Cal Newport - Deep Work.


  • Definiton 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."
  • In other words: pure focus on a single activity for a set amount of time, blocking out all possible distractions.
  • Also seen (in chapter 1): deep work is "the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches".
  • To succeed, you need to be at the best of your capabilities. Something that is only possible with depth, deep work.
  • Deep work can be considered the superpower of the 21st century.
  • Interesting to check out: Bill Gates's "Think Weeks" and his written piece "Internet Tidal Wave", and Neal Stephenson's essay about why he is bad at using social media.
  • The Deep Work Hypothesis:
    "The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingy rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive."
  • Definition of Shallow Work:
    "Noncognitively 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."
  • In other words: activities that can be done without focus, where distractions are non-destructive for the final outcome.
  • When you spend too much time in "shallowness", it can permanently reduce your ability to do deep work.
  • You want to minimize the shallow in your life and make most out of the time this frees up.
  • This can have non-professional benefits as well. For example, you can decide to not touch a computer between the time you get home from work and the next morning when the workday begins. At least not for work-related tasks (because you could still use it for writing a blog post). This gives more time for other important things, like being present with your loved ones. Ultimately, it might even get you comfortable being bored.
  • Interesting to check out: Nicholas Carr's book "The Shallows".

Part 1: The Idea

Chapter One: Deep Work Is Valuable

There are three groups of people that thrive in the current economy: the High-Skilled Workers, the Superstars and the Owners.

  • High-Skilled Workers: working with intelligent machines and new technology.
  • Superstars: the best of the best in their profession.
  • Owners: investors (people with access to capital) in times when rewards are returned proportional to the input.
  • There are two core abilities to thrive in the new (current) economy (based on the High-Skilled Workers and Superstars):
    1. the ability to quickly master hard things
    2. the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. Mastering a skill is not enough, you need to put it to good use as well in order to be successful.
  • Both abilities described above depend on your ability to perform deep work.
  • Deliberate practice (really learning something requires deep work, intense focus and no distraction):
    1. Your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you're trying to improve or an idea you're trying to master.
    2. You receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it's most productive.
  • Plan deep work for yourself. For example: put on an out-of-office reply, even if you're actually in the office and colleagues can shout: "You're not out of office, I see you in your office right now!".
  • The formula of high-quality work: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) * (Intensity of Focus).
  • Switching between tasks is killing deep work. Switching from Task A to Task B will always leave some residue at the original Task A. This explains why the formula of high-quality work (see above) is true.
  • There are exceptions to people who are thriving with shallow work. That's mostly CEOs (the book gives an example of Jack Dorsey, who was CEO of Twitter). It's better to hire three smart people to think about a problem, propose solutions and let the CEO decide, instead of letting the CEO do the deep thinking.

Chapter Two: Deep Work Is Rare

  • While open offices promote collaboration, they are disastrous for focus and lead to massive distraction. In other words: the advantages of something like an open office are outweighed by its disadvantages.
  • Depth-destroying behaviors are hard to measure, falling into the metric black hole.
  • With no clear goals on the long term, businesses could fall back on goals for the shorm term and something that's called the Principle of Least Resistance:
    "In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend towards behaviors that are easiest in the moment."
  • Businesses are geared towards a culture of connectivity, where everyone is always connected (sometimes even outside business hours) and expected to respond to emails and other forms of communication quickly. People tend towards this culture because it is easier (see above principle).
  • In such a culture of connectivity, it feels like you're being busy and productive, although you're actually not. It's 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 in a visible manner."
  • Quoted: "If you're not visibly busy, I'll assume you're not productive." (said by Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer). Horrible.
  • Concluded: "Deep work should be a priority in today's business climate. But it's not."

Chapter Three: Deep Work Is Meaningful

  • Deep work can create as much satisfaction in an information economy as it can in a craft economy, based on three perspectives: neurological, psychological and philosophical:
  • Neurological
    • "Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience."
    • Our brains construct our view of the world based on what we pay attention to, not to what actually happens. If your make sure your view of the world is positive, you can improve your world without changing anything concrete about it.
  • Psychological
    • "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."
    • People are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.
  • Philosophical
    • There is something sacred in traditional craftmanship. The question is how we can get the same in knowledge work. There are two key observations:
      1. Any pursuit that supports high levels of skill can also generate a sense of sacredness. Handle your work with respect and care, and you can generate meaning in your professional life.
      2. Cultivating craftmanship is necessarily a deep task and therefore requires a commitment to deep work.
  • A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.

