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  • Writer's pictureHolly Flynn

Deep Work: Declutter and Refocus

My final read of January, Deep Work by Cal Newport, was an intentional one; I wanted to sort through my digital clutter and distractions in order to make 2023 a year of productivity and success. I'll admit, though; the principles shared in the book are difficult to swallow, though I can see how implementing them will help me work toward a healthier relationship with work in general, as well as the digital world.

For years, and especially since the start of the pandemic, my phone has been a place of comfort. I replaced being able to get out with scrolling social media and watching YouTube (where I discovered my love of true crime documentaries). Though it started out innocent enough, I noticed I was spending hours of my time numbing myself with mostly mindless content. Huge chunks of time would pass without me taking much notice.

I know this isn't uncommon; most of us love the escape that the digital world allows us. But, without proper boundaries, it can become a habit that evolves into a dangerous addiction—just as it did for me.

As a writer, I've had a growing desire to regain my motivation. Deep work, or "[a] professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit" as described by Newport, used to come easily for me. I could immerse myself in my writing and attain the coveted state of "flow" (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's term for a highly focused mental state in which one becomes completely immersed in their work) without issue. However, the more I succumbed to the allure of social media, the harder it became; even now, I struggle to get into the flow state; even when I try to focus, I feel the pull of unanswered DMs, emails, and more.

So, in 2023, I'm going to make a concentrated effort to pull myself out of the digital trap I've found myself in. That doesn't mean that I'm going to exit the scene altogether—it only means that I'm going to be more mindful of how I spend my time, and in turn, how I interact with the digital world.

Here are some of the efforts I'd like to make, inspired by Deep Work:

1. Monitor my digital use. A few days ago, coincidentally while I was reading Deep Work, I saw an ad for an app called "Minimalist Phone". The app is a launcher that "draws over" your current phone layout to make it, in essence, more boring. Take a look at my new homescreen:

As you can see, all of my colorful icons and backgrounds are gone, replaced by simple black and white. This is supposed to be less appealing, and also less stimulating to the brain. You can add your favorite apps to the homescreen for easy access, but the rest are only accessed through a list, as shown below:

You can either scroll or search in this list; again, the idea is mindfulness. You have to either locate the name of the app you're wanting to use, or actually type in the name. This will help reduce the number of times you open an app without having a specific intention to do so. Additionally, when you click on a social media app, a self-imposed timer will pop up:

I admittedly turned the one for YouTube off, as I usually watch videos longer than 15 minutes. Otherwise, it's a great reminder to be cognizant of how much time you're spending on any given app.

2. Plan my days. This was something that I initially went "eww" to when reading Deep Work. Newport recommends planning every minute of your day, which sounds insane, but once he lays out the explanation, you realize it's not truly a "minute-by-minute" shot of what your day will look like. Rather, it's an hour-by-hour block that shows what you'll be doing during that time. So for instance, you might have a morning block of work time and meetings. A lunch block. Some more work blocks in the afternoon. A relaxing block. A reading block. A dinner block. Really, you can schedule anything you like, though the idea of it is to give yourself a "plan" for the day so that you're not tempted to slip into something that ends up taking hours of your day.

3. Get out in nature more. At first glance, this may seem like an unrelated point, but as Newport explains, being in nature allows our brains to decompress and refocus. He shares a study in which concentration was studied among a group of students; those who spent time in nature before being tested scored better than those who didn't. (Surprisingly, this even held true for those who spent time outside in winter conditions.) This is because in nature, your brain doesn't have to be as attentive; you can let your thoughts wander, even subconsciously solve problems. Many renowned thinkers are quoted throughout Deep Work in support of nature walks, one of them being Nietzsche, who once said, "All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking".

Do any of these action steps inspire you? Do you have other tips and/or recommendations for curbing digital distractions? Let me know in the comments! In the meantime, I highly encourage you to read Deep Work if you haven't already.

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