Book: Deep Work (part 2)


March 12, 2021



In the previous post in this series, I summarised the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. In this post, I go into more detail, describing how deep work is valuable, rare and meaningful. Then we take a closer look at Newport’s Rule #1: Work Deeply.

As before, I have organized these insights, examples and guidelines within the framework and headings of the book. In a way, these are my detailed notes from the book.

Deep Work Is Valuable

Technology is shaping a new economy.

Example: Instagram had 13 employees when purchased for $1B. Companies with few employees can have huge value. The wealth created flows back to the owners (in this case VCs, founders and employees).

Insight: being able to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level are key abilities. Technology is changing fast so we need to learn continuously. This takes deep work. We must also be able to transform these abilities into results that people value.

Example: Newton mentions Ericsson’s paper on deliberate practice which requires focussed attention (lack of distraction) and feedback so you can correct your approach. It’s not enough to have talent.

Example: Adam Grant the author and professor, batches hard but important work into long uninterrupted phases. As a professor he does all of his teaching in one semester then he focuses on research in the rest of the year. When researching he works in 3-4 day bursts where he avoids interruption. Newton summarizes this approach as the equation:

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

Insight: when Newton studied undergraduate performance, he noticed the best students often studied less than those just below them in grades. Intensity seemed to be the key difference.

Example: Teddy Roosevelt had a broad range of interests in college. He spent relatively few hours studying but when he did he focussed completely on the subject he was studying. Roosevelt used artificial deadlines and constraints, like interval training for his attention centers.

Insight: when switching from one task to another, a residue of your attention stays with the original task. Experiments show performance on the next task is affected in proportion to the amount of residue.

Insight: self-organisation approaches like Scrum, free managerial time for thinking deeply about problems teams are facing.

Deep Work Is Rare

Insight: modern workplace trends like open offices and electronic communication make deep work harder.

Insight: newer communication communications like realtime chat are even worse than email for deep work. We can choose to open an email, whereas chat interfaces are real time and generate interrupts on our phone or computer.

It’s easier for someone to use chat notifications to interrupt us for something that’s not urgent. This is a personal bugbear of mine. I’ve tried to deflect this issue by stopping WhatsApp notifications and adding guidelines to the company wiki on how to use Slack (chat software).

Guideline: communicate best practices around chat.

Insight: even short interruptions delay the total time to complete a task. While this stands to reason, I tracked down the referenced academic paper by Mark, Gonzales and Harris. I couldn’t find specific data on this in the paper.

Insight: as knowledge work becomes more complex, it gets harder to quantify or measure the value of someone's effort.

Insight: without context on which behaviours have the most value to the organization, people revert to the activities that are easiest to do in the moment. This is frequently email.

Methodologies like Getting-Things-Done (GTD) seem complicated by comparison with a 15-element flowchart to decide what to do next. I work using a simplified variant of GTD and find it useful. In the years since, Newport seems to think less of GTD.

Insight: meetings fracture schedules and makes it hard to find time for sustained focus.

Insights: emails are asymmetric. It can take seconds to forward an email that consumes hours of the receiver’s attention.

Example: the physicist Richard Feynman invented a myth for himself that he was actively irresponsible about administrative duties. “To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time … if you have a job administering anything, you don’t have the time.”

Insight: “Clarity about what matters, provides clarity about what does not”.

I often say, prioritization is about being comfortable about what I’m not doing. I may have read this somewhere else but I can’t remember where now.

Insight: busyness is a proxy for productivity. Without clear indicators of what it means to be productive, knowledge workers do “stuff” in a visible manner.

Insight: deep work is displaced in favor of distracting behaviors. For example, journalists and authors are told to be active on social media. Engineers are asked to punch virtual timesheets.

Deep Work Is Meaningful

Example: Newton mentions Ric Furrer, a blacksmith who uses traditional painstaking methods to shape a sword by hammering it for hours. One mistake can break it. There’s a connection between this deep work and a sense of meaning he seems to get from his work.

Insight: craftwork like Furrer’s is simple to define but hard to execute. Knowledge work is more ambiguous. On the surface everyone seems to be in the same cycle of email, documents, spreadsheets and slides.

Example: the science writer Winifred Gallagher discovered the connection between attention and happiness when she had cancer. She focussed on what she could do and what was good in her life “movies, walks and a 6:30 martini.”

Insight: our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.

Example: a couple arguing about household chores. They each might focus on the other’s selfishness. Alternatively, they could focus on the fact that an ancient festering conflict has arisen again. This time could be the first step in finding a solution.

Guideline: find the emotional “leverage point” to convert a negative event into a more positive outcome.

