Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world
Author: Cal Newport
Date Finished: Dec 26, 2020
Genres: Business, Productivity
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The book in 3 sentences:
A lifestyle that habitually embraces Deep Work (distraction-free, focused activities that push your cognitive abilities to their limit and create rare and valuable skill sets), will give you the career you want, the mental acuity to experience life in the present, and ultimately, a life marked by continual growth, meaning, and impact. To cultivate the skill of Deep Work, a Deep Work philosophy (a strategy that defines what activities necessitate Deep Work and how you will create the mental, physical, and temporal space for said activities) must be in place. Additionally, train your mind to embrace boredom, holistically weigh social media’s marketing/connective benefits against its time-sucking/anxiety-inducing negatives, and clear your life as much as possible of the shallow tasks that give us a veneer of productivity while failing to produce anything of real personal or professional value.
Top 5 Favorite Quotes:
“I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, “no,” I tell them: I’m irresponsible.” – Richard Feynman (Pg. 62)
“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.” (Pg. 64)
“…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.” (Pg. 76)
“If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” – David Brooks (Pg. 136)
“The “great and profound mistake which my typical man makes in regard to his day,” he elaborates, is that even though he doesn’t particularly enjoy his work (seeing it as something to “get through”), “he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as ‘the day,’ to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.” This is an attitude that Bennett condemns as “utterly illogical and unhealthy.” – Arnold Bennett (pg. 210)
One practical nugget:
Schedule your internet time in advance
Rather than have the internet on all the time and then turn on airplane mode when you want to focus, have it off and turn it on only at scheduled times when you need to do something on it.
Reads like the title, Deep… Every single point is supported 5 different ways. When you think he’s done, he’s got 4 more big contentions for you. This is not Tony Robbins motivation or a ra-ra-ra hustle, work your eyes out book. This is a deeply analytical and pragmatic book discussing our nature, our capacity for focus, and the work habits that have led to history’s most valuable thoughts.
Long notes (~25 pages)
Part 1: The Idea
A. Deep Work is Valuable
B. Deep Work is Rare
C. Deep Work is Meaningful
Part 2: The Rules
Rule #1: Work Deeply
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
Begins with Carl Jung retreating to a tower in the woods to complete his most influential work, while returning to Zurich for his clinical practice.
“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.”
“Although he had many patients who relied on him, Jung was not shy about taking time off.” Deep work, though a burden to prioritize, was crucial for his goal of changing the world.”
Goes on to explore the work habits Michel de Montaigne, Mark Twain, Woody Allen, J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, and Neal Stephenson, emphasizing the ubiquity of Deep Work amongst influential people.
The Deep Work proposition at this point may seem quite obvious, but Cal shows that the modern knowledge worker (a term he uses for white collar people who create value from their knowledge) is “rapidly forgetting the value of going deep.” The rise of network tools, constant Slack/IM messages, social media, and infotainment sites have sabotaged our attention.
“A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.”
This massive problem may have permanent consequences: “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”
Cal stipulates the he’s not as interested in the philosophical/moral debate on whether network tools/social media are harmful to society but will instead focus on the opportunity created in its wake.
“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.”
Example: Jason Benn, a financial consultant, replaced his entire full-time job with an Excel script. Realizing that he had no value in the workforce if his skills could be replaced by a computer, he quit his job and moved back home. He tried to learn to complex skill of computer programming but found that his ability to focus had been ransacked (admitting to spending 98% of his time surfing the web). He turned to drastic measures, locking himself in a room with no internet (only textbooks and pens), and within a few months, landed a programming job that more than doubled his salary as a financial consultant, with great potential to grow along with his ability.
We are rapidly leaving the industrial economy and entering the information economy. Industrial workers didn’t need the ability to go deep, they were paid to turn a crank and their job was not likely to change in the decades they held them. Now, more and more people are becoming knowledge workers, and the demands of their jobs are ever changing.
Technology is advancing, and computers replacing more and more jobs. Two big consequences:
- “To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.”
- On the other hand, “the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless…”
“Deep work is the superpower of the 21st century.” – Eric Barker
Finally, Cal talks about how his own commitment to depth has enabled him to have incredibly high academic output, while writing best selling books, and raising three kids. He also touts the positive mental effects: “More generally, the lack of distraction in my life tones down that background hum of nervous mental energy that seems to increasingly pervade people’s daily lives.” A deep life is not only productive and impactful, but meaningful, fulfilling, and happy.
Part 1. The Idea
A. Deep Work is Valuable
Leading up to Election Day in 2012, 70% of the traffic was going to the writings of Nate Silver. He developed statistical models to predict baseball stats and game outcomes. For The NY Times he was using the same models to predict Election outcomes. Within a year, ESPN and ABC news promised him a staff of a dozen writers and a role in everything from sports to weather and Academy Awards.
David Heinemeier Hansson, created Ruby on Rails (a web development framework that is used by Twitter, Hulu, and countless other sites) and is a partner in the development firm Basecamp (and makes a ton of money there as well).
