Book Review of Deep Work: Rules For Success In A Distracted World by Cal Newport

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This Book Review of Deep Work: Rules For Success In A Distracted World By
Cal Newport is brought to you from Alex Ishin from the Titans of Investing.

Genre: Personal Time Management
Author: Cal Newport
Title: Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World (Buy the Book)

Table of Contents

Summary:

Deep work is the concept of working with an intense focus for extended periods without allowing external stimuli to be a distraction.

Those who are competent in this sphere will produce higher quality work at a faster pace and stand out among their peers for success within their respective fields. In order to work at a deep level, one must focus tightly on a specific task and effectively utilize feedback to further narrow that focus.

To achieve these states of focus, sacrifices must be made.

It is impossible to simultaneously multi-task and work deeply.

This is due to “attention residue” which demonstrates that when switching from one task to another, it is impossible to immediately transfer one’s full attention.

Rather, for a certain period of time, at least a portion of one’s cognitive attention remains on the prior task. When multi-tasking, attention residue builds up extremely quickly, and efficiency drops dramatically.

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It seems deceptively easy to work deeply.

However, distractions are psychologically addictive. Doing shallow work such as answering e-mails, which is one of the most common types of shallow work, provides a feeling of productivity that is extremely fulfilling to our brains.

Yet, in reality there is little to nothing that is accomplished. By allowing “the internet” to become synonymous with “progress” we have quickly addicted ourselves to easy access to entertainment and cognitive overstimulation.

Counterintuitively, people tend to find time spent at their jobs to be more rewarding than their leisure time.

This is attributed to structure in the workplace, with clear goals to be accomplished each day, whereas free time is inherently unstructured and they must find ways to gratify themselves.

Thus, at work it is much easier to create “flow,” a state where the mind is stressed to accomplish a difficult goal. Mental flow helps one find meaning in their work and has been demonstrated to increase happiness and fulfilment.

Understanding that deep work is valuable and effectively working deeply are two very different animals.

There are several steps that one must take to be an effective deep worker.

  1. Identify a philosophy to select times where one will work deeply in isolation with consistency
  2. Find ways to measure progress and feedback, and hold oneself accountable to those measures
  3. Allow the mind to rest without stimulation. This requires accepting boredom as inevitable and not resorting to shallow endeavors as a crutch. As a result, the brain will both rest and subconsciously work toward solving problems
  4. Identify which internet tools provide clear help toward achieving the goals one sets and remove the rest
  5. Utilize one’s maximum capacity of deep work for each day, and prioritize those tasks that require the largest amount of deep work first

Following these guidelines, with time, it is possible for anybody to become a deep worker.

Once one accomplishes this, it is important to not allow shallow work to creep into life after work. When the workday ends, the mind must be allowed to rest. This means no checking of e-mails at dinner, no working from home in the evenings, and no shallow activities in general.

To streamline this process, it is recommended to establish a “sender filter” for e-mails one receives. This is done by setting a standard that only e-mails that are concise, well-written and tangibly helpful toward progressing toward one’s goals will be responded to.

By removing the expectation of a response, it is much easier to avoid checking e-mails, as the sender will not be anticipating an answer at all, much less a timely one.

In those messages where one does respond, it should be structured to end the conversation as quickly as possible and minimize the number of back-and-forth messages required.

Although working deeply is not easy and the learning curve is steep, it is an extremely rewarding exercise. Those who wish to compete in today’s work environment must develop this skill of effectively utilizing their time and mental capacity to produce the highest quality product in the shortest time.

Introduction

We live in a world of incredible speed and competition. With technology developing at a rapid pace, it seems that we can do more and more with each passing year. Yet, what is the price that we pay for this ability to multi-task and divide our attention?

The answer lies in focus.

We sacrifice extended periods of concentration in favor of feeling like we are busy, yet only scratching the surface of what needs to be accomplished.

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Cal Newport in his novel Deep Work delves into the ability to take on a task for more than a few minutes at a time and truly understand the steps necessary in order to achieve the end goal. He dubs this “deep work.”

It is something that seems deceptively easy to achieve, but at its core is an arduous task to learn. As a result of this difficulty, many question the benefits of taking on this challenge. Despite that, it is clear that the ability to work deeply is a critical skill to be successful in today’s economy.

Why Bother?

In the age of technology there are several groups of people who will stand out as the most successful. Many of the most critical professional careers will involve those who are able to work and communicate with intelligent machines.

