The Guide for the Deep Work Exercise

Here’s the guide for interpreting the feelings you might have experienced during the deep work exercise.

1. Guilt and anxiety that you weren’t doing anything. This is the easiest thing to beat. Simply remember that “I have to be doing something useful all the time or I’m a bad person” is the most surefire way to get nothing done. If you see yourself as a machine or an instrument to do stuff, you don’t let the actual you, the person who is bigger than any activity you might engage in fully to exist.

2. Discomfort, sadness, fear, anger, depression. This means that your unbearable affects aren’t boundaried up and are leaking all over your life. You are probably the kind of person who often lacks energy to do even the most important stuff. You probably believe that your biggest problems are “procrastination” and “laziness.” The reality, however, is that procrastination is a myth. You are not lazy. Laziness doesn’t exist. You are simply tired from having to mop up the leaking unbearable affects all day. This is the hardest work there is, so congratulate yourself for being the hardest working person around.

Everybody has unbearable affects. You are not a bad person for having them. Right now they are trampling all over your life like a scared herd of rhinos instead of being corralled neatly in a place from which they can’t escape. Deep affects will have to be gathered and locked up. Forget about deep work. This is no way to live your life when these bastards are crapping everywhere freely. I recommend spending 15 minutes every day doing nothing and observing what thoughts, words, or images are surfacing and causing pain. Write them down, identify the source, and look for what could be a boundary that would keep them at bay. I can write more about unbearable affects if people are interested.

3. Boredom, need for stimulation, an itch to grab a device, a book, a source of information or entertainment. This is the effect of living in a culture where everything aims at robbing us of our capacity to focus deeply. Love is attention. Once your capacity to concentrate your attention on yourself and others is broken, you can no longer truly love yourself or them. Regaining the capacity to be very attentive to your own thoughts is very doable. It takes some practice but it’s like absolutely any skill. The more you practice, the better you get.

4. Profound enjoyment. This is how it should be. Psychological health is finding your own life endlessly fascinating. From brushing teeth to making the bed, we are supposed to be extremely interested in every aspect of our lives. If being alone with your thoughts isn’t fun, something isn’t working right.

If there are emotions that surfaced during the exercise that I didn’t name, mention them in the comments and we’ll talk about them.


12 thoughts on “The Guide for the Deep Work Exercise

  1. I would love to read more about unbearable affects if you’re up for writing more! What happens to me is that I start remembering all the little things I was supposed to do and forgot throughout the day. Then it starts getting stressful!


    1. I would also be interested in a post on unbearable affects. I googled the term, but I didn’t find a good definition.

      My attempt at doing nothing resulted in a some anxiety and a desire to whip out my phone. I am definitely guilty of overusing phone/digital distractions and should probably do another “digital detox”. I’ve done this in the past where I’ve only used my devices for absolutely necessary work purposes for a week.


      1. This is a very normal reaction these days. I feel it, too. I start having a sort of a physical itch in my hand that wants to touch the blasted phone. It goes away if you stay with it for a bit.


        1. That sounds… ick. I don’t smartphone, but one of the reasons for that is I can’t stand having the things in my hand. After a minute it feels like it’s burning me. I’ve had a couple of gently-used ones, because my siblings think I’m a fuddy-duddy and if I just tried it out, I’d think it was great. I download a couple of interesting music apps (tuners, tone generators), use it to listen to podcasts around the house… except that I have to tie on an apron so I can put it in the apron pocket, in order to tolerate it at all, and it still makes my leg uncomfortable. I truly do not understand the appeal. They hurt.

          I also refuse to wear uncomfortable shoes… but I know ladies who seem to have a different painful-looking set of heels on every week– I imagine their closets at home are stocked with self-flagellating implements and steel-wool underwear, to go with the rows and rows of toe-strangling, ankle-deforming, tendon-shortening shoes. The universe is full of strange mysteries.

