To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
In Deep Work, Cal Newport shows you how to win in this changing technological world, despite being so connected and distracted.
What is Deep Work?
He defines his concept of Deep Work as follows:
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.”
This skill is valuable for two main reasons:
- Deep Work is becoming increasingly scarce: You must master the ability to learn quickly due to the changing nature of the economy and the onset of new technology.
- Deep Work is becoming increasingly valuable: You must produce amazing results in less time as mediocrity will result in your audience looking elsewhere.
What is Shallow Work?
However, many people have forgotten the importance of going deep. Their personal resource of attention is held hostage by their network tools like email, texting, and social media. As the opposite of deep work, these low-value activities are also known as Shallow Work:
Shallow Work – “Non-cognitively 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.”
Deep Work Hypothesis
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Cal Newport argues that this superpower will help you stand out and succeed in this competitive world, which follows with the hypothesis of his book:
Deep Work Hypothesis – “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
After embracing this idea, you will push your intellectual abilities to the limit and feel more fulfilled by your profession.
The Idea of Deep Work
The first part of the book helps you understand the concept and convince you that the Deep Work Hypothesis is true.
Deep Work is Valuable
Current economic thinking argues that the growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of the economy. In this economy, three groups will have a particular advantage:
- High-Skilled Workers – those who can produce valuable results from complex machines
- Superstars – those who are the best at a given skill that is demanded by the market
- Owners – those who have access to capital to reinvest in the new technology
Since it is hard to start with lots of capital, Newport focuses on becoming high-skilled workers or superstars. There are Two Core Abilities for succeeding in the new economy:
- Mastering challenging and complicated things quickly
- Producing at an elite level with both quality and speed
Learning Hard Things Quickly
Learning difficult things quickly requires deliberate practice, which has Two Core Components:
- You focus your attention on improving a specific skill or mastering a complex idea.
- You receive feedback to better focus your approach to be more productive.
Newport focuses on the first component. Biologically, repetitive action over a sustained period causes the brain to activate the same neural pathways continuously. Over time, myelin builds around the neurons to improve your cognitive ability to execute that action. Thus, you can learn complicated things quickly by focusing intensely without distraction.
Produce Amazing Results
When working at a deep level, you will be able to produce results with both speed and quality. Depth follows this Law of Productivity:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
You can maximize the results produced per the unit time spent working by working intensely on one task. When you switch tasks, you will perform poorly as you experience Attention Residue:
Attention Residue – the remainder of your attention stuck thinking about the original task when switching to a new task
Thus, you need to perform Deep Work to optimize your performance and produce at peak levels.
Deep Work is Rare
In the corporate world, Cal Newport has observed that Deep Work is becoming deprioritized for three current business trends:
- Open office environments for spontaneous collaboration
- Internal instant messaging for rapid communication
- Encouraging employees to have active social media presences
However, these trends are distracting and prevent employees from producing meaningful value for their companies. Newport provides three major explanations for why deep work has become rare.
Shallow Work is Easier
Employees prefer Shallow Work in the short-term due to the following principle:
Principle of Least Resistance – “In a business setting, without feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.”
This principle promotes a “Culture of Connectivity,” which exists for two reasons:
- It is responsive to your needs. If your job did not require quick response times, you would do more advanced planning for your work items.
- It makes your life easier to create a work environment run out of your inbox. If checking your email inbox was not a priority, you would put more effort into what to work on and how long to work on each item.
Thus, Shallow Work relieves individuals from concentrating and planning for valuable contributions in the long-run.
Tendency to Be Busy Instead of Productive
Additionally, as companies cannot set clear goals for their employees, they get trapped into the Metric Black Hole:
Metric Black Hole – the idea of not knowing how to measure individual value to the organization
Without proper metrics of showing value to their company, employees will tend toward the self-preserving behaviors of busyness in instead of being productive:
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity – “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and value in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
Cultural Obsession with Technology
Lastly, we have surrendered our culture and behaviors to technologies, like the internet, captured by the following term:
Technopoly – a society that no longer merely uses technology as a support system but instead is shaped by it
“Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and non-technological.”
