Making Sloppy Progress

Deep Work and Atomic Habits

enjoying some self-help

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of reading two really good self-help books - “Deep Work” by Cal Newport and “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. I enjoyed both books and thought this might be a good place to write down what kind of changes I’d like to implement thanks to each of them.

Atomic Habits

Atomic Habits is a science backed approach for building good habits and identifying then removing bad ones. In the book he details the four stages of a habit, and exploiting those four stages for either reinforcing a habit, or eliminate it.

The book covers a lot of interesting ideas, all of which are covered nicely in a summary at the end of each chapter. I could see myself revisiting the book again reviewing my behavior at the time and seeing how I can further refine the changes I’ve made. But the extremely high level idea can be broken down in this chart.

Goal Cue Craving Response Reward
Reinforce Obvious Attractive Easy Satisfying
Eliminate Invisible Unattractive Hard Unsatisfying

Deep Work

Deep Work was focused on getting a reader to learn to really focus down on what they believe to be deep meaningful work, and to remove distractions from your life that steer you away from accomplishing your goals. It paired really nicely with Atomic Habits. While Atomic Habits tells you how to keep getting back to your desk, Deep Work tells you how to focus once you get there.

Newport has four rules he recommends for settling into deep meaningful work. Each rule comes with various strategies for following the rule.

1 - Work Deeply

This rule is focused on creating your own “Eudaimonia Machine”. A way of settling into and getting significant work done. He first recommends choosing a “Depth Philosophy”. I’m personally a fan of the “Rhythmic” philosophy. That is, having a set time each day that you lock down for getting work done. For me, that will be after my morning routine, but before my regular job starts.


That is pre-determine your deep work behavior. Where will you work, and for how long? What kind of rules do you follow while working? Will you be eating or drinking anything while working?

Make Grand Gestures

Invest real time and money. He gives some really extreme examples here, some sound exciting but are mostly impractical for me to do on any kind of frequency. Maybe I’ll rent a cabin some weekend and hide in the woods.

Don’t Work Alone

The idea here is that while open floor plans hoping for “Serendipitous Encounters” sounds reasonable, it’s mostly distracting. He recommends (for collaborative efforts) a more “Hub and Spoke” model where people can happen across each other in shared common areas but are still secluded in small (pairs) teams.

Execute Like a Business

  • Focus on the wildly importing
    • Don’t focus on a bunch of things
    • Set just a few goals and focus them down
  • Act on lead measures
    • Lead measures are goals you can meet right now that will improve your lag measures.
    • Measure tickets closed time (lead) rather than customer happiness (lag)
  • Keep a compelling scoreboard
    • Seinfeld’s calendar (this thing was mentioned in both books)
  • Create a cadence of accountability
    • Weekly review (also mentioned in both books)

Be Lazy

The idea here was to create a clean break from work. When you’re done working, Be Done. Newport recommends creating a shutdown ritual.

  • Review your messages
  • Transfer your tasks
  • Review your tasks
  • Create a rough plan for tomorrow
  • Tell yourself (out loud) - “shutdown complete”

2 - Embrace Boredom

Don’t take breaks from distractions, take breaks from focus. Your default state should be focusing on what you’re doing. Create specific times in your limited day to do what he calls “Shallow Work” (answering emails, and basic questions).

Don’t bury yourself in internet usage. Schedule time to keep those distractions secluded. In this chapter he recommends several sort of “mental workouts” to get you comfortable with being bored. I especially loved the story at the beginning of the chapter about the Rabi reading scripture.

Work Like Teddy Roosevelt

Apparently Teddy Roosevelt was famous for getting a huge amount of work done in short periods of time and then focusing on his many hundreds of interests. An approach to replicate this behavior would be…

  • choose a high priority task,
  • estimate the length of the task
  • drastically cut the deadline
  • commit to the deadline publically
  • make sure you’re still able to beat the buzzer

Meditate Productively

If you’re occupied physically but not mentally (such as walking, driving, or showering) focus on a single problem and work through it. Avoid letting your mind wander, or looping on the same thought over and over. To avoid looping, you can create a sort of outline in your head of what needs done, and walk through them. I like this approach a lot.

Memorize a Deck of Cards

Using a memory palace (as spelled out in “Walking with Einstein”), memorize a deck of cards. This has apparently been shown to have all sorts of mental benefits.

3 - Quit Social Media

Really, I think this chapter would be better titled more generally like “Choose Your Tools Wisely”, but that doesn’t have the same memorable factor. He spends a lot of time here talking about a craftman’s tools and how having too many tools that don’t actually benefit you end up costing you. I agree with this philosophy, and I can see what he’s saying about social media. He’s especially damning of Facebook. I don’t personally feel like I struggle with Facebook, but I do with Reddit and YouTube. It helps to view these as tools now, and I’ve already gone about trimming down the number of subreddits I’m subscribed to.

