhorn the message that it’s okay to have a space that’s all yours, to enable you to do your best work. I’m more comfortable putting the needs and comfort of others first; prioritizing my own, in the service of an unknown future, felt radical and painfully unfamiliar.

But this, too, was so worth it. My first year as Director of Engineering was one of the most productive of my career. I’ve introduced structure, processes, and compassionate leadership that’s helping my engineers do some of the most satisfying work of their lives. And even as I continued to travel to speak at conferences –PyCon, PyOhio, the Lead Developer– this deep work space grounded me, gave me quiet rest, and reinforced my focus.

These are my thoughts on my final afternoon in this light-filled room. The mourning doves I’ve fed and gazed at all summer are out on the porch. The mockingbird who briefly claimed this space as her own watches from the lamppost across the street. If I stand in just the right spot at just the right time of day — this time of day — I can see mountains in the distance. Mountains, Gandalf! 

Farewell, deep work sanctuary

I’m a little nervous about what’s next, moving to a bigger house a little outside of town that I’ll once again be sharing (though this time, I have my own office!). Is it time to dream a new dream? Make a different grand gesture? Or deepen the practice of deep work in another way?

Do you practice deep work, or want more of it in your life? What risks or grand gestures have you taken to enable it? I’d love to hear.

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