Apply the Power of “Deep Work” to Academics

John Angelella, Staff Writer

It has been about eight months since I read “Deep Work” by Cal Newport, yet the methodologies outlined in the book resonate with me stronger by the day. To better understand the title and practice, let’s examine how famous thinkers leveraged deep work to produce some of the greatest projects of all time. The first example is Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist  and psychoanalyst who pioneered research on archetypes, the collective unconscious and synchronicity, just to name a few. Panning the shores of Lake Zurich may land your gaze on an ivy-covered, stone castle, aptly named Bollingen Tower. It was built in 1923 by Jung himself and would be the birth center of his most influential work. Within this mystical fortress, Jung performed what Cal Newport has coined, “deep work,” or a state of intense, task-oriented focus entirely free from distraction. While neither I nor Cal are suggesting you retreat into the woods of Zurich, it is important to recognize that the concentration — inducing environment produced by Jung in Bollingen tower appears to be the common denominator among the greatest thinkers in history. In the following sections, I will elaborate on the benefits of long-form concentration and time blocking in addition to outlining the strategy I use to consistently study 25 hours per week. 

Imagine you are working on a complex problem, and your progress has come to a standstill. You are then asked to withdraw to a remote cabin for one week with nothing but the basic necessities, a notepad and pen. What if I told you Bill Gates willingly partakes in this activity two times per year, and it is thanks to these very retreats that we now have Internet Explorer. What is the trend here? Great thinkers create environments that allow them to hone their concentration. The Google definition proves sufficient here; concentration is “the action or power of focusing one’s attention or mental effort.” Unfortunately, we are presently at the point on our historical timeline in which this practice proves most difficult. From the moment you arise, your attention is at the mercy of digital hitmen such as your cell phone, computer, iPad or smart watch, who are all vigorously competing to claim the prize of putting a bullet through your attention. 

Returning to our earlier examples, structuring your work environment to avoid these hitmen is the first step in regaining your concentration superpower. It is here that I will offer my first piece of advice: There should be no distracting technology in your workspace. Per the advice of James Clear in his book, “Atomic Habits,” one should eliminate the paths of least resistance, as your brain is naturally inclined towards the path that exhausts the least energy. In this instance, the path of least resistance is pausing your chemistry homework 15 times in one hour for a quick glance at your device. These are the seemingly benign actions that deal the devastating blow to your attention and arrest you in the stage that Newport coined “shallow work.” 

Consider the following scenario and note the shameful light it casts on our present behavior. Imagine Jung strolling into Bollingen Tower for a weekend retreat to ponder the nature of consciousness. But you are informed that, while pondering, he is sneaking quick glimpses at his device. His recent post is not getting the number of likes he had hoped. Fast forward a few minutes, and the eerily quiet study room is interrupted by the voice of Charli D’Amelio. Is he scrolling TikTok? When applied to Jung, one can quickly see how ridiculous these behaviors appear. Yet, this is the insubstantial reality for most individuals under the age of 21. How can one honestly expect to produce inspiring work with such a fragmented attention?

Your focus is like a muscle. To grow, it requires deliberate training. Upon first effort, it is unlikely you can focus your attention on a task for any extended period of time without severe agitation and crippling rumination. In the following paragraph, assume you’ve taken my earlier advice and your workspace is entirely free from distraction. It is now just you and the work. The first hurdle in this race to concentration mastery is embracing discomfort. While performing a cognitively difficult task, it is expected you become mentally uncomfortable. In these moments, your brain recognizes this irritation and attempts to relieve it through a variety of coping mechanisms. These usually come in the form of quitting the task entirely, reaching for your phone to dampen the pain, or resorting to an addictive behavior to override the suffering. Consider how many of these escape hatches are awaiting to engulf you into the underground of unproductiveness. Entertaining technology, sugary food, nicotine and a wide span of other indulgences are eager to alleviate your troubles the moment you face difficulty. It is no wonder why many great philosophers have embraced asceticism. It often requires extreme measures to produce such deep thought. However, you must realize that once you have mastered the craft of deep work, not only will you have more free time, but you will also be far ahead of your distracted peers.

Now that we have uncovered some benefits of deep work, I’ll elaborate on how I put this into practice. I vividly recall the second semester of sophomore year sending me into a spiraling depression. It seemed a constant cloud of work was looming over me alongside this internal voice providing near constant reminders that I should be trying harder. When I examined this feeling closely in May of that year, I came to the conclusion that the last five months of suffering could be solved rather simply. I needed to regain control of my life by allotting a certain amount of time to dedicated studying, and once that box was checked, I would allow myself to have fun. Hard work is the common denominator that cannot be ignored. I should note that the previous insights are rather obvious yet taking the steps to “be on top of things” proves a willing opponent we face each day. 

Thus, after what was something like a bad breakup with my GPA that semester, I had the chance to rebound this past summer with a good performance on the medical college admission test (MCAT). What better way to trial these practices than on the hardest admissions test in the world? So, I took the plunge. From the second week of May until the last day of summer, I arose at 5:30 a.m. each morning and completed five, one hour work blocks utilizing the Pomodoro study method. This entails setting a timer, studying completely undistracted for one hour, then taking a ten minute break. I repeated this process five times each day and religiously tracked my progress and methods in a journal that I am still equally as dedicated to today. Note that when employing this method, it is best to start with only one or two work blocks, then titrate up once your concentration muscle gets stronger. A surprising element of this transformation was how addicted I became to the system itself. It was the small highs each day of hearing the timer go off and slashing off another hour in the journal that provided a genuine feeling of pleasure that no Instagram, YouTube or food binge could ever match. Compounding these wins was a newfound ability to truly enjoy my free time. Once the five hours were complete, the looming black cloud of work disappeared and I could happily live in the moment, free from the nagging voice of unrealized potential that had previously decimated my mental health. It is with this system that I escaped the despair of distraction and reclaimed a life of meaning.