Deep Work is Meaningful
Contrasting from the practical discussions of the value and rarity of Deep Work, Newport discusses why Deep Work is meaningful from three different perspectives:
- Neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system and brain
- Psychology – the scientific study of the human mind and its functions
- Philosophy – the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence
The Neurological Argument
In Rapt, Winifred Gallagher found a relationship between what we pay attention to and our experiences in life. She discussed her concept of the “grand unified theory” of the mind: “Skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” Thus, your world perspective is the outcome of the content that you pay attention to. When you spend more time engaging in Deep Work, you will push your cognitive abilities to the limit. In turn, this attention will result in more interest and positivity in your professional life.
The Psychological Argument
In the 1980s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi invented for understanding the psychological impact of everyday behaviors. His work found 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, also known as flow, causes people to perform at their best when engaged in a challenging task. When we engage in Deep Work regardless of the subject, it generates a flow state. In turn, the experience of flow will result in greater happiness and satisfaction.
The Philosophical Argument
In All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly explore how sacredness and meaning have developed throughout the history of Western culture. They argue that the key to meaning is within craftsmanship or the action of creating something from nothing. The task of a craftsman “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.” In any profession, one derives meaning from their craftsmanship, not the outcome of the work. Also, improving craftsmanship requires Deep Work. So if you embrace depth in cultivating your skills, you will develop a strong appreciation for your work.
The Rules of Deep Work
There are only three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and concentration time to produce valuable output. The second part of the book helps you take advantage of Deep Work by providing four rules to place these habits at the core of your professional life.
Rule #1: Work Deeply
This rule helps you incorporate Deep Work to become a regular and vital part of your professional schedule. In a world full of distractions, we start with an established certainty about willpower: “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.” Thus, you need to incorporate smart routines and rituals to best use your limited willpower to maximize the Deep Work using these six strategies.
Decide on Your Depth Philosophy
As there are different ways to integrate Deep Work into your working life, you need to decide on a Deep Work Scheduling philosophy that fits your specific circumstances:
- Monastic Philosophy: This philosophy maximizes depth by eliminating or highly minimizing shallow work. These individuals are pursuing a clear vision with their success tied to doing their one thing well.
- Bimodal Philosophy: This philosophy divides your time between clearly defined Deep Work time with the rest open to other pursuits. In their Deep Work time, individuals act monastically, while in the other times, focusing is not a priority.
- Rhythmic Philosophy: This philosophy creates a consistent habit of conducting Deep Work sessions. These individuals generate a rhythm for doing Deep Work during regular days and times in their schedule.
- Journalistic Philosophy: This philosophy incorporates depth whenever the time appears in one’s day. For example, journalists learn to shift into writing mode on a moment’s notice due to the deadlines required by their work.
Ritualize Your Deep Work
To get the most from your Deep Work periods, you need to establish rituals that fit you and the project you are working on. Here are some guiding questions that your ritual must answer:
- Where will you work and for how long? You should do your ritual with a specific time frame and in a particular location like a home office, conference room, or library. If you dedicate space specifically for depth, it will have a better effect on your work.
- How will you work once you start working? You should establish rules and processes to structure your time, like banning internet use or incorporating the Pomodoro Technique. With structure, you will know what you should and should not be working on.
- How will you support your work? You should ensure that your mind is supported when operating at a cognitively demanding level. Supporting action includes grabbing coffee, having snacks, interrogating light exercise, or taking structured breaks.
Collaborate with Others
The spontaneity of producing creative insights (a collaborative endeavor) stems from the following theory:
Theory of Serendipitous Creativity – principle to allow people to bump into each other to promote smart collaborations and new ideas
It may seem that the focus of conducting Deep Work (an individual behavior) is incompatible with the Theory of Serendipitous Creativity; however, the role of collaboration in Deep Work can generate better results. This integration requires two guidelines:
- Distraction is not suitable for Depth: Divide your spontaneous endeavors from your Deep Work efforts as each can build on the other’s efforts.
