As automation and outsourcing shape the modern workplace, what skills do we need to succeed? Cal Newport argues that the ability to do deep work, or the ability to perform professional activities in a state of distraction free concentration that pushes one’s cognitive capabilities to the limit is the key to success. Deep work creates value, improves your skill, and is hard to replicate.
This book offers a synthesis of ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a while. While this book repeats a lot of advice that can be found in other books (e.g. Flow, The Art of Stress Free Productivity), I found that the spin that the author put on it was worth reading. One of the core trends that he identifies is that with increasing use of the internet, intellectual products can be substituted easily for one another. Thus there is a huge benefit to being the best in a particular area. This is highly relevant to graduate students (and other researchers), because once a research paper is published, anybody can read it. Only the best papers survive. I have been doing a variety of things suggested in this book for a while now, and I plan to be a bit more deliberate in seeking to create time where I focus.
For the rest of this review, have a list of action items that you can take to implement this philosophy and a summary of the book to clarify the terms that I use in that list of action items.
Action Items for Implementing the Deep Work in Your Life
[Requires a couple hours of intense thought, perhaps in multiple sessions, my spin on the suggestions from this book]
- Convince yourself that deep work is a worthwhile goal to seek (see section one below)
- Decide on the type of deep work philosophy that you want to implement in your
- Add routines and rituals to your life to minimize distractions
- Where are you going to work and how long?
- How are you going to work (e.g. no internet)?
- How will you support your work (e.g. food, planning your deep work sessions ahead of time)?
- How will you manage other people’s expectations given your reduced availability?
- Make a scoreboard for measuring your progress
- Plan a time to review your habits weekly
- Say no to shallow work
- Use deep work as a heuristic for your productivity (work is deep if it would take a long time to teach somebody else how to do it)
- Talk to your boss about how much of your time you should be doing shallow vs deep work
- Put yourself in a scarcity mindset by limiting the amount of time that you work each day
- Create an inventory of all of the your obligations
- Identify your main high level goals
- For each goal identify two or three most important corresponding activities
- See a particular activity promotes success in these activities
- Determine your patterns for saying yes to shallow work so that you don’t say yes in the future.
- Tips for dealing with distractions (especially technology)
- Critically evaluate the costs and benefits to all internet tools that you use, and only continue to use the ones that provide essential benefits that you cannot find elsewhere
- Schedule the time that you look at your email
- Strictly enforce a plan of using the internet at home and work (if you unexpectedly need to use the internet, wait 5-10 mins before using it)
- Quit social media for a period of a month without telling anybody and see what is missed (i.e. don’t disable, or say you are leaving, just stop looking and responding)
- Make high quality relaxation a priority
- Design a daily ritual to shut down your work
- Just do nothing when you need a break instead of going on the internet
- Plan activities that allow you to recharge daily
Anecdote about how Carl Jung when he was developing his theory to challenge Freud’s theory about the unconscious created a ‘Tower’ or a second house in the countryside where he could isolate himself and focus on developing his theory. The point of this anecdote is to say that many famous thinkers took extraordinary measures to design their environment in a way that allowed them to focus for long periods of time.
Deep work (defn): Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit. These efforts create value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Shallow work (defn): Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easily replicated.
Many famous people have been known for their ability to do deep work.
[Alex says: relevant to know about: Knowledge workers: people who mainly work with data and information. They perform non-routine, cognitively demanding tasks, and creative work that requires synthesizing structured and unstructured information. Economic trend that more and more jobs are knowledge work-based.]
Deep work allows one to learn complex things fast, and in the modern workd, it is easy to find alternatives if your work isn’t the best.
Hypothesis: In the modern marketplace, deep work is both more valuable and more rare.
Part I: The Idea
- Ch. 1: Deep Work is Valuable
Brynjolfsson and McAfee Theory: Three groups benefit from the technology revolution:
- High-Skilled Workers: People who can work with intelligent machines.
- The Superstars: People who are the best at their jobs (easy substitution results in a winner-take-all marketplace)
- The Owners: People with capital to invest
Core Abilities to be succesful: [Deep work is essential to do these two things]
- Master hard things quickly
- Produce at an elite level (quality and speed)
Theory of Deliberate Practice: In order to improve,
- Focus on a specific skill
- Get corrective feedback
Attention Residue: Thoughts from previous tasks linger to new task (so one should batch hard tasks into uninterrupted stretches) [There is a variety of research on attention switching.]
