Posted on April 3, 2018
I wanted to add some notes to Daryl’s earlier post about Deep Work. These are less of a book review and more of an overview of the key highlights from different chapters. If the tidbits interest you I’d definitely read the full book. It’s a quick read that will likely prompt a lot of thinking.
Newport 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. pg. 3
Our broader work culture’s shift toward shallow work presents an economic opportunity to those who can master deep work. This is because deep work allows for learning complicated things quickly.
Deep Work Is Valuable
When a market is universally accessible the peak will thrive while the rest suffer. In our economy there are two core abilities:
- The ability to quickly master hard things.
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
Deliberate practice is key to achieving this. It involves focusing your attention tightly on a specific skill or idea and then receiving feedback so you can correct your approach and keep your attention where it is most productive. Sophie Leroy introduced an idea she termed attention residue. When you move from one task to another not all of your attention follows. A residue is left behind with the first task.
A good chief executive is essentially a hard-to-automate decision engine. pg. 46
Deep Work Is Rare
Three trends lead to this rarity: open office floor plans, instant messaging, and the push to maintain a social media presence. Newport argues these trends actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work. The busyness they engender is only a proxy for productivity.
In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. pg. 64
Deep Work Is Meaningful
Newport’s thesis here is that deep work is not just economically lucrative. It’s also a life well lived. Our brains will ultimately construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Winifred Gallagher writes that, “when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.” Generally speaking a sense of meaning comes not from the work itself but from how you approach it.
Newport outlines four depth philosophies he’s found to be successful. These aren’t an exhaustive list, but a sampling.
- Monastic: when you maximize deep efforts by eliminating shallow obligations. It requires having a crystal clear notion of one’s value to the world.
- Bimodal: when you divide your time, dedicating clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits. The minimum unit here tends to be one full day.
- Rhythmic: when you generate a rhythm for deep work by consistently making it a simple habit. This can be just a portion of your day.
- Journalistic: when you can shift into deep work at a moment’s notice and take advantage of any time available. This is not for the deep work novice.
Regardless of approach it’s important to be deliberate. A haphazard approach gets you nowhere; you have to ritualize it. There’s no one correct ritual. Just be consistent.
Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spike in which to work deeply on what you encounter. pg. 132
Key to any approach is execution. Newport encourages thinking of execution as a business would. He summarizes four disciplines from The 4 Disciplines of Execution:
- Focus on the wildly important.
- Act on lead measures.
- Keep a compelling scoreboard.
- Create a cadence of accountability.
One thing that supports deep work is have a shutdown ritual at the end of the day. The goal is to close off all work and shut down work thinking. Trying to squeeze more work out of evenings likely reduces your effectiveness the next day. “Fortunately we don’t need to complete a task to get it off our minds.” (pg. 153).
If you flee the slightest hint of boredom you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration. Strategies for this are motivated by the idea that training is necessary to get the most out of your deep work habit. Newport recommends scheduling in advance when you’ll use the internet and to then avoid it altogether outside of these times. The goal isn’t to avoid or even reduce distraction. It’s to resist switching to distractions at the first hint of boredom. He also proposes productive meditation, or focusing your attention on a problem while your occupied physically but not mentally (e.g. while walking).
Quit Social Media
Largely clear from the chapter title. The shift is to think of a tool not through the lens of any benefit it offers but instead through whether it has a net positive impact.
Drain the Shallows
The goal is not to eliminate shallow work from outlet day. Instead we can focus on taking its footprint. We should treat shallow work with a healthy suspicion. One way to do this: schedule every minute of your day. It also helps to fix a start and end time on your work day.