TL;DR: a few simple steps to improve your focus as a software developer
What is deep work and why you should care
“Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” is a book by Cal Newport, a computer science professor. It was published in 2016.
In it, he argues that deep work, as opposed to shallow work, is becoming a rare skill. Thus, developing it will give any knowledge worker an edge.
Deep work can be best understood as work that provides value and is hard to replicate by others. It requires focus. It’s not the stuff you do when you’re tired.
As a software engineer, deep work is writing code, learning, teaching. It may include looking up something on Stack Overflow but if all you do is copy and paste, it’s not deep work.
Not all work needs to, or even can, be deep work. We certainly cannot work deeply for 8 hours every day. But a good proportion of your working hours should be deep work. His advice is to aim for 3 to 4 hours a day.
You should care because with the amount of good code tutorials out there, not to mention the abundance of open source code and, of course, Stack Overflow, there is no reward for remembering something by rote mindless repetition. And this is good, because our brains really shouldn’t be worrying about whether to use length() or size(). But it means that you need to dig deeper to offer value. For example, understanding about Android app architecture, or web performance. And those skills cannot be developed by skimming through online content.
What is in this eBook
Cal offers some rules in his book, with examples. Most of those are taken from his own work as a professor and writer.
I’ve been through the process of adapting them to my work as a software developer. I’ve now been practising deep work for 2 years, and I’m really pleased with what I have achieved professionally during that time, especially as I only work for about 20 hours a week. I have a young daughter who goes to pre-school in the mornings (when I do my deep work); I sometimes do a little bit of shallow work in the afternoons.
So I’ve compiled this eBook as advice to myself, because it’s worth reminding myself about it once in a while. And I’m sharing it with you, hoping that it can help others. As such, the writing style is mostly “I do this and I do that”. And when I say “you”, I’m mostly talking to my future self.
It starts off with understanding your value in Chapter 1, as the whole point of doing deep work is to deliver more value. Chapter 2 is about scheduling deep work; then, we track it in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 is about planning tomorrow. Then, we tackle the online/offline question in Chapter 5, and finally, we talk about the weekly review in Chapter 6.
The whole eBook is very short; it’s only 14 pages, so it can be read in one sitting. It’s on purpose. Enabling deep work isn’t complicated.