Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport

I recently finished listening to Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work”.

My expectation was that it was going to be a bit of a rant by a technophobe on why Snapchat, Facebook and the like is destroying your brain and you have to adopt an Amish-like mindset immediately (maybe not as drastic as this). However, from following Cal’s blog for so long and benefitting from his experiments and blog posts over the years, I gave it a go.

This book it’s definitely not one giant rant – it’s a structured and convincing read in favor of ‘Deep Work’.

I’ve broken down this summary into a few different parts – the first part describes why Deep Work is important, the second part describes the different lengths you can do to adopt a ‘Deep Work’ mindset, the third part explains a framework I particularly enjoyed reading about (The Four Disciplines of Execution), while the last two focus on how to reduce shallowness in your life.

Deep Work photo

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit.
Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistic style tasks often performed while distracted. These efforts are easy to replicate and don’t produce much value to the world.
What you need to master:
  1. Quickly Master hard things;
  2. Produce at an elite level in both quality and speed;
This can only be performed if you commit to deep work.
Key pillars of the book:
  1. In order to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of, you need to commit to deep work.
  2. To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.
  3. The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimise the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
Newport says: “I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. 3-4 hours a day, 5 days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output”.
Core components of deliberate practice are usually identified as follows:
  1. Your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve / master;
  2. You receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive;
The Science:
  1. You get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively.
  2. By focusing intensely on improving a skill, the specific relevant circuits keep firing over and over again. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neutrons in the circuit – effectively cementing the skill.
  • To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.
  • When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow.
  • People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task.
  • To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.
  • The principle of least resistance: in a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest at the moment.
Key: “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not”.
Busyness as 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.
You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

The different types of Deep Work:
  1. Monastic Philosophy: Maximise deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimising shallow obligations.
  2. Bimodal Philosophy: Divide up your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.
  3. Rhythmic Philosophy: Easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simply regular habit.
  4. Journalist Philosophy: You fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.
Regardless of where you work, be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.
– Can also radically change up your environment and put some money down to support your deep work task, thus increasing the perceived importance of it e.g. Crazy example of Peter Shankman who booked a 30-hour round trip to Tokyo and came straight back but wrote the entire time, thus finishing his manuscript in only 30 hours.

The Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX):
  1. Focus on the Wildly Important
  2. Act on the Lead Measures
  3. Keep a Compelling Scorecard
  4. Create a Cadence Accountability
  • You have to prioritise and say yes to the finite things that will make the biggest impact. “The Important”.
  • Two types of metrics:
    • Lag Measures – describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve;
    • Lead Measures – measures the new behaviours that will drive success on the lag measures.
  • Lead Measures turn your attention to improving the behaviours you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals.
  • At the end of your workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning – no after dinner email check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about tackling an upcoming challenge.
    • Downtime aids insights
    • Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply
  • Jerry Seinfeld example of X’ing off calendar every day he wrote jokes example – ROUTINE.
  • Schedule in advance when you’ll use the internet and then avoid it altogether outside these times.
  • Keep a compelling scorecard: Track hours of deep work in a prominent place (e.g. JK rowling finishing Harry Potter in a specific hotel example).
    Cadence accountability (Regular progress reports example).

Embrace Boredom
– Deep Work Training must involve two goals:
  • Improve your ability to concentrate intensely;
  • Overcome your desire for distraction;
Strategy: Schedule your internet time, avoid it completely all other times. IF I need to do quick responses to email, schedule internet time every 15 minutes but not sooner.
To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.
Productive meditation: Focus your attention on a well-defined problem while (walking, jogging, driving, showering). Just like with mindful meditation, except the focus is on a problem instead of breathing.
    – Like all meditation – hard to do and requires a ton of practice.

Quit Social Media
The Any-Benefit approach to network tool selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything that might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it. The flaw with this: it ignores all the negatives that come along with the tools!!
The Craftsman approach to network tool selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
  • First step: identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and personal life.
    • Keep the list limited to what’s most important and keep it high-level.
    • Result: A small number of goals for both the personal and professional areas of your life.
  • Second step: List for each 2-3 most important activities that can help you satisfy the goal. These activities should be specific enough to allow you to clearly picture doing them.
  • Third step: Consider the network tools you currently use. For each such tool, go through the key activities you identified and ask whether the use of the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity.
    • Important decision: Keep using the tool only if you concluded that it has substantially positive impacts that these outweigh the negative impacts.
  • Fourth step: After 30 days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each of these services you temporarily quit:
    • 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?
  • Fifth step: If your answer is ‘no’ to both questions, quit the service permanently. If your answer was a clear ‘yes’, then return using the service.
Above can be easily applied to internet habits (e.g. Snapchat, Instagram etc).
• The Law of the Vital Few (Pareto Principle): 80% of a given effect is due to just 20% of the possible causes (e.g. unproductive customers, clothes you wear, food you eat, tasks you spend time on etc).
• Put thought into your leisure time: If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semi-conscious and unstructured Web surfing.

Drain the shallows
  • Schedule every block of time that you can (e.g. every 30 minutes of your day).
    • Doesn’t mean you can’t change as things come up.
    • The goal of a schedule is about thoughtfulness on what you’re actually working on and if it’s the most important thing.
    • “What % of my time should be spent on shallow work”.
  • A job that doesn’t support deep work is not one that will help you succeed in the information economy.
  • Most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “Yes”.
  • Become hard to reach – or generally, don’t be afraid to disconnect.
  • Do more thinking when you send or reply to emails (make it easy for the other side to subsequently save you time).
    • “What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion. How long can deep work be sustained by an individual in a given day?
How long does can someone spend on deep work?
– “For someone new to such a practice, an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigours of such activities, the limit expands to something like 4 hours, but rarely more”.
Summary:
  • We spend much of our day on autopilot – not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time.
  • To perform Deep Work, you must concentrate for extended periods of times. This is hard in the 21st-century information economy, but it’s what will separate you from 99% of the people who can’t concentrate due to the overwhelming information and ‘notification addiction’ they subscribe to.
  • Structure, routines and habits will help you maintain a state of focus and intense concentration so you can perform challenging and thoughtful tasks.
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Author: Fahim Sachedina

I like technology and building things. Global App Testing.com / Testathon.co. fahimsachedina.com fahimsach@gmail.com

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