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My plan for getting into my best mental shape for deep work

It’s rare I award a book five stars on Goodreads. There are just 18 with 5-stars on my Goodreads list.

This weekend Cal Newport’s “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” made the list. I figured it would be another puffy self-help book I’d put down. I was wrong.

The gist is this: You’re really bad a multitasking. So stop doing that, close your email a little more often, stop looking at Facebook, and get to work. Focus intensely on that work. You’ll get better results if you do.

Newport boils this down to one formula:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Throughout human history, the best work comes from people who squirreled themselves away alone or with a small team. Twain, Bell, Thoreau, Ford, Jobs, and others we all universally admire were good at “deep work”.

They were skillful at the management of their attention. They woke up early or stayed up late. They focused and accomplished boundary-pushing work as a result.

Here are some highlights from the book that stuck out to me:

“Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech.”


“Within the overall structure of a project there is always room for individuality and craftsmanship… One hundred years from now, our engineering may seem as archaic as the techniques used by medieval cathedral builders seem to today’s civil engineers, while our craftsmanship will still be honored.”


” Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.”


“…deep work is necessary to hone skills and to then apply them at an elite level—the core activities in craft.”


 “The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.” They elaborate that execution should be aimed at a small number of “wildly important goals.”  This simplicity will help focus an organization’s energy to a sufficient intensity to ignite real results.”


“…for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours—but rarely more.”


“For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.”


If you know me you know why this book kept my attention: it talks about eliminating things that are bad, becoming focused, and Theodore Roosevelt. If it had a James Bond reference and came with a glass of iced tea Cal would have renamed it “The Justin Harter Starter Pack”.

This book got me thinking. I started measuring my time at my desk. I started closing off my email and pushing my phone further away (it was already pretty far away most of the time). What I found with Rescue Time was alarming:


Rescue Time Dashboard
Much of the uncategorized work is for clients. But I spend far too much of my day in Outlook.


And this is just after a couple of days. I know my work well enough to know this isn’t going to get any better without effort. And this is after being conscious of how I’m spending my time!

Last year I got myself into the best physical shape of my life. This year we work on getting my work into its best mental shape. The good thing is it shouldn’t take as long.

Soft work has to be curtailed

Too often I’m emailing people back and forth over small-potato stuff. Last week it was over an hour explaining to someone the basics of Twitter. Hours were spent writing a pre-proposal proposal on another project. I spent a day writing a document no one read and instead just referenced a summary chart on the back. I’ve let myself get sucked into back-and-forth emails and phone calls on minor changes to do-nothing pages. Stuff like changing one piece of text from bold to red for no apparent reason.

All those changes and the back-and-forth nature causes us to miss items. Last week I sent an email campaign with a button that didn’t do anything. It was my fault, but it resulted from a silly change that required replicating it in four places. It was easy to miss, and I did.

Everyone, for the love of mercy: shut up and let us work. Real, substantive, issue-pushing work

I don’t hate explaining how to use Twitter to you. But you can Google that. But I also can’t send you a link because you’ll be offended if I do.

  • I installed Boomerang, a service that makes email more intelligent. It works well in Outlook (there’s also a mobile app and a Gmail version). You can pause your inbox, be reminded of emails, and schedule emails for the future.
  • I’m leaving Rescue Time on for a short while longer. I don’t like the privacy invasion, but the data is useful at least for a week or two.
  • I’m removing distractions where possible by leaving my phone and PC in do-not-disturb. If that sounds like it’s more detriment to your job than not, that’s your call to make. But most research from Newport’s studies shows no one notices or cares. The only benefit you have to gain is for yourself and your work.

The success of our business is predicated on our ability to deliver excellent work quickly. In conjunction with a transparent process (i.e., “Approve this copy once and then send it to me done”), this is achievable. And we can deliver better work that improves the bottom line for our clients.

I literally want to spend more time thinking of ways to help clients make more money. I know if I can do that, we’ll make more money, too.

I’ve long prided myself on our fast response to email. I now realize this is like a guy priding himself on eating the most hot dogs at the county fair. Email is still the best way to communicate with us because everyone has to send us attachments eventually anyway. And it helps keep a record. But we’re reaching upper limits of sanity.

Phone calls have long been the bane of my existence. They’re rude and disruptive. I’ve hated them long enough that most people don’t bother calling much anymore. So let’s keep that going.

We’re also introducing more checklists into our work. Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto outlines why: we’ve reached the point of too much knowledge in almost every field.

The amount of knowledge we have to apply is more than any human can remember. Surgeons and pilots swear by checklists because they save lives in situations where failure is not an option. If I had used our checklist last week I wouldn’t have missed that broken button in an email.

Doing better, problem-solving work

Instead of treating emails like hot potatoes I want to treat them as issues (mostly) deserving of complete finality. We have to stop feeling comforted by the busy-ness of just sending a bunch of junk around inboxes every day.

The ironic thing is much of my job is preparing things designed to get you to waste your time. Emails, Facebook posts, tweets, and glitzy graphics to make you stop and think about our clients. Ultimately, my effort goal is to figure out ways to move beyond the small stuff and do more wholesale, boundary-pushing work. I want to measure success by money and attention, not clicks and followers.

I can’t do that if we’re wallowing in the shallow puddle of emails and piddly phone calls.

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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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