Deep Work by Cal Newport
Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Deep Work gives insights into the importance of mastery and the value of doing deep work. I really like, and agree with, the thesis and hypothesis of the book. Everyone should find value in this book and I often recommend it as one of my favorites.
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.
If you like this book you may want to visit Cal Newport’s blog, Study Hacks.
Deep Work was recommended by Craig Groeschel and I got a lot from Derek Sivers’s book notes, that is what inspired me to read it.
My Favorite Quotes
- Deep work has a high value in this age of shallow work and shallow thinking.
- 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.
- If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.
- Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.
- Thesis: A deep life is not just economically lucrative but also a life well lived.
- The skillful management of our attention is the key to improving every aspect of our experience.
- Choose your targets (goals) carefully and then give them your full attention. A focused life is the best kind there is.
- 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.
- Tasks that leverage your expertise tend to be deep tasks and provide a double benefit.
- What is most important right now?
- 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? (how to evaluate the depth of work you are doing)
- 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?
Commitment to the skill of deep work.
Definition of 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.
Mark Twain was known for deep work, so is Woody Allen.
Bill Gates had a “think week” where he would take one week, twice yearly, to a cabin in the woods to do read and think.
Shallow work is counter to deep work.
Deep work has high value in this age of shallow work and shallow thinking.
He tells the story of Jason Ben building a macro for the company excel spreadsheet that allowed him to do a 6-hour job with one click.
Reasons deep work is valuable:
- 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. Good product will explode and bad product will be ignored.
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 the book in two parts.
- Part 1: convince you the deep work hypothesis is true.
- Part 2: 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
Three people as examples:
- Nate Silver (of FiveyThirtyEight)
- David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH Creator of Ruby on Rails)
- John Doerr (investor and venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins)
Three groups that benefit from changing technology:
The High Skilled Worker
Being good at working with intelligent machines.
The commodity of talent.
Global markets for labor and talent instead of local.
Those with capital to invest in new technologies.
How to become a winner in the new economy:
Two core abilities required.
- The ability to quickly master hard things.
- The ability to produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed.
The process of mastering hard things never ends. Yoga, medicine, statistical study, web, etc.
If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.
Mastery is achieved through deliberate practice.
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.
(Time Spent) * (Intensity of Focus) = results produced per unit of time.
The best students studied less than those that finished right below them.
Effects of attention residue on performance are negative.
Chapter 2: Deep Work is Rare
Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.
Chapter 3: Deep Work is Meaningful
Story of Ric Furrer master craftsman and blacksmith making a sword by hand.
There is a connection between deep work and a good life.
Craftsmen tackle work that is easy to define but difficult to execute.
Knowledge-workers exchange this clarity for ambiguity. Exactly what knowledge workers do can be hard to define.
Depth and meaning vs shallow activity.
Thesis: A deep life is not just economically lucrative but also a life well lived.
The Neurological Argument for Depth
Science writer Winifred Gallagher life story.
Felt she was witness to a grand unified theory of the mind.
The skillful management of our attention is the key to improving every aspect of our experience.
Our brains construct our world view based on what we pay attention to.
Your mind constructs a richer world when doing deep work.
Spending time in deep work leverages the complex machinery of your mind.
Choose your targets (goals) carefully and then give them your full attention. A focused life is the best kind there is.
The Psychological Argument for Depth
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi author of Flow
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.
This is known as “Flow” and popularized in his book.
Relaxation does not necessarily make us happier. Jobs can be easier to enjoy than free time.
The feeling of going deep is rewarding, our minds like the challenge.
Build your working life around flow and deep work.
The Philosophical Argument for Deep Work
Hubert Dreyfus and Shawn Kelley.
Example of wheelwright woodworkers. Each price of wood had a specific purpose inherently ingrained in the wood.
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.
There is potential for craftsmanship in the information economy.
Hone your ability and apply with respect and care to your craft. This can provide meaning.
Cultivating craftsmanship requires a commitment to deep work.
Part 2: The Rules
The Four Rules of Deep Work:
- Work Deeply
- Embrace Boredom
- Quit Social Media
- Drain the Shallows
Rule #1: Work Deeply
Eudaimonia machine concept, see this article. A building designed by architecture professor David Dewane. The purpose of the building is to enable deep work.
One of the main obstacles to working deeply is the urge to give our attention to things that are shallow and easy.
Study of workers wearing beepers and given a survey of desires throughout the day.
Most common desires fought:
- Taking a break from hard work
- Checking email, social network, surfing the web, watching television
You must add habit, routine and ritual into your day to work deeply and overcome these obstacles.