I like his approach here of spelling out goals and the key activities supporting those goals. This seems like a particularly clean approach to really trying to boil down what’s important to you. He then recommends reviewing the tools you use and seeing what tools allow you to focus on those goals, and trying to scrap anything else.

I felt like this quote from Bennet in the book nicely summarizes the author’s thoughts in this and the next rule:

“Replace all your leisure time with structured time? Won’t you be exhausted?”

To which Bennet replied:

“What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change - not rest, except sleep.”

4 - Drain the Shallows

The last rule is about trimming down all of those shallow tasks in your day. He is especially critical here of email, but there are many distractions in the workplace that could be cut down.

Schedule Every Minute of the Day

  • Write down all of your work hours (2 lines per hour, so 1 line is 12 an hour)
  • Create blocks that fill those times, label them with what you’ll be doing in them
    • Group small simple stuff into blocks he calls “task blocks”
  • Nothing less than 30min
  • If you’re disrupted, reschedule your day from there
  • If you’re unsure how long a task will take?
    • Create a conditional block after your guess that could either be the task continuing or a new task

Quantify Depth of Every Activity

  • Guage the task against a bright college grad
    • How many months to learn to do the task well?
    • A whole lot? That’s deep work!
  • Bias your time toward deep work

My Takeaway

I know 90% of my notes here are from the “Deep Work” book which might make you think I found it significantly more valuable, but that is not the case. The truth is, I feel like both were very valuable, and pair nicely together. “Atomic Habits” also has an excellent summary at the end of each chapter so I didn’t really feel the need to even take notes. So what was the point of all that reading if I’m not going to allow it to impact my behaviors? Trying to pool together what I’ve learned, here are some of the changes I’m making.

Plan Out Internet Usage

I use the internet a lot and very little of it provides me any value. That is not to say I want to entertainment is bad, but I would like to see if I can sway my time in the direction of more growth. I’m unsure if I have any habits that actually trigger internet usage, but I’m hoping if I create a block of time where I can freely check my leisure sites it will limit my time spent doing that. In addition, I’ve already cleaned up my list of subreddits I’m subscribed to. Hopefully removing some of the distracting clutter showing up in my feed.

Try to Build a Strong Morning, Afternoon and Evening Routine

I’ve begun using an application called “Fabulous” that will hopefully help me settle in to some healty, beneficial habits. It appears that the application strongly adheres to the lessons learned in “Atomic Habits”, so I’m just going to follow the application’s lead for the most part for now, adding it to my already existing good habits.

Going to Bed Early and Rising Early

The happiest and most productive I have felt in my adult life was when I had a very early morning routine. Willpower is limited and I would prefer to spend it on my own goals. Waking up allows me to steal back some of my most productive time and focus on myself. I try to start work at 8:30-9:00, so getting started at 5:00 gives me time to focus on my healthy routines.

Review Regularly

It’s clear from both books that regularly reviewing your habits and goals is vital to making sure you’re heading in a direction you desire. This makes a lot of sense as life has a funny way of just kind of washing you along if you don’t watch out. So, outside of my normal daily routine, I’ll also implement a weekly, and quarterly (?) routine for making sure I’m pointed at some kind of target.

Track Things

It’s difficult to know if you’re improving if you don’t know where you’ve started. Both books have recommendations on tracking your behaviors. I’ll have to come up with some metrics that make sense for my own goals.

Come Up with Some Goals

Speaking of Goals… I need some. Who do I want to be? That can help me determine what I need to do to get there.

Take it Slow

If you want to make real, lasting change, starting slow and small is the way to go. The book talks about the “2 Minute Rule”. The idea being that when building a habit the most important part is showing up. You don’t need to make some grand effort, but keeping the streak up and “doing it more” is the most important thing. The more you do it, the more likely you are to keep doing it.

Personally, I take things to the extreme and when I want to get into something I start with such gusto. Then I feel like I need to keep that same intensity up forever and get into a sort of “Well… I’m not really feeling it. May as well put it off.” The better approach would be “Let’s just put in a half measure today.” Then, after getting started once I’m past that initial hurdle, I can either keep the ball rolling or just calling it. Either way, I’ve kept the habit, and that’s really the key to keeping a good habit.

My Pencils are Sharp Enough

While reading Atomic Habits, it became clear to me that learning to be productive is (ironically) just another form of procrastination. I enjoy self-help books. I like the feeling that I’m growing but the truth is, I’m not actually producing anything. I have one more book that I already agreed to read - “The Manager’s Path.” This one I won’t rush, though. I’ll just start reading that in my regular wind-down reading time.

About Me

I'm a father of three and a software engineer for both hobby and trade. I enjoy tabletop role-playing and board games - especially of the heavily social variety! I also occasionally participate in game jams with friends.

I'm particularly interested in self-improvement in all of those things. I enjoy progressing through a new skill and learning ways of maximizing my time and focus.

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The best way to reach me is via email. When I'm in a coding mood I've usually got some kind of personal project going on my github.