- Leverage the Whiteboard Effect: Work together with someone to dive deeper into a problem and create a more valuable solution than when working by yourself.
Execute Like a Business
In the 4 Disciplines of Execution, Clayton Christensen formulated the following four disciplines (4DX) to help companies successfully execute high-level strategies. Cal Newport adapted the 4DX framework to take action on a Deep Work habit:
- Focus on the Wildly Important: Focus your energy intensely on a smaller number of meaningful goals to produce amazing results.
- Act on the Lead Measures: Use lead measures to measure success as there are two types of metrics:
- Lag – measures what you are trying to improve, but comes too late to change your behavior
- Lead – measures the actions that will drive success on your lag measures as they are directly within your control
- Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: Track and record lead measures to motivate you to take action on your goal and improve performance.
- Create a Cadence of Accountability: Establish regular, frequent reviews to confront metrics, solve problems, and commit future actions.
You should incorporate downtime into your schedule to improve your ability to go deep and produce valuable results. There are three explanations for the importance of downtime:
- Downtime Helps Insights: Shutdown will allow your conscious mind to rest and unconscious mind to sort through and provide insights for your most complicated work tasks.
- Downtime Helps Recharge: Shutdown will restore your energy to work deeply when given time to rest. If you interrupt or ignore shutting down, you will reduce your effectiveness the next day.
- Downtime Will Be Replaced by Shallow Work: Since you have limited work capacity, work done in the evenings will generally not matter to you professionally and be low-value.
To implement shutdown, you need to accept that at a certain point, you should not do any more work and follow a shutdown ritual:
Shutdown Ritual – the process to review every incomplete task, goal, or project to either plan for its completion or capture it in a place to revisit it.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
Cal Newport presents the second rule as several strategies to train your Deep Work habit by:
- Improve your ability to focus deeply
- Overcome your appetite for distraction.
Take Breaks from Focus Instead of Distraction
First, your mind must be comfortable resisting distractions and prevent such behaviors from hijacking your attention. Schedule in advance when you plan to use the Internet or social media, avoid these distractions outside those times, and work until you are allowed to use them. Newport provides three essential rules to help you succeed:
- Use this strategy even if your work requires heavy Internet use or timely email responses.
- Do not succumb to using the Internet outside the blocks that you schedule for Internet use.
- Schedule Internet use at both work and home as it will improve your ability to focus.
Work with Rooseveltian Intensity
Inspired by the undergraduate work behaviors of Theodore Roosevelt, this strategy will cause you to work deeply in intense sprints:
- Identify a deep task high on your priority list.
- Estimate how long you would typically work on this task.
- Set a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time.
- If possible, commit publicly to the artificial deadline.
- Work with high intensity on your assignment is finished.
Productive meditation is a strategy in which you focus on a well-defined profession problem during a time in which you are physically but not mentally engaged. Similar to mindfulness meditation, it requires practice to master:
- Focus your attention back to the issue when your mind wanders.
- Loop over and over on what you already know about the problem.
- Review relevant variables and store them in your working memory.
- Define the specific next-step questions that you need to answer using these variables.
- Consolidate your gains by reviewing the answer you identified.
Memorize a Deck of Cards
Memory training will improve your ability to concentrate, so Cal Newport teaches you how to memorize a shuffled deck of cards. Do not use brute-force memorization, as this leads to burn out and is not compatible with how the brain works. First, he helps you set up by visualizing your house, establishing memorable objects, and associating memorable people with each card. When it comes to memorizing, you walk-through your mental home, draw a card, associate each memorable person with an object, and rattle off the cards from the associations.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
Social media tools fragment our time and attention, as most people take the following approach:
Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection – Choose social media platforms based on finding any possible benefit or fearing that you will miss out by not using it.
