Notes on Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World. by @ChesapeakeCap

Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World by Cal Newport

Chapter 1 – Deep work is valuable

The great restructuring – our tech is far ahead but skills and organizations are lagging behind; this is dividing jobs. Those who will do the best…

  • Highly-skilled workers – “Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?” ex: analysts, programmers.
  • Superstars – “Are you the very best at what you do?” ex: musicians, actors
  • Owners – “Do you have access to capital?” ex: VCs

No secret to becoming the third, but there are ways to become highly skilled / a superstar. The two core abilities…

  • The ability to quickly master hard things
    • We’re not talking about your iPhone here. SQL, Stata, etc. – these are hard things to master. You must be able to do it quickly, again and again. Basically, if you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.
  • The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
    • Nate Silver – he was good at manipulating large data sets using SQL et al, but he put in the effort to adapt to election forecasting, and down the line.

These two abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work. Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges – “To learn requires intense concentration.” We love the prodigy storyline, but it’s a myth, save a few exceptions; requires deliberate practice.

  • Your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master
    • You’re forcing the relevant brain circuits to fire again and again in isolation. If you’ve got Facebook open while trying to learn SQL, you’re firing too many varying circuits.
  • You receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive

Adam Grant is the youngest prof at Wharton. Why? He produces at an absurd rate. 7 articles in 2012. Profs like him see productivity as a scientific problem to be solved. It depends on many factors, but one central idea to Grant – batch hard but important work into long, uninterrupted stretches. He stacks teaching into the fall (highest rated prof at Wharton) and then turn to research in the spring and summer (less distraction on both fronts). Also alternates periods with door open / closed for colleagues / students. When researching, he puts out-of-office email auto-responses on.

High quality work = Time spent * Intensity of focus

Best students study less, but are more intense. Leroy studied and found same effects; people perform worse on tasks when interrupted.

What about Jack Dorsey?

  • Jack and other CEOs are unique. They don’t do deep work, but that’s not their jobs to; they’re a hard-to-automate decision engine like IBM’s Watson. There are certain corners of the economy where depth is not valued.

Chapter 2 – Deep work is rare

Open office floorplans, instant messaging, tweeting, etc. is the new normal. Serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and active social media presence is prioritized more than deep work in the business world. These not only distract from deep work, but make it harder; the brain responds to distractions. Journalists: need to dive into complicated sources, pull out connective threads, craft persuasive prose, etc. Hard to do when also asking them to engage in back-and-forth of online tittering. Our embrace of distraction is a real phenomenon, built on unstable foundation and easily dismissed once you decide to cultivate a deep work ethic.

Tom Cochran – Atlantic Media was paying $1mln per year for employees to process emails. Calculated words per email, number of emails, typing speed, salaries, etc. These fall into the metric black hole – we don’t instantly see the behavior eating away, but it does.

Why do we do it? Principle of least resistance: in a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment. We feel productive running our day out of our inbox. This plus the black hole save us from short-term discomfort of concentration and planning at the expense of long-term satisfaction and production of real value.

Busyness as a proxy for productivity. The H index among scholars – are you putting out important papers? Richard Feynman: “To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time… it needs a lot of concentration… if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, “no,” I tell them: I’m irresponsible.” If he was doing administrative duties, he wouldn’t have time to do physics.

Knowledge workers now look to prove their worth by looking back to the industrial age: widgets created per unit of time. Increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value. Marissa Mayer banned working at home in 2013 because employees wouldn’t sign into email enough throughout the day; “If you’re not visibly busy, I’ll assume you’re not productive.” If Prof Grant worked at Yahoo, Mayer might have fired him.

Consider Alissa Rubin – steady string on Twitter every 2-4 days of an article she read and liked to appease followers. Her value to the paper is to write articles, not provide shallow content. The internet is now synonymous with the future, revolution, doing thing better, brave new world, etc. To suggest the irrelevance of social media? Psh. “Like us on Facebook” on the back of a truck of a trucking company. Why?

In summary, deep work should be a priority in today’s business, but it’s not. Because it’s hard, in the absence of clear goals, busyness is self-preserving, belief that if a behavior relates to the internet it’s good. Good news for the individual who can overcome these.

Chapter 3 – Deep work is meaningful

Ric Furrer – master craftsman whose work requires him to spend most of his day in depth; small concentration lapse can ruin hours of effort. And it’s satisfying. The deep life is not just economically lucrative, but also a life well-lived.

Neurological argument

  • Winifred Gallagher. Cancer – “this disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.” Her life, when focused, was lived well. We place circumstances as primary driver of how we feel, however it’s what we pay attention to. On a brain scan level, elderly don’t react poorly to bad images, while younger people do; the amygdala fires. Why did elderly remain happy? They trained themselves, rewiring their brain to ignore the negative and savor the positive.
  • Your world is an outcome of what you focus on. Concentration hijacks your attention apparatus, preventing you from noticing less pleasant things. The world inhabited by your inbox isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.

Psychological argument