original collage by Kristen Bourgault, 2018
I settle into my home office, desk organized, computer ready, cell phone off. I start to type the first sentence of an article and there’s a knock on my door. A child walks in. “I need an eraser for my homework.” Another child walks in behind him. “What time is dinner? Can I have a cheese stick?” she asks. A scruffy black rescue dog sleeping at my feet wakes up and runs to bark at a car passing by. A second rescue dog, with short brown hair, chimes in. Any chance of getting “deep work” done today? Not likely.
In Cal Newport’s Deep Work, he defines this type of work as what happens when one is able to remain focused on a specific task for an extended, uninterrupted period of time and reach the outermost capacity of our minds. Something tells me Cal Newport has never worked from home with small children. I don’t think I’ve had a deep thought, let alone produced deep work, in the past 11 years. Sure I have held down amazing jobs which span an impressive career that has landed me in my dream position before the age of 40, but much of that work has been spent in what Cal Newport would call “The Shallows” – repetitive work that chips away at a list of daily responsibilities, without producing an impressive and impactful end product. For the past several years in my career as an instructional designer and a professor while raising two children, deep work has remained elusive.
And it’s not for a lack of trying. Deep work is the kind of work I crave – researching for inspiration, reading to understand, writing to make sense of it all. It just hasn’t been available to me since the day I gave birth to tiny baby twins. Even when they are out of sight, it’s almost impossible to purge one’s mind from the all encompassing responsibility of the emotional management of raising children, what’s been referred to as the “mental load.” My time spent at work has perpetually been plagued with “attention residue” – which Cal defines as the mental energy left behind from previous tasks when we constantly switch our attention. When you are a parent, that attention residue is always there, a constant brain chattering of the things you just did or need to do or forgot to do last week. Perhaps that’s why we see so few women in the pages of Cal Newport’s book. And by so few, I mean just two (more on that in a future blog post).
For me, enrolling in this graduate program was a way to redirect my focus, and grant permission for myself to “go deep.” As Professor Hastings stated in our first class meeting, it’s a time to “reboot focus and passion” for the fields that interest me and move into a mental place where I can more easily digest and produce content. The past few years I have struggled with moving from a consumption mindset to a production mindset. I am hoping this program, and specifically this course, will be an antidote to that.
Cal Newport gives us the equation:
High Quality Work Produced =
(Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
But the last decade of my life looks more like:
Parenting Small Children =
(Hours of Mind-numbing Drudgery) x (Endless Patience)
+ (Flexibility) – (Quality Sleep)