Deep Work

Posted on | ~9 mins
deep-work cal-newport productivity

As I work in a big company, there is always plenty opportunity to spend one’s life in meetings. While I envy people who like to do that, I usually perceive them as a waste of time and always think I could be using my time better to create actual code and have the feeling of achieving something at the end of the day.

Therefore, I really liked Cal Newport’s new book Deep Work. While he has more freedom as a professor to set his own schedule and not answer emails, there is a lot good advice in the book which I am already applying to my own life and work.

Here are my notes that summarize the book in just a couple pages. If you like that, please go out and get the book.

By the way, in Berlin there is meetup dedicated to the whole topic of deep work and flow, which offers boot camps (or boostcamps as they call them) for a fee. I haven’t tried that yet but am planning to (the concrete dates are at the very bottom of the page). If anyone has done it, I am curious how you liked it.

Deep Work Book Summary

  • Prof. Brynjolffson: Economy is changing, successful people are superstars and highly skilled workers (and of course people who already have tons of capital). Firms are rather hiring superstars for projects and not have teams of mediocre people
  • To be successful you need to a) be able to learn complex things quickly b) deliver constantly on a high level
  • For that to happen one must be in a state of deep concentration – do deep work!
  • For that you however need not have distractions
  • However, the current work environments and technologies are not helping (push notifications of all sorts, slack, open large office spaces).
  • It would actually be better if one had quieter offices and could still meet on the hallway to be creative

Ways to get into deep work state (different depth philosophies)

  • Isolate yourself completely from the world for some long time (e.g. in a hut) like a monk or hermit (very extreme measure, not possible for all)
  • Split your time, take some days with no disturbance (say you are OOO) – bimodal mode. A prof. is for instance teaching only in fall term, doing his best then, and then using the rest for research.
  • Daily rituals (e.g. work every day from 6-8 in deep work and then do the other things such as go to work) – habits are more important than spontaneous ideas (rhythmic mode)
  • Some people can even do deep work for very short periods (e.g. journalists), e.g. 20 minutes, but that’s not for everyone
  • You can be max 4 hours per day in deep work state (similarly to having limited will power), good rhythm would be 90 mins work, 90 mins break
  • Routines and rituals are very important – and one needs to make sure that one removes all that distracts in that time, e.g. prepare so that you don’t get hunger cravings in the deep work
  • Whiteboards are also a good way to avoid shallowness – when you discuss some issue there with someone, you usually end up talking deep

Four Desciples of Execution for Deep Work (4dx)

Rule 1: Focus on the widely important

  • Focus on those goals that are important and generate enthusiasm – e.g. personal growth or job progress (as professor, for him are the number of papers important)
  • The more different goals you have, the less you achieve
  • Act on lead measure * Have something that you can measure right away during the progress, not only with a huge lag afterwards (example: Want to increase happiness in a bakery, don’t make a survey in a month but maybe count how many free trial pieces of cake were taken today – you can influence that directly, but not things that are far away) * E.g. measure every day how much time you spend in the deep flow state * Each hour of deep work is immediately visible in the statistics
  • Keep a Compelling Scorecard
    • Hang a calendar in front of yourself that shows which hours you spent every day in the deep state
    • Somewhere visible
  • Create a Cadence of Accountability
    • Look every week in team or alone how you performed and what the reasons were for good or bad
    • Weekly review
  • Have a shutdown ritual after work
    • Every incomplete task/goal should be reviewed
    • And you should have either a) a plan you trust for its completion b) is capture where it will be revisited when the time is right
    • Then say shutdown complete and don’t think about work anymore till next day
    • Practical:
      • Final look at email inbox that nothing urgent was missed
      • Any tasks get transferred to official task lists (e.g. Google tasks)
      • Then skims all list for the next few days to see that nothing urgent is going on
      • Say shutdown complete
    • Seem annoying at first, but when becomes habit it is really good

