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Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
Publication: 2016 by Grand Central Publishing
“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”
“To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.”
“An interruption, even if short, delays the total time required to complete a task by a significant fraction.”
“To learn requires intense concentration.”
“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.”
What Is Deep Work?
The famous psychiatrist Carl Jung would wake up at 7 am, spend two hours of undistracted writing time in his private office. His afternoons would consist of meditation or long walks in the surrounding countryside. One skill played a key role in his accomplishments.
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.
Mark Twain and Woody Allen were known for deep work.
Bill Gates famously conducted “think weeks” twice a year, where he would isolate himself to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.
Shallow work: counterpart of Deep Work, which means non cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.
In the age of network tools, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative.
Deep work is a skill that has great value today. There are two reasons for this value:
- Learning. We live in an information economy that depends on complex systems that change rapidly and require learning new skills. You must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.
- The impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience is essentially limitless. On the other hand, if it’s mediocre, then its easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.
Deepwork is a crucial ability for anyone looking to move ahead in a globally competitive information economy that tends to chew up and spit out those who aren’t earning their keep.
The deep work hypothesis: the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.
Two goals of this book:
- Convince you the deep work hypothesis is true
- Teach you how to take advantage of this reality by training your brain and changing your work habits to put deep work at the core of your professional life.
Part 1: The Idea
Chapter 1: Deep Work is Valuable
“In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.”Cal Newport
Three groups that benefit from changing technology:
The High Skilled Worker
People who are good at working with intelligent machines. The author mentioned Nate Silver as the epitome of high-skilled work.
Talent market is made universally accessible, those at the peak of the market thrive while the rest suffer.
Talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best. The author mentioned David Hansson as a great example of this group.
The group epitomized by John Doerr—consists of those with capital to invest in new technologies.
How to become a winner in the new economy:
Two core abilities:
- The ability to quickly master hard things.
- The ability to produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed.
The two core abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work. If you haven’t mastered this foundational skill, you’ll struggle to learn hard things or produce at an elite level.
If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive. To learn requires intense concentration.
Mastery is achieved through deliberate practice.
According to K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University expert at performance psychology, there are two core components of deliberate practice:
- Your attention focused tightly on a specific skill you are trying to improve or an idea you are trying to master.
- You receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keeping your attention exactly where it is most productive.
Law of productivity
High-quality Work Produced = Time spent x Intensity of Focus
To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.
Chapter 2: Deep Work is Rare
Big trends in business today actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level)
The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors on the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest at the moment.
2 big reasons why cultures of connectivity persist:
- Responsiveness to your needs. If you work in an environment where you can get an answer to a question immediately when the need arises, this makes your life easier—at least, at the moment.
- It creates an environment where it becomes acceptable to run your day out of your inbox.
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff visibly.
Chapter 3: Deep Work is Meaningful
Ric Furrer is a blacksmith specializing in ancient and medieval metalworking practices. He does all his work by hand.
This work requires him to spend most of his day in a state of depth.
The connection between deep work and a good life is familiar and widely accepted when considering the world of craftsmen.
Depth and meaning vs shallow activity.
The thesis of this chapter: A deep life is not just economically lucrative but also a life well lived.
The Neurological Argument for Depth
Our brains construct worldview based on what we pay attention to. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.
What you choose to focus on exerts significant leverage on your attitude going forward. These simple choices can provide a “reset button” to your emotions.
For young people, the brain part ‘amygdala’ (a center of emotion) fired activity at both positive and negative imagery. For the elderly, the amygdala fired only for positive images.
The psychologists hypothesize that the elderly subjects had trained the prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala in the presence of negative stimuli.
By skillfully managing our attention, we can improve our world without changing anything concrete about it.
The Psychological Argument for Depth
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, argued that the reason why depth generates meaning is that the best psychological moments usually occur when the mind or body is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
He calls this mental state “Flow” and is popularized in his book with the same title.
The connection between deep work and flow: Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state. The feeling of going deep is rewarding, our minds like the challenge.
To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
The Philosophical Argument for Deep Work
The task of a craftsman is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.
A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.
Part 2: The Rules
Rule #1: Work Deeply
Eudaimonia machine concept. A space designed for the sole purpose of enabling the deepest possible deep work.
One of the main obstacles to going deep: the urge to turn your attention toward something more superficial.