Part 2: The Rules

Rule #1: Work Deeply

  • You have a finite amount of willpower, a limited amount of energy you can spent every day before it depletes. You need routines and rituals to spend as less time as possible to transition into a state of deep work.
  • There are six strategies to succeed with this:
  1. Decide on Your Depth Philosophy
    • Choose a philosophy that fits your circumstances. There are four approaches:
      1. The Monastic Philosophy: schedule time alone, away from everyone and everything, completely disconnected. Probably not achievable for most people.
      2. The Bimodal Philosophy: dedicate some time to deep work, and leave the rest open for the rest (shallow work). The minimum time for deep work in this philosophy is one day. Anything less will not lead to big breakthroughs. It also advertises to give your time without expecting a result or something in return. You have to believe that your time and effort will benefit someone, even if you're unaware of it.
      3. The Rhythmic Philosophy: get into a rhythm. Design a habit and put a cross for every day you succeed in executing it. After a while, this will make a chain that feels weird to break. This is the "chain method". The easiest way to start deep work is to create a habit out of it. This philosophy might be less intense than the bimodal one, but matches more with real human lifes. This philosophy is one of the most common among deep workers in standard office jobs.
      4. The Journalistic Philosophy: get deep work in whenever you have the time to do it. This approach is not advisable for deep work novices, as it requires relatively big focus switches, which consume a lot of willpower.
  2. Ritualize
    • Waiting for inspiration to randomly strike is a bad strategy. A better way is to go deep, then go deep again, and be inspired by it. In other words, you should have a ritual to get you working deep. Effective rituals must address a few general questions:
      1. When you'll work and for how long.
      2. How you'll work once you start to work.
      3. How you'll support your work
  3. Make Grant Gestures
    • Make a real moment about going deep. Go to another environment, pay money to stay there. Make sure everything you do is dedicated to go deep. Make what is called "the grant gesture". Like J.K. Rowling did by going to an expensive hotel to finish the last Harry Potter book. It's all about seriously committing to the task at hand.
  4. Don't Work Alone
    • The "theory of serendipitous creativity" says that new ideas emerge when there is a high chance of buming into other people. Chance encounters of people from different disciplines can lead to breakthroughs. A balance between places for deep work and places to meet others in an office is called a "hub-and-spoke" architecture
    • Always keep the following two guidelines in mind:
      1. Distraction remains a destroyer of depth.
      2. Use the whiteboard effect when it's reasonable: work together with others on a problem to get to a solution.
  5. Execute Like a Business
    • The division between what and how is crucial, but often overlooked. Split them.
    • There are four "disciplines of execution" that businesses use and can be translated for deep work:
      1. Focus on the Wildly Important: when working deeply, know what you're focusing on and what you want the end result to be.
      2. Act on the Lead Measures: two types of metrics are lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures are coarse-grained and describe what you ultimately want to improve. Lead measures are more fine-grained and are the things that drive success on the lag measures.
      3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: visually display a scoreboard to keep you on track in doing deep work.
      4. Create a Cadence of Accountability: have a weekly review in which you look back on the past week and plan ahead for the next week.
  6. Be Lazy
    • "I am not busy, I am the laziest ambitious person I know." (cartoonist Tim Kreider).
    • Make sure you step away from professional concerns regularly, to build up new energy and willpower to get into deep work again.
    • There's a science behind the value of downtime:
      1. Downtime Aids Insights: some decisions are better left to you unconsious mind. This is the "unconsious thought theory" (UTT).
      2. Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply: spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. This is the "attention restoration theory" (ART).
      3. The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important: after a workday, in the evening, you're beyond a point where you can work deeply. Again, you need recharged energy and willpower.
  • When the workday shuts down, really shut it down. Do not go back to things like email or something else work-related. A "shutdown ritual" can help, like doing a final email check and make a plan for the next day.
  • The "Zeigarnik effect" dictates that incomplete tasks can keep dominating your attention.
  • When you work, work hard. When you're done, be done.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

  • The ability to work deeply is a skill that must be trained.
  • If you reach for your smartphone every time you might get bored, you're not ready to perform deep work yet. You have to practice your concentration.
  • What follows are strategies to practice concentration and deep work.

Don't Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.

