An Intentional Focus on Deep Work

This is a post about my journey to create deep, meaningful work and abstract away meaningless, shallow work. Much of this involves making big life changes and swimming against the social currents.

To begin, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Great Resignation that’s underway. A lot of people (myself included) are taking time during the pandemic to evaluate their goals in life and what it means to have balance. More specifically, there is a deep desire to form connections with one another. This isn’t a new thing, but forced isolation and the general “suck” of daily business routines have forced a level of introspection that isn’t normally pursued.

“What COVID did was stop the hamster wheel – and so we stepped off.”

Simon Sinek

Previously, I spent my time and energy flying around delivering technical talks and meeting with customers. I was fairly depressed when I realized that my old job and my old life were dead and gone with a deadly virus on the loose. I quickly realized that my entire life’s structure was built upon relationships that required global travel and social media interactions.

Throughout 2020, I began to realize that I was living a shallow life devoid of substance and material. Each person I knew was distilled down to a tiny microtransaction that slid through my life like a blur via Instagram or Twitter. I figured it was enough to “like” or “heart” something, maybe toss a little “that’s awesome!” comment, and move on to the rest of the herd.

“I compared my real life to [people’s] highlight reel. And then I started making comparisons. And comparisons are the killer of all joy.”

Kevin Gates

This isn’t a real connection. It’s some mockery of connection that keeps me on someone’s social media platform and distills engagement into something mechanical and transactional. It felt like something straight from The Social Dilemma come to life. I was just an endpoint to be sold products and “influenced” under the guise of connecting as a human being to other human beings.

Making Changes

I decided to make changes in 2021. I started by taking a series of self assessments and evaluating the ways in which I spent my time and energy using the “Craftsman Approach” to tool selection. This process requires mapping out goals for the year and then assessing tools to see if they help or hinder those goals. I wanted to know how I was spending my time and what returns were being realized by those investments.

The answer was sobering. I was spending hours upon hours of time on activities and tools (such as social media) that did little or nothing to benefit my goals. In many cases, the tools hindered my ability to focus on goals and achieve them. I had never bothered to do a simple cost-benefit analysis prior to this point. I had just assumed that any benefit gained from a tool justified its use, rather than seeking opportunities to find other, more powerful tools.

For example, Twitter. My Twitter account is 13 years old and had tens of thousands of messages attached to it. Every day, I would – like a good little social media robot – log on to read an avalanche of toxic hatred and self promotion. The pattern was so deeply ingrained that my hand would perform the actions required to open Twitter on my phone without thinking. Without even my conscious mind doing it. Sometimes I would look down and realize – damn, I have Twitter open again. I was addicted to something that brought misery to my life.

Another example is YouTube. Hours a day spent watching “shorts” and other videos. Most of them offer nothing for my life and do nothing to bring me joy. It all felt like an enormous waste of time. On top of that, my YouTube channel had been laying dormant for months. I felt guilty about that. I kept feeling like I needed to “fix” that. The feeling nagged at me constantly. I was carrying a stressful burden around with me everywhere I went, which effected my mood and interactions.

It was at this moment that I realized that, for me, there are no half measures when it comes to social media. It was all unhealthy for me. And it is all voluntary! I have spent well over half my life devoid of social media because it did not exist in my youth. Social media is not required to function or be successful, despite what people trying to sell you on that fact claim. To the contrary, based on what I had been reading in books like Deep Work, these shallow investments were hurting my performance, my happiness, and my career.

I could leave it all.

And so, I did.

Cleaning Up

For Twitter, I deleted all of my Tweets sometime during the summer, made my password something insanely large, removed any auto saved passwords from Google, and rotated my 2FA token. I keep the account only to prevent it from being abused. I removed links to my account from my email, blog, and other profiles to the extent that I could. The application is gone from my phone and my Google Chrome apps. I did end up leaving a little Easter egg in my profile description, though. For those who followed me – thanks!

With Twitch, I had to file a ticket with support to remove my Affiliate relationship. From there, I was able to disable the account. I removed references to Twitch as the page is no longer visible. Boom, gone.

