My Notes on “Deep Work” by Cal Newport

Newport describes how current economic thinking argues that the unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy – the “Great Restructuring” as per Brynjolfsson & McAfee in their book “Race Against the Machine”, where the gap between machine and human abilities is shrinking. In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage:

  1. those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines (“The High Skilled Workers”)
  2. those who are the best at what they do (‘The Superstars”)
  3. those with access to capital (“The Owners”)

Newport goes onto argue that to enter those top two groups, two core abilities are important:

1. The ability to quickly master hard things.

2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

The key thesis of the whole book is that these two core abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

He touches on the difference between nature and nurture – and that natural “genius” is not as useful as “deliberate practice”: where (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

Chapter two of the book argues that Deep Work is rare. He gives three concrete examples – the rise of open office plans, employees of various companies like NY Times being encouraged to have a presence on social media, and the rise of instant messaging.

A couple of interesting psychological phenomenon are described, including “attention residue” (when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task) and “attention fragmentation” (where an interruption, even if short, delays the total time required to complete a task by a significant fraction).

Newport also describes the idea of busyness as a proxy for productivity – I certainly recognise this trap. We feel that if we are busy, we are being productive, and other people will notice that. The other key point about this, is that metrics for productivity in knowledge work are difficult – how do you measure the value of email sending? Newport calls this the “metric black hole”. Furthermore our culture has developed a belief that if a behaviour relates to “the Internet,” then it’s good—regardless of its impact on our ability to produce valuable things.

Chapter 3 proceeds to argue that Deep work is meaningful.  Newport states that eventually, the goal you pursue needs to resonate at a more human level and that when it comes to the embrace of depth, such resonance is inevitable: “Whether you approach the activity of going deep from the perspective of neuroscience, psychology, or lofty philosophy, these paths all seem to lead back to a connection between depth and meaning. It’s as if our species has evolved into one that flourishes in depth and wallows in shallowness, becoming what we might call Homo sapiens deepensis.”

Part 2 starts the prescription about “The Rules” for Deep Work – a rigorous program for transforming your professional life into one centred on depth.

The four rules are:

Rule #1: Work Deeply

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

In rule #1, Newport discusses the concept that willpower is finite, and becomes depleted as you use it throughout the day – like a muscle that tires. Therefore the key to developing deep work habits is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimise the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration. Newport proceeded to give us a toolbox of six strategies with this concept in mind.

Firstly – Rule 1 – you need to pick your style of Deep Work.

Deep Work lies on a spectrum:

  • the monastic style (complete and utter elimination of shallow work),
  • the bimodal style (divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits in a monastic style and leaving the rest open to everything else)
  • the rhythmic philosophy (example of someone who gets up to do deep work at 0500 to 0730 every morning)
  • the journalistic philosophy

Some of the most striking examples in this section come from “Superstars” in various domains from computer science to authors, and their own word descriptions of why they do not have social media or email addresses. Neal Stephenson, author, writes the following striking statement:

“Persons who wish to interfere with my concentration are politely requested not to do so, and warned that I don’t answer e-mail… All of my time and attention are spoken for—several times over. Please do not ask for them.” Obviously this monastic style won’t work or be practical for everyone.

The next point is about ritualising (or making a habit of) your deep work – eg where you’ll work, for how long, how you’ll work, how you’ll support your work.

Newport then talks about taking “grand gestures” – eg the way that JK Rowling booked into the grand Balmoral hotel to find the peace she needed to finish the final book of Harry Potter.

Newport then proceeds to talk about The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX), originally described in a book by Harvard Business School professor Christensen – which help you move from the “what to do” to the “how to do it”:

1. focus on the wildly important:

“The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.” Christensen elaborates that execution should be aimed at a small number of “wildly important goals.” This simplicity will help focus an organisation’s energy to a sufficient intensity to ignite real results.

2. act on lead measures:

Once you’ve identified a wildly important goal, you need to measure your success. In 4DX, there are two types of metrics for this purpose: lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve. As the 4DX authors explain, the problem with lag measures is that they come too late to change your behaviour: “When you receive them, the performance that drove them is already in the past.”

Lead measures, on the other hand, “measure the new behaviours that will drive success on the lag measures.”

Concretely, Newport used this principle to guide the individual focused on deep work, identifying the relevant lead measure as time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.

Lead measure turn your attention to improving the behaviours you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals.

3. keep a compelling scoreboard:

If you’re acting on a lead measure, you should have a physical artefact in the workspace that display’s your current deep work hour count.

4. keep a cadence of accountability

Put in place “a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns a wildly important goal.”

Newport recommends the habit of a weekly review in which you make a plan for the workweek ahead.

The book then discusses why “downtime” from thinking about work is crucial. Firstly downtime aids insights. Secondly downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply – and Newport discussed the evidence behind attention restoration theory. Thirdly Newport argues that The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important. For this last point, Newport recommends a shut-down ritual where you take incomplete tasks/goals and confirm to yourself that these are on track. Newport has four steps in his own personal ritual:

  1. a final look at the email inbox
  2. transfers new tasks that are on his mind to a task list
  3. skims the task list + calendar for next few days to ensure he is forgetting nothing
  4. makes a rough plan for the day
  5. Then says “Shutdown complete”!

This ritual counters the Zeigarnik effect, which states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.

Rule 2 is about embracing boredom.

Newport starts by positing that the ability to concentrate deeply is a skill that must be trained. And the corollary is true – efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Newport then discusses several strategies to train the brain for these two related goals:

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

How do you actually do deep thought for deep work?

Newport has a couple of suggestions.

1) Be wary of distractions (the “monkey mind” coming up with other tasks) and looping – (going over the preliminary solutions again and again).

2) Structuring your deep thinking – as Newport states, the steps for this can be surprisingly non-obvious. He suggests starting with a careful review of the variables for solving the problem, then defining the specific “next-step question” you need to answer using these variables. Finally, you need to consolidate your gains by clearly reviewing the answer you came to.

Rule 3 is about quiting social media

Rule 3 is about quiting social media, for which Newport puts forward a cogent argument and method for testing how useful social media is for you.

Rule 4 is about “draining the shallows”.

Newport starts with an anecdote from the company “Basecamp” who in 2007 cut the work week to 4 days, throughout May-September – but without increasing the number of hours worked per day. Their founder’s explanation was interesting:

Very few people work even 8 hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, of ice politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday.

Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek. Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that’s a good thing. They don’t waste it on things that just don’t matter. When you have fewer hours you usually spend them more wisely.

This really resonates with me – Only working 10 days per week at the Digital Health and Care Institute has lead me to be very stingy with my time, and to say no to a lot more things that don’t precisely align with the goals I have been set.

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