Perfect for you if:
- You work more than 8 hours per day and/or on the weekends.
- You sometimes feel like you’re drowning in a sea of admin.
- You can’t remember the last time you managed to “get some real work done”.
This excellent book by MIT alumni and Georgetown professor Cal Newport is a must read for anyone wanting to focus on the things that really matter by cutting down on fire-fighting, meeting attendance, email herding, and the pernicious effects of internet browsing and social media.
The book begins by categorising work as either deep or shallow where:
- Deep work is made up of professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate (similar in concept to purposeful practice); and
- Shallow work is made up of non cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
The first half of Cal’s book explains why deep work is so valuable, rare and meaningful in today’s fractured, winner-takes-all world. He convincingly argues that our attention is often so fractured that we actually accomplish very little genuinely deep work in a typical day.
Perhaps more worrying is his claim that months and years of exposure to shallow work and distraction has a long-lasting negative affect on our ability to focus our attention that is not quickly or easily reversed.
The broad and substantial evidence base in this section draws deeply from examples set by influential thinkers and doers throughout history (from Carl Jung and Nate Silver to Bill Gates). Though it doesn’t lend itself well to being crunched it is well worth reading if any further motivation for action is needed beyond our own personal experiences of the reward and meaning to be found in the too rare moments of stillness that allow us to “get some real work done”.
The second half of Cal’s book is full of powerful and actionable suggestions to shift our balance back towards deep work. These practical tips include ways to identify and eliminate existing bad habits, build new good habits, implement structural quick-wins and actively train and improve our attention. I have personally experimented with most of Cal’s suggestions (with some minor modifications from other authors) and cannot recommend the effort to follow through with them strongly enough.
Fighting for more deep work in our lives means doing more of the things that are important to us and less of the things which aren’t. At it’s core, Cal’s book reminds us that our days can and should be focused not just on “getting things done” but on “getting valuable things done”.
In other words, both efficiency and effectiveness are requirements for meaningful and purposeful action that leads to a productive life, filled with energy and balance.
What follows are my brief notes on Cal’s main points and suggestions.
Drowning in the Shallows
The breadth of and our access to network tools (physical: open plan offices, meetings / digital: email, instant messaging, social media etc…) has greatly increased, but our ability to pick selectively among and effectively use them has not.
Instead we tend to adopt tools that offer any benefit at all without carefully weighing those benefits against their disadvantages and opportunity costs – i.e., the time we could be spending on activities that are more valuable (we basically end up on the wrong side of Pareto’s 80/20 principle).
Additionally, we are surrounded by distractions which are in fierce, active competition for and have become very effective at capturing our attention (advertising, messaging, social media, mobile apps, television, internet etc…). Willpower is a finite resource (see Ego depletion) and the reward of giving in to these distractions creates powerful habits of instant gratification.
A bias for instant gratification is dangerous because shallow work is so much cognitively easier than deep work. Attending meetings, becoming a human email router and ticking off shallow to dos all provide momentary satisfaction and an illusion of business but this comes at the expense of deep thought, value creation and a wider sense of meaning in our work.
Meanwhile, we have shifted culturally into the habit of making work the centre of our lives. We have come to view our free-time as simply the sub- and post-script to our days/weeks and so we spend more and more time working. There is, however, no evidence for an equivalent gain in productivity (see Parkinson’s law).
In fact, 37Signals is an example of one company that has successfully experimented with reducing the work week to four days and cutting out June without any meaningful reduction in value creation.
Into the deep
Three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all that it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives.
To those hoping to put some of these habits into practice I would suggest focussing on one initiative at a time and having patience. You wouldn’t try and run a marathon on your first run, likewise, building a commitment to increasingly productive deep work means working on our brain’s dad bod. It is a slow process of habit forming and increasing mental fitness.
All personal change demands time, effort, persistence and discipline as well as the temporary discomfort of changing not only our own mindsets but also the expectations and mindsets of those around us.
1. Learn to categorise tools and tasks as deep or shallow:
Cal devotes several pages to some good, practical examples that work through through the following process:
- Identify a desired big-picture outcome in a particular area of life (family, friends, health, wealth, work etc…)
- Identify just two or three activities that contribute the most towards this outcome (see Pareto’s 80/20 principle)
- For each tool or task that currently consumes time and energy in this area of life, ask ourselves: “Is this tool or task integral to the activities that help me make progress towards my desired outcomes?”
- If the answer is no then quit the tool or task
Though our goals and circumstances are personal, the majority of us will find that many of the tools and activities that we give our time and energy to fail to pass this simple test.
For example, is it better to spend two hours catching up on the life developments of all our FaceBook friends or to go out with one or two close friends for dinner? Unless our career or personal circumstances depend on maintaining a broad network through frequent, light communication the answer is clear.
Giving up tools and tasks entirely might seem extreme but remember; willpower is finite and the danger inherent in these distractions extends beyond the time that we use them to the focus-destroying habits we form through them.
For a quick quantitative guideline on how deep a piece of work is, ask: “How many months would it take to train a smart graduate student with no experience in my domain to do this task?”. This rule of thumb can help to keep us honest about whether to prioritise work on accounting presentations or attending process and update meetings vs. high impact ‘only-me’ activities.