With the exponential growth in our processing capabilities and speed of technological advancement, every single day presents a new challenge. Therefore, those who are able to master complex concepts quickly will rise above the rest.

To be within that select group, one must make the most effective use of the limited time that they have, essentially racing against the clock before the next big jump in knowledge. Wasting time consistently doing “shallow work” such as sending e-mails, browsing the web, etc. prevents the ability to work deeply.

Somebody who avoids such behaviors will always achieve more in the same period.

Being competitive within a quickly changing environment requires rapidly evolving.

To be tangibly successful, one must produce a benefit to the society around them. Being on the cutting edge of development requires dedication and focus that goes beyond what the average human is capable of.

To be the one who produces the next “leap” in a field, one must outwork those against whom they are competing.

A few core components define deep work as it is attributed to this goal of learning quickly and producing at an elite level:

  1. Focusing tightly on a specific skill or task
  2. Effectively utilizing the feedback from errors to tighten that focus even further
  3. Working with dedication for uninterrupted periods of time

A simple formula can define the production generated as a result:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) * (Intensity of Focus)

Now, although it is somewhat crude, and assigning actual values might be difficult, the message is quite clear – effective steps forward require higher intensity of focus for longer periods. It is for this reason that some people can seemingly produce vastly larger quantities of incredible results in shorter time – the efficient use of their attention.

Fighting on Multiple Fronts

We focus on multi-tasking ever more. Phones now run applications simultaneously, processors have multiple cores to crunch data at the same time, and we can efficiently split our screens up in order to view multiple windows at the same time.

In theory, this should make us more efficient, and yet, we are quite simply not. Why?

This is due to the concept of “attention residue.”

When switching from one task to another, it is impossible to transfer one’s full attention immediately from the first challenge to the second. For some time, a portion of attention will subconsciously remain focused on the former task, regardless of whether it was completed or not.

Through testing, it was repeatedly demonstrated that attention residue due to rapid switching between tasks, results in reduced performance on the latter project.

Although it may not seem like it, even a quick glance at an e-mail inbox or a short response to an in-person inquiry creates attention residue.

Compounded over the course of days or weeks, it is almost impossible to stay in a state of true attention for any extended time as the residue continues accumulating.

Thus, isolation from external stimuli is required. This does not have to be for days or weeks at a time as some academics might do, but it does need to be long enough to exhaust the capacity of deep work for the given task.

Disconnecting

“But I’m a C(E/I/T/F)O,” you might say, “I can’t simply turn my phone off and not read my emails. I’ll lose clients!”

That may potentially be true.

For some positions at the tops of large corporations, it may be a waste of time to ask people to think about a single problem for multiple hours at a time.

That is why an organizational structure includes decision-makers below the top level, who, as necessary when they cannot come to an answer themselves, will provide a brief summary (not unlike this one) stating the most important facts, and receive a quick decision.

However, for those who do not have the luxury of an immediately summarized presentation in front of them, deep work is critical, even if it seems as though quick response-times are something that cannot be surrendered.

In a study done by a Harvard professor, when managers surrendered their connectivity for certain periods of time, they were terrified that their businesses would suffer.

To the contrary, the vast majority of their clients simply did not care or notice the reduced responsiveness.

As a result, these managers were able to provide better service, as they were able to more effectively focus on their clients’ needs without the distraction of constant communication.

Good Help is Hard to Find

As mentioned earlier, the idea that deep work is an easy thing to do is extremely deceptive.

We are constantly bombarded with communications and requests, and feel a psychological need to take care of those immediately. Even the mere action of reading and processing these messages creates some attention residue and makes us feel busy, which is why they are so attractive.

It is extremely easy to read and answer e-mails. Responding feels good, even if we have truly achieved nothing as a result. Yet, if one is removed from e-mails for a certain period of time (one day a week for example), it creates a challenge that when overcome, creates a very effective tool.

When one does not receive immediate response to one’s e-mails, there is a need to be more organized and plan further in order to properly utilize the time spent awaiting an answer.

Many think that being busy is equivalent to being productive, yet these two are often polar opposites of each other.

Yahoo’s 2013 CEO Marissa Mayer banned working from home because she felt many employees did not sign into the employee server often enough.

She was effectively telling her workforce that they did not spend enough time checking their e-mails and responding immediately – the most common reason for logging in and the very epitome of shallow work.

