Philosophies for Focus

Imagine a machine that an operator did not control, but rather, the machine controlled the operator. This “sentient” machine was introduced in Part 2, Rule #1 of Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work. Conceptualized by architect, David Dewane, this machine is actually just a building. This building has no moving parts besides the people moving through it. Deriving from the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, this building aims to bring its users to a state in which they are achieving their full human potential – or as Newport would say, this building aims to enable the user to practice the deepest of deep work. The Eudaimonia Machine, as Dewane refers to it, is a long, rectangular series of five rooms. Each room is designed to have their own distinct purpose to facilitate the transition to deep work. The rooms are as follows:

  1. The Gallery: Aiming to excite users and spur the creative process, The Gallery displays examples of feats produced in the building. By highlighting work created inside the Eudaimonia Machine, Dewane hopes to kickstart users’ focus and create a “culture of healthy stress and peer pressure.”
  2. The Salon: To foster a social atmosphere between users, The Salon aims to promote relaxation and collaboration. Dewane envisions this space to have a coffee shop-type vibe where people can come to have a drink – caffeinated, alcoholic, or both. By heightening curiosity and comfort, this space becomes a breeding ground for fresh ideas.
  3. The Library: In this room, the social vibe dissipates to allow the user to focus. Residing in The Library is a permanent record of all the work produced in the Machine as well as the reference materials (books, files, etc.) used to support that work. With features like a real library, including copiers and scanners, Dewane states this room serves as “the hard drive of the machine.”
  4. The Office: Designed like a typical office space, there are cubicles, a conference room, and whiteboards. Here, users will engage in the shallow work that is necessary for their project, like answering emails or alignment meetings. Discussion is welcomed within this room.
  5. The Chambers: As the last stop of the Eudaimonia Machine, these deep work chambers aim to allow absolute focus and flow. Much like a sensory deprivation tank, this room is soundproof and cuts out the interaction between users. Here, deep work will flourish and lead to an expanded collection of work in The Gallery and The Library.

What makes the Eudaimonia Machine so successful is the combination of collaborative shallow work and isolated deep work in one place. While these rooms and their specific purposes help to facilitate the transition to deep work, undergoing the full process of the Eudaimonia Machine would easily take a full work day and is not for those underdeveloped in the school of focus. As we have discovered so far, it takes determination and practice to successfully perform deep work. Psychologists Wilhelm Hofmann and Roy Baumeister support this fact through their research about willpower and desire. In their experiments, the two psychologists found people fought desires ALL DAY LONG. Whether the desires be sleep, sex, or food, the human brain is constantly trying to battle those intrusions and prioritize the more important tasks at hand (deep work). In his solo research, Baumeister found that human willpower is a finite resource. The more you fight off desires, the quicker your willpower will run out. Fighting off a desire could be checking your phone, answering an email the second it hits your inbox, or wanting to multitask when you know you’re not supposed to (like texting and driving, for example). This information uncovered by Baumeister is crucial because it further supports the fact that deep work is difficult!

“Epic production has less to do with your willpower and more
to do with the routines you install. Get those right, and you’ll
enjoy exponential results automatically.”
– Robin S. Sharma

Step 1: Pick A Philosophy Flavor

Deep work, as elusive as it is in today’s society, can still be expertly practiced without the need for a fancy 5-roomed building like the Eudaimonia Machine. Like the quote above illustrates, although we are distracted and have a depleted source of willpower, we can maximize what we do by creating routines for our work. These habitually practiced actions help erase the need to invest energy in the back and forth debate of wanting to go deep. To help us deep work novices out, Newport identifies four different ways we can choose to implement in our daily lives and coins them as “Depth Philosophies.” Let’s examine them below:

  • Monastic Philosophy: This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow work obligations. Practitioners of the monastic philosophy have a well defined, highly valued professional goal and are usually experts in their field due to their dedicated deliberate practice. This particular method has been used by computer scientist Donald Knuth and science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, both of whom are known for their disdain of electronic communication and stellar contributions to their respective areas. While this is the most extreme out of the four philosophies, it yields the largest amount of deep work quicker than the others.
  • Bimodal Philosophy: This philosophy is deployed by people who cannot succeed by deep work alone, unlike Knuth and Stephenson. Usually, Bimodal Philosophy practitioners need to split their time between deep work and everything else. One famous bimodal enthusiast was psychiatrist Carl Jung, who juggled his patient work with his time-consuming research. This philosophy can yield extreme productivity if enough time is dedicated.
  • Rhythmic Philosophy: This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently practice deep work is through creating a regular habit. To get started, one may use Jerry Seinfeld’s chain method. By setting a consistent start time and building up your tolerance little by little, you are able to make deep work a part of your daily life without much effort. While this is the best method for beginners, the quantity of work it yields is minimal.
  • Journalistic Philosophy: This philosophy is the most difficult to master as it requires the most practice. Named after journalist Walter Isaacson, Newport shares how Isaacson was able to do his strenuous job and still write best-selling novels on top of it. The journalistic philosophy is extremely deadline driven and requires that the practitioner knows how to successfully switch between mindsets and activities – clearly, these individuals are not affected, or at least very minimally affected – by attention residue.

