Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep work is Valuable, Rare, & Meaningful. This is the premise of the first section of Deep Work by Cal Newport. The second section of the book is devoted to strategies to improving your abilities to perform deep work more frequently and for longer durations.

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.

I subscribe to the belief that deep work is valuable, rare, & meaningful. I did not need much convincing of this, as I have spent a considerable amount of effort in my life optimizing my ability to perform deep work (although, I did not know it by that name). If you do not agree with the premise of the book, I suggest that you still give the first part of a read as Newport does a much better of explaining it than I can in these notes.

The counterpart to deep work is shallow work. Shallow work is not presented in a good light because it is a source of distraction, which pulls away from deeper work. An often-cited strategy to efficiently completing shallow work is to batch it into chunks, so it does not permeate through your schedule.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Going Deeper

The second section of the book provides rules aimed to improve our deep work frequency and duration. While I do not find the names of the rules particularly helpful, I hope to summarize a few ideas that I took from the second section of the book.

Strategies to Improving Depth

1 - Decide on your Depth Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

The Monastic approach to deep work scheduling is the most aggressive and unapproachable. It is strict adherence to a schedule that makes you unreachable from the day-to-day of people outside your circles. To get a better sense of the approach let’s first look at the next philosophy and an example given by Newport.

The Bimodal approach to deep work scheduling has the individual work in 2 modes of operation: monastic and open. The example given by Newport is a professor who loads all their teaching responsibilities into the fall semester then devotes the rest of the academic year to a monastic-style research schedule with few other responsibilities.

The rhythmic approach to deep work scheduling is the most appealing to me as it involves scheduling daily stretches of deep work while allowing the flexibility of life to intermingle. The rhythmic approach assumes that during the deep work hours of your day you are in strict adherence to a deep work ritual.

The journalistic approach to deep work scheduling is an ad hoc approach that involves taking advantage of sporadic breaks to make progress on deep work. It is advertised as an approach only for veterans of deep work.

2 - Ritualize

Managing distractions through habits, rituals, and your environment is key to with-standing the daily erosion of your finite willpower.

Schedule every minute of your day. Schedule what you will do and when. Do not mistake this as making your days rigid; flexibility and adaptation are encouraged and expected! The point is to structure your time so that distractions cannot easily take hold of your attention. It is just as important to structure your environment. I began an experiment to limit the effect that my phone plays in distracting me. My colleague Maxime Vaillancourt wrote an excellent post on how to turn your phone into a tool titled Turning my smartphone into a boring tool. I want to take it further by experimenting with leaving it at my door and only carry it when I am leaving the house.

3 - The Grand Gesture

Spending a lot of money on something will trick your brain into believing it is important. Newport gives the extreme example of an author who buys a round-trip flight to Japan from the USA. The author did this to help focus on coming up with an outline for their upcoming book.

This is helpful to provide you with a new way of prioritizing deep work.

4 - Don’t Work Alone

Deep work does not have to be done alone. Working with colleagues is still a form of deep work. From my experience Pair Programming is an excellent example.

5 - Execute Like a Business

Do not prioritize things of low value. Measure the value of a task.

A lead measure is a metric you can measure ahead of time, e.g. the number of deep hours worked. A lag measure is a metric that cannot be measured until after a goal is met, e.g. number of blog posts written.

In the case of deep work, keep a visible scoreboard of the number of deep hours worked per week.

Review your scoreboard regularly. Ideally, involve a third party to help keep you accountable.

6 - Be Lazy

In line with ritualizing your day, ritualize the end of your workday by logging unfinished tasks so your mind does not hold onto them. Then end with an audible phrase such as Newport’s own: “Shutdown Complete.” He characterizes this as a shutdown ritual.

Reducing Distractions

Boredom must not be fought with distraction.

The idea of boredom is often thought of as something to be avoided, but Newport encourages the reader to embrace boredom. In an age of connectedness, our attention is at a premium. Our Brains, a product of human biology, are losing the competition against technology. Technology evolves at an incredible pace that human evolution cannot fight against. At the peak of technological tools is social media. Social media monetizes our attention and sells it. Its goal is to increase the attention we give it.

By contrast, depth requires concentration free from distraction, which positions social media as the natural antagonist.

Newport suggests we adopt the Craftsmen approach to tool selection: weighing the benefits of social media outlets against the consequences. This is opposed to the Any-benefit approach which states that if the media outlet has any value, then we should consider using it.

To help with the application of the craftsmen approach to tool selection, Newport gives us 3 processes for evaluating the benefits of social media.

1 - Law of the Vital few.

Often known as the 80/20 rule. To estimate value, come up with a few specific goals and see if social media helps you reach them.

2 - Quit Social Media.

Quit social media for 30 days without telling anyone unless asked. If at the end of those 30 days, your lack of presence made a negative effect on your goals, then return.

3 - Do not use the internet to entertain yourself.

Social media is too dangerous to use as entertainment, other alternatives are better. Use it as a tool, not an outlet for solving boredom.

Final Thoughts

I intend to put into practice many of these suggestions to help hone my deep work skills. I hope to improve.