Deep Work

By Cal Newport

My rating: 10/10

Date read: 2018-04-10

Book on Amazon.com

Finally, the book that underlines the role of the focused work in your life, and, what is more important, acknowledges that it is hard and must be rigorously trained. Reading this book preceded some of the most productive months in my life, and I keep coming back to it for an advice on how to really focus on what matters.

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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.

Deep work is necessary to improve your abilities.

Bill Gates famously conducted "Think Weeks" twice a year, during which he would isolate himself to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.

Knowledge workers are losing familiarity with deep work because of networking tools. According to McKinsey, average knowledge worker spends 60% of workweek engaged in electronic communication and internet searching.

Shallow work – noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value and are easy to replicate.

Spend enough time in a state of shallowness, and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.

Our work culture's shift toward the shallow ... is exposing opportunity for those who prioritize depth

(on how Jason Benn learned programming): I locked myself in a room with no computer: just textbooks, notecards and a highlighter.

To remain valuable in our economy, you must master learning quickly, which requires deep work.

(Because competition is now global) you have to produce absolute best results - which requires deep work.

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.

"A deep life is a good life"

Deep Work is Valuable

As intelligent machines improve, there will be three types of winners:

  1. high skilled workers
  2. superstars (best in their field), because market is global and you can work remotely
  3. owners of resources/capital

Core abilities in a new economy:

  1. ability to quickly master hard things
  2. ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed

both depend on your ability to perform deep work

To learn requires intense concentration

"Differences between expert performers and normal adults is a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain"

Deliberate practice requires:

By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you are forcing the specific relevant [neural] circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation [which will cement the performance of this circuit]

particularly important idea, according to Adam Grant: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.

"law of productivity": high-quality work produced = time spent × intensity of focus

when you switch from task A to task B, your attention doesn't immediately follow - a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about original task

To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended period of time with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.

(note: people like managers/CEOs who are "quick decision makers" may not need to use deep work as much)

Deep Work is Rare

There are a lot of trends reducing deep work:

Sometimes it's hard to measure knowledge workers performance, plus it's easier to do shallow work, so strategy to be "busy and productive" is often to do a lot of shallow work in a visible manner.

Deep Work is Meaningful

Connection between deep work (craftsmanship) and good life, meaning and happiness is evident in manual crafts, but nonobvious in knowledge work.

[The elderly people in research] were happier not because their life curcumstances were better than those of the young subjects; they were instead happier because they had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive.

The world represented by your inbox [or social media feed] isn't a pleasant world to inhabit.

In work, to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you'll associate with your working life.

[According to psychological studies] the best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile [i.e. state of flow]. Human beings, it seems are at their best when immersed deeply into something challenging.

Deep work is a key to extracting meaning from your profession [turning it into a craft]

I'll live a focused life, because it's the best kind there is.

Deep Work Rules

Rule #1 – Work Deeply

We live in a world where your colleagues would rather you respond quickly to their latest e-mail than produce the best possible results.

Many people recognize notion or urge to do more superficial [shallow] things, but most underestimate its regularity and strength. People fight desires all day long. Desires turned out to be norm, not exception.

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals [designed to minimize willpower required for deep work]. If you have set place and time to focus on deep work, you'd require much less willpower to start and keep going, and therefore succeed with deep efforts far more often.

Deep work scheduling philosophies (choose what works best for you):

  1. Monastic - you eliminate or radically minimize shallow activities. Focus only on deep work [the whole day].
  2. Bimodal - you divide your time, and dedicate some part (usually at least one full day) only to deep work, and other part as you need/want to use it.
  3. Rhythmic - you consistently have deep work sessions, and transform them into a simple regular habit.
  4. Journalistic - you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.

Ritualize. Decide on:

If you struggle to work deeply, consider making a grand gesture - like check in the hotel to work there or going somewhere (or at least going to coffeeshop for X hours)

Think about working with someone. But: pursue deep work (mostly solo work) and collaboration separately. Alternate them, not mix. Working side by side with somebody may push you to deeper levels of depth.