Step 2: Add the Rituals

After a depth philosophy has been chosen it is crucial to then create a ritual. These rituals help to cement the process and can even help your brain shut down when you are finished working. Before implementing any kind of ritual you might want to ask yourself these three questions:

  • Where will you work and for how long? To get started with your ritual, you need to specify a location to work. This could be anything from your office at work, the library, or in my case, the basement. By securing a place used only for depth your mind transitions to the deep work state quicker. Also, be sure to slate out a specific time frame so it becomes a part of your schedule.
  • How will you work once you start to work? To best perform your rituals you need to create a set of rules for yourself. This can take the form of banning external stimuli like cell phones, music, and email or maintaining some sort of relevant metric. This metric could be producing 5 pages of content within a certain time frame or completing a whole “to do” list in each ritual session. Without some form of structure, your time, willpower and focus are unnecessarily drained.
  • How will you support your work? You need to be sure that your ritual will keep you functioning at a high level of depth the entire time you are working. Perhaps you need to start your ritual as soon as you get in the office before people come in to distract you or you need to start the process with a piping hot cup of green tea. You may also want to consider environmental factors, like organizing the materials on your desk or listening to music that gets you motivated. The supportive actions should become second nature to the process and not expend any mental effort.

Rituals are not a one-size-fits-all situation. Everyone will have their own unique approach and different boxes to fill. It is also important to note that finding a ritual that works will not happen on the first try. Keep an open mind and be patient!

“You can talk all you want about having a clear purpose and strategy for your life, but ultimately this means nothing if you are not investing the resources you have in a way that is consistent with your strategy. In the end, a strategy is nothing but good intentions unless it’s effectively implemented.”
– Clayton M. Christensen

Step 3: Just Do It!

Now that a philosophy and set of rituals have been chosen, the hardest part is actually getting started. Newport, like anyone else, has also had trouble actually following through with his chosen method of starting deep work. Building upon Clayton Christensen’s foreword written for the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution (abbreviated as 4DX), Newport adapts the disciplines identified in the book to address how to develop a deep work habit:

  • Discipline 1 – Focus on the Wildly Important: Simplify your efforts and focus them on a diminutive number of “wildly important goals.” This will allow you to focus intensely on what really matters, generate results quickly, and maintain a healthy work spirit.
  • Discipline 2 – Act on the Lead Measures: As any good marketer knows, it is crucial to know how you measure success. While in digital marketing the use of KPIs is common; here, Newport emphasizes the importance of lead and lag measures. By understanding how to improve your lead measure, you are able to impact how quickly (and how effectively) you work towards your wildly important goal.
  • Discipline 3 – Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: Everyone, to some degree, is competitive – and most people are competitive with themselves! Newport states that keeping a scoreboard allows people to acutely connect to their work. The scoreboard provides a physical representation to help ascertain how many hours have gone into your work and how many hours you may need to complete your next project.
  • Discipline 4 – Create a Cadence of Accountability: Take the time to review all of the work you have done and use the information you have gleaned to create a plan for the next week. By taking more accountability, you are able to better appreciate your work and the results you have produced.

Where Do I Fit In?

After reading this portion of Deep Work, I wanted to see where I fit in. With my current schedule, I believe I flip-flop between the bimodal and rhythmic philosophies. When at work, I start my day with a rhythmic approach: I check my emails, social media accounts, and complete the tiny tasks first. After that is complete, I then transition to a deep work state to tackle the biggest “to do” tasks of the day. My workplace rituals involve filling up my 20 oz tumbler with water every morning after I dock my computer and dialing out distractions by listening to music. Granted, my team’s schedule is riddled with meetings, but I try to allocate at least two days of the week for largely uninterrupted production work. At home, I believe I enter more of a bimodal state. Some nights I spend socializing with friends and family, while other nights are dedicated to deep work for graduate school (like what I’m doing right now). This time, although shorter than that spent at work, is way more concentrated and I believe this leads to the creation of more thoughtful and complete content.

As far as the 4DX rules go, I feel as though I do not practice these religiously. Based on lenient observations, my participation only really touches upon Disciplines 1 and 4. Keeping the “wildly important goals” in mind is necessary for my performance in work and school, and creating a schedule to balance the two competing deep work entities really helps to keep my sanity – or what’s left of it at least!

Final Thoughts

In the near future, I would love to see David Dewane’s Eudaimonia Machine come to life. Newport testifies that Dewane’s creation only exists as a series of architectural documents, which is such a shame! I feel as though the concept of the Machine could be neatly integrated into companies like WeWork, which could bring it to fruition in a way that is more accessible to the general public. The Eudaimonia Machine’s shared space, singular offices, and pockets for collaboration fit in perfectly with the new coworking office space economy that has piqued the interests of startups and large corporations, alike. So if either Dewane or WeWork is reading, hit me up, I have some ideas…

4 thoughts on “Philosophies for Focus

  1. This isn’t an industry Im good in but I still think it’s nice learning about it and I like how you outlined all the details. Hopefully if I can learn more about this digital world I can do better at my job too which is just engineering. I need more perspectives to see the world in a broader way. ISM blog sent me here thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for stopping by! Digital transcends into every job in the modern workplace and you are wise to look into it. Glad my content was able to help you out. Stay tuned for more good stuff! 🙂

      Cheers,
      Alex

      Like

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