What follows are my notes on Cal Newport's book, Deep Work. He defines deep work as, essentially, work that requires concentration, and that cannot be done well in the presence of frequent distractions. I mainly focused on the advice I found useful from the second part of the book, entitled "The Rules." I included reasoning and examples only when they seemed essential. Newport's rules each have many parts, and are meant to be adopted in sequence. Each one builds on, and is more involved than, the previous one. Where I've used Newport's words exactly, I've attempted to indicate that, but I'm mostly repeating him throughout. The formatting is inconsistent - I may come back and fix that later.
I highly recommend reading Deep Work yourself. Newport writes concisely, so most of the book is genuine content that is worth your time. The notes below leave out many enlightening and helpful arguments and examples. Hopefully they will nonetheless be of use.
I. Work deeply
A. Your approach to depth
He describes four "philosophies," but the only one that seems reasonable for a typical working person was what he called the "rhythmic philosophy" - namely, do deep work every day.
- Use a calendar to keep track of the days you worked. As a young comedian, Jerry Seinfeld kept a calendar on which he would cross out the day only if he wrote a new joke that day. The goal was to make a "chain" of days as long as he could, and thus write that many new jokes.
- Work at a set time for a set period. Try, for example, waking up early and writing before going to your job.
Make rules for everything. Great minds "think like artists but work like accountants." In Robert Caro's office, everything is governed by rules. Where his books go, where he stacks his notebooks, what he puts on the wall, and what he wears there. All routine. "I trained myself to be organized."
- Where you'll work and for how long
- How you'll work once you start work - structure work with rules and process. Ban internet usage. Require words per quarter-hour. Otherwise, you'll have to "mentally litigate" what you should or shouldn't be doing every time.
- How you'll support your work - Food/exercise/coffee, environment/organization/cleaning
C. Make grand gestures
J. K. Rowling rented a luxury hotel room to finish Harry Potter, because she had a hard time concentrating. Alan Lightman goes to a Maine island without internet and phone. Nobel-prize winner William Shockley locked himself in a Chicago hotel room for a week to finish his transistor design. Peter Shankman finished a book by flying to Tokyo, drinking a coffee, and flying back. He could work deeply on airplanes.
Distraction destroys depth, but, when reasonable, leverage the "whiteboard effect" - i.e., have a back-and-forth with someone.
E. Follow the disciplines of execution
Clayton Christensen wrote a book called The Four Disciplines of Execution, about running a business. The same advice can perhaps apply to an individual's work. Here are his four disciplines:
- Focus on the wildly important - "The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish." Pick a small number of ambitious but highly meaningful goals, and focus your deep work only on those goals.
- Act on the lead measures - "Lag measures" measure the success of what you have done, "lead measures" measure the behaviors that will lead to success in the future. In our case, time spent in deep work is the key lead measure. Accomplishment of milestones - book chapters written, for example - are also lead measures.
- Keep a compelling scoreboard - Record and track the lead measures in a visible place, like Seinfeld did with his calendar. More on this from Cal Newport
- Create a cadence of accountability - For an individual, there is no one else to hold you accountable to your measures, so conduct a weekly scorecard review. If you aren't reaching the goals you want at the rate you want, try and find changes to your process that can help you meet them.
F. Take downtime
Shutdown your work brain when it's time to stop working. No checking email, no thinking about problems, no replaying conversations, nothing. You leave it completely until the next day.
Reasons for daily downtime:
- Downtime aids insights. This is obvious to anyone who's had an insight. They don't happen when you're trying for them.
- Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply. Studies show taking peaceful breaks improves concentration.
- The that evening time replaces is usually not that important. Studies show that even well-practiced experts in their fields cannot work deeply for more than about four hours in a day. If you go on working late, you aren't working deeply.
Consider enacting a shutdown ritual, to mark the end of the work day for yourself. Save your work, clean up, whatever. Make a list of tasks for the next day. (Having a plan for achieving a goal both helps you achieve it and relieves you of some of the cognitive burden involved.) When he's finished his ritual, Newport says out loud, "Shutdown complete."
