What I Wish Everyone Knew About Deep Work By Cal Newport
Peter Drucker wrote 50 years ago that effective knowledge workers batch tasks together and work on tasks in long, uninterrupted sessions. Cal Newport's book "Deep Work" argues you should do the same.
So why should you care?
Deep Work is nothing new. It should be common sense.
Some people would refer to "Deep Work" as a word for what we used to know, simply as "work."
The idea of working in a deep, focused manner isn't a new one or one that should shock people.
It's common sense that if you're distracted, you lose concentration and the quality of your work suffers.
As the founder of FindFocus, I'm always keen to quote studies that show that each distraction leads to 40% less productivity or that after each distraction it takes about 20 minutes to regain your full mental capacity.
It always makes for great headlines, but if you use common sense and are honest with yourself, it's no surprise.
I recently came across a blog post of Seth Godin, that sums it up perfectly:
If you had a manager that talks to you the way you talk to you, you'd quit. If you had a boss that wastes as much of your time as you do, they'd fire her. If an organization developed its employees as poorly as you are developing yourself, it would soon go under.
Is Cal Newport's Book Worth Reading?
Using common sense does not work anymore. For example, it's obvious that if you cannot focus on studying, it will be harder to get good grades or if you are a writer to write high-quality books or blog posts.
And there is a reason for it.
Something has changed. While some people are disturbed that Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, had to write a book like this, his four rules for deep work for focused success are more needed than ever.
In the past, people stayed focused for weeks, months, or even longer in that state. Andrew Wiles spent seven years in this state proving Fermat's Last Theorem and Isaac Newton would work so hard on a problem that he would forget to eat, totally focus on solving a problem for weeks at a time.
It's not like that anymore. The rise of the Internet has wrecked our ability to concentrate deeply on tasks for most of us.
In 1980 Neil Postman wrote a groundbreaking book "Amusing ourselves to death" in which he argues that in the long run, a medium's content matters less than the medium itself influencing how we think and act. He was talking about the TV.
Today's it even worse. We live in a time where nearly 1/3 of the American population would choose to give up sex, our most primal instinct rather than their mobile phone. The same survey found out that "about half of all smartphone users also thought that the best romantic partners were people who carried the same operating system as they did.
So what does deep work mean? Why should you care? Before we go deeper into that topic and Cal's Deep Work rules let's explore the meaning of the word.
What Is Deep Work?
Deep Work collectively covers very different mental capacities.
It's about distraction, fatigue of a particular capacity and its recovery, deliberate practice of a professional skill.
Cal Newport's Definition:
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.
For example, you would need to master deep work for
- playing an instrument,
- studying to pass an exam
- learning a new language, or
- creatively producing a paper
Every activity requires a somewhat different time as well as resting patterns.
Many people if it is possible to stay in a Deep Work state for hours because most of the time it's optimal to use "short cognitive bursts," no longer than an hour.
Yet, these two seemingly opposing concepts go together; obviously.
There is no way to stay focused beyond the point of cognitive exhaustion, yet during your recovering breaks you don’t want to engage in activities that make you distracted. Rather use the time to get some water and move your body.
Why Is Deep Work Important?
Cal Newport shows you exactly WHY deep work is a crucial and valuable skill (as opposed to Shallow Work).
Cal Newport's Deep Work Hypothesis:
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
This is especially true for everyone working online. When the internet and social media came along, the way, most people work changed. Now we are faced with constant interruptions from social networks, email and phone notifications.
Cal defines Deep Work as the ability to perform as the “superpower of the 21st century”:
“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.”
He makes a case for the two critical skills for knowledge workers:
- 1. Learning Quickly
- 2. Producing at an Elite Level
A recent study found that most knowledge workers are only working three hours per day. No wonder they are far from being successful in today's work environment.
If you want to separate yourself from the crowd and accomplish important things you need to get into "Deep Work State."