  • Spending just one day a week (like done in a weekly digital detox) will not teach your brain to embrace boredom. Because the other days of the week, you're still giving in to it.
  • Schedule breaks from focus, instead of breaks from distraction.
  • Three important points for this strategy:
    1. This strategy works even if your job requires lots of internet use and/or prompt e-mail replies.
    2. Regardless of how you schedule your internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from internet use.
    3. Scheduling internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training.
  • To succeed with deep work, you must train your brain to resist distractions.

Work Like Teddy Roosevelt

  • Estimate how much time you need for something, then set a deadline that drastically reduces this time. Motivate either yourself or tell it publicly to be motivated (by others).

Meditate Productively

  • With "productive meditation" you take a moment where you are physically (not mentally) occupied and then focus on a well-defined problem.
  • Two suggestions:
    1. Be Wary of Distractions and Looping: instead of solving a problem, you're looping over part of the solution you already know.
    2. Structure Your Deep Thinking

Memorize a Deck of Cards

  • On training your mind to remember anything: "Moonwalking with Einstein" by Joshua Foer. And "How to Memorize a Deck of Cards with Superhuman Speed" by Ron White.
  • The steps of this practice:
    1. Have a visual image of the rooms in your house and objects in those rooms. Then practice to mentally walk through the rooms and those objects in a specific order.
    2. Associate each card in the deck with a person or object. You have to be able to think of the person or object directly when seeing the related card.
    3. Connect each card image with an object in a room, in the same order as the deck of cards. Then recall them in order.
  • Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

  • 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.
  • This approach ignores all negative effects that a tool might introduce. The following approach sounds better:
  • The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: identify the core factors that determine success and hapiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweight its negative impacts.
  • These three strategies can help you adopt the Craftsman approach:
    1. Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits: how do you decide which tools really matter to you? First, identify the main high-level goals in your life. Then, list two or three activities that help you satisfy each goal. Next, consider the network tools you use for these activities. Remember that in many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes (also known as Pareto's Principle or 80/20 principle).
    2. Quit Social Media: quit social media for thirty days. Afterwards, ask yourself (1) would the last thirty days have been better when you could have used the social media and (2) did people care that I did not use these services? In the end, social media are only created to capture our personal information, which is then sold to advertisers.
    3. Don't Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself: people tend to look to their work from 9 till 5 as "their day", where the time before and after it is just a prologue and epilogue. Instead, you should use these other hours for (planned) self-improvement, reading great literature and poetry. Or in other words: put more thought into your leisure time. Your brain does not necessarily want to rest outside of work, but just wants a change. Give your brain an alternative to entertainment. Experience what it means to live, and not just exist.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

  • The company 37signals experimented with a 4-day workweek (four times eight hours). They found that the same amount of deep work was done, while the amount of shallow work decreased.
  • "How can we afford to put our business on hold for a month to 'mess around' with new ideas?" Answer: "How can we afford not to?"
  • Everyone has a limit of deep work that can be done in a day. For beginners it might be an hour, while more experienced people can do four hours of deep work. The following strategies can help you make the most out of your deep work limit:
  1. Schedule Every Minute of Your Day: you need to give thought to what you're doing. Therefore, you need to schedule every minute of your day. If the schedule is interrupted, recreate it after the disruption.
  2. Quantify the Depth of Every Activity: the term "shallow work" was mentioned in the introduction. My own view, in addition: shallow work is work where vocal music does not distract. Another one from the book: 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?
  3. Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget: when you know the limit of time you can spend on shallow work, you can use this in your day planning. If the answer is: "as much shallow work as possible", you know your boss has no interest in deep work and you should probably go look for another job.
  4. Finish Your Work by Five Thirty: do not work after five thirty p.m. (or whenever you work day ends in your contract). This commitment is fixed-schedule productivity. Also be catious with saying "yes". Also know that if your boss emails you after work hours, it's usually not expected of you to reply directly.
  5. Become Hard to Reach: there are three tips: (1) make people who send you e-mail do more work and use a "sender filter" (communicate when you will reply to an email and when you won't), (2) do more work when you send or reply to e-mails by being very specific in your question and expectation, so that the number of follow-up emails is as low as possible (the process-centric approach), (3) don't respond at all when an email is ambiguous, doesn't interest you or if nothing really good would happen if you would respond (and nothing bad would happen if you didn't). Develop the habits of letting small bad things happen. If you don't, you'll never find time for the life-changing big things.

Author: Cal Newport