Deep Work

deep-work-cal-newport Though I had heard most of the ideas in Deep Work before (e.g., distractions destroy your ability to do anything of consequence, Facebook notifications are rewiring your brain to mush), Newport presented the ideas in a way where doing the deep work and cutting out the distractions and focusing for long stretches of time became the shiny toy.

The general idea is that deep work (that is, work of significant consequence or value) requires periods of deep concentration and no distractions. Newport says it requires about 90 minutes to fully become engaged in the level of focus required. The reason why there can’t be any distractions (e.g., text messages, email notifications) is that, to think deeply, neural networks need to make new deep connections–and if you use more surface, habitual neural networks (say, to reply to an email), you will block yourself from being able to forge the deeper connections.

One of the reasons I was excited about Deep Work was because I was finding I would work long weeks, feeling ultra-busy and doing a seeming mountain of tasks, but in the end would feel dissatisfied with the lasting significance of what I had accomplished. Here Newport offers a lot of advice for saying no to trivial tasks and commitments, as they won’t amount to much. He quotes Neal Stephenson, who says:

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.

Obviously, not everyone is a novelist who can shut out the world, but for those whose work inherently needs both deep work and shallow work (e.g., correspondence, meetings), Newport suggests the following methods to integrate regular periods of deep work into your life:

  • Taking a day or longer to dive completely in. He references Bill Gates and his famous “think weeks” where he would spend a week in a cabin in the woods, just reading and contemplating
  • A rhythmic approach, such as a daily routine to do 2 hours of deep work at 7am every weekday.
  • The “journalist approach,” where you do deep work whenever you can find it. Newport says he uses this approach because his schedule is so unpredictable, but he tries to plan out his week for when he will have deep work time and schedule it

What I have also found is that, although I love the idea of deep work, getting myself to do it consistently is harder than reading a book extolling its virtues. Here Newport also offers helpful advice–he tracks his hours of deep work by logging a tick for every deep work hour each week, and circles the ticks when he makes a breakthrough (photo and blog about this). This helps him gauge how much deep work it takes to reach goals, and motivates him to be consistent in getting the hours in.

Deep Work TL;DR:

High quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)

And if you’re a nerd like me, you may be interested in a desktop background of the formula.