Deep Work – by Cal Newport

Thoughts, anecdotes, and facts supporting distraction-free productive concentrated deep work are really well delivered. Many resonate with most, I'd believe. Personally, I found a couple of bits that reaffirmed and formalized my theories toward productive work. Either way, I'd recommend this book to anyone—it's extremely easy and fast read too.

Highlights

Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow (whether you think it’s philosophically good or bad) is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth […]

The growing necessity of deep work is new. In an industrial economy, there was a small skilled labor and professional class for which deep work was crucial, but most workers could do just fine without ever cultivating an ability to concentrate without distraction. They were paid to crank widgets—and not much about their job would change in the decades they kept it. But as we shift to an information economy, more and more of our population are knowledge workers, and deep work is becoming a key currency—even if most haven’t yet recognized this reality.

Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

Current economic thinking, as I’ve surveyed, argues that the unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy.

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.

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

These business professors do not live the cliché of the absentminded academic lost in books and occasionally stumbling on a big idea. They see productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve—a goal Adam Grant seems to have achieved.

Though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.

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 in a visible manner.

Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological.

No one would fault Ric Furrer for not using Facebook, but if a knowledge worker makes this same decision, then he’s labeled an eccentric (as I’ve learned from personal experience).

[…] the results from Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM studies reveal that most people have this wrong: Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

As Baumeister summarized in his subsequent book, Willpower (co-authored with the science writer John Tierney): “Desire turned out to be the norm, not the exception.”

Roy Baumeister, has established the following important (and at the time, unexpected) truth about willpower: You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

Knuth deploys what I call the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling. This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. Practitioners of the monastic philosophy tend to have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that they’re pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well.

In my experience, the monastic philosophy makes many knowledge workers defensive. The clarity with which its adherents identify their value to the world, I suspect, touches a raw nerve for those whose contribution to the information economy is more complex.

Jung, by contrast, sought this elimination only during the periods he spent at his retreat.

Jung’s approach is what I call the bimodal philosophy of deep work. This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. During the deep time, the bimodal worker will act monastically—seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration. During the shallow time, such focus is not prioritized.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to implementing this philosophy is that even short periods of deep work require a flexibility that many fear they lack in their current positions. If even an hour away from your inbox makes you uncomfortable, then certainly the idea of disappearing for a day or more at a time will seem impossible.

This chain method (as some now call it) soon became a hit among writers and fitness enthusiasts—communities that thrive on the ability to do hard things consistently. For our purposes, it provides a specific example of a general approach to integrating depth into your life: the rhythmic philosophy. This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to 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 rhythmic philosophy provides an interesting contrast to the bimodal philosophy. It perhaps fails to achieve the most intense levels of deep thinking sought in the daylong concentration sessions favored by the bimodalist.

I call this approach, in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule, the journalist philosophy. This name is a nod to the fact that journalists, like Walter Isaacson, are trained to shift into a writing mode on a moment’s notice, as is required by the deadline-driven nature of their profession.

This approach is not for the deep work novice. As I established in the opening to this rule, the ability to rapidly switch your mind from shallow to deep mode doesn’t come naturally.

“[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”

Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door shut and desk cleaned off (a colleague of mine likes to put a hotel-style “do not disturb” sign on his office door when he’s tackling something difficult).

Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any Internet use, or maintain a metric such as words produced per twenty-minute interval to keep your concentration honed.

Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear.

[…] effective strategy in the world of deep work: the grand gesture. The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.

The professors at MIT—some of the most innovative technologists in the world—wanted nothing to do with an open-office-style workspace. They instead demanded the ability to close themselves off.

As Christensen later explained, this division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world. It’s often straightforward to identify a strategy needed to achieve a goal, but what trips up companies is figuring out how to execute the strategy once identified.

[…] parallels, I set out to adapt the 4DX framework to my personal work habits and ended up surprised by how helpful they proved in driving me toward effective action on my goal of working deeply.

Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important

[…] execution should be aimed at a small number of “wildly important goals.”

Discipline 2: Act on the Lead Measures Once you’ve identified a wildly important goal, you need to measure your success.

Lead measures, on the other hand, “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.” In the bakery example, a good lead measure might be the number of customers who receive free samples.