This simple approach ignores the downside of social media, but there is a middle ground by using this stringent approach:
Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection – Identify the keys to success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a social media platform only if its positive impacts substantially exceed its negative impacts.
Apply the Law of the Vital Few
This process helps you decide what network tools matter to you using the 80/20 Rule:
- Identify the high-level goals in your professional and personal life.
- List two to three most important activities that satisfy the goal.
- Consider the network tools in relation to the key activities.
- Ask yourself: Does the tool positively or negatively impact the completion of the activity?
Thus, you achieve more success in your goals by focusing on high-value activities that yield greater benefits. You should remove low-value network tools with smaller gains.
Quit Social Media Temporarily
Next, Newport encourages you to ban yourself from using social media for 30 days without telling people. After 30 days, ask yourself the following for each account:
- Would the last 30 days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
- Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?
If you answer “no” to both questions, then quit the social media platform. If you answer a clear “yes” to both, then keep the platform.
Don’t Entertain Yourself with the Internet
Entertainment-focused websites can also be addicting and take your free time. Thus, you need to put more thought into how you spend your leisure time. Your mind will default to whatever catches your attention, so instead, decide how you will spend it in advance. Meaningful free time will result in more fulfillment in your professional and personal life.
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
This rule presents several strategies to drastically reduce the shallow work and replace it with deep work.
Schedule Every Minute of Your Day
You need to decide in advance with how you will spend your time and schedule every minute of your workday:
- Plan your workday by dividing the hours into blocks and assigning work activities to each block. Use the schedule to guide you, but you will probably underestimate the time you need for most things.
- Use conditional overflow blocks for unknown activity lengths. Follow an activity with this block with a split purpose for finishing the previous activity or working on a new activity.
- Be liberal with your ask blocks throughout your day as things come up and distractions occur.
Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
This strategy helps you resolve ambiguity and make clear, constant decisions about where a work task falls on the shallow-to-deep scale. You need to evaluate activities by asking:
“How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”
- Deep Work: Task that requires a graduate time, effort, and extensive training to replicate.
- Shallow Work: Task that a graduate can learn quickly and does not need expertise.
This approach will help you objectively figure out the shallowness or depth of various tasks, so you can bias your time toward Deep Work.
Budget Your Shallow Work Time
This strategy gets you to ask:
“What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?”
Whether you have a boss or not, decide on a specific answer (typically 30 to 50% for a knowledge worker) and stick to this time budget. You will have to change your behavior to follow your budget by minimizing and saying no to shallow projects. You will also become aware of how little time in your busy schedule actually produces value. If you realize that you primarily do shallow work, you should find a new job that supports Deep Work.
Finish Your Work by Five Thirty
Cal Newport does not work after 5:30 PM using this principle:
Fixed-Schedule Productivity – the commitment of having the firm goal of not working past a specific time, and working backward to use productivity strategies to satisfy this commitment
This strategy works by reducing the shallow work to free up time for the deep work to generate more value. Any task or obligation that is not deep enough is a disruption to getting the work done. Also, this method forces one into a scarcity mindset with their time. You will become more intentional about organizing your time and getting the high-value work done than a less-organized person that works longer hours.
Become Hard to Reach
Cal Newport describes three tips to help get control of your inbox, so you can better use your time and attention:
- Make People Who Send You Email Do More Work: Use a sender filter to set expectations and have people filter themselves before contacting you.
- Do More Work When You Send or Reply to Emails: Use the process-centric approach to conclude the project represented by the email. Then, respond by taking the time to describe the identified process, the current step in the process, and the next step to take.
- Don’t Respond: The sender should convince the reader that a reply is worthwhile. If the sender does not make a convincing case and minimize the effort required by the sender, then do not respond.
I hope this post has helped you be more productive and inspires you to get your own copy of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. If you have any further questions or need additional help, feel free to comment below or send me an email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you are wanting more Process Hacker content, you can subscribe to our short weekly newsletter on Productivity, Habits, and Resources.