John Doerr is a venture capitalist, involved in funding Twitter, Google, Amazon, and more. Now worth $3 billion.
This chapter goes through a macro analysis of what made these 3 so professionally valued/successful.
From the book Race Against the Machine, tech is rapidly advancing, human skill and organization are lacking. Human jobs are being rapidly replaced by machines. As remote collaboration tools become more viable, companies are more likely to hire “superstars” (the best in the world, no regard to location). Those people with irreplaceable insight/skill will not only continue to work but will thrive in this new landscape. Repeated by Average is Over – Tyler Cowen.
In Race Against the Machine, three groups will thrive in the new economy. They outline Nate Silver, David Hansson, and John Doerr above.
- Highly Skilled Workers
While tech automates many low level jobs, some tech (“data visualization, analytics, high speed communications, and rapid prototyping”) augments human input to function. Highly skilled workers, like Nate Silver, who are skilled with complex and intelligent machinery will continue to do be needed.
Why hire decent local talent, with office space and full-time benefits when you can just use email/virtual meeting software to hire the best in the world?ｉ.e. David Hansson
”Hearing a succession of mediocre singers doesn’t add up to a great performance.” One superstar can do a better job than a team of average.
- The Owners
Those with the capital to invest in the technologies that fuel this “Great Restructuring” will continue to reap the economic benefits of them. Such as, venture capitalist, John Doerr.
To join one of these 3 groups, Cal has identified just two core abilities necessary.
- The ability to quickly master hard things.
Complex and intelligent machines are not Twitter or even Photoshop. They are damn hard to use and learn. Even if you aren’t learning intelligent machine though, to become the Superstar of any field, from yoga teaching to a specialized medicine, requires you to master hard things.
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
To be a Superstar, skills are necessary but not enough. You need to leverage them to produce something people care about. Ex. Nate Silver was using his data prediction models on Baseball stats, but when he turned to election forecast, his value in the economy exploded. Ex. 2. David Hansson wasn’t just one of the best computer programmers, he created Ruby on Rails and thereby produced something people needed.
Finally the chapter ends with an analysis of how deep work is the single most important to pursuing these 2 core abilities, and thereby joining the Superstars of the new information economy.
Deep work’s Impact on your Ability to Learn Hard Things:
Main idea – “To learn requires intense concentration”
Starting in the ‘70s the new field of performance psychology studied the difference between expert performers in many fields and the average. The difference, they found, could be summed in two words: deliberate practice.
“We deny that these differences [between expert performers and normal adults] are immutable… Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” – K. Anders Ericsson
This is in sharp contrast to the beloved “prodigy” idea that our culture loves. If you look into those examples, the vast majority just started deliberate practice much earlier and with much more intensity than the norm. Rare exceptions for height/size in athletics or similar.
Cal then breaks down the two components of deliberate practice:
- Intense, undistracted focus on a specific skill
- Feedback that keeps you focused on the right skills
He then moves on to explain the neuroscience behind why deliberate practice works. The key to learning a skill is “myelin—a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner.” Basically, “to be good at something, is to be well-myelinated.”
“By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation.” This triggers oligodendrocytes which start wrapping myelin around the relevant neurons. If you’re distracted, the brain can’t isolate the relevant circuits.
Deep Work’s impact on your ability to produce things:
Cal uses a case study of Adam Grant to prove this point. Adam Grant is youngest full professor at Wharton. Produces like crazy, when awarded professorship had already published over 60 peer-reviewed papers and a New York Times best selling book (Give and Take). The key to this production is said to be the following: “the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.”
Does this on several scales. Batches all teaching in fall to focus intensely on only research during Spring and Summer. Then within semester batches open door periods with focused periods (not open to colleagues or students). Still one of top-rated teachers at Wharton.
Cal claims that Grant doesn’t work any more hours than the average professor in this field (because the field is noted for being filled with workaholics who all long hours) and then derives the law of productivity:
“High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)”
Since he’s assuming time spent to the same, this implies that Intensity of Focus is the key to Grant’s productivity, career success, and professional value.
So why is this intense focus so hard to achieve? Attention residue: when switching Task A to Task B, a residue of Task A is still occupying your mind. Basically never multi-task when you’re trying to learn something and don’t allow distractions to enter your environment. Ex. Checking your inbox every so often seems harmless but is actually very damaging to your ability to learn
Big section called what about jack dorsey? Jack Dorsey, twitter and square founder, has open office, always open to employees/distraction philosophy. Cal says there are certain jobs that are exceptions to the deep philosophy, CEO’s being the biggest. CEO’s have a “hard-won repository of experience” and instinct for the market.
“To ask a CEO to spend four hours thinking deeply about a single problem is a waste of what makes him or her valuable. It’s better to hire three smart subordinates to think deeply about the problem and then bring their solutions to the executive for a final decision.”
Seems to me like, the CEO’s put in the deep work before (years of studying and trial and error to build a successful enterprise) and now they’re really just calling the shots.
