Deep Work – Cal Newport

This a summary of the main sections of Deep Work by Cal Newport. It is a lengthy book summary, but it pulls the main points from each chapter to bring the whole book together. And there are a lot of great points since Cal has really broken down the processes and accounted for ways to improve our work.

In a nutshell, Cal explains to us that we can get into a state of “deep work” up to four hours per day and then shows us our options to do that. Deep work is defined as mind-stretching work that creates value and helps your own personal growth. I don’t need much convincing about the benefits and impact of deep, focused work, but I very much enjoyed learning how to do it better.

Part 1
Deep Work is Valuable
In the growing economy, we are finding more jobs being replaced by computers and machines. The jobs being taken over are the less-skilled positions, but there are three groups of people who will do well in the changing economy:
1. High-Skilled Workers: People who work with and create insights (like data-driven reasoning) from increasingly complex machines.
2. Superstars: The most skilled person in a given field. The best in a field, even if they are just a little bit better, will get the bulk of the offers. The winner-take-all rule applies here. Examples: writing, consulting, design, etc.
3. The Owners: Venture Investors. The people with money are investing in companies that are getting more efficient, thus having less labor costs and returning a better investment.

Crucial abilities to become successful in this changing economy:
1. The ability to quickly master hard things
2. The ability to produce at an elite love, in terms of both quality and speed

Deep work helps you develop both of these abilities. Keep in mind, asking a CEO to spend four hours thinking deeply about a single problem is a waste of what makes him or her valuable. A good CEO is like a hard-to-automate decision engine.

Deep Work Is Rare
Without clear feedback about what actions create an impact on the bottom line, employees will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment. Fortunately, clarity about what matters gives clarity about what doesn’t matter. If workers don’t have clear indicators of what is valuable in their jobs, they will turn towards the old, industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Deep Work Is Meaningful
You create your perception of your life based on what you focus on. (UNC brain studies showed that the elderly had less amygdala brain activity when negative stimuli were around, contrasting the young subjects whose amygdala’s reacted the same to positive and negative stimuli. The elderly were not happier because of their circumstances, they were happier because of what they decided to focus on.) And what you decide to focus on can exert significant leverage on your emotions in a given situation. For example, you and your partner unfairly split household chores. Instead of focusing on the fact that it is unfair, focus on the fact that the problem has been identified and you can move towards a solution. Leveraging the ability to focus on the positive in moments like this actually generates a significantly more positive outcome after negative events.

Therefore, by involving more time in a state of focused, concentrated work, you will understand your world as being rich in meaning and importance. Through focused and deep work, you will be prevented from noticing smaller and less pleasant things that are unavoidable in life.

Through the Experience Sampling Method (ESM), Csikszentmihalyi proved his theory that “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” This mental state is called “flow”. In his measurements, he found that people who had more “flow” experiences (which typically happen at work) in a given week have a higher rate of happiness. This can be attributed to the fact that work has built-in goals, feedback, and challenges unlike unstructured relaxing time. His results confirmed that more flow experiences correspond to a higher life satisfaction.

By losing yourself in your flow you create meaning and improve your work. It is self-perpetuating. Now on to how you can work more deeply…

Part 2
Rule 1: Work Deeply
People underestimate the frequency at which they are distracted as well as the willpower it takes to replace distraction with focus. You have competing desires for your attention, and the distractions often win out. Since you have a limited amount of willpower, it is important to have routines and rituals for deep work to succeed in your efforts more often. First, decide on how deep work will fit into your life:
Monastic: maximize deep efforts by eliminating/radically minimizing shallow obligations. Personal success is from doing one thing extremely well. Sounds like somewhat of a hermit for long stretches.
Bimodal: Divide time dedicated some clearly defined stretches to deep work and have the rest of your time open. You put aside at least a full day at a time. Adam Grant takes 2-4 straight days per month.
Rhythmic: Dedicated time everyday for going deep. This best for normal human cycles and pushes you forward when you have no pressure. Each session should last ~90 min.
Journalistic: Fit deep work in whenever works with your schedule. Very hard to do, must be able to switch on and off your deep work, which depletes your willpower. Walter Isaacson does this.

Keep in mind, you can plan out your week and your day to avoid making decisions during the day. This allows for more willpower towards deep work endeavors. Having “rules” around your life and environment help you make less decisions. Now you have to decide how you will execute your deep work

1a. Make it a Ritual:
I want to be Rhythmic and create a routine, so as to be consistent. But before you start, you should decide the following:
– Define where you’ll work and for how long. Identify a place only for deep work. 90 min is good.
– Know how you will work (like tracking words produced per 20min)
– Decide how you will support your work: pre-work walk, snack food, or cup of coffee (Also, think of this act as priming)

1b.) OR Make a Grand Gesture
Leverage a radical change in your environment (possibly with investment of work or money to get there) to dedicate all your time to your Deep Work. Example: buying plane ticket to China and writing your book on the flights or Bill Gates taking his “Think Weeks”.

