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iPad is the best deep work device

I’ve been re-reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work. I haven’t re-read a book since Louis Sachar’s Holes in the sixth school. The fact I’m even re-reading a book should be as much a testament to how important I think Deep Work is.

One of the pieces that stuck out to me I missed before was a discussion about tools. Newport talks about a farmer who, instead of using a hay baler, sold it and now buys his hay. The result is he saves money on the fixed costs of the baler, but also saves time.

This grants the farmer with the time to raise broiler chickens instead. This produces something he can sell, and manure he can use on his land. He still needs the hay for winter, but buying it saves money and generates more revenue than if he baled his own himself. The farmer also saves his land by not trudging heavy equipment over it all summer.

As a calculation on tools goes, this is a complicated and multi-variable, decision.

For my work I need a computer. My 27” iMac with its big display and beefy processing and memory specs helps me do a lot of work. For a $1500 piece of equipment, it pays for itself for sure.

But my $1000 iPad helps me do a lot of work, too. And with more focus. Increasingly I’m impressed by how much that focus saves time and generates revenue.

The same iMac screen that lets me lay out sprawling InDesign projects like catalogs and brochures also means I have space where a reply to an email means I see all the other emails pop in next to it. Browser tabs and windows that are updating or scrolling also cause momentary shifts in focus.

As Newport explains in most of the rest of the book, this kind of task-shifting and unfocused attention is deadly to productivity. If the goal is to get into a “flow state” — that kind of headspace where time falls away, the tools aren’t helping.

I’ve done lots of tricks to try and alleviate this. I set Mail to only check for new messages when I click “get mail”, but known bugs prevents it from syncing drafts or sending mail without also “getting new mail”. The result is typing an email means I’m also constantly checking email.

Do-Not-Disturb toggles can help alleviate iMessages, but it pins down other notifications I might need, like that a file transfer is complete. Tweaking every notification at the same time is cumbersome.

I’ve hidden badges and notifications. I don’t have previews set to display in email messages (you should try this, right now. Turn off message previews and see how you do with just subjects and names). I try to keep windows closed. And yes, I could enter “full screen mode”, but that’s pretty dumb for most apps on a Mac.

The iPad, however, may be the ultimate Deep Work device. It’s screen size and one (or two) app windowing means you have to focus on one part of a task at a time. And you have to do it deeply.

A lot has been written about the iPad as a productivity machine. A lot of criticism comes from not being able to have multiple windows open at the same time — and that may be fair much of the time. I still can’t do print publications on my iPad. Having three spreadsheets open would be a real bear. A lot of code compiling stuff for developers flat out won’t work.

But how much of your day is spent reading journals, stories, or researching? How much of your day is spent planning notes, preparing project plans, or just looking at timesheets? Answering questions? And how much of those tasks do you have Facebook, Twitter, email, music, a video, or some other undeniable distraction floating in the background?

Using the iPad as a machine to get those “light” tasks done deeply is a good first step to being able to train yourself to work hard on pulpier projects later.

The iPad Pro, specifically, having ample screen size, ridiculous battery life, and sustainable Internet connectivity through tethering, WiFi, or cellular gives a lot of options for people looking to work in a quiet place.

With new trackpad support, the iPad has become more capable with drag-and-drop functions in Safari that often stopped me from being able to do much in WordPress or email editors like MailChimp and Active Campaign. Projects that require a lot of movement between apps on any platform are challenging. But when I focus on them I realize my flow is better. “I need to make these graphics and export them all at once, because if I have them all in one folder or Yoink (shelf/file manager), I can quickly drop them into the page when I get into Safari.”

Further still, the iPad has made me wonder what kinds of projects and tasks I should probably be outsourcing because of their relative simplicity because I started thinking about what it was I was doing.

As calculations around tools go, it’s complicated. But the thinking is critical for developing better work.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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