Yet if we consider what we’ve learned so far – that deep work requires extended periods of isolation and a lack of distractions, we can conclude that she effectively was preventing her employees from being as productive as possible and encouraging shallowness.

Finding Meaning in a Muddled World

Most employees today are “knowledge workers.” They are presented with ambiguous problems that require creative solutions.

This is in contrast to past centuries where craftsmen had a clear goal in mind – a sword for a blacksmith, or a dress for a tailor – and specific steps could consistently be followed to achieve an acceptable result, which provided clear, tangible feedback.

Today, however, workers must sift through massive amounts of information to find relevant pieces, an endeavor that provides little feedback and is a type of shallow work.

As a result, people often feel that their work is meaningless as they have no tangible result to demonstrate.

Studies have found that our brain constructs a picture of the world based on what we devote our limited attention to. The challenge comes in identifying the right pieces to focus on.

MRIs of brains of people of all ages identified that those who were older responded much more strongly to positive stimuli than those who were younger, as they had effectively trained themselves to focus on the positive, and thus found their time to be much more fulfilling.

Those workers who focus on their inbox throughout the day tend to find that their work is much more draining as they are constantly “putting out fires” with immediate responses to e-mails and focusing on the minor problems that always arise.

In another experiment, people tended to find jobs more rewarding than free time.

When one’s mind is stressed in order to accomplish something difficult, this creates a state of “flow.” Jobs have set goals and consistent feedback, whereas during idle time one must find their own ways to gratify themselves.

Work provides more opportunities for “flow” and thus allows for more consistent states of happiness.

Deep work, therefore, would create the ultimate state of flow, as it provides an extended period of difficult concentration, with potentially tangible results.

Thus, in order to be happy at a job, one must find meaning in their work, rather than a means to an unrelated end.

Such a feeling is encouraged through deep work, as not only do tangible results appear faster, but a state of flow and focus promotes positive thinking and feelings.

Rule #1: Work Deeply

We constantly make small decisions to fight our current desires and focus on things we prioritize over immediate gratification. However, as we go through the day, our willpower depletes and we find it ever harder not to succumb.

As a result, in order to be able to shut those stimuli off and focus on the task that requires deep focus, one must have a strategy selected.

There are several different types of philosophies that one can undertake in order to begin and hopefully continue down this path. By identifying a frame of mind that best suits one’s schedule and lifestyle, it becomes easier to incorporate deep work into a daily routine.

a) The Monastic Philosophy

  • By almost completely isolating oneself from shallow stimuli in their life, one can focus for extended periods with little to no interruption.

Example: Donald Knuth – a famous computer science innovator – has no e-mail address and only responds to communications via snailmail… once every three months.

b) The Bimodal Philosophy

  • As opposed to the Monastic Philosophy, which creates a consistent lifestyle of isolation, the Bimodal philosophy identifies stretches of time that one is isolated from shallow stimuli, after which one can return to focusing on other activities that are not as deeply involved.

Example: Carl Jung – a revolutionary psychologist would take time each morning to isolate himself in a nearly bare room to think, followed by a walk in woods and meditation. At the conclusion of this ritual he would return to running his psychological practice.

c) The Rhythmic Philosophy

  • This focuses on creating consistency day-to-day of having some deep work, and tangibly representing this. After developing a rhythm, or chain of days where one has worked deeply, it becomes gratifying to “extend” the chain, and more painful to break it, thus encouraging one to continue the habit.

Example: Jerry Seinfeld – The famous comedian had a calendar where he would cross out a day where he was able to write a joke – an endeavor that requires deep focus and thinking. As the chain grew longer he was encouraged to continue writing daily.

d) The Journalistic Philosophy

  • Through this method, any time that one has free time, one immediately devotes it to deep work. This, however would be considered an advanced method, as it is extremely easy to succumb to the notion that one has no free time… which is generally untrue and can be remedied.

Example: Walter Isaacson – a journalist – would retreat up to a bedroom when his friends were relaxing by the pool or on a patio, to write. After prioritizing his efforts for a certain period of time, he would return to enjoy his evening.

It is not necessarily relevant which one of these philosophies one adapts. What is critical is consistency, and forcing one’s mind to view deep work as a daily necessity.

It is important to identify several factors when picking a philosophy in order to ensure one is successful.

A quiet location, proper timing, tangibly measurable progression, and a systematized method to ensure that it is physically possible to complete the work (e.g. presence of food, materials, restrooms, etc.) are all things to consider.

