Deep Work by Cal Newport

Big Idea: 

Deep Work – activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit – is economically valuable, rare in today’s knowledge economy and leads to a meaningful life.

Context:

Cal Newport is a young computer science professor at Georgetown University who has published more than 60 peer reviewed papers and 5 best selling books, all while raising a family and not working past 5:30pm and weekends. He doesn’t use social media.

My Personal Story:

Last year my MacBook was stolen so I had to work at a nearby internet cafe. I hated going there because it was full of obnoxious teens playing video games. So I would do all my thinking on pen and paper and only go there if I had to. I discovered that I only needed 1 hour online/day to complete my job. Without a computer I was more productive.

When feeling overwhelmed with distraction I usually ditch my phone and work at a riverside cafe. This matches a study Cal cites about attention restoration theory – that sending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.

Deep Work gives me a persuasive argument (backed by academic studies) to disconnect from the internet and routinize deep work.

Exercise 1:

Feel the power of deep work. 

Schedule two 60 minute sessions to complete an activity that supports your most important professional goal. This activity should be challenging but achievable so you lose track of time. No internet or phones allowed! A countdown timer helps, whether its a stop watch or Focus Timer app. How much progress did you make? How do you feel once you’re done?

Exercise 2

Integrate deep work into your schedule and support it with routines and rituals. 

Cal writes: “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 necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

The most useful tactic I took from this book was the idea of fixed schedule productivity: fixing a firm goal of not working past a certain time OR certain number of hours, and then working backwards to schedule deep work.

Employ fixed schedule productivity to your working week. Pick a daily shutdown time and stick to it. For Cal, that’s 5:30pm on weekdays, and no work on weekends. Then schedule your deep work within your time constraints. This habit also gives your conscious brain time to rest and your unconscious mind time to sort through your most professional challenges. Most athletes, authors and scientists cannot do more than 4 hours of deep work/day. As Nietzsche said: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”

Exercise 3

Now further train your attention muscle by working out 1) your ability to concentrate and 2) your desire for distraction. 

Cal suggests a 1-month social media fast and scheduling every minute of your day but this is probably too much for most people. 

Instead I recommend scheduling your daily “connected time” for one week. This connected time includes texting apps, social media and internet. I went with 11:30am-12pm so I could respond to text messages and 5-7pm so I could respond to work emails. I also allowed myself 8pm+ to be connected online. 

Online research related to your deep work is allowable – but you should open and close your browser after finishing the task.

This is more about adhering to your connected times rather than the amount of time itself. So if your work requires you to be online every few hours than schedule those blocks in but stick to them.

Cal also recommends committing to a shallow work budget of 25% or less of total work time.

Shallow work is “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted, that tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” 

To identify shallow work ask “how long would it take (in months) to train a part recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”  You should focus on the tasks that would take longer.

For 5 working days schedule your daily connected time. Take note of how much time you’re spending doing deep work vs. shallow work. What routines would help you tilt the balance more towards deep work?

Quote:

“To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience. The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.

For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.

But if you’re willing to sidestep these comforts and fears, and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.”

Howard, Restaurateur

Howard

“A day where I can go to sleep without feeling incredible pressure from business and family matters would be really quite wonderful… Something as simple as that – where you’re not always worried about the future – would be perfect enough.” (Howard, 42, USA)

Howard’s Perfect Day:

  • Feel well-rested when waking up
  • “Me time” do something non-productive for first hour before family awakes
  • Do fulfilling business tasks for 5-6 hours that moves the business forward (not day-to-day tasks) 
  • End of the day beer with friends
  • Go home, spend 1-1 time with kids – “I used to dread it, but these days I find great comfort in building a stronger bond with him, it makes me feel good.”
  • “Me time” before going to bed, like video games – “I’ve loved them ever since I was a 4-5 year old. It’s rare to turn 42 and have a hobby I’ve done since little.”

Recs

  • The Gum Thief by Douglas Copeland – “your time here is short and it’s easy to fall into a mundane life.”