2. Don’t Work Alone
Balance deep work and collaboration. It is important to be focus on your work, but not the point where you don’t collaborate with others, preferably from other disciplines to stir creativity. Also, working with someone else at a shared whiteboard can push you deeper than working alone. The other party is waiting on your insight. Best example of this is Building 20 at MIT where physicists and philosophers worked together. DO NOT mix your own deep work with working with others. Keep them separate to get benefits of both, otherwise you’re doing neither.

3. Execute like a Business
a. Focus on the Wildly Important. The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.
b. Act on the Lead Measures: Lead measures are what you can quantify in real-time, before you get to your goal. Your goal is a Lag Measure. For Deep Work, you can say “hours spent in deep work on wildly important goal” is a lead measure.
c. Keep A Scoreboard: While tracking your hours spent working, circle the hour where you finished your task. This helps give you a calibration on how long it will take to accomplish goals and reinforces the idea of deep work helping you accomplish your goal.
d. Create Accountability: Have a weekly review to keep you on track and fine tune your work habits.

4. Be Lazy
Think of Recreation as Re-Creation. Time to re-create yourself in another way.
a. During downtime you draw insights. Also, the Unconscious Thought Theory says that you work through complex, conflicting problems with large amounts of information better through your subconscious. i.e. Sleep on it.
b. Downtime recharges energy. Attention Restoration Theory says time in nature helps ability to concentrate. You don’t want to waste your “directed attention”. Doing fun things like conversation with friends, playing games with the kids, don’t use your directed attention, but instead provide stimuli similar to being in nature while letting your directed attention (similar to willpower) replenish.
c. Your Evening Work that replaces Downtime is Not Important. Deliberate Practice Theory states you can get 1-4 hours of “Deliberate” (read Deep) work done per day. By the evening, your work is not efficient. If you have unfinished business, review each incomplete task and (1) have a plan to complete it, (2) schedule a time to revisit it, the have a shutdown ritual to turn your work mind off. This prevents you thinking about work after-hours and give you more mental capacity.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
Once people are wired for distractions, they will crave it. You need to break this craving, similar to Thoreau, by being a little bit disconnected all the time. This is different than 1-day Digital Detox. To do this, you can plan time for breaks, like when you are allowed to use the internet. You will segregate and limit your internet use. It’s the switching between low-stimuli/high-value activities and high-stimuli/low-value activities that essentially weakens your minds ability to organize high-values vs low-value activities. To execute this idea:
1. If you are on the internet a lot, simply schedule more frequent and longer Internet blocks.
2. Keep the integrity of your blocks, this trains your brain to respect those boundaries. If you MUST get online soon, set your next online time in 5 minutes. That will separate the need to get online with the reward or getting online.
3. Scheduling your internet use at home further ingrains the boundaries.

Teddy Roosevelt scheduled his day from 8:30am – 4:30pm. He would remove time spent in class, athletic training, and lunch. The time left was left exclusively to studying. He would focus only on studying and would do so very intensely. Result: he spent less time on school than classmates and was extremely effective with his grades:study time ratio. You can start this once a week, and the key is to have a self-imposed deadline, at the edge of feasibility, that can only be accomplished with intense focus.

Meditate Productively: Physically doing something with intense focus and allowing your mind to focus on one single professional problem. This is a way to strengthen your ability to avoid distraction and to build your concentration. It takes about 12 sessions (start w/ 3-4/week) to start noticing benefits.
1. Avoid distractions or “looping”, which is your brain running over facts you already know to avoid deep thinking.
2. Structure your thinking time into: Review relevant variables (i.e. the main points of a book chapter), Define your Next Step question (i.e. how am I going to open the next chapter?), then finally consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer. Then start the process over. This is like a workout routine for your concentration.

Memorize a Deck of Cards
Daniel Kilov had ADD in high school and was a struggling student. He started doing memory training and turned into a graduate from a demanding Australian university with first-class honors and was accepted into the PhD program. A side effect of memory training is the ability to concentrate. To increase your memory (and incidentally your concentration) learn to memorize a deck of cards. You do can do this:

Rule #3: Quit Social Media
When using social media tools, be sure to use them as tools, not addictions. Once you are finished using them, put them away. Many people use the Any-Benefit Approach, where any benefits you get from a tool justify the use of it. This doesn’t take into account opportunity cost. Take for example, the farmer’s Hay Baler.