Some jobs like CEO may require rapid switching, but more jobs than one would initially think require deep work.
- Ch. 2: Deep Work is Rare
A variety of trends in business are pushing people towards shallower work such as open office spaces, instant messaging, and required online presence. This leads to fragmentation of attention in offices.
The metric black hole: hard to measure how certain activities lead to the success of a business (e.g. response time to emails). Knowledge work is especially hard to measure.
The principle of least resistance: many business waste time due to activities that are easy at the time but wasteful in the longr run. E.g. easy to be connected and answer emails quickly, compared to prioritizing essential activities.
Business as a proxy for Productivity: Being busy is an easy, but erronous heuristic for measuring productivity (was better in the industrial era). Suggests better heuristic of doing deep work.
The cult of the internet: people see all technology as good (technopoly) and people are criticized for going against this trend. This is bad for business but good for the people who are aware of this problem.
- Ch. 3: Deep Work is Meaningful
Anecdote about a master Blacksmith who finds the challenge and concentration of his work deeply satisfying.
- A Neurlogical Argument for Depth: how we choose to focus our attention is essential to our happiness, and shallow concerns are less satisfying.
- A Psychological Argument for Depth: People report that their best moments are when they are focused (e.g. Csik’s research on flow)
- A Philosophical Argument for Depth: As society moves away from religion, craftsmanship provides a way to live a meaningful life.
Part I: The Rules
- Rule 1: Work Deeply
Anecdote about the eudamonia machine - an architectural concept of creating a setting that facilitates deep work. The design contains a series of rooms, one after the other, that are purposed for more and more focused work. More generally around the idea of creating a work culture that prioritizes deep work.
Baumeister study: asked people what they were thinking about throughout their day. Main finding: willpower is finite - expect to be constantly bombarded by distractions and to eventually succumb to them. Action strategy: add routines and rituals to one’s life to minimize drains on willpower.
Decide on your depth philosophy
- Monastic Philosophy: radically eliminate shallow obligations Works best for somebody with a well-defined and valued professional goal (e.g. Donald Knuth)
- Bimodal Philosophy: Alternate between days of isolated deep work and engagement with shallow obligations (e.g. Jung)
- Rhythmic Philosophy: Engage in a behavior so that it becomes a routine - often more practical given job obligations
- Journalistic Philosophy: try ones best to insert focused sessions throughout the day (hard to do!)
Ritualize: Highly creative people build strict habits to focus:
- Where are you going to work and for how long?
- How are you going to work once you start? (e.g. banning use of internet)
- How you will support your work? (e.g. food, light exercise)
Make Grand Gestures: Create a radical change in your environment at a significant personal investment to increase focus and motivation (an extreme example being a person who bought a round trip business class plane ticket to focus on writing a book)
Dont Work Alone: all this goes against the theory of serendipitous creativity where chance encounters generate new ideas. Suggests hub and spoke architecture of an office where there is a room to work together then individual rooms to focus.
The whiteboard effect - depth can come closely from working closely with another person.
Execute ideas like a business: key point: there is a crucial distinction about what one should do and how to actually do it.
The 4 Disciplines of Execution (from business research)
- Focus on the Wildly Important (say no to the trivial)
- Act on lead measures (lag measure - long term goal, lead measure - immediate behavior to achieve that long term goal) In this case, use deep work as a lead measure
- Keep a compelling scoreboard (e.g. track your lead measures potentially publically, such as keep track of your deep work hours and track when goals are achieved.
- Create a cadence of accountability (e.g. a weekly review with a reflection)
- Make an effort to plan high quality relaxation (allows you to engage in deep work the next day)
- Downtime aids insights (e.g. research on how decisions that involve synthesizing many ambiguous cues is best left to the unconscious… people asked to buy a car, those who were distracted did better than those who had time to think about it deliberately)
- Unconscious thought theory - unconscious can disentangle nebulous cues
- Downtime recharges energy needed for deep work (e.g. spending time in nature, where there are modestly interesting stimuli)
- Evening work often not that important
- Deliberate practice research (i.e. stretching ability in a certain skill) 1-4 hours is the daily maximum for intense concentration
- Implementation tips:
- Make the commitment to stop in the evening
- Have a strict shutdown ritual where you review your goals
Zeigarnik Effect - incomplete tasks dominate our attention
- Rule 2: Embrace Boredom
Anecdote about orthodox jewish tradition of studying the talmud intensely early in the morning everydayi
One must practice to be able to concentrate intensely and resisting temptation
- Constant attention switching rewires your brain and can have long-term impacts on your ability to focus
Strategies for improving ability to concentrate:
Improving your ability to concentrate (don’t take breaks from distraction, take breaks from focus) - it is unrealistic to expect to be able to focus on demand
Internet detox is unlikely to work.