Your capacity to perform outstanding results when working in a state of frenetic shallowness will be destroyed permanently.
People Cannot Stay Focused Any More
There is no lack of people who complain that they are not able to focus on reading a book anymore.
You might argue that some people can stay focused without deep work like the guy on the subway reading or writing who is completely oblivious to everything around him. A bomb could go off, and he wouldn't even notice.
However, high-quality work produced equals time spent on a task multiplied by the intensity of focus.
Cal argues that in the absence of clear performance indicators many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. (Btw. this is the same argument Peter Drucker makes in his book The Effective Executive).
Distractions are a part of our everyday life, and many knowledge workers used social media tools to get exposure for their business.
Complex knowledge work is often hard to measure. Most employees are still required to work 40 hours per week, and managers measure busyness instead of output that relates to bottom line results.
What I really like about Cal's book are his clear rules to deal with the new environment we created.
Here is a summary of that book.
Deep Work Summary
The book is split into two parts. In the first part of the book, Cal explains why Deep Work is valuable, rare and meaningful. The second part shows us how to practice Deep Work condensed into 4 Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and how to make it a regular practice in our lives.
It's important to remove unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves by creating structure and processes to train your brain to focus. This will require finding work habits that stick by experimentation what works for you. Deep Work is an activity that should not be taken lightly but will enable you to create things that matter.
Rule #1: Work Deeply
Mr. Newport argues that because our environment and office culture makes deep work difficult, we have to create routines and rituals to get high-quality work done. We need to minimize the amount of our limited willpower spend on busy work and learn to maintain unbroken concentration.
In his Deep Work book, he refers to four core strategies to build the work habits and routines.
4 Ways to Build Deep Work Rituals and Routines
- The Monastic Approach:
- Isolate yourself for long periods of time.
- Minimize or remove shallow obligations.
- Minimum Duration: More than a week
- The Bimodal Approach:
- Divide your time into some clearly defined stretches
- Reserve a few consecutive days when you will be working like a monastic.
- Minimum: One complete day per week
- Rhythmic Approach:
- Form a simple regular habit.
- Define a specific time period
Minimum: 3-4 hours every day
- Journalistic Approach:
- Alternate your day between deep and shallow work and it fits your blocks of time. This method is not recommended for novices.
Create Your Ideal Work Environment:
In an ideal world, a combination of soundproof offices combined with large common areas is considered optimal by Cal Newport.
Execute Like a Business With the 4DX-Formula
Cal recommends a strategy he read in a book called The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. Clayton Christensen explained that the division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world.
I usually refer to this as "Common sense is not always common practice. Knowing that deep work is essential and understanding how it works will not make a difference without the right execution strategy (and creating an environment to support this strategy).
The book lays out four specific disciplines that Mr. Newport applies one after another to the process of doing deep work.
- Focus on the wildly important. Choose one or two things that will make the most significant difference for you.
- Act on the lead measures. Measure what you need to do to get the results you want. (as opposed to lag measures that track the results you are getting.
- Keep a compelling scoreboard. Keeping score and keeping records keeps you honest and helps you to make more progress. Cal recommends measuring the time spent in a state of deep work dedicated to your goal. It should be a physical artifact in the workspace that displays the individual's current deep work hour count.
- Create a cadence of accountability. Don’t just do deep work. Have someone or a team that you’re accountable to and to whom you report regularly (in my case that's my wife).
An interesting angle is his advice to be lazy and to embrace boredom. I usually refer to this as practicing Zen Habits named after Leo Babauta's blog.
Cal Newport's Three Reasons to Be Lazy
Deep work requires that you find time to renew your mind. It's not necessarily about reducing the amount of productive work (although this can be part of it). It's about finding the downtime to recharge the energy you need for deliberate practice, something that
James Clear wrote about on his blog. Deliberate practice refers to a systematic stretching of your ability for a given skill and overlaps substantially with Deep Work.
