For some time now, I have been a fan of podcasts. A few months back, on one of the productivity podcasts, I heard an interview with Cal Newport talking about his new book – Deep Work. In the podcast, he defined what Deep Work meant and how his book talked about rules for focused work in a distracted world. The more I heard it, the more I related to it.
Do we need more focused work? Yes. Are we living in an increasingly distracted world? Most definitely.
After that podcast, I checked my library and realized they did have the book. I put my name on the waitlist and a few weeks later I was able to lay my hands on this deeply insightful book.
Considering just how rich this book is in its nuggets of wisdom, I can justice to it only through 2 posts. Even with the two posts, I will be concise with the points. If you want to learn more about how you could challenge your potential and produce your best possible work, this book is a must-read.
To me, Deep Work is almost like a core life philosophy, pretty much like what frugality is to Personal Finance.
While being frugal urges you to focus on spending your money on the things or experiences most important to you, Deep Work instead urges you to spend your time, energy and focus on cognitively challenging projects that could be most important and satisfying in your life.
What is Deep Work?
Newport defines Deep Work as – 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.
On the other spectrum lies Shallow Work defined by Newport as – 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.
To me, these two definitions clearly spelled out what Deep Work would include and what it would categorically exclude. In some ways, it was also a reality check as *most* of my day-to-day activities in my current day job really count as Shallow Work. Unless I am writing a brief with all the insights and thoughts and merging various sources of data, most of my communication role does not require depth. On the other hand, when I was preparing to be a Certified Financial Planner, not only was it new content, but it was also cognitively challenging absorbing which required laser-sharp focus.
Think and see for yourself as to what does your day look like? Is it mostly comprised of shallow work or do you indeed manage to get deep work done? If you are still not convinced of the need for deep work, Newport makes compelling science-backed arguments about its multi-faceted benefits for us as individuals beyond the main idea of productivity and improved quality of output.
The author devotes a fair amount of time to establish the fact that while deep work is important, today’s workplaces do not seem to be inculcating a culture promoting it for their employees. In the interest of scope and actionability, I will skip this part and move on directly to the practical advice shared by Newport on various aspects of increasing one’s ability to do Deep Work.
In this post, I will cover the main points made by Newport in helping you get Deep Work Done. This section deals with the idea of building small routines and habits to inculcate Deep Work to structure it better in our lives, in 6 steps.
Define your deep work scheduling philosophy
Newport identifies 4 philosophies for deep work scheduling. Each individual has a varied working style and only you can decide which philosophy might reap richer dividends for you.
1. Monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling
This is the most extreme version of deep work adopted by people whose career and reputation depends on their output and their lives can be rearranged in a way to cut out all avenues of shallow work. The word Monastic is a great descriptor considering this approach has the practitioners almost shunning any non-productive work, action or connect with the rest of the world.
2. Bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling
Using this mode of deep work scheduling, the practitioner tries to demarcate in black and white the times utilised for shallow or for deep work. One of the important examples given in this regard is the well-known psychologist Carl Jung who would neatly divide his time into a self-imposed exile for research in an isolated tower and time at Zurich meeting clinical patients as well socialising at coffee houses. Today, some people try to follow this approach by doing deep work during sabbaticals from work.
3. Rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling
This philosophy of deep work scheduling is, to me, more like building a habit. It involves chalking out a fixed slot of time every day and immersing oneself in deep work pursuits. This is also a philosophy I have tried applying to my life personally when I chose to switch and become a morning person. I do have a confession to make. I am not as regular at it as I would like to be as I often give in to excuses in the morning to sleep in some more, especially if there is no pressing task to look into. However, if you realize the need to incorporate deep work in your life, this might be one of the simplest yet most rewarding ways to do it by finding a fixed time slot comfortable to pursue the holy grail of Deep Work.
4. Journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling
This philosophy for deep work is, in my mind, a little tricky to carry out. The premise behind it is that the practitioner simply carves out small chunks throughout the day in an impromptu manner, dive into deep work and get out of it. However, before you go convincing yourself that this is the one for you, know that it probably works best for Deep Work veterans who can call upon this skill almost like a switch.
In my life, today, writing my blog posts is a task that requires me to plunge to one of the deepest ends of work. It is also a skill that gets better as I write.
I often used to complain that a. I don’t have the time to write and b. I don’t find topics inspiring enough to write about.
With my blog, I now understand the reason as to why Cal Newport talks about the importance of a ritual to get artistic output out. Just a self-imposed tradition of putting out blog posts on Mondays and Fridays helps me with ensuring I write. On this subject, Newport puts in a great quote by David Brooks, in a New York Times article:
“[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”
With ritualizing also, Newport advises you to have clarity on the following points:
Where you’ll work and for how long
Working at the same location often gives a cue to the brain to get into focus mode. Often just shutting the door to a room, is a good enough cue that it is time for Deep Work. The length of time should also be pre-defined. Ideally, you should try to keep increasing it as you get comfortable with the idea. The length of the time is definitely an area I am trying to work on.
How you’ll work once you start to work
Either have rules to define how you will work or a metric to define what constitutes as Deep Work for that phase, for instance, number of words written in a half hour period. Having to think about what to do in the time carved out for Deep Work is going to only take you away from it.
How you’ll support your work
The environment is crucial for the optimum functioning of the brain. Know what your brain needs to get to the starting line. Is it a cup of coffee? Or is it just the sight of the right tools in place?
