Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World [Notes]

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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

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Breakthrough technology – to outfit experimental subjects with pagers, which would beep at randomly selected intervals. The subjects would record what they were doing at the exact moment and what they felt. Responses were more accurate than having subjects think back. “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.” Conclusion: jobs are more enjoyable than free time, when we are immersed in something deeply challenging, we have the most satisfaction.

Philosophical argument

  • Dreyfus & Sean Dorrance Kelly – “All Things Shining” explains how notions of sacredness and meaning have evolved away. The short answer is Descartes skepticism (??), which came the radical belief that the individual seeking certainty trumped a God or king bestowing truth. Post-enlightenment individualism leads to existentialism and then nihilism. Craftsmanship is key to reopening sacredness, “not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.” (Suggesting order; it’s all a big circle…)
  • The connection to knowledge work: it’s not in the physical nature of the work; can be cognitive – anything that supports high levels of skill can generate sacredness. If you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, you can generate meaning in your professional life.

Part 2 – The Rules

1. Work deeply

Eudaimonia Machine – full human potential / flourishing. Five levels (1) the gallery (2) the salon (3) the library (4) the office space (5) the deep work chambers. Six feet by ten feet, thick soundproof walls. Allows total focus and uninterrupted work flow. Simulate these effects in your other wise distracted professional life. The five most common desires fought throughout the day: eat, sleep, sex, taking a break from work, checking email / social media / web / music / TV etc. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it; your will is a muscle that tires. The key is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to maximize willpower.

Philosophies to integrating deep work

  • Monastic – eliminate or radically minimize shallow obligations, the thicket that tend to trip up those whose value proposition in the working world is more varied.
  • Bimodal – seek to eliminate distraction / shallowness only during certain times. During the deep time, work monastically. The minimum time to dedicate is a day.
  • Rhythmic – Seinfeld: write new jokes every day. Mark an “X” on the calendar, and watch the chain form. Soon enough you’ll keep going; you don’t want to see the chain break. Set a starting time each day rather than ad hoc.
  • Journalistic – Isaacson: simply went up to work when he had the spare time, switching into deep work mode and hammering away. This is how he wrote a 900pg book on the side.

Ritualize – Train yourself to be organized. “Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.” – David Brooks. Darwin & Caro didn’t deploy rituals to be weird; they needed to go deep, again and again. No way to win a Pulitzer or conceive a grand theory without pushing your brain to its limit. This minimizes friction. Address: (1) where you’ll work and for how long (2) How you’ll work once you start (3) how you’ll support your work (do you need coffee first?)

Make grand gestures – JK Rowling checked into a luxury hotel to finish the books rather than her home. Leverage a radical change to your normal environment, coupled with significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. Bill Gates would retreat to a cabin with a stack of papers and books. During one of these weeks, he came to the conclusion that the internet would be a major force. Alan Lightman retreats each summer to a tiny island in Maine.

Don’t work alone – some merit to open floorplans for the right business. Theory of serendipitous creativity – people walking by each other teaching each other new things, allowing smart collaborations and new ideas to emerge. Building 20 at MIT – haphazard of different departments there led to chance encounters and a spirit of inventiveness that generated breakthroughs at a fast pace. No modern open floor plans, instead private offices connected to shared hallways – hub and spoke style. Collaboration can yield better results depending on the type of work, but keep in mind (1) distraction destroys depth (2) even when alone to think deeply, when it’s reasonable to collaborate, do so.

Four disciplines for developing deep work habits

  • Focus on the wildly important – identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your hours.
  • Act on the lead measures – lag measures: describe the thing you’re trying to improve. Lead measures: the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures. Focus on lead measures and lag measures will follow.
  • Keep a compelling scoreboard – create a sense of competition that drives you to focus on these measures.
  • Create a cadence of accountability – confront your scoreboard and commit to specific actions to help improve.

Be lazy – Tim Kreider; fled to an undisclosed location with no TV and no internet where he could remain nonresponsive to small obligations. Tough for professionals to do, but instead retreat at the end of the workday – no after dinner email check, etc. Shut down. Why? Three reasons…

  • Downtime aids insights – some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle.
  • Downtime recharges energy needed to work deeply – mental respite.
  • The work that evening downtime replaces us usually not that important.

Have a shutdown ritual that makes this process easier.

2. Embrace Boredom

Spring Valley, NY – just a small portion of orthodox Jews who wake up every weekday morning to gather and study the complex written traditions of Rabbinic Judaism. “You cannot consider yourself as fulfilling this daily obligation unless you have stretched to the reaches of your mental capacity.” School doesn’t push your intellect higher, daily study does. Concentration is a habit; wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. If every moment of potential boredom in your life: having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives, is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired; it’s not ready.