Shan, Radio DJ and Shane, Actor

Shan

Shan

“I find it relaxing to chill on sofa and do a crossword or play candy crush.” (Shan, 36, Ireland)

Shan’s Perfect Day

  • His 4 and 6 year old boys wake up in their own room
  • Breakfast
  • Play at pool with kids
  • Pizza for lunch
  • Squash, or some sort of sport
  • Afternoon “me time” – read a book, do sudoku or a crossword
  • Sundown time, kick soccer ball with boys
  • After dinner “me time” – play guitar and drink cider
  • Finish day by playing candy crush

Shane

Shane

“When I forget that I exist I feel like I’m my best self.” (Shane, 39, Singapore)

Shane’s Perfect Day: 

  • Kid time -“I want to wake up cuddling my kids”
  • Physical activity time – jiujitsu, boxing, gymnastics
  • Work time – 3-4 hours of work (acting)

Recs

  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Bar Girl

“Sleep” (female, early 20s, Vietnam)

Three friends from Singapore came to visit me in Saigon. I took them to a bar in Japan town, and asked the bartender about her perfect day.

“Sleep.”

“On your perfect day you’d just sleep?”

“Yes.”

Cô Phúc, Vietnamese Language Teacher

“In my 20s it was love, 30s money, 40s family and 50s and 60s my health.” (Cô Phúc, late 60s, Vietnam)

I take private Vietnamese  lessons every Thursday afternoon. I was surprised to see Cô Phúc in the classroom. Cô Phúc is the oldest teacher at VLS. She’s lived in Saigon since 1957, and witnessed the city’s dramatic change during war and peacetime. During the war, her family had to share one toothbrush. Even as a government worker, she was only allowed 500 grams of pork/month for her entire family.

I was supposed to spend this day with my regular teacher learning curses and insults. Feeling rebellious, I broached the topic with Cô Phúc and she said, “language should be fun to learn, so ask me your questions. But never use any of this language again.”

Gulp. Cussing someone out was not something to be discussed with elders. 

So I chose to use our hour to discuss my new side project instead, a podcast asking people about their perfect day.

Of course I asked her how to ask such a question in Vietnamese.

Theo bạn, thế nào là một ngày hoàn hảo?

And covered likely answers in Vietnamese:

  • Health – sức khoẻ 
  • Money – tiền bạc 
  • Relationships – quan hệ
  • Family – Gia đình 
  • Career – sự nghiêp
  • Love – tình yêu 
  • Friendship – tình bạn

What’s most important to you? Điều gì quan trọng nhất?

According to Cô Phúc, the priorities of her perfect day changed over time. In her 20s it was love, 30s money, 40s family and 50s+ her health. 

Today, in her 60s, her perfect day priorities would be: 1) health 2) family 3) friendships and 4) money. She could care less about her profession.

Health to her means: 1) having a balanced, peaceful mind 2) eating healthy 3) exercising and 4) a day full of social activities. To her, health means balance. “A healthy person with no friends is not balanced.”

Convenient Store Clerk

“Every day is perfect because I am alive.” (female, early 20s, Vietnam)

At 2am after a night out we stopped by a 7-11. I asked the cashier about her perfect day.

“Every day is perfect.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m alive.”

Matt, F&B Chain Franchisor

“Jiujitsu is a spiritual activity that keeps me in line physically and mentally. Jiujitsu is therapy and healing… You need a feeling of daily improvement, validation that you’ve achieved something.” (Matt, 37, USA)

Over bún đậu mắm tôm and Bia Hà Nội Matt and I discussed the perfect day.

Matt is a Hawaiian-American who has lived in Saigon for 10 years. He owns a food franchise in Vietnam and runs Saigon jiujitsu.

His perfect day: 

  • Jiujitsu
  • Gym
  • 5 healthy, clean meals
  • Beautiful nature
  • Shared, elevated experiences with loved ones
  • Single-malt whiskey

“The most important things to me in life are family, friends, jiujitsu and business. Everything I do for work and business is for friends and family.”

Dwight, Retired Accountant

“I can’t waste time, I can’t waste my life. Most people are like this as they evolve over time: they have lots of time cause they have their entire life in front of them and don’t have any money so they spend their entire time making money. And that’s what I did certainly throughout my career. What I am in short supply of is time, I can’t buy more time. If I was to earn no additional revenues I could live 180 years at my current lifestyle.” (Dwight, 68, USA)

Dwight is 30 years older than anyone else in our basketball group. I remember him for his sharp elbows and tenacity. Over time we became friends, sharing book recommendations.

Dwight’s perfect day:

  1. Maintain his health
  2. Learn Vietnamese
  3. Take care of his portfolio
  4. Relearn high school math
  5. Reading

Part of Dwight’s perfect day has to be dedicated towards living a perfect life. For Dwight that’s “maintenance tasks,” the most important of which is daily exercise. Whether that’s walking to Vietnamese class or bicycling 30 minutes to basketball, that physical maintenance allows him to pursue his 3-4 most important daily tasks.

