Deep Work by Cal Newport

Rating: 8/10

The author is a professor in computer science and has an undergraduate degree in CS from MIT. His career is surrounded by highly intellectual individuals and this book is a reflection of why deep work is crucial from his experience. I think it is true for anyone who wants to stand out in this knowledge economy where automation and outsourcing can replace white-collar workers.

The examples in the book are highly bias toward academic careers. One thing this book does not address is that most jobs in the market do not require a level of deep work. It is very difficult for a person to do deep work when the job does not require deep work at all. And doing personal project or research during work time is discouraged.

The book still deserves your attention if you want to do meaningful work or change to a career that has meaningful work since it's the way for you to stand out.

Deep work is valuable

What group are thriving in our economy

  • The high-skilled worker
  • The Superstars
  • The owners

Two core abilities to thrive in the New Economy

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

The ability to learn hard things quickly isn't necessary for working well with intelligent machines ; it also plays a key role in the attempt to become a superstar in just about any field.

The ability to master hard things and producing at elite level depend on your ability to perform deep work.

The difference between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

Myelination: when you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively.

If you are distracted, you're firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually want to strengthen.

Deep work is rare

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.

Why do we have a culture of checking email & notification? Because it's easier.

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.

Traditional craftsmanship is simple to define but difficult to execute. Modern knowledge work exchanges clarity for execution: easier to do but much more ambiguous.

However, the author argues that deep work can generate as much satisfaction in information economy as it so clearly does in a craft economy: starting with neurological perspective, moving to psychological and ending with philosophical.

A Neurological Argument for Depth

Winifred Gallagher said:

Skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.

Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to. There is gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work. Gallagher's theory. predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.

A Psychological Argument for Depth

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. When measured empirically, people are happier at work and less happy relaxing than they suspected.

A Philosophical Argument for Depth

Craftmanship, Dreyfus and Kelley argue, provides a key to reopening a sense of sacredness in a responsible manner.

The task of a craftman, "is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there."

Deep work, is key to extracting meaning from your profession. It follows to embrace deep work in your own career, and to direct it toward cultivating your skill.

Work Deeply

You have finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Your will is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it's instead like a muscle that tires.

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower.

If you deploy smart routines and rituals - you'd require much less willpower to start and keep going. In the long run, you'd therefore succeed with these deep efforts far more often.

Decide Your Depth Philosophy

You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life. You must be careful to choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances, as a mismatch here can derail your deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify.

The monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling: this philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. Donald Knuth, for example, does not use email address.

The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: you divide your time and dedicate something clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leave the rest open for anything else.

The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work scheduling: if you do something for a day, cross a X on your calendar. After a few days, you have a chain. Keep the chain.

The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: anytime Walter Iasscson finds some free time, he would switch into a deep work mode and hammer away at his book. This approach is not for the novice.

Rituals: to make the most out of your deep work sessions, build rituals of the same level of strictness and idiosyncrasy as the important thinkers mentioned previously.

There are some general questions that any effective ritual must address:

  • Where you will work and for how long
  • How'll you work once you start to work
  • How you'll support your work

Keep in mind that a ritual that sticks might require experimentation, so be willing to work at it. Once you're evolved something that feels right, the impact can be significant.

Change in environment can trigger deep work.

Don't work alone: collaboration can sparkle innovation.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important
  2. Act on the Lead Measure. There are 2 types of metrics: lag measure and lead measure.
    Lag measures describe the thing you're ultimately trying to improve. Lead measures, on the other hand, "measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures".
  3. Keep a compelling Scoreboard. People play differently when they're keeping score. Keep something publicly visual for the lead measure.
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability. Execution is more difficult than strategizing.

Be Lazy

Shutdown can be profitable to your ability to produce valuable output.

  1. Downtime aids Insights.
  2. Downtime helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply

    Attention Restoration Theory: spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. The attention resource is finite. If you exhaust it, you'll struggle to concentrate.

    Working in a busy environment requires you to use directed attention. You must navigate complicated tasks. After a few hours, your directed attention is low.

    When working in nature you are free from using your directed attention and can save it for other tasks.
  3. Evening works are often not important

Embrace Boredom

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. This sounds obvious but it represents a departure from how most people understand such matters.