Take breaks from focus, not from distraction. The idea of an internet fast day doesn’t work if you’re binging the rest of the week. Taking a break from focus trains your brain to tolerate an absence of novelty. Points to consider…

  • This strategy works even if your job requires lots of internet use and/or prompt email replies.
  • Regardless of how you schedule internet blocks, you must keep the time outside free from internet use.
  • Scheduling internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training.

Work like Teddy Roosevelt. He had a variety of interests that he wanted to keep pursuing, but he came to Harvard and needed to focus on studies. He spent no more than a quarter of the day studying, but his grades didn’t crater. He started at 8:30am – 4:30pm, less classes, training, and lunch, and dedicate that time entirely to studying with intense focus. Give yourself hard deadlines for these same type of tasks in your own life and work with great intensity.

Meditate productively. Take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally – walking, jogging, driving, showering, and focus attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls. Two suggestions…

  • Be wary of distractions and looping. Don’t entertain unrelated trains of thoughts, and don’t loop over again and again what you already know about a problem – don’t avoid the hard work, redirect attention to the next step.
  • Structure your deep thinking – identify the variables of the problem, identify and solve the next-step problem. Assuming you solve, consolidate your gains be reviewing the answer.

Memorize a deck of cards. A side effect of memory training is an improvement in general ability to concentrate. Come up with a list of five rooms in your home and imagine yourself walking through them. Then fix in your mind ten items in each room. This is 50 items, 2 more is the whole deck. Or associate each card with someone you know – Donald Trump as the King of Diamonds. Then combine – Donald Trump wiping his shoes on a mat in your entryway. Any structured thought process with unwavering attention can have a similar effect.

3. Quit Social Media

In 2013, Baratunde Thurston took a break for 25 days. “I was less stressed about not knowing new things; I felt that I still existed despite not having shared documentary evidence of said existence on the Internet.” We increasingly recognize that these tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate, yet we’re not going to purge altogether. Third option: accept that they’re not evil, but some might be vital to success and happiness, but at the same time accept that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention should be much more stringent.

  • The any-benefit approach: you’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it. The problem is this approach ignores negatives.
  • The craftsman approach: identify the core factors that determine success and happiness, adopt a tool only if its positive impacts outweigh its negative impacts.

Apply the law of the vital few to internet habits. Identify the goal and the key activities supporting this goal. Then identify whether these tools will best help. The law of the vital few (pareto principle) – 80% of a given effect is due to just 20% of the possible causes.

Quit social media for 30 days. Don’t deactivate, don’t mention you’ll be signing off, just stop using them. If someone reaches out and asks why your activity has fallen off, explain, but don’t go out of your way to tell people. After 30 days, ask (1) would the last 30 days have been better if I had been able to use this service? (2) Did people care? If no, quit.

What fueled social media’s rapid ascent is its 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. It has instead replaced this timeless capitalist exchange with a shallow collectivist alternative: I’ll pay attention to what you say if you pay attention to what I say regardless of its value.

Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself. You should and can make deliberate use of your time outside work. HuffPost, Buzzfeed, Business Insider, Reddit – carefully crafted titles and easily digestible content honed by algos. Figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your leisure time.

4. Drain the shallows

Base-camp shortened their week from 5 to 4 days in 2007. “People should enjoy the weather in the summer.” It’s about four normalish 8-hour days rather than four 10-hour days. By shortening, he eliminated employees’ tendency towards shallow work. Even more radical, they then gave employees the entire month of June off to work on their own projects. At the end of the month, they held a pitch day – two of these were put into use.

Schedule every minute of your day. 15-24 year olds who think they watch 15 hours of TV a week actually watch 28. People who think they sleep 7 hours a day actually sleep 8.6. We spend our days on autopilot, not much thought given to what we’re doing with our time. At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook and cover each line with an hour of the day. Divide into activities by blocks. The emphasis here should not be on constraint, but thoughtfulness about how you’re spending time – treat time with respect.

Quantify the depth of every activity. Determine how much time you’re actually spending in shallow activities. 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.

Ask your boss for a shallow work budget; finish your work by 5:30. Forces you to find productivity strategies that allow you to satisfy this declaration. Be symmetric in culling forced by fixed-schedule commitment. Reduce the shallow and preserve the deep. Foster more careful thinking about organizational habits, leading to more value produced.

Become hard to reach.

  • Make people who send you email do more work. Make senders filter themselves instead of you filtering them.
  • Do more work when you send or reply to emails. “It was great to meet you last week. I’d love to follow up on some of those issues…” Answer: What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?”
  • Don’t respond. Give messages a clear case for why this meeting makes sense and minimizes the effort needed from the receiver to respond. Don’t reply if (1) it’s ambiguous or hard to generate a reasonable response (2) it’s not a question or proposal that interests you (3) nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing bad would happen if you didn’t.

Conclusion: “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” – Winifred Gallagher

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

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