Deep diving into Deep Work

Cover of Deep Work by Cal Newport

If self improvement is your goal , consider reading this book during this Lock-down.

I will refer to Cal as “He” (akin to Him, god the all-knowing) in this write up because he has definitely earned the authority on this topic. He gives a name to the productive state of “flow” most of us like to attain at work but which we can rarely maintain for more than a couple minutes when the next emergency interrupts our attention. The book is all about how to create an environment in which Deep Work is possible and how to reduce the time spent on Shallow Work.

According to him 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. He further goes to define “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.”

Whereas “Shallow Work” is:

“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 book is structured in two parts. The first part motivates Deep Work in stating that Deep Work is valuable, rare and meaningful. The second part describes four rules that help to facilitate Deep Work. I had some trouble staying motivated through the first part which goes into details about why Deep Work is important. You can skip Part 1 totally if I am able to convince you the importance of Deep Work but if not skim through.

Chapter 1 explains why deep work matters. Our economy is changing, and the days of doing the same thing over and over for 40 years until you retire are over. Cal lays out an interesting theory for 3 types of workers, Superstars, Owners and High Skill Workers and makes a convincing and important argument for the importance in the future of being able to work at higher levels of abstraction and work with intelligent machines. In this chapter he also makes a case for the two critical skills for knowledge workers:

1. Learning Quickly

2. Producing at an Elite Level

Chapter 2 focuses on why deep work is rare and essential for achieving success in this VUCA (Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. He shows how distractions are becoming more and more common for knowledge workers, and that attention is becoming a rare ability. Newport makes a good case for how complex knowledge work is often hard to measure, so managers measure busyness instead of output that relates to bottom line results (KPIs). People end up optimizing for looking busy instead of getting real work done.

Chapter 3 goes into the why of deep work. Newport give 3 theories on why deep work is meaningful, a psychological, neurological and a philosophical reason.

Part 2 is full of tips and insights and covers four chapters on the rules of Deep Work ie Work Deeply, Embrace Boredom, Quit Social media (take what resonates and leave the rest) and Drain the Shallows. I plan to write more on it but here are a few takeaways that I could list down:

  1. Schedule time for Deep Work, ideally in a rhythmic fashion to establish a habit. By Rhythmic he means fixed times for work and relaxation. This is to ensure we are not all work and no play.
  2. Set impossible deadlines. The only way to keep an impossible deadline is focused work.

Schedule every minute of your day in order to keep shallow distractions at bay.

  • Consciously decide for every entry in your schedule if it’s deep or shallow to set the mood. Give yourself a budget of Shallow Work and don’t overspend it.
  • Ritualize where you work and how you work. Create rules that help you focus.
  • You needn’t be alone for Deep Work. Collaborative Deep Work is possible (Newport calls it the “Whiteboard Effect”). This doesn’t mean that Open Space is the best office layout, though.
  • Take breaks from focus, don’t take breaks from distraction. Schedule breaks from focused work regularly.
  • Execute like a business. Focus on the important, measure your deep work time and results and keep track of them on a scoreboard, and do a regular review. This is called the “4 Disciplines of Execution” (4DX) Framework
  • Have a weekly rendezvous with yourself to review your achievements and plan out the next week.
  • Don’t extend your work day into the evening to do Deep Work, because it’s most likely not productive. Establish a “shutdown ritual” to follow every day after work in which you check the status of today’s tasks and your calendar for the next day. This helps to free your mind to let go until the next day. Take downtimes away from work seriously as they help to recharge.
  • Meditate productively on Deep Work problems when running, driving, or anything that is not mentally engaging
  • Quit social media because it’s a shallow distraction. Be hard to reach to avoid shallow distractions.
  • Identify the high-level goals you want to reach and the key activities that help you reach them.

Overall Thoughts:

There are lots of powerful insights in the book. Even if you don’t buy the entire process, you’ll pick up some tips and tricks that will make you more productive. I personally find it annoying that he talks about deleting social media accounts! Social Media provides pleasure and relaxation to people, which is exactly why it can be addictive.  The secret is moderation, not elimination. This Lock-down has proved to be a blessing in disguise because not only did I get the opportunity to read this book but also actively implement some of its principles.

Cheers to Deep diving into everything we do!

2 Replies to “Deep diving into Deep Work”

  1. Thanks a lot Anuya. This books was in to be read list for a long time – you made it easier for me now. Thanks a lot.

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