Part of Dwight’s perfect day is the absence of sexual frustration and minimization of his biggest time-wasting activities: online solitaire and porn. 

When I asked Dwight whether he was okay with me recording our interview, he exclaimed “As you get older you become less embarrassed.”

Sadly I accidentally deleted our 13 minute conversation and couldn’t recover it

I asked Dwight to summarize the feeling of a perfect day. His answer: “progress”

What Dwight is reading at the moment:

  • One Thousand and One Arabian Nights
  • On Liberty by John Stuart Mill 

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Big Idea: 

In order to be creative you need habits that prepare you to be creative.

Context:

Twyla Tharp is one of America’s greatest choreographers who since 1965 has created more than 130 dances for her company, the New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.  She has created pieces to the music of everyone from Mozart, Bach and Beethoven to Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.

Exercise 1

Every artist has a ritual that impels them to get started on their creative task.  This automatic sequence replaces doubt and fear with comfort and routine. For Tharp, it’s getting into a cab each morning for stretching and weight training.  For a chef, it could be tending his garden. For a composer, it might be playing a Bach fugue. For a basketball player, it’s bouncing the ball 3 times before a free throw.

Identify one trigger – whether an action, surrounding, or feeling – that warms you up for your best creative work, and stick with it for one week.  Create your own mini-routine of self-reliance, and Pavlovian dog response to start creating.

Exercise 2

Tharp also believes that distractions are just as much an obstacle to creativity as fear.  She suggests subtracting dependence on creative crutches to increase creative independence, creating a protective bubble that forces you to rely on your own ability.

Take one week off distractions such as mirrors, clocks, newspapers, speaking, the internet.  That’s right. Don’t look at a mirror, a watch, a newspaper, for one week.  Subtract this clutter for one week to add more creative room.

Exercise 3

To find an idea, scratch. Dig through everything to find something.  Tharp advocates scratching for ideas through: one’s memory, environment, reading, conversation, nature, culture, mentors and heroes.  Ideas are everywhere; we just need to find them. Remember the unshakeable rule that you don’t have a really good idea until you combine two little ideas.

To get started, find the tiniest microcell of an idea that gets you going.   Scratch smaller when stuck; don’t write about the town, but rather the upper left-hand brick on the Opera house.

All good ideas open up possibilities, turn you on and keep you moving forward. A bad idea closes doors and confines.

Remember Freud’s quote: “when inspiration does not come to me, I go halfway to meet it.”

If you run out of ideas, break routine.  Travel to a different city. Read a magazine you never looked at before. Scratch in a different place. Look for new combination of ideas: metaphors.  

When presenting an idea to others, ask yourself if your idea generates forward or backward momentum.  Does the idea move people to action and create more possibilities?  Or the opposite?  Present your idea in its most generative form.

Exercise 4:

Creativity is an at of defiance.  You’re challenging the status quo and questioning accepted truths and principles.  You’re asking 3 universal questions that mock conventional wisdom: 1) why do I have to obey the rules? 2) why can’t I be different? 3) why can’t I do it my way?

Pick a fight with the 1 routine or ritual of the world.  

Quote:

“The one thing that creative souls around the world have in common is that they all have to practice to maintain their skills. Art is a vast democracy of habit.”

Vera, English Language Teacher

“Every day you can find something perfect” (Vera, 28, Russia)

Vera

Across from my apartment there’s a small Japanese-owned burger joint. A Volkswagon bus sketch adorns the wall, with the motto Keep it Simple, Surf More. Ume, the owner, makes delicious burgers, but his favorite thing to do is to DJ street parties. Returning from a late night walk I saw a small crowd bopping to Ume’s beats. I decided to start this project, grabbed a microphone and approached Ume’s girlfriend, Vera. 

Vera teaches English in District 1, the center of Saigon.

I tell her about The Perfect Day and she’s uncomfortable being recorded. But she loves the idea and she’s happy to talk.

Her perfect day is to meet people from all walks of life and to hear their stories. Just the other day, in the Japanese part of Saigon, a foreigner told her and Ume stories about his 5 wives, which she found fascinating. 

She notes some days are better than others but that “every day you can find something perfect.”

We bobbed in silence, looking up at the stars, feeling Ume’s last song, Call Me by Aretha Franklin.