Strategies to Help
Decide on your depth philosophy.
There are many ways to integrate deep work into your schedule.
Find the approach to deep work that works for you.
Monasticism vs rhythm routine.
The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
Donald Knuth. See his website at Stanford.
Has no email address (explanation here).
Sorts standard mail every three months.
Does only one thing very well, deeply and exhaustively.
Neal Stephenson, a science fiction writer, uses this philosophy.
This approach applies to a limited pool of people.
The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
Divide time between intense times of deep work and regular work.
The minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy is one full day.
Adam Grant, Wharton professor. Scheduled his classes for only one semester and spent the rest of the year in study and deep work.
The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work
Jerry Seinfeld advice: write every day.
Mark calendar with red X each day you write, try not to break the chain.
A calendar provides a visual aid.
Set a specific time every day to do deep work.
This approach works well with the reality of human nature.
The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
Ritualize. (Robert Caro)
Where to work and for how long.
How you will work once you start.
How you will support your work. (Coffee, exercise, etc).
Make a grand gesture to change your mindset for deep work.
Example: JK Rowling stayed in a room in a grand 5-star hotel to finish the last Harry Potter book.
Increases the perceived importance of the task.
Don’t work alone.
Hub and spoke style office design.
Distraction is a destroyer of depth.
Consider collaboration when appropriate to push results to a new level.
Execute like a business.
Clayton Christensen and Andy Grove, The 4 Disciplines of Execution.
- 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.
Execution is more difficult than strategizing.
Be lazy. Set aside time for leisure.
At the end of the workday, shut down work thinking.
- Downtime aids insights. It can at times be better to let your unconscious thoughts solve problems.
- Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply. It reduces retention fatigue.
- 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.
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.
Use a strict shutdown ritual at the end of the workday.
Ensure every incomplete task, goal or project is reviewed. For each you have confirmed either 1) you have a plan you trust for its completion or 2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right.
The process should be an algorithm, a series of steps you always conduct one after another. When done have a set phrase you say that indicates completion. Example “shut-down complete.”
Author’s example list of a shutdown ritual:
- Skim email box one last time.
- Transfer any tasks to an open task list. The author uses google docs so he can access from any computer.
- Skim every task in every list and compare with the next two days on the calendar. This ensures nothing urgent is being overlooked.
- Use this information to make a rough plan for the next day.
- State the phrase “shut down complete.”
Incomplete tasks have the ability to dominate our attention.
Writing them down releases your mind from tracking obligations at every moment.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.
Focus is difficult, it requires hours of practice.
You must simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distractions.
Constantly attention switching has a lasting negative effect on your brain.
Key idea: getting the most out of your deep work habit requires training.
Training must address two goals.
- Improving your ability to concentrate intensely.
- Overcoming your desire for distraction.
Don’t take breaks from distraction, take breaks from focus.
One idea is a one day a week technology detox or “internet sabbath.” Does not necessarily address the root issue.
Schedule in advance when you will use the internet. Then avoid it altogether outside of these times. Keep a notepad by your desk with the next time you are allowed to use the internet.
Maintain this schedule for internet use at home.
Rewrite your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.
Work like Teddy Roosevelt.
“Roosevelt dashes.” Studying for short intense bursts.
One idea for working with great intensity is to set a timer with a deadline on your phone in a visible place where you can see it.
The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you are occupied physically but not mentally (shower, walking, jogging, etc). Focus your attention on a single well defined professional problem.
Schedule a walk during your workday to focus on productive meditation. Be aware of and avoid looping instead of diving deeper.
Structure your thinking. Review variables and define the next step goal to work on. For example a chapter outline, the goal is “how am I going to open this chapter?”
Afterwards, consolidate gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified.
Memorize a deck of cards.
Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to training it.
Rule #3 Quit Social Media
Social media and network tools included.
Take back your time and attention.
Accept them as tools but restrict their use.
The “any benefit” mindset ignores negatives and does not compare the pros and cons.
How a farmer uses his tools.
Hay bailer vs cost of buying hay.
Providing just some benefit is not enough reason to use a tool.
If you are a knowledge worker use a selective approach to choosing your tools just like a craftsman would.
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.
Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, and George Packer do not use twitter.
Identify your most important high-level goals personally and professionally.
Example: be an effective mentor.
For each goal list the 2-3 most important activities that help you satisfy the goal.
Example: regularly read and understand the cutting edge results in my field.
Example personal goal:
To maintain close and rewarding friendships with a group of people who are important to me.
Key activities supporting this goal:
- Regularly take the time for meaningful connection with those who are most important to me. E.G. a long talk, meal, or joint activity.