Rule 2: Embrace Boredom

  • Idleness is needed to restore our ability to focus again
  • Walk in the woods had a great effect on ability to focus again, walk in city not (because it needed a lot attention due to traffic etc.)
  • One has to train deep work, it is a skill that can be grown when you push yourself mentally
  • And you have to train yourself to not get distracted
  • Ways to train:
  • Plan breaks from deep work ahead
    • Complete sabbaticals are not really doable
    • You plan ahead the times when one allows oneself to do shallow distracting things and in the time between one does not use the Internet
    • If you need a lot Internet, you can keep the offline blocks short e.g. check mail every 20 minutes, outside of this no Internet
    • If you do the same at home, you can improve concentration even more
    • The number of blocks is not the problem, just schedule them ahead
  • Meditate productively
    • When you walk outside, you do some physical stuff and your brain is slightly distracted – think about your research questions
  • Try to learn some mnemonic methods e.g. to remember a stack of cards (mind palace like) – trains very much your concentration

Rule 3: Quit Social Media

  • New media is often assumed to be great, no one looks at the disadvantages e.g. opportunity costs of distractions
  • One has to ask whether tools support those things that are important to oneself:
  • “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.” (Quoted from the book.)
  • In most cases, twitter or Facebook don’t help much professionally or when you want to meet real people (if one of the goals it is to have good friendships)
  • Often 20% of effort are 80% of success – and twitter is usually in the other 80%.
  • Don’t use the Internet to entertain yourself
  • Often people define themselves through their work and everything else is just stuff around it – unhealthy and illogical
  • One should rather see it that way: In those 16 hours that one does not work, one is free, one does not have to take care about earning money, is like a man with free income
  • That is why one should try to use this time as good as possible like an aristocrat to improve oneself and read good literature (the suggestion was already done at 1910)
  • How to do that? Plan your leisure better and ahead
  • When you work in your leisure time even at hard but purposeful problems and tasks, one will still be more relaxed and recharged at work

Rule 4: Drain the Shallows

  • Try to do less shallow work
  • One can for instance work a day less per week without losing performance – one would just intuitively pick more important things than e.g. meetings
  • Most people have so many meetings that they can’t work even for an hour straight
  • When one works fewer hours one has to prioritize more and one wastes less time on things that don’t matter
  • You can sustain deep work maybe 4 hours per day, after that diminishing rewards
  • Try to plan every day
    • Often we waste a lot of time on auto pilot and underestimate how long certain things take e.g. watching TV
    • Proposal: Spit your day in chunks which are scheduled for different tasks, even small ones in the morning
    • When your schedule changes, re-plan as soon as you can
    • If you suspect that some tasks will take longer than planned, have optional boxes after that (overflow blocks)
    • Without structure it is quite easy to waste your time on senseless tasks such as email or social media
  • Quantify the depth of your work
    • 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.”
    • Analyze every task to see how much experience and training someone would need to to do the task and pick the most difficult ones
    • If someone would need to train for it many months, it is an indicator for deep work
    • Ask your boss how much % you can spend per day on deep work
  • Stop working not later than at 5.30pm
    • “The Damoclean cap on the workday enforced by fixed-schedule productivity has a way of keeping my organization efforts sharp. Without this looming cutoff, I’d likely end up more lax in my habits.”
    • Fixed Schedule productivity
    • Many junior professors work 24/7, but only 1.5 hours in deep work of the 12 hours in office
    • One Harvard junior professor has reduced her shallows and focused on the deep tasks (original research) and been able to get a full tenure without ever working past 5.30 (before that she spent much more on work)
  • Decline invitations or things that are not important “Sounds interesting but I can’t make it due to schedule conflicts)” or “.. send me a draft when you are done and I can take a look and give you my comments” instead of going to a meeting
  • Be difficult to reach, write that you will only reply if it is important or interesting for you
  • Add to your email more concrete suggestions and tasks to keep the communication thread as short as possible or end it: “At that point, you should have what you need to polish and submit the final draft, so I’ll leave you to do that—no need to reply to this message or to follow up with me after I return the edits—unless, of course, there’s an issue”
  • Just ignore emails when the outcome won’t be too negative or too positive

If you liked the ideas in the book, please buy it.