Cal emphasizes that jobs like the CEO are extremely rare. Don’t think your one of these people just because it’s difficult to incorporate deep work or it’s not the norm in your profession.
B. Deep Work is Rare
- New Facebook HQ is the “largest open floor plan in the world” – tons of companies doing this
- IBM employees send over 2.5 million instant messages every day – rise of Slack/immediate response expected messaging
- NY Times encourages their writers to be on Twitter – expectation for content professionals to be active on social media
“big trends in business today actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level).”
Cal wants to prove that rareness of Deep Work in the modern workplace is not because deep work is needed or beneficial. Instead it is these trends are protected by:
- Metric Black Hole
“It turns out to be really difficult to answer a simple question such as: What’s the impact of our current e-mail habits on the bottom line?”
“Generally speaking, as knowledge work makes more complex demands of the labor force, it becomes harder to measure the value of an individual’s efforts.”
“None of these behaviors [trends 1-3 mentioned above] would survive long if it was clear that they were hurting the bottom line, but the metric black hole prevents this clarity and allows the shift toward distraction we increasingly encounter in the professional world.”
- 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 toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.”
So we have a culture of constant connectivity, immediate responses, and constant distraction not because its contributing positively to our work or business, but because it’s much easier.
Reasons connectivity is easier
A. Instant messaging makes life so much easier, get an answer to your question within seconds. The cost of the distraction incurred by the Instant Messaging though is very hard to measure.
B. “it creates an environment where it becomes acceptable to run your day out of your inbox” If email were reserved for the last 30 minutes of your day, it would require much effort to decide what needs to prioritized, who can wait, what can be ignored. So we don’t bother, we just spend all day responding to emails as we get them. The path of least resistance.
Summary: “The Principle of Least Resistance, protected from scrutiny by the metric black hole, supports work cultures that save us from the short-term discomfort of concentration and planning, at the expense of long-term satisfaction and the production of real value.”
Now, Cal analyzes how we never moved on from the Industrial Revolution definition of productivity (# of visible things produced / span of time. For example, number of tires attached by hour). The new Information Economy doesn’t work like this. Our value is not so visible, learning abstract concepts, building skills, etc. don’t conform well to that mindset. WIll still use the old model to make us feel like productive however, number of emails sent this hour, amount of meetings attended today… All this to appear visibly busy when you didn’t actually produce or learn anything of real value. This he sums up as:
“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.”
Another factor influencing our rejection of Deep Work is our inclination to accept all new technology that seemingly makes our lives easier, as overall good. Not recognizing the trade offs of distraction. Furthermore, anyone who opposes the use of new technology is labeled a Luddite, stuck in the past, anti-progress. This he calls:
The Cult of the Internet: “We were, he noted, no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiencies against the new problems introduced. If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed.”
“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. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech.”
Finally, Cal makes the point that all of these alarming trends are bad for business. The effect is hard to measure in concrete numbers, but this creates enormous opportunity for these few who can ignore these trends. Cultivate your deep work ability and put yourself in a class of a select few.
C. Deep Work is Meaningful
Begins with case study of Ric Furrer, a modern day blacksmith, who crafts his metal totally by hand. Talks about how craftsman type labor (a practice that requires intense depth) gives Furrer happiness and satisfaction in his days.
“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy,”
The satisfaction gets muddied up with knowledge work because the work is less clear.
Craftsman: Simple tasks that are difficult to execute (improving at this simple but hard to task becomes a craftsman’s purpose/meaning)
Knowledge work is difficult to clearly define, improvement is ambiguous, and shallow, unsatisfactory work (email, meetings, presentations) can make the creation of meaningful and satisfactory work very difficult.
This chapter shows 3 arguments for why Deep Work is the key to creating that craftsman-like satisfaction in the new knowledge work era.
- Neurological argument for depth
Science writer, Winifred Gallagher, writes about how happiness is dictated not by the objective circumstances in our lives but what we choose to focus on. I.e. In the midst of a cancer diagnosis/treatment, Gallagher focused on “movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini” and found her life generally pleasant.
Circumstances are not near as a important as what you choose to focus on (aka look on the bright side is not just a catch phrase but literally what separates happy and unhappy people)
“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.”
This is backed by decades of research in numerous fields psychology, anthropology, education, behavior economics, to even family counseling (explores Barbara Frederick’s research UNC; Laura Carstensen Stanford, traces it physically to the amygdala in the brain)
So if our happiness is generated by where spend most of our focus… “There is gravity and a sense of importance inherent in deep work” Spending hours daily intensely working on skills/projects that create rare value will give you a sense that your life is rich in meaning and importance in return. In addition, the emphasis on avoiding distraction will cause you to have much less time and attention to focus on the many small problems that come up in our day. Those become ignored or put in perspective.
The danger with knowledge work, ubiquitous connectivity, and constant reach ability is to instead focus on shallow things, “urgent” matters in your inbox, other people’s requests, and thus leaving you feeling empty, cold, and unimportant day after day.