- Give of myself to those who are most important to me. E.G. Making non-trivial sacrifices that will improve their lives.
Measuring Facebook against these activities. It brings some value to social relationships but none of them provide a significant impact on the two key activities listed.
**The Law of the Vital Few
In many settings, 80% of a given effect is due to just 20% of possible causes.
80/20 split rule. Power law distribution over impact.
Figure this law applies to your most important goals.
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.
Do not service low impact activities.
As a company, you may need to fire your low impact customers.
Get more out of activities that generate the greatest impact.
Ryan Nicodemus. Reclaimed his life from his stuff.
Spend a month without social media services and review the impact on your life.
Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself!
How to Live On 24 hours a Day by Arnold Bennett (book from 1910)
Suggests looking at the roughly 16 hours you are not at work as a day within a day.
Use this time as an aristocrat would, to perform rigorous self-improvement.
Primarily reading great literature and poetry.
Put more thought into your leisure time.
Determine what you will do with your evenings and weekends before they begin.
Our mental faculties want to change, not rest.
If you give your kind something meaningful to do throughout the day, you will end the day feeling more fulfilled.
Rule #4 Drain the Shallows
At Basecamp (formerly 37 signals)
Switched from 5 workdays to 4 day work weeks.
Very few people work even 8 hours a day.
When people have less time to get work done they become more stingy with their time. It helped eliminate shallow work.
Next step: they gave the company the entire month of June off to work on their own projects. At the end of the month, they held a pitch day for everyone to present their projects and new ideas.
Strategies for limiting shallow work and replacing it with deep work.
Schedule every minute of your day.
Pause before each new action and ask “what makes the most sense right now?”
At the beginning of each workday turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook that 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. 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.
Now use this schedule to guide your day.
Take time during the day to evaluate your schedule as the day unfolds.
Tactics to inject more stability in your schedule:
Recognize that at first, you will almost definitely underestimate the time required to complete tasks.
Use overflow conditional blocks with split-purpose between activities. Have an alternate use already planned for those blocks.
Be liberal with your task blocks, deploy many of them throughout the day.
You can schedule significant blocks of time for speculative thinking and discussion.
Schedule brainstorming. Follow-up when the muse strikes.
The habit of asking “what is most important right now?” is the key, the answer is not necessarily what is important, just asking the question is.
You must overcome distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter.
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?
Editing an academic paper. (55-60 months?)
Create a PowerPoint presentation on sales statistics. (Two months?)
Strategy meeting. How long would it take to train a college graduate to take your place at the meeting? (Three months?)
Tasks that leverage your expertise tend to be deep tasks and provide a double benefit.
They return more value per time spent.
They stretch your abilities and lead to improvement.
Ask your boss for a shallow work budget.
Explain to your boss what shallow work is.
Most bosses will say 30-50%.
Gives you cover and approval to decline shallow tasks.
Fixed Schedule Productivity.
Finish your work by 5:30.
Reducing energy spent on shallow tasks frees up more energy for the deep alternative.
Limits to our time necessitate more careful thinking about our organizational habits, as opposed to longer but less organized schedules.
Become hard to reach.
Tips to become hard to reach:
Tip #1: Make people who send you email do more work.
Most non-fiction writers are easy to reach. The author lists a special purpose email address with conditions and lowered expectations of a response. A “sender filter.” Asking correspondents to filter themselves before contacting him. On his website, he lists other contacts to email for specific purposes such as marketing, speaking engagements, rights requests, etc. Reset expectations to the reality that you will probably not respond. This eliminates the psychological sense of obligation to respond.
Consider consultant Clay Hebert and his email filter system, he has a small fee you must pay before communicating with him.
Consider Antonio Centeno, runs the popular Real Men Real Style Blog. Points people to a public place to ask the question. His contact page includes a series of click boxes to check with promises. Example: I am not asking a style question I can find an answer to on Google in 10 minutes, I am not advertising with a copy and paste email, I will do a good deed to help someone if Antonio responds within 24 hours. Here is the direct link to his contact page to see the example.
Consider sender filters.
Tip #2: Do more work when you send or reply to emails.
Instead of standard generic emails.
A quick response will give you temporary immediate relief but keep bouncing back.
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?
My Action Steps After Reading
- Implementing an end of work ritual.
- Scheduling and time blocking for deep work.
- Understanding the importance and value of deep work and adopting this mental model.
- Having a renewed desire for mastery of my profession.
- Disabled most alerts on my desktop and phone including e-mail, calls, and text messages. This has enabled me to minimize interruptions and distractions when doing deep work.
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