It can also be helpful to make a “grand gesture” in order to stimulate the initiation of deep work. For example, JK Rowling rented out a hotel room in an extremely expensive hotel to focus on finishing the Harry Potter series.

This investment encouraged her to stay the course, as taking on a large step in life or a major inconvenience in order to focus promotes an internal unhappiness if one were to fail at working deeply. This, therefore, encourages actions towards the opposite.

Isolation also might not necessarily be the best approach.

Although a cacophony of communication is often shallow, when a group of people focused on the same goal gather, positive results can be magnified. It is critical that each individual focuses on working deeply toward similar goals.

Furthermore, it is possible to use new information generated by others to promote one’s own progress. The notion of focusing on one’s own thoughts and having periods of isolation, while also effectively and deeply communicating with others is extremely important.

In The 4 Disciplines of Execution, there are four ideas that can tangibly provide a feedback system for the effectiveness of one’s deep work.

a. Focus on the Wildly Important

  • It is critical to identify a small number of goals that are prioritized above all else. This way one can choose what to work toward and not have to scatter energy among a broad spread of seeming necessities.

b. Act on the Lead Measures

  • Picking ways to measure one’s progress is critical. It can be pages written, books published or anything else that is relevant to the task, but these measures must accurately represent the goals identified. Working toward maximizing these benchmarks will provide further focus.

c. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

  • By making those measures visible to oneself inspires a sense of competition within, prompting deep work to go further than before.

d. Create a Cadence of Accountability

  • A personal weekly review or another person consistently checking on one’s progress will inspire a sense of urgency to work deeply, so as not to disappoint or fail the requirements of the examination.

Of course, nobody is capable of deep work for extremely extended periods. Thus, it is important to embrace downtime, and use it for its intended purposes. However, during those stretches of freedom, instead of filling them with shallow activities, one should embrace the emptiness.

This allows the brain and body to recharge.

By not having to focus on anything, shallow or otherwise, it will be able to be more effective in the next deep working session. Furthermore, subconsciously the brain will continue to work. Often, when not even focusing on a problem, one might instinctively come up with a solution that has eluded them previously.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

We have been prompted to view boredom as negative. In today’s age, with an almost infinite amount of entertainment at one’s fingertips, boredom is not something that comes easily to us.

We are addicted to stimulation, as much as we might hate to admit it. We are dependent on distraction to fill those times where we have no task.

However, even if we do have one, we are not able to focus effectively. Those who are addicted to distractions have difficulty sorting relevant from irrelevant pieces of information and utilizing it properly.

We have begun to view focus as a break from distraction.

In order to work deeply, one must stop taking breaks from distractions and start taking breaks from periods of focus.

One possibility is to remove oneself from the Internet completely for a period. This could be a short hiatus, or an extended period of days, but it is important to remove the crutch of internet access as the solution to boredom.

Even if one’s work requires internet access, it is possible to schedule certain blocks throughout the day to access e-mail and internet, so long as the time spent outside those blocks is completely devoid of web-access.

Taking time away from the internet to work with intensity is critical.

Our lives are fractured in such a way that allows only for small periods to focus. Thus, when those opportunities present themselves they must be used to their fullest potential. It can be helpful to set an artificial deadline for oneself.

Estimating the amount of time a task takes and giving oneself only a fraction to actually complete it works as an extremely effective stimulus to maximize intensity.

When not focusing, one should allow the brain to work on its own toward the goal.

Meditation is likely the best tool for this, if properly utilized.

The first step is resisting distraction and directing the brain to think of the problem. When it begins to become distracted or loop through the same thought repeatedly, it must be consciously reframed to set it on track.

Structuring one’s thinking into a cycle of deep thinking followed by meditation and back again can allow for both types of thinking to be used effectively and neither to take too much of the energy and time available.

A mental exercise that can also be helpful is one used for memorization.

When attempting to remember a large amount of information quickly, a deck of cards for example, one can construct a mental image of a house filled with objects.

Then during the memorization ritual, one mentally walks through the rooms in the house, assigning each block of info (or playing card) to a specific object.

In order to recall this information, they simply repeat their steps, pulling the association between the path and the items “seen” to recall the blocks of information.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

Earlier it was suggested that one take a break from the internet completely. However, this might not be realistic or possible for many.

Therefore, to narrow the suggestion, it can be helpful to take a break from the harmful portions of the internet – social media networks. In and of themselves they are not “bad” but they are consistently used in a shallow manner.

The first step is to look at each network and identify the cost/benefit of participating.

