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Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

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In 100 Words or Less: "Deep work" is important, complex work which requires intense, uninterrupted concentration. Multitasking extracts a massive price; there are cognitive "switching costs" whenever we jump from A to B. Many modern workplaces are optimized for "collaboration" at the expense of focus. In order to do important work efficiently, we must ruthlessly eliminate distraction and create helpful structure and routines for ourselves, scheduling breaks as needed for things like social media or email.

This may be one of the most important books I’ve read this year.

The premise is simple. Cal Newport defines deep work as:

“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.”

Conversely, shallow work is:

“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.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but one of these activities dominates every single corporate environment in which I have ever worked.

More than ever before, our attention is fragmented at the office and in our homes. We work in open office floor plans to encourage “collaboration”; we’re expected to attend meetings of dubious value; we make ourselves available throughout the day to respond promptly to dozens of emails or our workplace Slack channels. We habitually check our phones in response to every beep or buzz or owing to a moment of boredom or FOMO (fear of missing out).

Cal argues that the costs of this “always connected” mindset are severe; if we spend enough time in this state of “frenetic shallowness”, then our minds will eventually become incapable of performing deep work at all! We can’t “will” ourselves to intense focus any more than an Olympic sprinter could eat a box of donuts before her 100m final and “will” herself to a gold medal finish; elite accomplishments are possible only when we cultivate habits which support them.

With few exceptions, our world’s most influential thinkers and innovators all share a preference for deep work and are fiercely protective of their time. ____

It’s one thing to recognize that we have allowed our lives to be overrun with shallow work; it’s another to ask, what might we do about it? Here are my key takeaways:

  • In an increasingly global, information-driven economy, winners take all and losers are expendable. Industrial work is increasingly automated; in other words, the demand is shrinking for work in which skills remain static and ability to concentrate and think deeply is irrelevant.

    For “knowledge workers”, we also know that the internet has leveled the playing field; giving your customers access to a vast list of service providers, no longer limited by geography.

    If you’re a mediocre programmer, consultant, writer, photographer, designer, etc., your job is less safe than ever. Conversely, if you excel, you can sell to more people than ever before. The best people command premiums; in markets where it is easy to determine who is the best, winners take all.

  • In an increasingly global, information-driven economy, we must be able to learn new skills quickly. Change is a given; for the most part, we no longer learn a skill and earn a living doing that same thing until we retire.
  • Mastering new skills quickly requires deliberate practice. As we saw in Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, deliberate practice actually strengthens neural pathways in the brain. It is difficult or impossible to achieve these results when we are distracted by multiple stimuli.
  • We all suck at multitasking. Scores of studies emphasize that there is a cognitive “switching” cost whenever we jump from Task A to Task B. We cannot merely “flip a switch” and devote 100% of our brainpower to the new task; your attention will always remain divided, at least for a little while. This is true even if you actually completed Task A and it wasn’t mentally demanding.
  • Many modern workplaces are designed to optimize shallow work. As mentioned in the opening paragraphs above, distractions abound; open floor plans, emails and other forms of “collaboration” are all designed to interrupt you dozens of times each day. The actual benefit of all of this communication is difficult to measure — as are its costs — which is a primary reason why leadership is reluctant to challenge the status quo, if challenging it even occurs to them at all.

    Furthermore, it’s easy for management to observe that someone was present for a meeting or that she responded to an email; it’s less clear what specific contributions she made to a particular project. So it’s easy to use “busyness as a proxy for productivity”; or “doing lots of stuff in a visible manner”.

    Note that it’s possible to work deeply but also to collaborate. One concept that Cal describes is a “hub-and-spoke” model; providing knowledge workers with private office spaces but also shared community spaces. This grants that people are still free to bump into one another or schedule meetings, while still providing the necessary solitude to focus.

  • As much as possible, schedule ____. Throughout the book, Cal offers examples of top performers who voluntarily descend into isolation for days or weeks at a time, but he emphasizes that this isn’t necessary; you can still achieve similar results by scheduling blocks of your day.
  • Schedule social media breaks and turn off all notifications on your phone. As I describe in greater detail in this post, our phones serve an important purpose but at the cost of great distraction; there is, however, a way to use them without becoming enslaved to their addictive qualities. In brief, I turn off all notifications and per Cal’s advice, schedule breaks throughout the day to check in (currently, at 9am, 12pm, 3pm, 6pm and 9pm). This allows me to stay connected but avoid mindless disruptions.
  • There are individuals who thrive without depth; however, chances are, you’re not one of them. Cal offers the example of Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square, and reminds us that distraction is characteristic of elite executives. There are other careers — for example, that of a lobbyist or some salesmen — for which connectedness truly is their most valuable asset.

    It’s important to remember that merely because your current habits make deep work difficult, this does not suggest that lack of depth is a requisite for doing your job well.

  • Our worldview is shaped primarily by what we choose to pay attention to. Once again, look within. We tend to think of our thoughts and feelings as being shaped by external circumstances; the reality is that they are largely determined by what we choose to pay attention to.

    Intuitively, this makes sense, at least to some extent; for example, I stopped watching the nightly news a long time ago because I found that it was primarily negative (“if it bleeds, it leads”) and of course, I discovered that my life was not diminished in some way when I quit.

    It follows that when we spend hours each day scrolling through Facebook or responding to trivial emails, you cannot help but ask; what is the mental world that we are constructing for ourselves? The point is that you can radically change your experience of the world without even having to change anything concrete about it.

  • Becoming really good at something is deeply satisfying, in and of itself. As Cal outlines in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, it [can be] a mistake to pursue work which we are passionate about; ____. Deep work helps us to achieve this mastery.
  • .
  • . I’ve written lots about willpower before, but it’s worth repeating here. Your willpower is like a muscle; it tires with use. Rather than fight temptation, it’s better to structure your environment so as to remove temptation altogether. Building habits into your life — adding routines and structure — helps you maintain extended periods of focus.

    Personally, I can’t shutter myself away in a lakeside cabin for weeks at a time like Carl Jung; my commitments to my family preclude that. I can, however, wake up at 5am each day to write and get to bed at a reasonable time the night before. The point is to develop a habit that works for you.

    The idea of keeping a consistent ritual is really unsexy but the truth is that many, if not most, of our most successful people do it. Once again, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer; the point is to mindfully develop a guideline which specifies (a) where you’ll work and for how long (specific time frames encourage focus), (b) how you’ll work once you start (will you ban internet use? Can you track your progress somehow?) and (c) how you’ll support your work (making sure you get enough to sleep or eat, music, atmosphere, etc.)

  • .

Carl Jung ____. Bill Gates took two weeks each year to read and “think big thoughts”. Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman avoided any administrative duties, recognizing that it cut into his ability to “do real good physics work.”

This is, frankly, a difficult book to summarize. There are too many genuinely useful insights to do the sum of them all justice in this space. I hope that my notes have sparked your curiosity but ultimately, I can only recommend you read it for yourself.

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Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.

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