          Anyway, within a few weeks or months, the smart device dies… for reasons I can’t suss out. First one glitched a few times and stopped booting up. Last one the screen stopped working except for a little sliver at the top where you can still make out the time and the wifi signal– everything below that went black. I’m careful not to get them wet or drop them. They die anyway. After about a week of missing my isokratema app, I’m relieved it’s gone, because the whole time it was an electronic ball-and-chain dragging around the house. Another thing to remember to charge, try to remember where I put it… I have kids for heaven’s sake. I do not need more things in my life to attend to constantly. That’s the one thing I least enjoy about parenthood. My kids are awesome, but it’s been at least 11 years since I could concentrate on anything for more than three minutes (at least during the day), and I miss that. That couple of hours after the kids go to bed (and the odd hour when I wake up before them) is golden– most productive part of the day!


          1. Methylethyl, I have an off-topic question for you. I am trying to find alternatives to large daycare centers for my child for various reasons. At this point I am looking at a nanny/babysitter options, but the babysitting would ideally not happen in our place as it would be too disruptive to my husband’s work from home (small space, everyone would be uncomfortable). I would also be happy finding someone who stays at home with their children and would be interested to take care of mine for extra income. Any ideas how to solve this problem and how/where to look for the right person? I know close to zero people in real life who can help and I do not completely understand the US system. I am hoping that as another mom, you may have some suggestions.


            1. I wish I knew! It was not a decision we ever had to make for our kids, as the cost of childcare overwhelmed my income potential. Before marrying, I worked a few years as a nanny, but that was an informal arrangement with relatives, so… no job postings or paperwork. I do know that regulations for at-home childcare vary by state, so it’s important to ask around where you live, and find out what the rules are there.

              I’ve met at least a few ladies who’ve made such arrangements, on a whole spectrum from cash-under-the-table to formal contracting, but… a lot depends on where you live, who you know, and what you can afford.


  2. This maybe falls under #2, but I’ve discovered from previous phone/computer breaks (which do tend to involve a lot of doing nothing for me) that I start to feel lonely. This surprised me because I didn’t think that’s why I was spending so much time on my phone.


    1. It is why, though.

      The scary thing is that instead of just being a useful crutch for the socially disabled… it’s as though it has reached out and kneecapped whole swathes of otherwise normal people, so that now they can’t have a social existence without it, either. It’s as though someone invented the electric wheelchair, allowing scores of disabled people an amazing freedom and mobility they’d not had before… and then all the able-bodied people started getting them too, and were now all humming about on their scoots while their perfectly good legs atrophied and twisted into unusability.


  3. Did the deep work exercise, on a 30min time limit, after you told me I can’t possibly be too busy for the actual meaning of life 🙂

    The initial stuff was, as it should be obvious, guilt that I’m not doing all the Stuff I Need To Do. Sat with that for a while and it all turned out to be related to wanting to please my mom by looking very busy – she used to be the sort of Tiger Mom parent that’d prescribe the metaphorical equivalent of dig a ditch from here to lunchtime so to say. Let’s just say that I have a few mom issues going on these days. So I noticed that, and moved on. Then I had fun for a few minutes, then came a wave of deep grief from inside. I decided to sit with it for a while and then put it away, which worked quite well. Then I had fun for the rest of the time – a mix of fantasies, imaginary conversations with friends and a 5-minute nap that did me well. This all looks quite healthy to me, yet I’ve been having a lot of, shall we say, unbearable affects related to my job lately, including kinda serious psychosomatic health issues, that led to me quitting it a week ago (at which point all the health issues obviously promptly vanished). This was a job I took 8 years ago mostly to distract my mom from the fact that I wasn’t going to do my master’s thesis that year and everything went amazing for 6 years while I was figuring stuff out and therefore not in a mom mindset, and went to shit in the past 2 when the job itself got far less challenging and some stuff with the new management started mirroring some interaction patterns I had with my mom. I definitely need to work on my mom issues, but in the mean time, I’m going to take the next job so I have money and time for my expensive hobbies. Feels less likely to blow up in my face years later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s exactly what I’m talking about! We discover a lot of important stuff about ourselves if we give ourselves a chance.

      Thank you for giving us the perfect illustration of how this works. I’m very grateful.


    2. FWIW, if you’re not allergic to religion… some years ago, I had an honest, respectful chat with the Theotokos about mom issues, and she was very helpful.


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