Countless studies support that claim that it's important to spend time in nature and getting away from your screen and taking a break from Facebook and social media.
The key is that your energy is a "limited resource to maintain attention, that must be conserved."
The final argument is that you need time to renew your mind and create a distinct shutdown ritual to end your work day. If you don't stop checking your emails or browsing work related websites after work you become a victim of the Zeigarnik effect, named after the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.
He discovered that incomplete tasks would continue to capture your attention. The way to combat this is to make a plan for how you would later complete any unfinished tasks.
To deal with this issue, I create a One-Page-Productivity-Planner, that covers the essential items on your daily agenda.
I highly recommend using this planner or any other planning method you prefer. The goal here is to get your thought out of your head and onto paper (or its digital counterpart).
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
Just like an athlete who must take care of his body outside of his training schedule, you will struggle to practice Deep Work if you spend most of the time browsing Facebook and playing video games.
A Story From Professional Football
Just recently the coach of the Premiere League club Southampton Ralph Hasenhuettl has raised this issue publicly and feels lengthy video gaming sessions can be compared to alcohol and drug addiction.
He advised the team hotels to prevent his players from having wifi access because he wants to protect them from becoming video game addicts.
Just like Mr. Hasenhuettl said "I think it's something you have to force actively against and I will do this." and "I will be active always in this direction because I have to protect them, not on the pitch only but also outside the pitch."
Cal Newport argues you need to strengthen your "mental muscle" if you want to achieve the deepest levels of concentration and perform at the highest level.
Why You Should Use A Website Blocker
Just like you cannot build the muscles to train for a marathon overnight you cannot transform your working life from a state of distraction into focus. That's why Mr. Newport emphasizes that it's essential that you don't take breaks from distraction and instead take breaks from focus.
He recommends using website blockers like FindFocus to schedule in advance when you'll use the internet.
My personal approach is to block the internet 24/7 with FindFocus, so I need to unlock it for all my research.
I recommend to use a 3-step approach:
- Block distracting websites throughout the day.
- Whitelist all the websites that you need to work and force yourself to unlock the Internet (for max. 10min per session) if you want to visit a site that's not on your whitelist.
- Bock email until 2 pm, while still being allowed to send email without seeing your inbox.
This works like magic to integrate Cal's recommendation into my daily life of running a software company. I can access almost any website (except proven distractions & email) all the time but for a maximum of 10min at a time.
Although I don't use it personally, FindFocus offers you another way to implement Cal Newport's suggestions into your work by forcing you to delay opening a new website.
To quote Cal:
"The key in making this change, however, is to not schedule the next Internet block to occur immediately. Instead, enforce at least a five-minute gap between the current moment and the next time you can go online. This gap is minor, so it won’t excessively impede your progress, but from a behavioralist perspective, it’s substantial because it separates the sensation of wanting to go online from the reward of actually doing so.
To implement this at home, I love my kitchen safe to lock down my mobile phone. The key here is to avoid or even to reduce the total amount of time I spend in a distracted state as much as possible and make it impossible to give into my distractions when I feel bored. This is not easy, and I have to admit I'm not always following through with it but the more blog posts I publish, the better I get.
Using this approach to overcome my internet addiction I was able to eliminate the ability to constantly check the latest news and startup stories and focus on creating instead.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
Quitting social media is probably controversial advice from the book. Unfortunately, most people still think that they have to delete Facebook completely or keep using it like they always did.
Instead of using this binary approach it's better to evaluate your options. Deep Work recommends to approach this issue like a "craftsman." Identify the core factors that determine your results. Use a new tool like a social media site or a new software only if its positive impact substantially outweighs its negative impact.
Don't accept that companies like Facebook, Google, and Netflix hijack your brain and use the law of the vital few: 80% of your success depends on 20% of your input. Don't give into your fear of missing out.
This is no new advice.
It's the same advice you'll find from Seneca.
