deeeeep work

By Laura Gao • 8 min read
April 2023

I’m sitting in Cafe Inside, Amy across from me. “I don’t want to rewrite my common app essay.”

“Then don’t.”

“But I can’t submit my current one about math. I can’t compete with IMO kids. I should write about making videos or coding or something I’m actually good at.”

“Then write about making videos.”

“Is it really necessary to rewrite it? What if I do portray myself as a math kid… would I really be that disadvantaged?”

“If you know you need to rewrite it, then do it, Laura.”

Starting again, for the 3rd time, about a completely new topic, would be pushing out shit after a being constipated for a week. I open Obsidian and type out a paragraph following the framework of my math essay. When I was 12, I wanted to be a YouTuber when I grow up. Nope. How about, making videos was my electrifying significant other that my parents didn’t approve of. It doesn’t work. None of them work. An hour in, I have multiple paragraphs but no essay.

I look at Amy's [insert fancy drink name] and my tongue begs me to order something, my fingers itch to "ctrl+t ->" but I think about my Slack status, a paraphrased Lincoln quote: “Discipline is choosing between what hurts now and what will hurt the most.” I know it’ll hurt more to quit, to go home today with the unfinished essay, than the pain of shoving the threads in my brain on the page. I guess I’ll start again. Expanding the moment. I'm 12 years old. My hands grip the sidebars of my chairs, my knuckles turning white as the magical combination of the violin in the background, the footage of a child playing with sunflowers, and Freshtastical's voice sends electricity up my blood. The next day, all I can talk about is the 4-minute YouTube video "The questions we never ask". This time, 600 words later, a smile creeps into my face.

Writing is more of an exercise in discipline than an exercise in writing.

(oh btw here's this piece if u want it)

I was good at getting myself not distracted. It's June 2021. I stretch my arms as I sit up in bed, sun peaking in through the blinds, streaks on my blanket. Today, I'm going to finish up the updates page of beta testing manager. Use migrate-mongo to add [property] to user objects and make flexbox buttons properly centered. At 9 am, I open Ms. Wang's zoom link and mute it (while she teaches some for loops in python), and stackoverflow this npm installation issue.

It's 6pm. "Hi, laura, dinner is ready," dad calls from downstairs.

"thanks. can you give me 5 mins?"

cmon. just have to try this fs.readdirSync and then every file in the folder shoudl be read properly. cmon im so close.

when the filenames console log poperly and yay, the clock reads 6:40.


i run downstairs, but dad's already back in his office. cold broccoli left on the table. i eat. while thinking about whether the buttons should be horizontally or verticlaly positioned.

"laura, what are you doing in your room all day? what's so important for you to work on?"

"uhhh." swallow. i study the stickers my brother left on the wall. i'm learning web development. i'm making a beta testing manager for samson. i'm making software that other people would use. if i finish this, it would be the first fullstack project i did alone. id feel like i can build anything! i look back at my dad. "uhhh... my teacher gives a lot of homework."

from ~march 2021 to ~january 2023, work was life!! my projects consumed me. i would spend, like, 12 hours a day in my room, on vscode, on adobe after effects, coding, editing a video, writing a blog post, idkwtv.

i wasn't always like this. it's november 2020, and i'm trying to draw this comic. but hmmm. ugh. ive been trying to blend this grey into this blue. changing paintbrush colors varying slightly each time. and... still can't tell if this natural. hmm... what if i watch some youtube speedpaints for art inspiration?

and then i look at the clock and it's dinner and oh where did my afternoon go?

but hey it's okay, i have tomorrow!

15 days later, the comic is finished, i think.

comic avail here:

every day: the same cycle of, wake up, have big dreams, get those dreams crushed by distractions, say i'll do it tomorrow. same cycle of self hatred and procrastination and ugh why cant i just be better, why do i spend 4h/day avg on discord talking to ppl idk irl!!

then, march break 2021. Velocity mindest of the week: discipline. a video from harrison. motivation is the desire to work. discipline is doing work even when you don't want to. motivation will fluctuate up and down, naturally like all feelings. so to stick to a commitment, you can't rely on motivation. you have to rely on discipline. people think they have a motivation problem, but really they have a discipline problem.

the knowledge project podcast with nir eyal. as i summarized in a newsletter,

Distractions are not caused by social media or by any outside factor, according to psychology writer Nir Eyal. Distractions are caused by a desire from the inside to escape negative emotions — boredom, anxiety, stress, you name it.

Time management is pain management. Procrastination is the inability to deal with emotional discomfort.

another podcast, with seth godin

Professionals don't do their work because they are passionate, according to Seth Godin on The Knowledge Project. You don't want your heart surgeon to do a good job because she's passionate about the heart, but because she told you that she'll take care of you. You want her to do a good job regardless of whether she feels like it or not.

Amateurs show up whenever they feel like it. But being a professional means showing up when you don't want to.

and a quote from lincoln:

Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want the most.

And suddenly it was like woooooow it all clicked at once. I was lucky, running into all these concepts within 1 week of each other.

When i make vid or draw or code, sometimes, it'll be painful. but what distinguishes whether im focused is whether i stick to it when it's painful! i only go on discord bc im bored and im escaping the pain...

fuck this wasnt the main thing i wanted to say. the main thing was like. deep work is very cool. deep work is book by cal newport. basic premise is like, u work for 4h on 1 task. AND U ARE SINGULARLY FOCUSED. productivity = intensity x time. deep work maximizes intensity.

I LOVED DEEP WORK. i would yeah code for 8 hours straight without a break, then nom nom some dinner fast and then more coding!

i wouldnt want to sleep until [function] was implemented.

i cared. i wanted every frame of my animations to be perfect.

yes, you need discipline to get over the initial hump. but after that, it doesnt tkae any to keep going, bc coding is just so intoxicating lol. i write a line of code, and the button immediately turns orange. it's like, fingers wielding magic. ur limited only by ur creativity and ur technical skill.

i was very good at focusing intensely. when i started at zapata, i said this as my superpower for their interview website profile lol

  • learnt french to C1 in 4 months or smtn
  • learnt webdev fullstack in like 5 weeks or smtn apparently, to go from 0 js knowlege to the feeling where "i can build any webapp i want"

i sucked at replying to dms. (thank u luke for fixing this). like i actually. just. didnt. chekc. discord/twitter/instagram. and. rn id look back and "wow this person msged me in feb but i went on instagram for the first time after in april. so. ghosted for 2 months. oops."

idk deep work was a precarious state and didnt want to ruin it.

april 2023 update: i felt like i spent all my time coding which was fun but i had no social life. and network was a bigger bottleneck on my career advancement than technical skill. so i decided to stop prioritizing deepwork. in jan 2023. byebye after 2 years :(

recently, yeah, social is a lot better. in 2021 i had 1 close friend. now i have like, 5-10x that. also friendships are more meaningful now. it's vibey.

idk i also lost some of that sweet ability to focus tho :( i am sad but.

leave a msg for laura

i respect your emotional rawness. keep introspecting, maybe a little less inspirational quote posting...

msgs are anonymous. optionally leave ur name & discord (or other contact info) if u want me to respond