Another point Gallagher makes is how lack of focus or clear mission leads to anxiety and dissatisfaction: “the idle mind is the devil’s workshop’… when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.”
- Psychological argument for depth
Psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi, developed the revolutionary Experience Sampling Method (ESM) that gives us the best insight into how people feel during all the various activities in our day. Reported to the researchers at the exact time they are performing the activity (not in retrospect). They found the following:
“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.” Csikszentmihalyi
This contradicts the image of happiness as sitting on beach with a pina colada without a care in the world and mirrors the Deep Work argument shockingly well. Here’s why sitting idly doesn’t lead to a happy life:
“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.”
*this overlaps with Gallagher above a lot. Different in that Gallagher focuses on the *content* of our focus, whereas Csikszentmihalyi is agnostic to the content but emphasizes that the feeling of going deep is fulfilling in it of itself.
- Philosophical argument for depth
This follows the work of philosophy professors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelley. The world used to filled with wonder, Greek gods, spirits, and meaning beyond the tangible. After Descartes, Enlightenment, and the rise of reason/science/objectivity the world was stripped of this. This has obviously had many benefits (all our modern luxuries) but has definitely led to nihilism, depression, and a lot of purposelessness in our modern world.
The problem with the this lack of sacredness, is that individuals are expected to generate their own meaning. In the past, sources of meaning existed outside of ourselves, we turned to gods and spirits that we believed existed outside of ourselves.
Fascinatingly, Dreyfus and Kelly argue that craftsmanship is the key to finding a source of meaning outside ourselves in the post-Enlightenment world.
The example given is hard to explain, but they talk about old wheelwrights (the people who shape wood into smooth wheels). Every piece of wood is different and requires different cuts and processes to get it to do what it ultimately needs to do. They alike this variance to personality, saying that each wood has its character and “subtle virtues”. Importantly, it is not up to the craftsmen to create these virtues, they are physically inherent in the wood itself.
“The task of a craftsman, they conclude, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there. This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning.”
Finally Cal makes the point that “There’s nothing intrinsic about the manual trades when it comes to generating this particular source of meaning. Any pursuit—be it physical or cognitive—that supports high levels of skill can also generate a sense of sacredness.”
Beautiful code (like poetry) can have its own “subtle virtues” and can be its own source of purpose just as beautifully crafted wood.
Don’t obsess over your job description, finding the perfect work that matches your passion/life calling, or the specifics of your work. The preceding points tell us that its the process of pursuing excellence in clear but difficult task that leads to fulfillment. Become a craftsman in your knowledge work, simplify your objectives as much as possible and pursue them with fervor, depth, and pride. Ignore shallow, frivolous work that distracts from your main craft (writing, coding, reporting, calculating, whatever it may be).
“The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship—not the outcomes of their work.”
Part 2. The Rules
A. Rule #1: Work Deeply
David Dewane (architecture prof)’s Eudaimonia machine, a one story 5 chamber building, designed to enable the deepest possible work. The anti open office.
This chapter is how to build a work environment and culture in your life to extract as much value from yourself as possible, even without access to Eudaimonia machine.
Preceding question: why do we need such involved strategies to do Deep Work? I accept it’s valuable, why can’t I just do more.
Answer: Basically we suck at fighting the path of least resistance, we battle urges all day long and become worse at doing so later in the day. “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.” We need strategies to prioritize when, where, how we will do Deep Work or else it’ll never happen. Routines and rituals will enable this lifestyle.
Deep Work Philosophies:
Example: Famed computer scientist, Donald Knuth. No email since 1990. HIs only job is to think big thoughts and publish them, so anything else is a distraction. Provides only a postal mailing address and an assistant only shares what’s important for him to see in a big batch, every three months!
His goal: “I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.”
Example 2: Science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson. His contact policy: “All of my time and attention are spoken for—several times over. Please do not ask for them.”
Stephenson sees two mutually exclusive possibilities in his life. “He can write good novels at a regular rate, or he can answer a lot of individual e-mails and attend conferences, and as a result produce lower-quality novels at a slower rate.”
This philosophy works for people who can clearly identify their value to world down to one thing. That thing shouldn’t require much correspondence either.
Example: Carl Jung, locks himself in his work home in small town, Bollingen, to write in the mornings and meditates/walks in the woods at night. Contrasts this with his time in Zurich where he sees patients, chats with comrades at coffeeshops, and gives and attends lectures at Univerisites.
Bi-modal philosophy believes that deep work requires at least a full day away from outside distraction, not an hour here and there. “At the same time, the bimodal philosophy is typically deployed by people who cannot succeed in the absence of substantial commitments to non-deep pursuits. Jung, for example, needed his clinical practice to pay the bills and the Zurich coffeehouse scene to stimulate his thinking. The approach of shifting between two modes provides a way to serve both needs well.”
Example 2: Wharton business prof, Adam Grant. Teaching, open office, accessible in the fall semester. Intense research and writing only in the spring and summer.