A student is burdened by a crowd of authors, not instructed; and it is far better to devote yourself to a few, than to lose your way among a multitude. [...] Excess in all directions is bad. Why should you excuse a man who wishes to possess book-presses inlaid with arbor-vitae wood or ivory; who gathers together masses of authors either unknown or discredited; who yawns among his thousands of books; and who derives his chief delight from their edges and their tickets?
For most people, it's better to use fewer tools.
As Cal Newport says:
There is a middle ground, and if you’re interested in developing a deep
work habit, you must fight to get there.
Using the Craftsman Approach to tool selection allowed me to decide between deleting Facebook and staying on Facebook. I identified the core factors and values that are important to me. Afterward, I came up with the decision to cancel my Facebook account.
But after a while, I returned to build a Facebook page for FindFocus and use my personal profile to connect with other internet marketers and be part of a few selected Facebook groups.
However, I don't use Facebook for personal matters, login in the Facebook groups only once a while and post to the social network only through 3rd party apps like SocialBee and Buffer.
Stop Using Social Media for 30 days
As I mentioned, I deleted my personal Facebook account, leaving behind more than 500 "friends" that I connected over the years with ESTIEM. I did not miss any of my online “friends.”
Last year I met an old friend that I had on seen for more than five years on our yearly anniversary meeting. He went to Berkeley for a Ph.D. We had been friends on Facebook for almost ten years. We never spoke on Facebook once.
But after meeting him again (and having a few beers) both of us came to the conclusion that only real-life meetings are of any value.
That’s why I highly recommend deleting your Facebook account. You can always return later.
So ask yourself:
- Would the last 30 days have been notably better if I had been using this tool or service?
- Did people care?
As it turned out no of my “friends” cared that I left the social network. Don't overestimate the benefits. Apply the law of the vital few to your Internet habits and realize that every tool has opportunity costs.
Rule #4: Drain The Shallows
Another recommendation Mr. Newport recommends is to quantify the depth of every action you perform at work.
Deep Work vs. Shallow Work
He came up with a mindblowing question to evaluate the difference between deep work vs. shallow work.
How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?
Become Hard To Reach
My favorite method from the book is his advice to become harder to reach. After implementing my contact form for FindFocus, I immediately knew which emails to ignore.
To me, it's unbelievable how few reach inbox zero when all you have to do is to make people who send you emails do more work. Of course, you should learn to send better emails when you reach out or reply to emails. In general, I don't respond to any emails anymore that are not submitted through my contact form.
Is Deep Work for you?
While some commentators on Amazon argue that reading “On Writing" by Stephen will get you a much more substantial and informative discussion of how to work and to go 'deep,' I am always amazed what you gain if you follow the advice presented in Cal Newport's book.
But be warned. It's not easy. The internet is built to be addictive, and most people do not care about these issues. Unlike Mr. Hasenhuettl and many others who compare the Internet and Social Media to drugs and tobacco, I like to use a different metaphor.
The internet culture we have established can be compared to the food industry. We all know that too much sugar and fat is not good for us. An estimated 160 million Americans or about 65.7% of American adults are either obese or overweight and obesity has been cited as a contributing factor to approximately 100,000–400,000 deaths in the United States per year.
Here in Germany, the numbers are slightly better but still fighting. Despite better knowledge, I'm still struggling to stay away from all those artificial but tasty food.
Cal Newport believes this will change. Taking a look at the food industry makes me somewhat pessimistic.
You won't die from looking at your smartphone or performing mediocre work. If all the deaths from obesity are not enough to facilitate us to change our behavior despite better knowledge it will not happen in the digital world as well.
However, chances are if you care about your diet, you will care about Deep Work as well. If you don't care about these topics, Deep Work is probably nothing you care about.
Take inventory of the services you use, remove apps from your smartphone and install software like FindFocus to make it harder to give in to your craving.
It's worth it.