By Dr. Colleen Worrell, Director of The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning
Deep Work in Practice at St. Mark’s (Part 3)
Deep Work is a skill that the Center is hoping to build into each student’s “learning playbook.” The first two LEO articles (Make Deep Work Your Super Powerand Productivity, Neuroscience, & Deliberate Practice) aimed to introduce the term and core concepts to the St. Mark’s community. This third article focuses on deep work from the perspective of two St. Markers, 6th Former Sophie Haugen, and Classics teacher, Dr. Harwood. Each of them responded to the following questions:
- What are some ways that you deliberately practice deep work at (or beyond) St. Mark’s?
- What is the value of deep work?
- What recommendations do you have for St. Marker’s who’d like get started with deep work?
Sophie Haugen, 6th Former:
I am not an expert on “doing” deep work, but I do try to practice it and I have learned about its importance, especially as a student at St. Mark’s where our schedules and lives are extremely packed and do not easily enable us to practice deep work all the time. Last year, I fell into a multi-month-long rut of frustration and lack of satisfaction from everything I was doing in my academic courses. I was putting in excessive time and what I perceived to be effort and hardwork but was not seeing the results in my grades or my actual understanding/engagement with the material.
This was true of at least three of my courses, all of which required the maximum brain power, time, energy, and focus that characterize Deep Work. I was growing increasingly frustrated and wondering why more time and more “effort” did not yield better results of any kind. Part of the issue was that all of these classes were demanding and I was committed to doing several things outside of class too, so I just needed to adjust to the new pace of my life and of my requirements and interests. The other issue was that I was not smart with how I used my time.
I tend to be obsessive about two things that do not bode well for “doing” deep work. The first is that I hate having unread notifications. Seeing high numbers of unread emails, texts, news alert, etc. stresses me out, so I obsessively check and respond to these, especially email. I usually have my emails open when I am working on something, and I respond to or write emails intermittently while doing homework or working on other projects. This a big NO for deep work. The second is that, ironically, I do not function well with large amounts of free time. At school, if I have random windows of fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes, I will try to cram something into this time period to avoid feeling idle and unproductive. In my head, I think this is helping me be efficient. But, at the end of the day, when I have worked for five or six short 15/20/30 minute intervals, nothing is really accomplished during those intervals. My idea of working during small windows of time to be efficient ends up being the exact opposite.
I am still not great at not checking and replying to notifications but I have made a few changes to improve this distraction. I do not receive notifications on the lock screen of my phone or as banners at the top of my screen on my phone or computer, so I deliberately have to open an app now to see if there is something new. I turn off badge app icons so I don’t see the number of unreads. I now try to create specific times for emails or similar work instead of doing this during multiple short intervals throughout the day. I also try to compartmentalize my work to increase focus. Even if I have a window of free time, it may not be the best time to try to get something done quickly when I could just do it later in a more focused, distraction-free environment. Furthermore, I try to be more intentional with how I spend my time. This year I took two independent fellowships, so deep work was really the only type of work that worked for success. In the past, I would sometimes do my history homework last if it was just a reading. However, by the time I got to it, it would be late at night, my brain was unfocused and tired. Even worse, I sometimes read in bed. These choices proved problematic because reading requires so much mental focus and attention to detail. I’ve learned to prioritize when I do what, and I try to create productive environments to work in, places other than where I sleep, eat, or relax.
The time that I most successful in “doing” deep work was over one of the breaks during my fifth form year. Every morning, I woke up and turned my phone and computer off unless I had specific work to do online. I then sat at my desk with no distractions and did not leave my bedroom for the first time that day until after I had put in a significant amount of standardized testing studying or other work that demanded distraction-free focus. I usually woke up early, stayed in my room until lunch time, and only left once or twice to get food. This is an example of a time when I felt truly immersed in deep work.
It is very challenging to do deep work on a daily basis, but it is possible. Another challenge is actually determining what is deep work versus shallow work. Sometimes I do deep work as if it were shallow work, and it can be hard to distinguish what different tasks require (see Dr. Worrell’sfirst articleabout this). My biggest suggestions for trying to implement and practice deep work, especially at St. Mark’s, is finding physical locations that allow it. For me, I thought this was the library, but after a while I have realized that the library is not conducive to deep work. My other suggestions are limiting access to notifications and compartmentalizing what needs to be done.
Dr. Harwood, Classics Facutly:
How do I incorporate deep work into classes?
In upper-level classes, I carve out time for students to do deep work. They have time, space, and choice to focus deeply on learning tasks — sometime doing independent, online work, other times when working with a partner. I also try to design learning in a way that helps students get “in the zone” of the work being done.
Why do I value deep work?
Deep work not a panacea but it has its place in the classroom. It absolutely has a role in building students’ capacity for self-regulation and their ability to understand themselves as learners. If students are doing their work to “just get it done,” they are not developing fully as learners.
It encourages important skills and habits of mind into the lives of our students. I believe it offers a backdoor into mindfulness practice for students. Without the label of “meditation” or “yoga,” deep work asks students to put away the distraction of technology and focus their mind on a discrete task for a set amount of time in such a way that it creates the same effect that a mindfulness meditation might. It’s not full mindfulness, because you are doing complex cognitive work, but it sheds a few layers of things that will distract focus away from that work.
The pace of school and life, along with the constant access to media can stress students out. Carving out time for focus deeply provides them with the quiet needed for intentional work.
Finally, Deep work is satisfying. When you’re in it, in a zen way, it’s deeply satisfying. At times, however, this might lead students to not seek help or bounce their questions and learning off of others (like a teacher or mentor). I wonder how we might integrate more collaboration and questioning partnerships into deep work in schools?
What’s my advice for those getting started with deep work?
Deep work is not going to be the same for everyone. I do my best work when I’m in my study, shades down, door shut, no noise, phone in the other room, and a clear focus on what I need to get done. Others might need other conditions. What time of day works for you? What do you need in order to focus deeply? Students really need to develop your ability to be metacognitive, to use the “data” attached to their learning to become better, deeper learners.
Advice for Teachers: Use your 45 minute block to structure in deep learning, designing it around some part of the work that students need to do independently with resources that demand focus and attention. Even if you do it one day a week or more occasionally, for instance, a close reading activity, it helps to model deep work and to develop students’ capacity to focus deeply in their learning.
Advice for Students: Be intentional about your down time. This is a lifelong skill. Give yourself a certain amount of time daily to be on social media and carve out time to be off of it. Don’t be “on call” constantly. For instance, in the evening hours, check into social media for 15 minutes, then put it away for the 2 hours of study hall so that you are able to focus on the work you need to do without distractions. Computers, phones, etc. are tools. Figure out how to use them, rather than allowing them to use you.
Dr. Colleen Worrell is the Director of The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. She earned a BA in American Studies from Colby College and an MA/PhD in American Studies from The College of William & Mary. Dr. Worrell teaches Social Justice. She lives in Hopkinton with her husband, 3 children, chickens, and a couple of hives of bees.