Example: Seinfeld. Writes a joke everyday. After doing so, marks a big, red X on the calendar. Will not break this “chain of X’s” “the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes,” and then explaining that the way to create better jokes was to write every day.”
This philosophy argues that the best way to implement deep work into your life is to make it into a daily habit.
Example 2: Doctoral candidate, Brian Chappell. Working a full-time job, writing a thesis, and a dad. Rather than the visual of X’s on a calendar, he starts his deep work at a set time everyday (5:30-7:30AM before work). Doing so enables him to write 4-5 pages of academic writing every day, a full chapter every 2 weeks, all written before his 9-5.
Bi-modal or rhythmic?
Rhythmic: More atune to human nature (habitual), likely more hours of deep work per year because of regularity. Easier for things that not pressing and need daily practice, a la writing daily jokes, working on your thesis. Things that if you didn’t do them everyday, you’d likely lose steam. Things with loose or optional deadlines
Bi-modal: Enables the intense depth that can give rise to world shifting thoughts like those of Carl Jung. Thoughts that would’ve been very hard to come by in 2 hours each morning before work… Weightier processes may need this. Also, when there’s big pressure to produce, be the first, etc.
Example: Journalist, author, Times editor, Walter Issacson. Basically fit in deep work whenever he could…
“It was always amazing… he could retreat up to the bedroom for a while, when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book… he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour, we’d hear the typewriter pounding, then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us… the work never seemed to faze him, he just happily went up to work when he had the spare time.”
20 minutes here, hour there… ended up finishing a 900-page epic
Called the journalist approach because this approach is needed by those who need to shift into writing mode on a moment’s notice. NOT for deep work novices. Your finite stores of will power will be depleted quickly. Task switching residue is high. Basically for those where there is no other way. Needs a lot of practice
Example 2: Cal Newport has 3 kids, a full time job, a podcast, blog, and book contracts… He gets it in every moment he can.
Ritualizing your work life: “An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.”
Examples, famed biographer, Robert Caro, meticulous about his work space, book placements, wall decoration, all consistent for decades.
Charles Darwin, woke up, then walk, breakfast, read letters, write, in that order, every day, at the exact same time
“There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where… but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.” David Brooks
Take as many decisions out of your life as possible to preserve your will power. i.e. Steve Jobs wearing the same thing everyday. Here’s what to ritualize to make a Deep Life:
- Where you’ll work and for how long: same place, make a place only for deep work if you can
- How you’ll work once you start to work: i.e. # of words per 20 minutes. Keeps concentration up
- How you’ll support your work: i.e. meditation, food, exercise, brain in a state capable of focus
Grand gestures: Examples of people doing big things to maintain deep work.
I.e. JK Rowling writing Deathly Hallows in 5 star Balmoral hotel (environment was better than her home for work). ~$1000 a day just to write
Bill Gates schedules Think Weeks in the year. Retreat to cabin in the woods with just papers
MIT Physicist, novelist, Alan Lightman. Spends summers in a tiny island off of Maine. No internet or phone for 2.5 months.
Entrepreneur, Peter Shankman, had about a week to write a book. Booked a business class ticket round trip ticket to Tokyo. Wrote whole way there. Drank an espresso in Tokyo business class lounge. Then returned to NYC writing the whole way. Finished a manuscript at the end.
Embracing collaboration with Deep Work: Massive open floor plan office are an absurd attack on concentration but the justifications are everyone attuned to a single mission, curious about others work, sharing of ideas.
Cal argues that constant contact with a ton of people has large negative impact on depth of thinking but wants to show how to integrate collaboration with deep work
Examples: the famous MIT Building 20 and the Bell Labs building… both spaces housed many different disciplines and produced world changing, cross-disciplinary innovations.
Cal argues that these were not in fact open floor plans but what he calls hub and spoke. Where a collaborative hub (like a long hallway) was made so that you would encounter tons of coworkers and different people, but for deep thinking one would lock themselves into soundproofed offices that come out of the hub.
On hub and spoke: “It’s a setup that straddles a spectrum where on one extreme we find the solo thinker, isolated from inspiration but free from distraction, and on the other extreme, we find the fully collaborative thinker in an open office, flush with inspiration but struggling to support the deep thinking needed to build on it.”
One other type of Deep Work is collaborative with a partner or very small group. Example: Walter Brattain and John Bardeen inventing the transistor with Bell Labs. The whiteboard effect: sharing a whiteboard (workspace) with another person. Pushing you, waiting for your next insight, contributing their own, etc. Only works in very small numbers where everyone is committed to depth.
Execute like a business:
Example: Andy Grove (CEO of Intel) sought the advice of Clayton Christensen (Harvard Business) to fight off competition from lower priced companies.
Christensen said they needed a lower priced line (Celeron) to which Grove said duh… I don’t need to know what I need to know how. Idea being that developed a strategy is easy but executing is hard. Similarly, saying deep work is valuable is easy, making it a lifestyle is hard.