2. Make quick structural changes that encourage deep work
Breaking and forming habits becomes much easier when we make quick, external structural changes that eliminate or introduce the cues that trigger them. These changes help make new habits the course of least resistance and most importantly they eliminate the roll of willpower in falling back into old ones.
Here are the structural changes Cal suggests we make to simplify our lives and help us work more deeply:
- Disable all incoming call/message notifications and badges
In the last 10 years, including three years as an analyst at McKinsey, I’ve never missed a single professional or personal call or message that couldn’t wait.
- Become hard to reach
Set sender filters, filter emails with rules and use auto-responders to manage reply expectations. Ask people to respect your time and energy and they will.
- Quit social media
Experiment first with a secret, total 30 day social media fast if that helps. Like Cal I haven’t used social media in 8 years and my life has been much richer for it.
- Work in a quiet place
Open-plan offices are the bane of deep work; a private room or library is best, noise cancelling headphones and music without words will do in a pinch.
- Work at a quiet time
Ask the most effective people you know when they wake up. It will be early, when there’s nobody else up to disturb them.
- Limit internet access during deep work time
3. Get visibility on deep vs. shallow time by minuting the day:
The first step to changing anything is to measure it.
Start keeping an honest record (on paper / in your calendar) of how time is actually being spent during each day.
Review this record at the end of the day to get a sense of how much time is really being spent on deep vs. shallow work.
4. Determine a fixed end point to the work day and stick to it
- Reframe our day towards our free-time instead of our work.
Even if we enjoy our work we shouldn’t forget that financial gain is only a means to an end, not an end in itself.
If you could retire tomorrow what would you do with your free-time? Start seeing the time outside of work as if you were already retired.
- Commit to a fixed end time to your day
Make commitments to our children, book a yoga class, make plans with a friend, order a food delivery to our home etc…
Set a quitting time at the end of the day and do whatever it takes to make ourselves stick to it.
- Plan backwards
Once we have a quitting time we can start fighting Parkinson’s law (the tendency for work to expand to fill the time available to it)
Identify the things which have to get done to day and plan backwards
- Say no to shallow work and off-task commitments
Run every incoming request through the process outlined at the start of these initiatives
Protect the end time by ruthlessly declining and then eliminating shallow work
5. Train our attention
As well as taking steps to eliminate shallow work from and introduce the conditions for deep work into our lives Cal also suggests a number of exercises to actively help strengthen our ability to effectively direct our attention.
Much like meditation, each of these exercises involves choosing a single object of focus, noticing when attention has wandered and then gently bringing attention back to the initial object. Beyond strong and consistent anecdotal evidence, such practices have a proven physical impact on the attention centres of the brain:
- Become friends with boredom
When standing in line or waiting for a friend, resist the temptation to instantly distract the mind with needless activity. Instead practice just being in the present moment.
- Practice thinking whilst walking
Get into the habit of practicing thinking on a single, well defined problem or topic that is important to you whilst engaged in a physical activity that doesn’t require much mental exertion. This form of walking meditation not only improves attention but also has the added benefit of increasing productivity.
- Give the mind a work out with intense study or memorisation skills
Spend time each day learning to to e.g., use your visual memory to memorise a monologue or pack of cards. These aren’t just good tricks to impress friends at the pub. This kind of mental gymnastics also forces us to flex our attention muscles with far reaching implications for the rest of our lives.
“Deep Thinking: What Mathematics Can Teach Us About the Mind”, William Byers: A great use of an experience we all remember (learning basic math) to show the importance of creativity in making cognitive learning leaps.
“The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance”, Josh Waitzkin: A superb first hand account showing the overlap of basic deep learning principles in two very different fields (chess and martial arts) from the protagonist of “Searching for Bobby Fisher”.
“Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”, David Allen: A cornerstone and very practical work on productivity from the world renowned David Allen – easily one of my top most life-changing reads, though it is aimed for at efficiency than effectiveness.
“A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science”, Barbara Oakley: A fantastic book with more attention to applying deep work to learning (book crunch here)
“Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work”, Mason Currey: A wonderful book full of examples of the daily routines of some of history’s most famous scientists, authors, poets and artists. Perfect for dipping in and out of and giving great real life examples of how some of our best minds have used the principles explained in Cal’s book.
Deep Work Quotes
“Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
“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”
“The 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.”
“Part of what fuelled social media’s rapid assent… 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.”
“For someone new to such [deep] practice … an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigours of such activities, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more.”
“Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.”
“Schedule every minute of your day… When you’re done … every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now, as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.”
“A deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect.”
“A tactic that works well for me [when declining low-value requests] is to be clear in my refusal but ambiguous in my explanation for the refusal.”
“Fixed schedule productivity is a meta-habit that’s simple to adopt but broad in its impact. If you have to choose just one behaviour that reorients your focus toward the deep, this one should be high on your list of opportunities.”
“A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement – it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.”
“There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good.”
“Three to four hours a day, five days a week of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.”
“To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.”
[ To understand where a task fits on the shallow-to-deep scale ask a simple question: ] “How long would it take (in months) to train a smart, recent college graduate with no specialised training in my field to complete this task?”