So this Farmer took over the farm and made its own hay to use as animal feed during the winter months when grazing is impossible. Why spend money to buy hay when you have perfectly good grass growing for free right in your own yard? The farmer looks at direct, measurable costs like fuel, repairs, cost of shed, and taxes. He then looked further, into opportunity cost. If he makes hay all summer, he can’t use that time to raise chickens (which generate positive cash flow and manure for soil). Then there is the issue of the secondary value of a purchased hay bale. When he buys hay, he is trading cash for animal protein AND for manure (once it goes through the animal), which means he is getting more nutrients for his land in exchange for money. He is also avoiding driving machinery over the soil all summer. Buying hay results in healthier fields, and soil fertility is his baseline.

Next, you need to evaluate and decide on what tools are beneficial to you. Social media has made people more available. Michael Lewis says, “It’s amazing how overly accessible people are. There’s a lot of communication in my life that’s not enriching, it’s impoverishing.” To decide what tools matter to you, run down this process:
1) Identify main high-level goals in both professional and personal life
2) Keep the list to what’s most important and keep it high-level
3) List top 2-3 most important activities that help you satisfy each goal.
4) Consider the network tools you use and list if it is “Substantially Positive, Substantially Negative, or Little Impact”

While doing this, be careful of “supporting activities” that aren’t in the top 2-3 activities. Remember the Pareto Principle of work: you get 80% of results from 20% of your work. This will help you stay leveraged with your time.

When reviewing your social media tools, ask these questions as well: 1) Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service and 2) Did people care that I wasn’t using this service? In Cal’s eyes, “part of what fueled social media’s rapid ascent… is the ability to short-circuit this connection between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you.”

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
This last rule involves cutting out the shallow work that is not value producing and won’t get you towards your goals. Cal defines Shallow work as: “non-cognitively demanding work that does not create much value in the world and are easy to replicate.” When you look into how much deep, focused, and mind-pushing work you can do in a day, it ranges from an hour for beginners and up to four hours for experienced workers.

Many people overestimate how much time they spend at work and underestimate how much sleep they are getting, so we are bad at being objective about ourselves. Tracking your time helps you be objective and prevents you from falling into shallow work. You can prevent shallow or trivial work by asking the question “What makes the most sense right now” and “How long (in months) would it take a college graduate to do the work I am doing now?”.

Start by scheduling every minute of your day and batching your similar work together. Batching similar work will prevent you from losing time while switching tasks. Now, understand that your schedule will be screwed up. That’s okay and it happens and just keep in mind that your goal is NOT to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain at all time, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward. Just reorganize your schedule for the rest of the day. To prevent issues with your schedule in the future: 1) Recognize that you underestimate the time you require for things and 2) use overflow blocks for tasks that take longer than expected (but assign it a secondary task, since you want to finish on time). This second step will give you an option, but still psychologically pushes you to finish on time (how Roosevelt used that psychological trick). You can use lots of overflow blocks, especially at first.

Tasks that leverage your expertise tend to be Deep Work with two benefits: 1) They return more value per time spent, and 2) they stretch your abilities, leading to improvement. So then, what what percentage of your time should be Shallow? Keep it between 30-50%. 50% is the upper limit because you will start to dislike your work at that range and 30% is the lower limit because you will “be a knowledge work hermit who doesn’t respond to emails.” If you work for yourself, it is even more important that you use this practice to stay leveraged. It is easy to become “busy” but you need to focus on what creates the most value.

Another way to keep shallow work from coming in, is to use Fixed Schedule Productivity. For example, Cal sets the end of his work day at 5:30pm and works backwards. He will set a specific goal and then work backwards with productivity strategies to make sure he hits his goal by the end of his productivity time. This shifts his thinking into a scarcity mindset.

A few other strategies Cal includes in keeping the shallow items out is: when telling someone “no” be clear in your answer and ambiguous in your reason, use an email filter to set expectations and lay out conditions for a response email, and develop the habit of letting bad things happen. If you don’t develop this last habit, you won’t have the time to experience the life-changing big things.

By using these strategies to consistently get into a state of deep work, get rid of your distractions, embrace your renewal (or recreational) time and prevent the small things from crowding your life, you will be able to develop your own skill set and create more value in the world. As Charlie Munger says, “The best way to get what you want, is to deserve what you want.”


Books referenced:
The Intellectual Life
The Talent Code
Give and Take
The Unwinding
Getting Things Done
Google Scholar
Shop Class as Soulcraft
To Save Everything, Click Here
All Things Shining
The Pragmatic Programmer
The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made
The 4 Disciplines of Execution
Moonwalking with Einstein
Study Hacks
How to Life on 24 Hours a Day
The Tyranny of E-mail


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