Questions on Deep Work

I love the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. It’s probably been the most influential book on me in the last four years. You can find the series I did on the book here: one, two, three, four, five. But the book does raise a number of remaining questions that have to be worked through to develop a broader vision of what deep work means for me.

The clearest application of deep work to my line of work (being a pastor) is in the study of the Scriptures and the writing of sermons. Clearly, those activities require depth. So does prayer one of the two priorities for a leader in the church (Acts 6:4). Since pastoring is radically different than Cal Newport’s line of work (computer science), then further applications of his recommendations will take some creativity. And his work also raises a number of questions I’m trying to answer for my context and job.

How does deep work interact with building relationships?

Newport often encourages workers to labor in a distraction-free environment. To foster such an environment, he talks about adopting a certain “depth philosophy.” How will someone achieve a context for deep work? In the book, he gives a couple different options:

  1. Monastic Retreat:  Someone spends most away in a sanctuary to think and concentrate. For many people, however, their  job will not allow them to remove themselves from “real life.”
  2. Bi-Modal (Extended Sabbatical): Bi-modal is like a “getaway” for a weekend: someone vacillates  between extended times away and engagement in “normal” life. 
  3. Rhythmic Scheduling: A worker will set aside daily, or weekly, times for deep work in the midst of his or her normal schedule.  
  4. Journalistic Scheduling:  Journalistic scheduling is an advanced method. Once your brain has been trained to concentrate deeply, you can usually slip into “deep work” mode at will.

Many of these models seem to pit deep work vs. engagement with others. For example, the whole premise of monastic retreat and bi-modal rhythms is to get away from distractions, which seems to implies that relationships can be a distraction!

But for most pastors, relationships are the job. Of course, we must devotes ourselves to prayer and ministry of the word. But even those two things happen most often in the context of relationships. Here’s a key questions for me: Can discipleship relationships be considered “deep work”?

It would seem that discipleship would not be considered “deep work” because although it does call for high-cognitive (and emotional!) demand, it is not a state of distraction free concentration. Furthermore, discipleship relationships are an opportunity to pour out what you developed through deep work! The pastor’s main deep work tasks of studying the Scriptures and writing compelling Scriptural content serves as the “meat” he gives to his disciples. Otherwise, he has nothing to offer.

The point is that deep work and discipleship do not have to pitted against one another. Rather, they serve one another. For example, deep work in studying the Bible gives pastors something to share. If he does not have deep and meaningful relationships, then he will have no one to share it with! Relationships give the background context for a pastor to enter into his deep work. He might approach the Scriptures looking for an answer or resource to help with someone’s problem. Ultimately, deep work must drive pastors into discipleship.

How should I structure deep work time slots?

The next question I grappled with was how to effectively structure deep work time slots. Pastors must have range: the ability to do various tasks well. The demands of pastoring often means that we must work on many unrelated projects. Therefore, it is important to effectively structure deep work time so as not to get distracted. It seems to me that my deep work time should be broken down into two distinct time slots: study and writing.

In my main “deep work” time on Tuesday morning, my structure will look like this:

  1. Most Important Writing Project (45 min. to 90 min.) I must devote significant time to my most important writing project. On preach weeks, it is my sermon. On non-preach-weeks, it would be whatever writing project happens to be on my plate (YG message, conference message, book, or pamphlet).
  2. Scripture Study (2-3 hours): After working on my most important writing project, I need to dive into the Scriptures for study. I need to be studying ahead, working on the next sermon passage or sermon series texts, or YG passage or YG series texts.

How Can I Meditate for Productively?

Newport advocates for workers to “meditate,” deeply think through problems. Newport gives a few guidelines for productive deep thinking.

  1. Be wary of distractions and looping: When your mind wanders, pull its focus back onto the issue at hand. Looping occurs when you think about the same aspects of a project over, and over, and over again. Looping will short-circuit your breakthroughs. In order to keep from looping, look to the next step.
  2. Structure your Deep Thinking: It’s important to have structure to your deep thinking, otherwise, you can get caught up in looping. To minimize looping, consider doing the following:
    1. Carefully review the relevant variables for solving the problem: What factors are necessary for solving this problem? What factors have already come into play?
    2. Ask a next-step question: Develop a question which can help you move onto the next stage of the project.

Newport’s advice on distractions and looping are on point. At this point, I need to develop a next-step question for my deep thinking times for ministry. I believe I might be able to modify Brian Howard’s suggestions for developing an annual ministry plan in order to help structure my deep thinking time. Questions to ask:

  1. Define the Ministry: Why am doing this? Why is this important? Is it worth doing? If yes, why? If not, how can I get out of it?
  2. Describe the Present: What’s the current situation? What does this ministry/project look like now? What does it consist of?
  3. Diagnose the Problems: What is holding this thing back? What is frustrating me about it? What obstacles are we facing?
  4. Design a Plan: What things are we going to start, stop, or do to move forward? What are we going to do to move beyond the present? What people do we need to get involved? What resources do we need?





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