For an individual focused on deep work, it’s easy to identify the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.

Discipline 3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

Discipline 4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

It made him better at his job. Here’s Kreider’s explanation: Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

This study, it turns out, is one of many that validate attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.

The implication of these results is that your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited. If you’re careful about your schedule (using, for example, the type of productivity strategies described in Rule 4), you should hit your daily deep work capacity during your workday. It follows, therefore, that by evening, you’re beyond the point where you can continue to effectively work deeply.

To quote the paper: “Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits.”

When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.

Nass’s research revealed that constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain. Here’s Nass summarizing these findings in a 2010 interview with NPR’s Ira Flatow: So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand… they’re pretty much mental wrecks.

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.

To summarize, to succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.

[…] he would get the most out of them by working only on schoolwork during these periods, and doing so with a blistering intensity. “The amount of time he spent at his desk was comparatively small,” explained Morris, “but his concentration was so intense, and his reading so rapid, that he could afford more time off [from schoolwork] than most.”

The main motivation for this strategy is straightforward. Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable. Roosevelt dashes leverage artificial deadlines to help you systematically increase the level you can regularly achieve—providing, in some sense, interval training for the attention centers of your brain.

The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy.

[…] my experience, it helps to have some structure for this deep thinking process. I suggest starting with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem and then storing these values in your working memory. For example, if you’re working on the outline for a book chapter, the relevant variables might be the main points you want to make in the chapter.

To master the art of deep work, therefore, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.

To this observation, you might reply that value is value: If you can find some extra benefit in using a service like Facebook—even if it’s small—then why not use it? I call this way of thinking the any-benefit mind-set, as it identifies any possible benefit as sufficient justification for using a network tool.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it ignores all the negatives that come along with the tools in question. These services are engineered to be addictive—robbing […]

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts. Notice that this craftsman approach to tool selection stands in opposition to the any-benefit approach.

The Law of the Vital Few*: In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes.

As we noted, many different activities can contribute to your achieving these goals. The law of the vital few, however, reminds us that the most important 20 percent or so of these activities provide the bulk of the benefit.

By taking the time consumed by low-impact activities—like finding old friends on Facebook—and reinvesting in high-impact activities—like taking a good friend out to lunch—you end up more successful in your goal. To abandon a network tool using this logic, therefore, is not to miss out on its potential small benefits, but is instead to get more out of the activities you already know to yield large benefits.

By dropping off these services without notice you can test the reality of your status as a content producer. For most people and most services, the news might be sobering—no one outside your closest friends and family will likely even notice you’ve signed off.

[…] this strategy suggests that when it comes to your relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead dedicate some advance thinking to the question of how you want to spend your “day within a day.”

It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific actions with specific goals to fill your time.

Won’t a structured evening leave you exhausted—not refreshed—the next day at work? Bennett, to his credit, anticipated this complaint. As he argues, such worries misunderstand what energizes the human spirit: What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.

Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek. Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that’s a good thing.

In other words, the reduction in the 37signals workweek disproportionately eliminated shallow as compared to deep work, and because the latter was left largely untouched, the important stuff continued to get done. The shallow stuff that can seem so urgent in the moment turned out to be unexpectedly dispensable.

In their seminal paper on deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson and his collaborators survey these studies. They note that for someone new to such practice (citing, in particular, a child in the early stages of developing an expert-level skill), an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigors of such activities, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more.

[…] once you’ve hit your deep work limit in a given day, you’ll experience diminishing rewards if you try to cram in more.

The purpose of this strategy is to give you an accurate metric for resolving such ambiguity—providing you with a way to make clear and consistent decisions about where given work tasks fall on the shallow-to-deep scale. To do so, it asks that you evaluate activities by asking a simple (but surprisingly illuminating) 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?

Become Hard to Reach

The process-centric approach to e-mail can significantly mitigate the impact of this technology on your time and attention. There are two reasons for this effect. First, it reduces the number of e-mails in your inbox—sometimes significantly.

Second, to steal terminology from David Allen, a good process-centric message immediately “closes the loop” with respect to the project at hand.

Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.

Don’t Respond

[…] commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.