This spawned Christensen to make the 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX):
- Focus on the wildly important: “the more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish” focus on specific goals that return tangible, motivating results, rather than lofty ideals
- Act on lead measures (over lag measures): Lag measures is the ultimate goal, i.e. overall customer satisfaction. Lead measures are in your control, i.e. # of customers given a free sample. “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.”
- Keep a compelling scoreboard: Track your lead measures in a public place. You’ll play differently when keeping score
- Create a cadence of accountability: This takes the form of short meetings for a business, but it is just regular reflection on you wildly important goal, the lead measure progress, and then deciding on specific actions to improve that lead measure
Being lazy: In all this talk of Deep work, don’t forget to create time off. This about maximizing focus in 3-4.5 hours a day, not constant hustle.
“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.”
Important: “At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.”
Reasons for rest:
- Downtime aids insight: active deliberation often leads to worse decisions (and anxiety inducing if done excessively). Letting your unconscious mind untangle and going with the “gut” feeling is often better.
- Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply: “attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.”
- The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important: Contends that we have finite stores of concentration, only up to about 4 hours in a day. “Any work you do fit into the night, therefore, won’t be the type of high-value activities that really advance your career; your efforts will instead likely be confined to low-value shallow tasks (executed at a slow, low-energy pace). By deferring evening work, in other words, you’re not missing out on much of importance.”
Practical nugget: “a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you succeed. In more detail, this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that 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 you’re done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion (to end my own ritual, I say, “Shutdown complete”). This final step sounds cheesy, but it provides a simple cue to your mind that it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.”
B. Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
Orthodox Jewish practice of waking early to study the complex writings of Rabbinic Judaism. Adam Marlow’s goal is decipher one Talmud page a day.
Adam is a business owner and hold 3 Ivy League degrees but says this morning practice is the hardest brain strain he does. Since he started this daily practice in his twenties, he ability to has concentrate way more than back in school.
This is because concentration is a mental muscle that must be trained. “In my experience, it’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit like flossing—something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation. This mind-set is appealing because it implies you can transform your working life from distracted to focused overnight if you can simply muster enough motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your “mental muscle.”
Not a one-time decision, must cultivate the skill.
Stanford researcher, Clifford Nass: Chronic multitaskers have lost their ability to filter out irrelevancy and are chronically distracted as a result
With on-demand distraction, your brain gets very uncomfortable with boredom. Always distracting itself with the shiniest object.
Don’t relieve boredom with a your phone. 5 minutes in line. 30 seconds in the elevator. 2 minutes on the toilet. Train your brain to single task.
Important: “Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.”
Don’t live your life in a state of distraction/shallowness and then “sit down and focus” when you need. This doesn’t work because you don’t have the mental capacity. Make focus your default mode for living and take breaks from there to cook, walk, play music, etc.
This is why “one day a week unplugged” rarely works, your brain needs it if that your default.
Practical nugget: Schedule your internet time in advance.
Rather than have the internet on all the time and then turn on airplane mode when you want to focus, have it off and turn it on only at scheduled times when you need to do something on it.
“It’s the constant switching from low-stimuli/ high-value activities to high-stimuli/ low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” This switch is your mental muscles weakening
Honestly the idea of this chapter. The rest is not all stuff I like.
Case study of Teddy Roosevelt’s work routines, massive intensity shorter deadlines.
Meditating productively. (I hate this haha). Walking and only thinking about one professional problem.
Party trick of memorizing a deck of cards in a few minutes.
One idea I liked – Avoid mental looping: “When faced with a hard problem, your mind, as it was evolved to do, will attempt to avoid excess expenditure of energy when possible. One way it might attempt to sidestep this expenditure is by avoiding diving deeper into the problem by instead looping over and over again on what you already know about it.”
C. Rule #3: Quit Social Media
Social media: FB, Twitter, Instagram and Infotainment: Buzzfeed/Reddit
- They increasingly fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate-
Where willpower is limited, the presence of easily accessible, on-demand distraction will always be the easier choice than less gripping, more difficult deep work. In the process, it weakens the the mental muscles for concentration described earlier
- A false binary. You’re either on the internet/social or you’re totally unplugged-
This binary is too crude to be useful for most. Most people can’t unplug completely, practically, so this leads them to just accept that our current state of distraction is inevitable and unavoidable.
- As opposed to #2: “a third option: accepting that these tools are not inherently evil, and that some of them might be quite vital to your success and happiness, but at the same time also accepting that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention (not to mention personal data) should be much more stringent, and that most people should therefore be using many fewer such tools.”
Cal proposes in #3 (above) that you carefully select your tools.
Don’t fall into the any-benefit mindset. This says that value is value, if a tool could improve your life in some way, why not use it?
Of course this ignores any negatives that may not be obvious: addiction, comparison, mental illness, distraction, opportunity cost
Example of the alternative: Forrest Pritchard, organic farmer, discussing why he doesn’t use a Hay Baler.
Why spend money on hay, when you can buy a machine that bundles up your own grass into neat bundles of hay? If you subscribed to any-benefit this would be a no-brainer.
