3 most useful ideas from Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work

Cal Newport

So who is Cal Newport?

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University in Washington. He writes a very popular blog called study hacks, and is a well-known author and advocate of academic and workplace productivity and mastery.

His recent book Deep Work, a Wall Street Journal Bestseller is the culmination of many years of hard work, codifying both an important distinction between what he terms ‘shallow work’ and ‘deep work’, and putting together a useful strategy for employing more deep work in your professional (and personal) life. The primary aim of this quest is to maximise your ability to produce valuable and important knowledge work and improve mastery of your desired skill set in the professional setting of your choice.

Like so many books and information on productivity out there Cal’s book aims, more or less, to give you tools to do more work, in less time (or get much more done with the time you have), but unlike a lot of the hacky advice out there today his thesis comes with one overarching caveat… it’s damn hard (hence why I’m a fan).

Cal’s book does not offer any illusions about the kind of intense cognitive strain that is required to be maximally productive. Something cannot come from nothing, and if you want more output with less time, then it requires more effort and strain on your concentration. That’s the upshot to Cal’s whole message – Deep Work is hard, that’s why it’s becoming rare. Most people, in the absence of external pressure or quantifiable outcomes, will default to the path of least resistance. But this is also why deep work is so valuable, and satisfying.

Deep Work

So what is Deep Work? Cal defines Deep Work as:

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.

And Shallow Work as:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

In short – deep work is intensely difficult brain work that is either creative, or deliberative, that you couldn’t train a monkey to do, and shallow work is checking your emails, work-meetings and workplace gossip. Pretty common sense really.

Note: Cal is very clear that shallow work is necessary in many professions, and is at the core of some valuable professions (like CEO’s), and he explains these exceptions in detail.

With everything from office case studies, to neuroscience, to individual deep work monasticists, the book takes great pains to demonstrate that:

  • deep work is becoming rare
  • deep work is valuable
  • deep work is hard to do

Cal then follows it up with a relatively simple and actionable course of tactics to begin honing your ability to go deep (get your mind out of the gutter), and to make adequate time for it in an increasingly cluttered, distracted white-collar work culture. This includes strategies for minimizing the kind of activities that sabotage your brain’s ability to work deeply.

This book is fantastic, especially if you’re not a regular reader of Cal’s blog. It’s well written (and thus a lightweight and enjoyable read), jam-packed full of fascinating and inspiring case studies and examples, and of course actionable (albeit quite generalised) strategies for becoming a deep work practitioner.

Take for example the prolific novelist J.K. Rowling, author of the massively popular Harry Potter series, who had no social media until 2009 when a twitter account was started on her behalf by her employee’s containing a single tweet “This is the real me, but you won’t be hearing from me often I am afraid, as pen and paper is my priority at the moment.” all by itself for the first six months of her account being open.

A free sample

What follows is a quick overview of what is, in my humble opinion, some of the best and most immediately useful advice for anyone wanting to start making improvements to their productivity, without necessarily drinking the deep work kool-aid.

Note: What follows is not an ordered summary of the material, nor a substitute for a good reading of it. You should buy this book.

1. Practise, practise, practise!

Deep work is hard, damn hard.

Try this,

At the next available opportunity, get a big fat textbook – preferably one on a topic you’re unfamiliar with and have always wanted to learn but never had the time – go somewhere quiet, isolated and comfortable (a park bench, or a library, or an empty room), don’t take any digital technology with you. Now sit down with this big fat textbook and start reading (and concentrating). Read for as long as you possibly can without taking a break (daydreaming included). Time yourself (if you need your phone for this then I guess that’s OK).

Time yourself for:

  • how long you can work until you stop concentrating on what you’re reading and lose focus
  • how long you can work until you start daydreaming, or you get bored/tired
  • how long you can sit there until you can’t stand it anymore and you need to get up

How did you do? I’m not going to guess, but I will suspect that for many of you, it was perhaps less than you were hoping for? Consider also that as you’ve challenged yourself, your attempt will probably be marginally better than if you’d just attempted to do this on a whim.

You see, when you take away the coffee, the music, the internet, emails and social media and all you’re left with is raw unadulterated brain work, you’ll find out quickly what you’re really made of.

Hopefully you can see from this simple exercise (assuming you completed this exercise) that ‘deep work’ is hard, damn hard (you didn’t do it did you). But there’s good news. Deep Work is as much of a skill as any activity that you can apply it too. Performing long stretches of uninterrupted concentration is very much like performing long stretches of physical exercise. If you’re out of shape, you’re going to fail, you just will (unless you’re Barney Stinson). But if you push yourself, develop good habits and consistently work at it, you will improve.

If you want to learn to get more work done and work deeply, you need to practise, you need to push your brain until gets tired and push some more. Most importantly… don’t give up. This will be harder than you think, especially at first. Be relentless, dig your heels in and keep fighting. Push against the barrier of temptation and you will see improvements.

2. Minimize distractions

Distraction is bad

Sounds obvious I know; yet we persist. Where’s your smart phone right now? In your hand? Within arms reach? How many times have you looked at/used it since you started reading this blog post? Maybe you’re reading this post on your smartphone. If so how many pings and notifications have you received while reading?

What about your computer; is your email inbox open in the background?

