Business culture · decision making · Learning · Philosophy

Deep Work by Cal Newport

  • The basic idea behind this book is that in an age of increasing distraction, being able to really concentrate and do deep focused work is a super-power. He spends the first half of the book explaining why he believes this is the case and the second half offering some really pragmatic strategies for achieving this.

    Deep work is completely undistracted, focused problem solving, in a state of “flow”, where we do our most meaningful work. We can only really achieve this for between 1 and at most four hours a day. But very few of us achieve even the one hour, true deep work is rare. Mos to the time spent responding to emails, in meetings etc. Is not facilitating deep work. Most of us proxy business for deep work, they are not the same thing.

    His key insight is: developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life design to minimise the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

    He sets out 4 depth philosophy’s

    1. Become a monk. Set your entire life up to minise distraction and do only deep work

    2. Become a monk some of the time: A bimodal philosphy where for parts of the year you are able to become completely isolated and work intensely

    3. Have a rhythmic schedule to doing deep work every week, clear well defined periods where you will be uninterrupted – this is probably the most practical for most of us

    4. Journalistic approach, jumpy into deep work with every spare minute of time, as journalists are trained to do because they often work to tight deadlines. The main challenge here is the context switching which makes getting into a deep work mindset very challenging.

    He then has a series of very practical suggestions to maximise your deep work and its impact.

    Ritualise your deep work

    • Have a specific place to do deep work
    • Decide for how long you will do it, and don’t be over ambitious to begin with
    • Decide how you will work eg. Ban internet and email completely, have a cup of coffee before hand
    • Keep track of how much time you actually do it, in a clear visible place eg. On a calendar, see if you can build up a habit of tracking and expanding the time you do deep work
    • Commit to it with grand gestures eg. Money, time commitment, public commitment, stuff that will make you more psychologically committed to achieving it.

    Interestingly he is not saying it has to be in complete isolation. There are many examples of good collaboration producing meaningful work and often improving the quality of thinking but this probably comes through an approach of coming together meaningfully and then separating out meaningfully again.

    Don’t just know what you need to do, also focus on how you will execute.

    • Focus on the wildly important. Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work don’t try to do too much.
    • Focus on lead measures, not the results. Lead measures are the things that you can control that drive success that create the output eg. The time you spend on deep work.
    • Keep a scoreboard
    • Create a cadence of accountability: confront the scoreboard, with a team eg. A weekly review, identify when it went well and when it went poorly why and what could be done to improve it.

    He also emphasise the need to create mental space around the deep work. When you work, work hard, when you are done be done.

    • Down time aids insights, give you unconscious mind time to untangle more complex problems
    • We suffer from Attention fatigue. Having walks especially in nature very helpful. Exercise probably has a similar effect, Having “inherently fascinating stimuli” that fascinate the mind but do not tax it in terms of directed concentration and decision making is very restorative to the mind
    • Have a shutdown ritual: as you complete your work day, identify incomplete tasks, capture them where you can and let you brain know that you have a plan for how to complete it, and then ritualise leaving your work behind you and switching off to it.
    • Embrace boredom and specifically here, don’t fill it up with constant stimuli, overcome our desire for constant distraction. People who multitask all the time cannot filter out irrelevancy. We are wired for distraction and crave it, more so in the social media age. His specific recommendation here is to “schedule the occasional break from focus to give into distraction” rather than let distraction be the default in our down time. Eg. Schedule when you watch Tv or browse the internet or check the news.

    Other suggestions

    • Work with intensity like Teddy Roosevelt: schedule high intensity work and give yourself a drastically shorter hard deadline than you would ordinarily give yourself to get the task done, though it must still be feasible. Do this only once a week to begin with and then systematically increase it.
    • Productive meditation: take a period when you are occupied physically but not mentally eg. Walking, showering, exercising, and focus your attention singularly on a well defined problem you are working on, and specifically what part of it you need to think through next. When your mind wanders away from it bring your attention back to it.

    He then makes various suggestions to limit the impact and time spent on shallow work or not important goals

    • Select the tools (specifically networking and digital information tools) that you use very carefully to maximise your chances of success at your key goals. Identify your key goals and the factors that will determine success and adopt a tool only if its positive impacts substantially outweigh the negative.
    • 80 % of your productivity comes from 20 % of your activity/tools etc. Cut out the other 80 % ruthlessly to allow more time on the 20 % that makes the biggest difference. Eg. Cut out social media

    Manage your schedule ruthlessly

    • Put more thought and structure into your leisure time evenings and weekends.
    • Schedule every minute of every day. That does not mean you have to stick to the schedule, if something else comes up that is more important, change the schedule but it forces you to be thoughtful about the day and how you are spending your time. Including scheduling time for the admin and the unexpected. This also helps improve your realism about how long different tasks take.
    • Quantify the depth of every task (how long would this task take you to teach someone else to do?)
    • Set your self very strict work time allowances and a fixed time by which you need to have finished your work day eg. 8 hours a day, finished by 5:30, once everyone has less time to get their work done they respect that time even more, people become stingy with their time and don’t waste it doing things that just don’t matter.
    • Decide what percentage of your time should be spent on shallow work vs deep work and get your boss to agree that.
    • This changes perspective:any obligation beyond your deep work objectives is potentially disruptive.

    Manage other people’s demands on your time

    • The most dangerous word in managing your productivity is saying “yes”
    • Become hard to reach
    • Manage your email
    • eg. On email train people not to expect a response and have people filter out what they send you themselves and what sort of response to expect from you.

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