It is a common mistake that you can transform your working life from distracted to focused overnight if you can simply muster enough motivation. This misunderstanding ignores the challenges of focus and the ability to build "mental muscle".

Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don't simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.

You will struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.

Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it's hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.

If you cannot stand the boredom of waiting 5 minutes in line and quickly glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where it's not ready for deep work.

Deep work requires training.

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

Many assume that they can switch between a state of distraction and concentration as needed. It's not. Once you wired for distraction, you crave it..

Use a notepad to specify which time you can use the internet.

  1. This strategy works even if your job requires lots of Internet use and email

    This is fine. It means your Internet blocks will be more numerous than those of someone whose job requires less connectivity. The total hour of Internet block is not as important as you make sure to maintain the integrity of you offline block.
  2. No matter how you schedule, keep the time outside Internet blocks to be absolutely free from Internet use.
  3. Scheduling your Internet use can further improving your concentration training.

The whole point of this strategy is to minimize the number of switch between focusing and distracting activities.

Case study: Teddy Roosevelt

From Roosevelt's diary and letters, it's estimated that the future president was spending no more than a quarter of typical day studying. He didn't struggle with his class.

The amount of time Roosevelt spent at his desk was comparatively small, but his concentration was so intense.

To practice, try to set a deadline for your task and work on it without any kind of distraction.

Meditate Productively

The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you're occupied physically but not mentally - walking, jogging, driving, showering - and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. You can think about your problem while being in motion.

This is not a productivity hack. Instead, its purpose is to improve your ability to think deeply.

  1. Be wary of Distractions and Looping: when you notice your attention slipping away from the problem at hand, gently remind yourself that you can return to that thought later, then direct your attention back.
  2. Structure Your Deep Thinking. You don't say "I will think deeply" and then do what you say. It will be helpful to have specific things you need to do before you do it.

Memorize a deck of card

We are not wired to quickly internalize abstract information. We are, however, really good at remembering scenes.

Think about a memorable moment in your life. Try to picture the scene as clearly as possible. Most people can conjure a vivid collection of the event even though they make no special effort to remember it. Your mind can quickly retain lots of detailed information.

Ron White's card memorization technique builds on this insight.

You begin by cementing your mind the mental image of walking through 5 rooms in your home. Recall the items you see in the walkthrough. Fix in your mind a collection 10 items in each of these rooms. Combining all of them makes 50, so add 2 more items in the backyard.

The second step in preparing to memorize a deck of cards is to associate a memorable person or thing with each of the fifty-two possible cards. Practice these associations until you can pull a card randomly from the deck and immediately recall the associated image.

Quit Social Media

If using Facebook adds little value to our life, why don't we use it?

The problem with this is that the tool comes with all the negative effects. Actually, everything in your life has 2 side effect.

The Craftman 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.

The Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits

The first step is to identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life. When you are done, you should have a small number of goals for both the personal and professional areas of your life.

List each the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal. These activities should be specific enough to allow you to clearly picture doing them.

Next step is to consider the network tools you are using. For each tool, identify the substantially positive impact and substantially negative impact or little impact. For example, the question is not if Twitter/Facebook has some benefit but instead ask if it has enough benefits to offset its drag on your time and attention.

The Law of the Vital Few: In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes.

Quit Social Media

Try this experiment: Quit social media for a month and evaluate how it affects your life. Why?

Social media companies have successfully convinced our culture that if you don't use their products, you might miss out. This is an imaginary fear that you have in your mind.

By quitting social media for 30 days, you have a chance to see if this fear is real or not.

Drain the Shallows

37signals' work experiment: reduce the working day from 5 days to 4 days.

Second experiment: let employee have full June free of office obligation. The result is newly built tools for the company.

Everyone has deep work limit per day and you will experience drastic diminishing return if you try to cram more than your limit. Shadow work doesn't become dangerous until after you add enough to being to crowd out your bounded deep efforts for the day.

Deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect. Decide in advance what you are going to do with every single minute of your day.

Quantify the depth of each activity

For each activity, ask yourself this question:

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?

Ask your boss for a Shallow Work Budget

Finish your work by 5:30

Become hard to reach

Ask the email sender to do more work.

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