Suggests method of building one’s ability to resist the internet. Even if you need to use the internet, schedule your internet use in blocks and strictly maintain those blocks (if you unexpectedly need the internet, wait 5-10 mins before going on). Also schedule your internet use at home. The goal here is to train ability to resist distractions.
Work like Teddy Roosevelt: work with high intensity - decide on a task, give a hard artificial deadline that will force you to focus
Meditate Productively: Identify tasks that require deep thought and take a walk and focus only on them (be wary of looping on the same ideas). Structure your deep thinking (load relevant info, work on next step, consolidate your gains)
Memorize a deck of cards: memory atheletes practice improving focus. Prepare by imaging a sequence of rooms with objects in the room. Associtate a memorable thing with each object you need to memorize (e.g. person with a card). Associate objects in the scene with memorable items.
[Alex notes: questionable advice except for the internet usage planning]
- Rule 3: Quit Social Media
Social media fragments our time [Alex notes: average smartphone user checks facebook 14 times a day for 2 mins at a time].
Since social media is a new phenomenon, we have a limited vocabulary for discussing it. E.g. speaking of it as an addiction where the only solution is a purge [Alex notes: addiction is a good term, the problem is a misunderstanding of how to deal with addiction]. Suggests finding a middle ground between not using it at all and being hyper connected.
Common arguments for using social media:
Excuse: Social media has certain benefits - counter argument - any benefit mindset can be counter productive. Instead, use the
Craftsman approach to tool selection.
- Identify core factors that determine success/happiness and adopt a tool if the positives significantly outweight the negatives
- Apply the law of the vital few to internet habits
- More detail:
- Identify main high level goals
- For each goal identify two or three most important corresponding activities
- See if network tools promote success in these activities
The law of the Vital Few: 80 percent of the effect is due to 20 percent of the causes. Relatedly, time/attention is a zero sum game.
Quit Social Media: Excuse: People worried that others will miss them leaving social media Response: Packing party for hoarding - put everything you own in boxes, remove items from box if you need it, get rid of everything else in boxes E.g. Leave social media with no fanefare and see what happens
Social media makes it easier people to pay attention to us, and breaks our heuristics that say when others are paying attention, we are generating something valuable.
Excuse: use the internet to entertain yourself: Response:
- Anecdote: Arnold Bennet in 1910 - in wake of emerging white collar class that had more leisure time suggested that we pursue self-improvement during leisure time
- Internet thrives in a vaccum and makes it easy to avoid boredom - take time to plan fun activities
- The mind wants change, not rest, so structured relaxation can be refreshing
[Alex says: most people aren’t going to want to do this]
- Rule 4: Drain the Shallows
Anecdote: A company had people only work 4 days a week, and this forced people to be more efficient with their time and they got roughly the same amount of work done. They also tried giving people a month to hack on a project and this generated a lot of value for the company.
Shallow work seems more important at the time than it is - so make an effort to cull down shallow work. Can do shallow work after deep work energy is exhausted.
- Schedule Every Minute of Everyday: People vastly underestimate the amount of time that they spend watching tv and overestimate the amount of time they spend working. Much of our time is spent on autopilot.
Suggests blocking time of your day into 30 min chunks. You can make a plan in the morning, and allow it to change throughout the day.
Quantify the depth of each activity: A good way to tell the depth of an activity is to think about how long it would take to train a recent college graduate to do that job.
Ask your boss for a shallow work budget: Ask how much time you should be spending do shallow activities. This helps you say no to things more and provides a reality check for everybody.
Finish your work by 5:30: Forces you into strategies that save time. Possible to do this as a professor (anecdote from a professor and the author) Puts you into a scarcity mindset and helps you say no.
Become hard to reach:
- Make people who send you emails do more work (lowers expectations of others)
- Think of the fewest number of emails necessary to resolve a conversation.
- Don’t respond to emails that are ambiguous, not interesting, or not beneficial (uncomfortable but worth it)
Conclusion: Bill Gates is a good example of somebody who has used deep work. The author who implemented this philosophy as a professor found it effective but very exhausting.