If the benefits do not outweigh the negatives, then logically it makes sense to remove it.

For example, if one uses Facebook to merely keep up with the daily lives of friends, but spends hours doing so, then it is not an effective use of their time. The knowledge of the daily activities of their one-thousand friends brings them little tangible benefit.

It is difficult to objectively say that a social network is more harmful than helpful, but identifying those that are (likely the vast majority) can save a shockingly large amount of time.

To find those tools that will be helpful, it is once again necessary to effectively identify one’s goals. Once selected, one chooses two or three key activities that will best support the pursuit of that challenge.

From there, only those tools that will have a substantially positive impact on that path should be utilized. This follows the Pareto Principle – 80% of progress will be driven by 20% of activities.

Social media rarely falls into that 20% and thus should not be a major focus.

This strategy of eliminating internet “tools” that are actually more harmful than beneficial will assist with the acceptance of boredom mentioned earlier.

Activities that provide some benefit while also clearing the mind should be prioritized. It is often helpful to structure free time in order to prevent straying to the internet and social media for an easy crutch.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Working deeply is not something that can be done constantly.

Those new to the practice often max-out at an hour a day, while those who are masters of this craft top-out at four. To ensure that one exhausts their capacity for deep work, it is important to fully schedule the day.

This level of structure allows identification of where they are using this capacity and if they are maximizing it, allowing for the removal of wasted time, as it becomes easily visible on a calendar.

It is unlikely that this schedule will truly be followed to the minute.

However, if it needs to change, taking a minute to do so will allow one to reframe what needs to be accomplished for the day and realign their focus to achieve those goals.

This reframing allows for uncertainty within the schedule. What is important is the consistent focus on achieving a goal and removal of the waste.

Even with scheduling every minute of the day, tasks will have to be prioritized. One should quantify the depth required of each activity and prioritize the deepest. But how?

A simple question would be

“How long would it take to train a smart recent college grad to complete this task?”

The higher that amount of time is, the more deep work the project requires, and the greater its priority. Within a job environment, however, it can be difficult to prioritize deep work projects.

Thus, communication with one’s superiors is key.

Asking a boss “How much of my time should be spent on shallow vs. deep work?” can spark a conversation that will lead to the desired results.

It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere

With the brain’s capacity for deep work limited to at most four hours a day, there seems to be no reason that the workday should extend into the evening.

Much like setting artificial deadlines for oneself to stimulate intensity, a deadline of 5:30pm daily can support proper prioritization of projects and utilization of that capacity. This requires some sacrifice. Agreeing to too many tasks will not allow for this.

It is extremely important that one is able to identify those projects that move them toward their goal.

In order to minimize the burden on one’s time it is helpful to reduce the flow of communication. Setting a high standard for the e-mails that are sent to you is an example of a “sender filter.”

For example, saying “I will only look at those communications that are less than ten sentences in length, match my ability to assist and do not fill my schedule” will discourage frivolous e-mails.

Such a filter also reduces the expectation that one will receive a response, discouraging irrelevant communications.

It curbs the impulse to constantly check one’s e-mail and respond to each message, as most people know that they likely won’t receive an answer to their inquiry.

When one does respond, composing the response in such a way that ends the conversation will prevent useless back-and-forth. Focusing on the task demonstrated by the message, the composer of the e-mail should construct it in such a way that will most efficiently bring it to its conclusion.

Conclusion

Beginning a lifestyle of working deeply is not an easy task. It requires a focus on focus, and a change of perspective to remove immediate gratification for the sake of greater achievement.

However, with the proper dedication, any layman can make themselves stand out for their ability to produce and learn faster than their peers. If one takes an offhand approach to learning this skill, it is almost certain that the result will be failure.

Once one accepts that deep work is truly beneficial, it is critical to identify a strategy. Consistency leads to success, and once deep work becomes habitual, it will be truly beneficial.

This requires sacrifice. Response times will likely suffer.

One may have less face-time with their peers. This is all a small price to pay for the incredible amount of productivity that will result from proper applications of the lifestyle.

HookedtoBooks.com would like to thank the Titans of Investing for allowing us to publish this content. Titans is a student organization founded by Britt Harris. Learn more about the organization and the man behind it by clicking either of these links.

Britt always taught us Titans that Wisdom is Cheap, and principal can find treasure troves of the good stuff in books. We hope only will also express their thanks to the Titans if the book review brought wisdom into their lives.

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