Example: scientists tested the neurological reaction to positive and negative images in young and elderly subjects. They found the elderly didn’t react as much to the negative. The elderly had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive.

Insight: when you spend time in deep work, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning.

Example: the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studies “flow”.

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Insight: work is easier to enjoy than free time because it has built in rules and goals. It’s easier to concentrate and lose yourself. Free time is less structured.

Insight: in experiments, researchers found a correlation between the number of flow experiences and life satisfaction.

Guideline: redesign jobs so they resemble flow activities. By default, most work environments are difficult to shape.

Guideline: as an individual, seek opportunities for flow because that will lead to deep satisfaction.

Example: Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Sorrance Kelly research how sacredness and meaning have evolved during human history.

Insight: the work of a craftsman is not to generate meaning but build the skills to find the meaning inherent in the material they’re working with. In craftwork this material could be wood or metal. In knowledge work, the material could be code or a marketing campaign.

Insight: the approach to the work is more important than the outcome. The process of embracing deep work can transform knowledge work from a “draining obligation” into a “world of shining, wondrous things”.

Rule #1: Work Deeply

Example: the artist David Dewane designed the “Eudaimonia Machine” a sequence of rooms culminating in a “deep work chamber”. He imagines alternating between 90 minutes in deep work and 90 minute breaks.

Insight: when trying to concentrate we are often overcome by the urge to switch attention to something more superficial.

Insight: humans have a finite amount of willpower. Interestingly, another book (Indistractible by Eyal Nir) says this insight is based on research that mixes up cause and effect. I’ll write about that book in a near future post.

Guideline: develop rituals to minimize the amount of willpower needed to switch into and maintain concentration.

Guideline: decide your “depth philosophy”, how you will integrate deep work into your schedule. Some options are:

  • Monastic: be hard to reach like Donald Knuth (computer scientist) or Neal Stephenson (author)
  • Bimodal: clearly defined time periods of deep work (from days to months like Adam Grant)
  • Rhythmic: work deeply for part of every day. Newton mentions Jerry Seinfeld as a comedian who would write every day. This mode can result in more total deep hours over a long period of time.
  • Journalistic: train yourself to switch into a deep work mode any time the opportunity presents itself. Walter Isaacson is cited as an example. This mode requires practice.

Insight: David Brooks said great creative minds “... think like artists but work like accountants”.

Guideline: a deep work ritual decides:

  • Where
  • How long
  • How you’ll work (i.e. an internet ban)
  • How you’ll support the work (good coffee or tea)

Examples: of people who made a “grand gesture”. J.K Rowling lived and worked in an expensive hotel in Edinburgh to finish the Deathly Hallows. Bill Gates uses “think weeks” to get away from day-to-day work and read.

Insight: open plan offices are not conducive to deep work.

Guideline: when designing an office space, make sure to include spaces for deep work. Consider a “hub-and-spoke” arrangement with a combination of communal and deep work spaces.

Insight: discern between what to do and how to do it. In Newton’s own case he’d identified why deep work was important but not how to do it. For this he applied guidelines from “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” (4DX) by McChesney, Covey and Huling.

Guidelines: the four disciplines are

  1. Focus on the wildly important - say yes to the work “that arouses a terrifying longing”. In the book they suggest focussing on 1-2 wildly-important-goals (WIGs).
  2. Act on the “lead” measures. A “lag” measure like customer satisfaction gives you results too late to make adjustments. “Lead” measures quantify new behaviours. In this case, a lead measure could simply be the time spent in deep work.
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard & make it visible
  4. Create a cadence of accountability. For example, perform a weekly review of deep work done and a plan for the following week. David Allen’s GTD has a similar guideline.

Insight: execution is more difficult than strategizing. The authors of 4DX analysed hundreds of case studies to isolate the 4 disciplines (guidelines) above.

Insight: downtime is important for recovery and long term energy levels. It aids insights (making this a meta level insight).

Example: in an experiment, two groups did a “backward digit-span” test after going for a walk. The first group went for a walk in nature and the second through a city. The nature walking group performed 20% better in the experiment.

Insight: for a novice, an hour of intense concentration is the limit. Through deliberate practice this can be expanded to four hours (rarely more).

Insight: incomplete tasks can dominate our attention in our free time.

Insight: rest improves the quality of deep work.

Guideline: use a shutdown ritual at the end of the work day. Review incomplete tasks and make sure they’re recorded. Say a phrase to provide an explicit cue to your mind, for example “shutdown complete”.

It’s time to shutdown this post. I’ll return in a few days with the final installment of this summary of Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

Thanks for reading!

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Credits: photo by T La on Unsplash

Disclosure: some links in this post may use Amazon affiliate links.

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