I’ve been working through some pretty complicated technical design at work; some of the hardest development stuff I’ve done. Ever. The changes I’ll be making to the are in some complex parts of the system. My understanding of how the code works must be high; my confidence of not breaking it with my changes, even higher. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had my head down working through the code, the problems I have to solve, and how best to merge two elegantly together. It’s been a hard slog, made up of long periods of time spent with my headphones in, debugging, backtracking, cursing… struggling through a little documented domain… trying to get it.

Today I nailed it. All the pieces just seemed to fall into place. I saw exactly how all the moving bits would fit together, perfectly, and elegantly. I really understood.

Reflecting on the effort it had taken to get me to this point made me think of Cal Newport’s series of posts on Deep Work. Newport describes Deep Work as:

Cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

He goes on:

Deep work, if made the centerpiece of your knowledge work schedule, generates three key benefits:

  1. Continuous improvement of the value of your work output.
  2. An increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.
  3. Deeper satisfaction (aka., “passion”) for your work.

He’s right. Deep work is not easy work. It involves constant struggle. It’s hard to get started on a block deep work when you know it’s going to be tough. And it’s hard to push on when you don’t understand. It’s easy to give up and get on with easier stuff. But deep work is essential for progress. It’s like weight training. You put the muscles through pain, until failure, and the muscle fibres tear. And then you rest them. With that rest comes repair of the muscle fibbers, and growth. The same goes for deep work. Periods of hard mental work, followed by periods of rest, improve your overall output, work quality and understanding. It’s growth for your brain.

Here’s some of Cal’s notes on deep work:

  1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
  2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.” Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
  3. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
  4. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
  5. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

I find that when you spend time in deep work, and allow yourself sufficient time to really understand the problem, and what the ideal outcome is, the answer is nearly always a simple and elegant one. And when the solution I’ve landed with doesn’t feel elegant, or feels like a workaround or improvements could be made, then it’s not complete. It requires more thought and a bit more deep work.

Check out some of Cal’s writing on the subject:

The Grandmaster in the Corner Office: What the Study of Chess Experts Teaches Us about Building a Remarkable Life

Some Notes on Deep Working

Knowledge Workers are Bad at Working (and Here’s What to Do About It…)