In the book Willpower by Roy Baumeister, he mentioned the most common desires fought:
- Taking a break from hard work
- Checking email, social network, surfing the web, watching television, listening to music.
You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. It’s like a muscle that tires.
The key to developing deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life.
Strategies to increase the probably that you succeed in making deep work a part of your professional life:
Decide on your depth philosophy.
You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work in to your professional life.
The goal is to convince you that there are many different ways to integrate deep work into your schedule, and it’s therefore worth taking the time to find an approach that makes sense for you.
The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
Donald Knuth is famous for many innovations in computer science. Has no email address. His solution? He provides a postal mailing address. His admin assistant will sort through any letters arriving and put aside those that she thinks are relevant.
Monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling – attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.
The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
Sigmund Freud would begin regular retreats to a rustic stone house.
Carl Jung would lock himself every morning to write without interruption.
This approach eliminates only during the periods they spent at retreat
Bimodal philosophy – divide time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else
The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work
Jerry Seinfeld keeps a calendar on his wall. Mark the date with a big red X. Builds a chain, try not to break it.
Rhythmic philosophy: argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.
Generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep
The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
Journalist philosophy: fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. (Walter Isaacson)
Robert Caro is governed by rules. Everything is specified by routine
Some general questions that any effective ritual must address:
Where you’ll work and for how long? (normal office, conference room, library, etc.)
How you will work once you start.
How you’ll support your work. (Coffee, food,light exercise, etc).
Grand Gesture Strategy
Make a grand gesture to change your mindset for deep work.
JK Rowling stayed in a room in a grand 5-star hotel to finish the last Harry Potter book.
Bill Gates, Alan Lightman, Dan Pink, Michael Pllan
Increases the perceived importance of the task.
Don’t work alone.
Hub-and-spoke architecture supports isolated deep thinking
Whiteboard effect – shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone. The presence of the other party waiting for your next insight can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth
Distraction is a destroyer of depth.
Even when you retreat to a spoke to think deeply, when it’s reasonable to leverage the whiteboard effect, do so
Execute like a business.
Clayton Christensen and Andy Grove, The 4 Disciplines of Execution. (Abbreviated, 4DX)
- Focus on the wildly important. Pursue a small number of ambitious outcomes.
- Act on the lead measures. Not lag measures. Count deep work hours.
- Keep a compelling scorecard. Track hours on 3×5 card. Circle an hour with a big breakthrough.
- Create a cadence of accountability. Weekly scoreboard review.
Be lazy. At the end of the day, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning. Shutdown will be profitable to you ability to producer valuable output
- Downtime aids insights.
- Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply.
- The work that replaces evening downtime is usually not that important.
For a novice, about an hour a day of intense concentration is the limit. For an expert, it is up to 4 hours but rarely more.
To succeed with this strategy, accept the commitment that once your workday shuts down, do not allow the smallest incursion of professional concerns into your attention, including checking email, browsing work-related websites, etc.
Author’s own shutdown ritual:
- Final look at email to ensure nothing urgent
- Transfer any new tasks to an open task list.
- Skim every task in every list and look at the next two days on the calendar.
- Make a rough plan for the next day.
- Once the plan is created, he says “shutdown complete.”
Shutdown ritual battles the Zeigarnik effect (named after Bluma Zeigarnik). This psychological framework states that incomplete tasks dominate our attention
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.
Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.
Constantly attention switching has a lasting negative effect on your brain.
If every moment of potential boredom in your life is relieved with a glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule a time to practice this concentration.
Internet Sabbath (Digital Detox) cannot itself cure a distracted brain.
Alternative: Instead of scheduling an occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.
- Identify a deep task that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how you’d normally put aside an obligation of this type and then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time.
- Motivate yourself by setting down a countdown timer on your phone or hide it as you work.
- Meditate productivity. The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you are occupied physically but not mentally (shower, walking, jogging, etc.) and focus your attention on a single well defined professional problem.
Suggestion 1. Be wary of distractions and looping
Suggestion 2. Structure your deep thinking
- Memorize a deck of cards. Memory training improves your general ability to concentrate
Rule #3 Quit Social Media
Social media networks fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate.
Accept that our current distracted state is inevitable. These tools are not inherently evil but restrict their use.
The Any benefit approach to network tool selection: you’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.
The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in both your work and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
Apply the law of the vital few to your internet habits.
First step: Identify high-level goals in your life.
