Deep Work

I finished re-listening to my Audible copy of Cal Newport's book "Deep Work" today. It's a reasonably good book, and gives some useful advice for how to increase your level of focus at work. Recently I've been feeling a need to squeeze more out of each hour of the day to keep up with my school work, research obligations, and home life; pursuing depth and focus in the work day seems like a natural way to do that, so I decided to revisit the book.

Cal's advice basically boils down to a few major themes:

  1. Any work that doesn't fully exploit any special skills or talents you might have should be reduced or eliminated if possible. He calls this "draining the shallows".
  2. Focused attention is the main resource that you will need for good work, so eliminate distractions. Email, social media, and entertainment-driven internet use all fall under this category.
  3. Structure your work, and do as much as possible to have long stretches of uninterrupted time for focused work. Meetings and other such distractions should be reduced as much as possible. Use a schedule and a set of rituals for your work to help guide your mind towards depth.

All of these are fairly reasonable and I've tried to adopt as many of them as I can. The thing I'm struggling with is defining my work well enough to really get deep into it. For some tasks this isn't a problem; homework, for example, tends to be reasonably well defined. Research is a different beast. I've never written an MIT master's thesis before, and I'm not sure what the right approach is - what are the next steps? What physical actions should I be taking to move this thing forward? (I also recently finished a re-read of Getting Things Done...)

I have some time scheduled to talk to my advisor, so I'm hoping that more clarity will come from that. For the time being, I'll be trying to get some nice long blocks to read lots of papers and think as deeply as I can about spacecraft autonomy architectures.

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