What does “Deep Work” Mean to Me?
My whole life I’ve been naturally drawn to produce what Cal Newport describes as “Deep Work.” I picture myself as a ten year old writing stories in one of the many outdoor “forts” my sister and I would build. Sometimes I’d spend what felt like hours alone, riding my bike down our long dirt road to sit on the “big rock” and write down my thoughts and observations – a backpack full of books in tow, and a heavy imagination to compliment the scenery. Nature and quiet time were easy to find, but so were the other kids on my street, who, when I was ready to socialize seemed to always be available.
We grew up in a town where solitude was plentiful – I refer to solitude in the way that Newport does, as being alone with your thoughts, but not necessarily alone physically. Think: In the grocery store check out line without your phone. Not alone, but alone in your head – solitude. My home town is excessively rural, secluded, and a few years behind whatever technology or trends are happening on the outside. Thinking of the hundreds of days I spent riding my mountain bike up over the hills to spend hours with friends makes my heart fill with gratitude. Idle time was seen by many of our parents as time for trouble, but we rarely found any. What we did find was a childhood and adolescence spent “hanging out” with each other before the internet meant much, and long before cell phones were common, let alone in any of our own hands.
Sitting alongside the Kern River watching tourists go by on river rafts, walking circles around the high school football field talking, getting to know my future best friend, cleaning the hotel pool area in the early morning at my high school job. Thinking about being outside in the warm summer air, just me, the smell of chlorine, and the sound of the birds at 7am sometimes leads me to think that maybe we have gotten so far away from analog behaviors, solitude, and personal connection that we are suffering – mentally and physically. But how do we go back to that feeling – the one that we seem to find whenever our minds are left to fend for themselves?
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
My intention is not to emphasize an unrealistically ideal society pre-modern technology and to suffocate you with nostalgic tales from my childhood. What I do mean to do is evoke that sense of calm in you that I believe comes from the fulfillment and mental rewards we reap from the combination of experiencing a balance and abundance of solitude and personal one-on-one connections with other people.
I find myself researching Digital Minimalism, efficiency and effectiveness in my business and personal life, and my own cognitive potential, realizing that not only are those topics interconnected on many levels, but in my opinion, crucially dependent on one another for their success. As a society we’ve strayed away from meaningful connections and failed to give ourselves and others the permission to spend significant time on work that captures our undivided attention. The result: Our lives are spent toiling away on work that does not fulfill us, and on media platforms that do not produce the amount of value they’ve promised for the time we’re haphazardly giving away. If Instagram was charging you per minute to use their service, how much would it be worth to you? As it turns out, “liking” your friend’s post does cost us something huge: time. The only resource we cannot replenish. When it comes to our time, we should be counting our pennies, but instead we all spend like we have millions in the bank.
Personally, I enjoy and find fulfillment in one-on-one time spend with other people, and time spent alone, producing what I consider to be my “deep work” which usually has something to do with writing. The problem that I’ve encountered, and that has become glaringly obvious to me recently, is that I’ve positioned myself in a career where my personal connections are bountiful and meaningful, I’ve etched out time in my schedule to produce high-quality work, and I’m maintaining a blog and four social media accounts. And it’s too much. I did not replace personal connection with online or shallow connections, I merely added them all in, on top of the heavy client load and the real brick-and-mortar business location I currently run. Shocking fact: I have only had a personal Instagram account for three years. What value is it really producing? Not much.
For those of you unfamiliar with the day-to-day operations of a full time esthetician, my schedule looks like this: From around 8am to 7pm three days a week I book back to back clients during all of these hours for a minimum of thirty minutes and a maximum of three hour long appointments. During this time I will render any combination of skincare and makeup services, typically in a private room behind closed doors, in a quiet and relaxing atmosphere. This means that on any given client work day I will have an average of around ten one-on-one conversations. Many of my clients are friends, almost every single one has been coming to see me for several years. So we know each other and our talks are meaningful and rarely surface level. For roughly 33 hours per week I am in an intense state of concentration and attentiveness. I am producing quality work which requires practice and skill, providing a quality environment that requires thought, intention, and execution, and I am cultivating meaningful personal connections and conversation, which requires my full and undivided attention.
In addition to these client hours, I have event hours which typically include several weddings a month where my ability to concentrate and produce quality work in intensely distracting and high-stress environments is vital. And lastly, office hours which I’ve widdled down to two efficient hours per week doing paperwork and making phone calls – another task that requires my undivided attention to complete, lest I digress to completing these tasks haphazardly throughout my week, distracting me from client work.
I believe that I have cultivated the ability to work deeply and to socialize deeply because my career depends on it. And at this point in our history those skills are becoming increasingly more rare, and therefore, more valuable. The problem: I concentrate deeply for roughly 40-45 hours per week in a very social environment and then go home and try to socialize online, or text/email/call back any clients who are trying to contact myself or my business. My energy is so depleted by that point that I have basically none remaining for myself, my husband, or my personal relationships outside of work and social media. Perhaps I am not becoming more anti social, but rather, more intolerant of allowing my time to be monopolized by anything that produces shallow or ambiguous value.
I built the majority of my client base before I used social media much at all, and many of the most successful business people I know rarely use it. If they do, it is with intention to produce a specific value. The haphazard use of social media networking tools to produce a very abstract value is not serving me, or my business in real life. What does serve me and my clients is a thoughtful, professional environment, quality services and deep connections. In order for me to produce these things, I need solitude, and in order for me to feel content and happy I need to be “immersed in something challenging.”
As Newport would say, it is time to “drain the shallows” to fill what room is left in my bucket with deep work.
Luxe Headshots by The Studio by Kimberly Ann