Make Grand Gestures
Sometimes grand gestures are the only way to get into that zone of Deep Work. For instance, Newport talks about the story of J.K. Rowling booking a room in the nearby Balmoral Hotel to complete the last instalment of the Harry Potter series. The grand gesture of a complete isolation and the inspiration of looking out to Edinburgh castle (from where the inspiration for Hogwarts struck) is what it took for her to get into that mode considering the constant distraction at home.
A grand gesture is not just about an environment change but about taking your commitment so seriously that you are willing to make a big gesture for it (through your actions). When I was studying for GMAT, I was living in a Paying Guest accommodation. Every weekend, I would walk to the nearby coffee shop, order breakfast and plonk myself on the couch near the glass wall. For me, going to the coffee shop told me it was time for me to immerse myself in the GMAT material. It seemed to have worked considering I managed a decent score of 740 having studied for a few months and not taking a single day off work.
Don’t Work Alone
Now, this is a very tricky tightrope balance. On one hand, Newport laments the recent trend of open office structures and on the other hand, a piece of advice for Deep Work is to collaborate.
However, the idea is that some tasks require a collaborative effort. Also, even during collaboration, each individual should ideally be as committed to the task at hand so that the combined effort itself is an instance of Deep Work. In most cases, it is easy for conversations to deviate and fizzle out of the depth.
In collaborative efforts, Newport detects what he defines as the “whiteboard effect” whereby working with someone else (with the right questions and inputs) pushes you to higher levels of professional output than you would alone.
One of the best collaborative Deep Work efforts that I have seen in a TV sitcom is in The Big Bang Theory. The 4 main characters of Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj can often be seen huddled over a whiteboard to together come up with a solution to a common problem. Of course, sometimes the “problem” had more to do with comic books or a TV show than science like they do in this video!
Execute like a business
In this mantra, Newport takes inspiration from the book – 4 Disciplines of execution (Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, Jim Huling). While the book has been written keeping a business environment in mind, Newport applies the 4DX framework to personal life and in the quest of integrating deep work into your life.
Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important
To do this, it is important to be able to list your professional and personal goals. Then, it is also important to not overestimate how much you can manage to focus. Put in your attention instead on the goals that are extremely important for you in life.
Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures
This was one of the interesting learnings for me. For any metric, there will be lead or lag measures. For instance, in the case of a bank’s customer service quality, the number of complaints about a credit card would be a lag measure, whereby the act has happened and it just reflects the story. However, the number of welcome calls made for new Credit Card customers would be a lead measure, which feeds into the result, happens before it and also is a far better way of controlling actions that can be taken.
Newport talks about how you must act on Lead Measures than the conventional lag measures, even in your Deep Work. Instead of gunning for the objective of having a book out, you could tweak your goal to writing every day for an hour or a 1000 words.
Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
Tracking the lead measure is extremely important. Unless you track something, the probability of following through on it as a habit is extremely rare.
For this, I use a habit tracker in my bullet journal. While I will elaborate on it in a separate post, suffice it to say using either a habit tracker app or a hard copy of a score board is very helpful as it puts in a goal post.
Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability
Take stock of your performance or habit, once a week. Check how you have done on your lead measures and whether you are progressing on your Deep Work tasks. Also, consider if there are any tweaks that you need to make in your Deep Work rituals.
While this title could be a little misleading, Newport argues that in order to get Deep Work done, you need to get enough downtime. Machines do a lot of our cognitive work today but they also need their downtime, right? We are mere mortals.
Ensure that you have clear separations of time between work and leisure. In this leisure, be mindful of where you are – be it at a party meeting friends or spending time with your family. Apart from giving tips on devising a downtime ritual, Newport puts forth 3 very important reasons on the importance of regular complete breaks from work.
Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights
Often solutions to the most complex problems occur to us when we are not consciously thinking of them. The author talks about the Danish social psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis and his Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT). The crux of the theory gives the view that in case of some decisions, rather than mulling over it consciously at all times, it’s more productive to load relevant information, let it mull in the layers of the subconscious and move on to some other cognitively non-challenging task (hence, downtime). The unconscious has a mysterious way of working out complex matters which the conscious often does not.
Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply
Newport details out the attention restoration theory (ART) where the idea is that directed or focussed attention is a finite resource which needs frequent recharging or replenishment. This directed attention is obviously a core ingredient of Deep Work.
This resource of directed attention can be replenished by giving breaks where the activities are inherently relaxing and do not require cognitive ability. Some instances of such activities, as mentioned by Newport are: a casual conversation with a friend, listening to music while making dinner, playing a game with your kids or going for a run.
Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important
Even if you believe that you are an expert at deep, focused work, research points out that the maximum period of intense concentration would be four hours in a day. It is quite clear that a downtime then becomes more valuable considering the opportunity cost is not going to be a chunk of Deep Work.
While this post covers the main ways in which you can dive into Deep Work, as a habit, it can be pursued only after aligning certain factors, be it embracing boredom, quitting social media (No, he is not asking you to become a hermit) or draining the shallows from your life. These however, require another post of their own. So, absorb this post, see which parts can be implemented in your life immediately and then come back for the concluding post next Friday. If you find these directions interesting and compelling, be sure to give the book a try. It sure has been enlightening for me.
Have you read the book? What did you make out of it? How much of it are you going to implement in your life? Let me know in the comments below.