As for YouTube, I left the videos in place but have disabled my access to the account, similar to Twitter. I figure that if people find the videos handy, great! I’m fine with that. I don’t see myself making tech videos again, though, as the process is grueling and the rewards ultimately go to Google and its advertisers, not me.

I’ve kept LinkedIn. I use that as a tool to help find people and connect with them at work. As a hiring manager, I find value in this. But I do not visit the news and information feeds at all; it’s largely filled with self promotion and vendor shills.

I’m also keeping this blog, of course, since it’s the only platform I actually own. You may notice, however, that there are no more ads or even the option to buy ads. I’ve also disabled my Social Networks Auto Poster (SNAP) plugin, since I have no need to hawk my writing to other platforms anymore. I might share something on LinkedIn here and there to show that I am still alive, but that’s more of an intentional and manual activity.

This whole process lent me the realization that I had a lot of “digital detritus” floating around. I cut out what I cared about and am leaving the rest to grow digital moss. I am now a social media hermit. It’s hard to reach me! And that’s kind of the point – deep work requires focus free from distraction.

“If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”

Deep Work

The Aftermath

For the first month I found myself constantly performing routine muscle memory actions to open Twitter. And YouTube. And Twitch. And every other platform that I could think about. Several times per hour, I would feel my body craving these applications as if they were nutrients. “Holy shit,” I thought, “this is a serious, real addiction.”

These cravings were especially bad when I was trying to do focused, deep work. It was like my brain knew that I was investing time in something good and tried to tether me back into The Matrix. My mind thrashed around looking for ways to escape the deep work that I wanted and needed to do.

But, I need what Twitter offers, right? How else would I stay “in the loop” with announcements and news and the comings and goings of the world. Wouldn’t I miss out on all of the social media goodness that everyone, my old self included, raves about?

It turns out, no, these feelings were just part of the digital trap that purposefully makes people feel like they are “missing out” if not part of the social media web.

After the first month of cutting myself off, the cravings entirely disappeared. I don’t visit any of these platforms at all and have no idea what’s going on. This has had literally no impact on my personal or professional life. No one has reached out to me saying “Chris, you left social media, what happened!” No one noticed. No one cares. It proves my theory that these low-impact activities simply do not matter in the grand scheme of things.

I’ve honestly never felt this free and happy in a long, long time.

If you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game.

Deep Work

I put aside 3 hours per day for deep, focused work. I write an internal blog post at my work every week. I’m writing papers on technical design, modern architecture, and testing frameworks. I write and write and write more than I ever have. And with that comes much more reading, too, although now it’s things like the Financial Times and my list of good reads. I take copious notes and build all sorts of new mind maps, strategies, goals, and initiatives out of the ideas that flow through my mind. I’m taking on important and impactful growth challenges at work, mentoring a handful of amazingly talented engineers, and taking an active role as part of the leadership team. It’s glorious and rewarding!

Time with friends has increased, and most of my friends are now here in the Austin area. We meet up for coffee chats, happy hours, and to discuss our nerdy tech things. We volunteer time to clean up parks or run for charities. We spend hours laughing and talking and socializing – sometimes into the early hours of the morning. I will call a friend out of the blue and talk for an hour to connect on a deeper and more meaningful level. Sometimes I get a text from a friend with a picture or a short video, and it’s great because it’s not just there to be “liked” but discussed and shared.

I have a renewed interest in local politics and local issues. I care about who fills the role of mayor, sheriff, city council, and other positions that have an impact on my community. I turn out to vote on local issues and be a part of something larger than myself. I would love to do more volunteer work for education and non-profits as the pandemic becomes less of a thing.

Overall, I’m glad I made these changes. I feel in control, healthy, and clear of mind. I fill my time with meaningful work related to the projects and people that I care about. I’m not on a soap box – this is my journey and I’m sharing it, that’s it. No shade thrown to those who disagree with or reject this mindset.

But if you are taking this journey, know that you are not alone.