Pritchard said doing this would’ve put him out of business. Negatives that don’t immediately come to mind:
- Actual fuel and repair cost, a shed to keep the machine in, and taxes paid on it
- Opportunity cost: if he’s making hay, he’s not doing something else. He now uses that time to raise chickens. He sell the chickens at a profit so that’s a positive cash flow activity. He uses the manure from the chickens as fertilizer
- Buying in hay is not just buying grass, but also the animal protein/manure that went into to fertilizing that grass and provide it with nutrients. On the other side, making your own hay is taking nutrients away from your soil that could be use to generate cash positive crops.
- Driving heavy machinery over soil, compacts it. Apparently this is bad for it
Since a key aspect for Pritchard’s success as a farm/business, was the long-term health of his soil, he concluded that buying in hay was actually a better option.
This is a complex and nuanced process towards tool selection that we should apply to social media. Calls this:
“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.”
Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, George Packer (and Cal Newport) all best-selling authors who refuse to use twitter
3 steps to adopt the craftsman mindset:
- Identify the main high level goals key to your professional and personal success
Not too specific. Being a present parent, great teacher, effective researcher, etc.
- List 2-3 activities that help satisfy that goal
Good example: Regularly read new research in my field
- Go through each network tool and next to each of the key activities, identify whether each tool has a substantially positive, substantially negative, or little impact on each activity.
Only use the tool if the positives outweighs the negatives
Case study for writer Michael Lewis, where social media pretty much is just a substantially negative drawback on all his most important activities.
But his main activities don’t involve marketing, because he’s already a famous author.
But for less known authors, he argues that one-to-one communication on Twitter is bad way to market. If you generate 25 customers a week for 2 years that still hardly any book sales by book/best seller standards.
I think this is a super weak argument, because Twitter is not one-to-one communication that’s the whole point haha. I’ll just chalk it up to Cal never using it to think this way.
The main point still stands though. In another one of Cal’s books So Good They Can’t Ignore You he makes a much stronger point that the quality and remarkability of your work is of far more importance to its growth/popularity than your social media tactics. Also important is that social media use usually has a very negative impact on your ability to produce work that is of world class quality, so good that it can’t be ignored.
Case study for the value of Facebook in his personal goals. Again, found it substantially negatively impactful.
He also shows some examples where Facebook maybe should be used (students in college, overseas military to keep up with back home)
Law of the Vital Few: I know this as the Pareto’s Law, 80/20 rule. 80% of output comes from 20% of input. I.e. 80% of profit comes top 20% of customers, 80% of stress comes from 20% of people/things in your life, 80% of wealth in the hands of 20% richest people.
In this context, 80% of the positive outcomes in your life, will come from just 20% of the activities. SO if you have a list of 15-20 potentially beneficial activities, like reading, social media marketing, mediation. Like only the first 2-4 most beneficial activities (identified through he process above) should take any of your time at all
Strategy: Ryan Nicodemus (of The Minimalists) fighting back against compulsory consumerism, packed everything in his home into boxes like a moving party. Then when he went about his day, only unpacked what he needed. After a month or so, found ~80% of his stuff still in boxes, 20% he actually needed.
Cal recommends this as another approach to social media. Delete it all for 30 days.
“After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit:
- Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
- Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?”
Note: do not announce to your social that you’re taking a break. Just leave and notice how few people care. Social gives us false importance, feel like people want to hear what we have to say, only true for a very select group…
Side-note: if you want to become one of those people, who produces real-value, that people miss when they go silent… guess what you have to do… (read So good they can’t ignore you)
Pre-social, your work had to be extremely valuable and high quality to spread. Social media took away this connection “with a shallow collectivist alternative: I’ll pay attention to what you say if you pay attention to what I say—regardless of its value.”
Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself:
Important: On the value of time
The “great and profound mistake which my typical man makes in regard to his day,” he elaborates, is that even though he doesn’t particularly enjoy his work (seeing it as something to “get through”), “he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as ‘the day,’ to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.” This is an attitude that Bennett condemns as “utterly illogical and unhealthy.” – Arnold Bennett
Bennett argues that the 16 hours of a 24 hour day when you are not working, occupied by monetary concerns, should be your “day within a day.” He is writing in 1910. This time should be for rigorous self-improvement and enrichment. I.e. read great literature, poetry
No with modern infotainment, these leisure activities we partake in shallow and worthless.
I.e. the most popular articles on Buzzfeed at the time of writing (with millions of reads each):
“17 Words That Mean Something Totally Different When Spelled Backward” and “33 Dogs Winning at Everything.”
Why do we consume such shallow things? Because of the principle of least resistance, we will always default to the easiest, most accessible, most cognitively/physically undemanding thing to occupy ourselves with if we haven’t planned anything else
Important practical nugget: “It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin.”
Quality, enriching, well thought out planning of your leisure 16 hours, will raise the quality and focus for your business 8.
