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.”

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