Second step: List for each two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal
Third step: Consider the network tools you currently use. For each tool, go through the key activities identified and ask if it has a positive impact, negative impact, or little impact.
For example, Professional Goal: To craft well-written, narrative-driven stories that change the way people understand the world
Key activities supporting this goal:
- Researc patiently and deeply
- Write carefully and with purpose
The Law of the Vital Few
In many settings, 80% of a given effect is due to just 20% of possible causes. (Pareto Principle)
If you can list 10-15 activities that support your goals, the law states the top 2-3 strategies make a difference in whether or not you succeed at these goals.
Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself!
Every available trick of human psychology, from listing titles as “popular” or “trending”, to the use of arresting photos is used to keep you engaged.
Put more thought into your leisure time. Figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin.
Use this time as an aristocrat would, to perform rigorous self-improvement.
If you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sited on your time and attention, give your brain an alternative. Primarily reading great literature and poetry.
Rule #4 Drain the Shallows
At Basecamp (formerly 37 signals) shortened their workweek from 5 to 4 as an experiment.
It helped eliminate shallow work.
Strategies for limiting shallow work and replacing it with deep work.
- Schedule every minute of your day. At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook you dedicate to this purpose.
- On the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day. Divide your time into blocks, draw a line around the block, and write the task or project—a minimum time of 30 minutes per block.
- Draw a line to the right-hand side of the page and list the sets of small tasks you plan to accomplish in that block.
Tactics to inject more stability in your schedule:
- Recognize that you will almost definitely underestimate how much time is required for most things at first.
- Use overflow conditional blocks with split-purpose between activities. Has an alternate use already planned for those blocks?
- Be liberal with your task blocks; deploy many of them throughout the day.
Encourage spontaneity in your schedule.
Quantify the depth of every activity.
Determine how much time you are spending on shallow activities.
Formal definition of shallow work: non-cognitively demanding logistical style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Evaluate activities by asking this question:
How long would it take, in months, to train a smart recent college graduate, with no specialized training in my field, to complete this task?
Example#1: Editing a draft on an academic paper. (Requires that you understand the nuances of the work and broader literature. So 50 to 75 months?)
Example #2: Building a PowerPoint presentation about this quarter’s sales figures. (Two months?)
Example #3: Attending a meeting to discuss the current status on an important project and to agree on the next steps. (3 months)
Ask your boss for a shallow work budget.
“What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?”
Define shallow work to your boss. Most bosses will say 30-50% range.
Obeying this budget will likely require changes to your behavior.
Fixed Schedule Productivity.
Finish your work by 5:30.
Firm goal of not working past a certain time.
Limits to our time necessitate more careful thinking about our organizational habits, as opposed to longer but less organized schedules.
Become hard to reach.
Tip #1: Make people who send you email do more work.
Most non-fiction writers are easy to reach. They include an email address on their websites and encourage requests or feedback.
Cal doesn’t buy it. He has an approach called a “sender filter.” Asking correspondents to filter themselves before contacting him. He only responds to those emails that are a good match for his schedule and interests.
This resets the correspondents expectations to the reality that you’ll probably not respond.
Tip #2: Do more work when you send or reply to emails.
Put more thought up front into what’s really being proposed by the emails, this will greatly reduce the negative impact of this technology on your ability to do work that matters.
Ask the following key prompt before responding: What is the project represented by this message and what is the most efficient, in terms of messages generated, process for bringing this project to completion?
Tip #3: Don’t respond.
Professional Email Sorting: Don’t reply to an email if any of the following applies:
- It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
- It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
- Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.
The deep life is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid email messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind.
But if you’re not willing to sidestep these comforts and fears and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.
The book’s thesis: A deep life is not just economically lucrative but also a life well lived.
Deep work hypothesis: the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.
I agree with these. Deep work gave me an insight into the importance of focus and depth. This mental model taught me how to schedule and block my time for things that really matter. Many people today became mindless zombies, living an undisciplined life. I don’t want to waste my life like that.
I recommend this book to anyone. See also my book summary of Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.
My Action Steps After Reading
- Disabled notifications on the phone.
- Use productivity apps like Freedom while working.
- Trying to memorize a deck of cards, as mentioned in Part 2.
About Cal Newport
Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He’s also a writer who focuses on the impact of technology on society. He’s the author of six books, including Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, and writes regular essays for his popular website, calnewport.com.
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