Spending your leisure on meaningful enrichment (reading, music, exercise, meditation, family) leaves you more fulfilled and happier, more capable for your work. Meaningless, shallow, perhaps even anxiety and comparison inducing consumption leaves you less energized, not rested.
D. Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
Example: 37signals (now Basecamp) reduced their work week from 5 days to 4, and saw no decrease in productivity. People thought they were requiring employees squeeze in 40 hours in 4 days but rather the company states that they just keep normal 8 hours days. Here’s why the productivity stayed high:
“Very few people work even 8 hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday. Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek.” – co-founder, Jason Fried
Removing 8 hours out of the work week while keeping deadlines and pace the same, just motivated people to get rid of shallow work and focus more in the remaining hours.
So if removing shallow work had this effect, what would happen if you put policies in place to increase Deep Work?
37signals set aside the entire month of June, calling off all meetings, memos, PowerPoint, etc. Employees were to work on personally directors projects. At the end of the month was a pitch day, so show the company what you did.
Several projects from that month soon went into production and generated tremendous value to the company. Fried states with near certainty that these ideas would’ve never been produced had it no been for this lengthy, set-aside time, to focus on a single, value-generating idea without distraction.
The point of this chapter: “treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.”
Strategies for draining shallow work from your life:
- Schedule every minute of your day – most of spend our day on autopilot, not giving thought to where our time is going. Studies show we vastly underestimate how much time we waste and over estimate how much we work. He then goes on to explain his signature time-blocking technique. I’m not going to say it better than him so here’s a link to his blog where he explains it:
- Quantify the depth of each activity –
To get rid of shallow work and track deep endeavors you need to correctly identify what is shallow vs. deep
Revisit the 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.”
Basically anything you could train an assistant to do in less than a few months
Here’s the litmus test he suggests for quantifying depth:
“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?”
These tasks require you to understand the nuances of your field, work, function. If a recent college grad would take many months or years to do this well, this is probably a task of depth
- Ask your Boss for a Shallow Work budget
This one is pretty hilarious. Track the percentage of your time spent on shallow work (meetings and email). Odds are (if you’ve never thought about depth before) it will be 50-80%+.
Set up a meeting with your boss and explain to him/her depth vs. shallow and show the numbers.
Ask to budget your shallow work time to somewhere around 30%. Since it’s hard to justify paying someone to answer emails and attend meetings, they’ll probably agree. Use this agreement as justification to say answer email once a day, reduce meetings to once a week, etc. If your boss answers something like, “you’ll do as much shallow work as I need you to do” then this tells you that this is a job that doesn’t support Deep Work. A job that doesn’t support Deep Work is not a job that will raise your value in this modern economy and is a not a good place to be.
- Finish your work by 5:30 (and not on weekends)
The message of this is similar to 37signals reduced to a 4 day work week. Reduce your work schedule and figure out how you will get the same work done/meet the same deadlines. You will just naturally cut out less important work and have to be more focused if you set a hard rule of no work past 5:30.
- Hell yes or no. (This phrase I got from Derek Sivers not cal, same idea)
“I, too, am incredibly cautious about my use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.” Cal used to say “talk to me after tenure”… LOL
Again, focus on the wildly important. Everything else is a no.
Adopt a scarcity mindset with your time. Don’t casually hop on a call, grab a coffee. Either say no or make sure there is a clear agenda and predetermined end-time for every meeting.
- Become hard to reach
This is probably more useful for people like Cal who get many requests in day. If I get more than one email a day from a friend/colleague/fan I’m very happy about that and more than happy to respond haha.
The mindset is worth adopting though, and probably the restrictive contact policies in the future.
Strategies for being harder to reach:
A. Make people who send you mail do more work.
i.e. Require a $10+ donation to a charity to email you
i.e. have an intimidating contact message like “If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting [at] blah dot com.”
i.e. detailed FAQ page before your contact page
This is a sender filter, reduce the number of pointless exchange and increase the value of what you get
B. Do more work when you send or reply to email
LOVE this one. Don’t just dash off a quick reply so you can check something off your to-do list, take the time to write your emails in a way that minimizes back and forth and anticipates it.
Rather than “Coffee sounds great! When are you free?”
Try: “I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I listed two days next week when I’m free. For each day, I listed three times. If any of those day and time combinations work for you, let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation for the meeting. If none of those date and time combinations work, give me a call at the number below and we’ll hash out a time that works. Looking forward to it.” (Pg. 249)
You can change the tone to your own of course, the idea stands.
C. Don’t respond
Make your default behavior a no-reply. The mindset “It’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worth their time”
So don’t reply to anything unless you’re thoroughly convinced that it’s worthwhile
Don’t reply if: “
• It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
• It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
• Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.”
“Bill Gates was a serial obsessor” Difference between Gates and Paul Allen was focus.
Deep Work is not a moral code, just a pragmatic way of gettin valuable things done.
“Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.”
Cal discusses his own need for Deep Work. Best-selling author, dad of 3, husband, full time professor, academic researcher, podcaster, blogger… This is how he does it.
Point of the book: Deep Work is way more powerful than most people understand.