II. Embrace Boredom
A. Take breaks from focus, not breaks from distraction
Distraction rewires us to crave more distraction. It's much harder to move from distraction to focus than the opposite. You can retrain your mind for focus instead of distraction. The more you do it, the more you are trained to do it, and the better you do it in the future. So, instead of scheduling time to focus, schedule time to be distracted, and don't permit it outside that time.
- This works even if your job requires lots of distraction. Just schedule lots of it
- Regardless of how you schedule it, keep all other time absolutely free from internet use
- Scheduling internet use at home further trains your mind for concentration
B. Use time pressure
Consider one of your deep-work projects. Estimate how long you would expect it to take. Now set a hard deadline drastically shorter than this time. Force yourself to work deeply in all the parts of the day you have available for the purpose. Force yourself to do more, and with more intensity, than is comfortable.
C. Problem-solving meditation
Take time when "you're occupied physically, but not mentally," such as when walking, exercising, or taking a shower. Use that time to think deeply about one well-defined problem in your work. The goal is not primarily to solve the problem, but to further build the muscle of concentration by forcing yourself to think deeper and deeper about the same problem. It takes several sessions to see results, but Newport offers these suggestions:
- Be wary of distractions - You are likely to have unrelated thoughts about seemingly more interesting problems come up, and you have to put them aside, and get back to the main topic. This is similar to returning to your breath in meditation.
- Be wary of "looping" - You will tend to rehash aspects of the problem you've already worked out. Again, you need to bring your mind back to moving deeper, into territory you have not yet explored.
- Structure your deep thinking - Identify the elements or variables in your problem first, then come up with the "next step question" - the question you have to answer to get on with things. Once you've solved the sub-problem this question poses, review what you've figured out.
D. Memorize a deck of cards
Newport suggests following the steps in this blog post to teach yourself how to better organize and structure you deep thinking.
III. Quit Social Media
Rather than recommend quitting all social media wholesale, since it has its uses, Newport suggests taking "the craftsman approach to tool selection:"
Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative effects.
He gives three strategies for implementing this rule.
- The law of the vital few - Identify the broad, central goals in both your professional and personal life, and, for each goal, the two or three main that help you progress with it. Then, for a given social media tool, rate the impact the tool has on each of those activities as "very good," "very bad," or "little impact." Use this as your yardstick for the tool.
- The 30-day anti-trial - Don't use the tool at all for 30 days. At the end, ask yourself if your time would have been substantially better if you had been using that tool. Then ask if people cared that you weren't using it. If the answer to both is "no," get rid of it.
- Don't use the internet to entertain yourself - Put more thought into your leisure time. If you chose to be entertained for two hours, you'd probably choose a book, a movie, or a conversation over dicking around online.
IV. Drain the Shallows
This is the section where Newport basically recommends overhauling your entire life.
A. Schedule every minute of every day
Make a schedule at the beginning of every day indicating what you are going to do for the entire day. This isn't set in stone, but, when you deviate from the schedule, update it. He then gives some techniques for avoiding being buried by the work of perpetual schedule-updating.
My friend at work does this, but I wonder for how long. I'm not planning on attempting it, myself. It's the kind of ambitious plan that attracts my desire for self-reform, but ultimately overwhelms me, and becomes more of a deterrent to action than a help. Instead, I'd like to institute an "Army day" - one day a week where I do like he says, and schedule rigorously. If I get the hang of it and it's helpful, I can always do it on additional day, or every day.
B. Quantify the depth of every activity
If you have a schedule for the day, then you can rate each block of time by how "deep" or "shallow" it is. He defines shallow work as tasks which are mentally undemanding and often performed in a state of distraction. He suggests rating activities by asking yourself how many months it would take to train a relatively smart newcomer to do it.
The rest of his suggestions are specific to office-work, and don't mean much to me in my own job or personal projects, so I'm skipping them.