Research is resoundingly demonstrating a few basic truths when it comes to attention:

  • Multitasking is a myth
  • attention takes time to establish
  • attention has a time limit

An old colloquialism is that men’s and women’s brains are wired differently, and that women are better at multitasking… nope wrong. No one is good at multitasking. What’s really happening is simply a rapid switching of attention from one task to another resulting in a substandard performance in all competing objectives. Worse still is that over time this behaviour inhibits any individual’s ability to maintain focus on only one task, even when they’re not trying to multitask.

Not only that but there is a warm-up and warm down period required for getting in the zone. Constantly switching your attention even for a moment can impact your ability to concentrate and fully immerse yourself in some cognitively demanding task, partly because your mind stays with the previous task for a period of time.

Finally, like your muscles, your brain can only do so much in a given day. In Cal’s book he speculates on an upper limit of about 4-6 hours of intense focus in a given day, and that’s for a seasoned deep worker (although that could be his limit for a single unbroken block of deep work.

Sources of distraction

In other words multitasking or distraction, in almost any form, is the mortal enemy of good intense focus. Cal places particular emphasis on these three major sources of distraction:

  • email and workplace communication tools
  • social media (and digital word-vomit like BuzzFeed)
  • open offices and micromanagement

First, email and other workplace communication tools. These are particularly insidious because they create the illusion of productivity and are virtually unavoidable in white-collar work. In the current culture they simply cannot be totally eliminated, even if you want them to be. The best you can do if you’re looking for depth is to ruthlessly minimize your time spent using these tools.

Second, social media. Cal acknowledges that the vast majority of people likely find the idea of quitting social media almost inconceivable, esoteric even. But he offers some useful tips for reducing their vice-like stranglehold on your attention (and your life in general). For example, by identifying the key tasks that social media is most valuable for, and only using it for these purposes.

Third, open offices. The laws of thermodynamics have dictated that there are three main types of office workplace systems: The open system, the closed system and the isolated system.

office-systems
Wow my first published drawing. Go easy on me.
  • The open system is the one in which distraction, communication and collaboration can be exchanged freely between individuals
  • The closed system is one in which distraction, communication and collaboration can be received by the individual but tends not to go the other way
  • The isolated system is one in which no transfer of information occurs unless explicitly directed by the individual themselves

Bad science jokes aside, open offices are tough. If you work in this kind of environment, you’re limited in your options really. Find opportunities to do good deep work elsewhere, talk to your boss, buy a gigantic pair of headphones and crank some jazz or classical music.

Same goes for a cubicle. The main benefit here is you can eliminate visual distractions, a good pair of headphones and you’re good to go. I work in a cubicle in a nice quiet office… it quite nice.

If you have a closed-door office, then really you’re only issue is your email inbox, your telephone, or in-person visits (and the crushing loneliness). Deep work also contains some good strategies for how to cordially handle workplace interruptions too.

In my experience the best way of managing the more necessary day-to-day distractions, is to do what you can to batch them together. Check emails over your lunch break, and maybe right at the end of the day too.

3. Micromanage your time

I’ve said this before… time management can be so fickle. It’s one of your powerful tools for being productive and reliable, but it also has this tantalizing allure of value. But efficient time management is both effective, and minimal. Time management can become a source of procrastination if it’s not kept in check.

In Deep work, there are a number of strategies that particularly caught my attention.

  • Manage your free time the same way you would manage your work time
  • Constantly obsess over your key objectives, iterate and regularly refine your tasks to keep them both actionable, and focused on the big picture
  • Keep a progress meter

The first one is somewhat controversial. Wouldn’t it feel totally restricting to manage your free time? Isn’t that a contradiction of terms? No says Cal… and I agree. In fact I think when your smart phone is always nearby, it’s even more important than ever. In the absence of a clear objective, most people will default to the path of least resistance. If you have nothing better to do, how much easier is it to pick up your phone and quickly check Facebook? Before you know it half an hour or more has passed. Partly this is because merely thinking of something you could do takes more effort than checking your phone, and there’s also the problem of decision fatigue.

It helps me to think that, if nothing else, I would rather play a video game, or watch a movie, than mindlessly browse social media. It may only be one rung up on the ladder, but it’s still an improvement.

Managing your spare time, paradoxically, gives you the freedom to pursue those things which require maybe a little more effort, but offer greater rewards. What does this have to do with deep work you ask? Well you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Next, again at the risk of over managing, it is important to maintain a view of the big picture. Identify the key tasks necessary to progress with some deep working objective, incessantly pursue them and obsess over them. Iterate and refine them regularly, make them as actionable as possible. If identifying key tasks is ambiguous, then consider just setting blocks of time aside for the task. Keep the goal a little more open-ended and just commit to working on the problem without distraction for a given length of time. Most tasks, no matter how ambiguous do have some eventual end point. Just remember to set checkpoints whenever possible.

Lastly, and this one I thought was quite novel was to keep track of your progress in some really tangible way. Cal’s example was to put a series of boxes on a piece of paper representing a day each. He would then put a cross in every day where he fit in a minimum amount of deep work. As a line of unbroken crosses got bigger, it created an incentive not to break the cycle. This could work for many things too, any habit you’re trying to build could be incentivized by tracking your progress in this way.

Conclusion

Overall Cal’s book I think makes a great case for deep work, and despite being somewhat generalized has some great tips for how to improve your ability to focus, and make time for it in your work life.

Thanks so much for reading, I hope you found this post helpful, but I also highly recommend this book.

I have no affiliation with Cal, or his book and I have no financial interest in endorsing/reviewing it.

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2 Replies to “3 most useful ideas from Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work”

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