Consider using these 4 "disciplines"

  1. Focus on what's most important
  2. Focus on lead measures (short-term metrics) instead of lag measures (ultimate long-term metrics). E.g. if you want to write 5 papers, it's hard to focus on number of papers written, as it's a long term number. Instead you can focus on number of hours worked on writing or number of words written - these contribute to the same goal, but are easier to track and motivate you.
  3. "People play differently when they're keeping score" In short, keep individual scoreboard of you lead measure – like scoreboard of number of hours you worked on your wall.
  4. Keep yourself (or your team accountable). Have meeting or personal reviews where you go over your lead measure metrics and see how you did, what you could improve and what you'll do before next meeting.
    Execution is more difficult than strategizing.

Deep work requires idleness. Inject regular and substantial breaks from professional work/concerns into your day.
Possible reasons for this:

  1. Downtime aids insights (or, sometimes your unconscious mind is better at solving some things than conscious)
  2. Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply. Thus, consider a shutdown from work (or other chores/stimuli) in the evenings.
  3. The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important. There is a limit of time you can spend in a state of an intense concentration in a day - something like ~1 hours for novices, up to ~4 hours for experts, but rarely more. Therefore, deep work fits in a workday.

Consider having shutdown ritual - something you do before you finish your work to indicate it.
Zeigarnik effect - incomplete tasks dominate your attention even after you decided you are not gonna work on them today anymore. To fight this, you may make a plan how you would complete them tomorrow (or later). This will help your brain to free congnitive resources for other pursuits.
Good shutdown ritual will go over your incomplete tasks (to make sure nothing is forgotten) and create plan for the next day with them in mind.

Regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work.

Rule #2 – Embrace Boredom

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained [like a "mental muscle"]

Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don't simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. You'll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.

Constrant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain. You are "chronically distracted". Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it's hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.

Getting most out of your deep work habit requires training [consisting of two parts]:

  1. Improving your ability to concentrate intensely
  2. Overcoming your desire to distraction

Don't take breaks from distraction. Instead take breaks from focus.

If you eat healthy just one day a week, you are unlikely to lose weight (or be in shape). It works similarly with distractions, you are unlikely to fight them if you do so only one day a week (or just once in a while).

Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.

E.g. for internet, keep a notepad where you record next time you are allowed to use internet.
Use of distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain's ability to focus. It's instead the constant switching from deep to shallow work.

It's especially important to resist temptations when you seemingly have free time - like during wait in line.

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

Practice deep work sessions. Estimate how long some important task will require, give yourself less time and practice working intensely to achieve this deadline.

Medidate productively - like mindfulness meditation, but focus on some task/idea/thought/work, instead of your body or breathing.

Try training your memory - like memorizing a deck of cards.

Rule #3 – Quit Social Media

Social media drains your attention and doesn't add much value.

Social media [impact] usually doesn't fit in 80% in 80/20 rule.

People mostly don't really care much about you on social media. There is a "social contract" – I'll pay attention to you if you pay attention to me. You like my status, and I'll like yours.

Don't use "the internet" to entertain yourself [especially in the evenings and during leisure time]. "Put more thought into your leisure time".

Rule #4 - Drain the Shallows

[In a typical workday] very few people work even 8 hours a day. You are lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions and so on

There is a limit for how much deep work [that pushes you toward the limit of your abilities] you can sustain in a day.

Though four hours seem not a lot, danger is in that how easily shallow activities (like meetings) can consume your time so that you don't even have free four hours for deep work. Typical knowledge workday is more easily fragmented than many suspect.

Schedule every minute of your day. Pause before action and ask yourself: "what makes the most sense right now?".

Scheduling isn't about constraints, it's about thoughtfulness [about your time]. If you break your schedule, revisit schedule for the remainder of the day. What's important here is that you think about your time [by having schedule], not sticking to schedule 100%.

How to classify deep vs shallow activity? Ask 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?

Have maximum "limit" of how much time you spend on shallow work. Something between 30% and 50% seems reasonable. (It's hard to spend less, and not wise to spend more than 50%).

Finish your work by 5:30pm. Fix the end of your workday and use available time better.

Do more work when you send emails/messages. For example, propose places and several possible time slots when you want to schedule something. Focus on crafting a message that will quicker move the conversation to some action.

Become hard to reach. Don't respond :) Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don't, you'll never find time for the life-changing big things.

Live the focused life, because it's the best kind there is.

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