Deep Work

What This Post Is About

I recently read a book called “Deep Work” by Cal Newport and it is really good. The book is relatively short (less than 200 pages) but it will have a significant positive impact on your life provided you are able to implement everything it talks about. However, if you don’t have the time to read the full book, this post will cover the ideas in the book that have benefitted me the most.

What Is Deep Work

Firstly, what is “deep work”? Simply put, deep work is when

(i) you focus

(ii) without distraction

(iii) for a significant amount of time

(iv) on a cognitively demanding task.

In the digital age, most of us don’t spend a lot of time doing deep work. Most of the work we do is shallow. We are constantly distracted, we multitask, we can’t stick with one activity for too long and most of the work we do manage to get done takes up a lot of time but requires very little mental effort.

Practical Importance Of Deep Work

Deep work is extremely valuable but very few people are good at doing it. Therefore, if you can get better at working deeply, you will have a strong competitive advantage. From a practical and economic perspective, spending less time on shallow tasks and more on deep work is a no-brainer.

Adding Deep Work To Your Schedule

The first problem you need to solve is how you’re going to add deep work to your own life. In this book, Cal offers a couple of different approaches:

First is the monastic approach which involves a total commitment to deep work. You cut yourself off from the world as much as possible and give up everything that might distract you from working deeply. For most people, this is impractical.

Second is the bimodal approach which is when you go back-and-forth between total commitment to deep work and periods of shallow work. This type of approach could potentially work for students. You can work on shallow tasks (i.e. homework and studying) when there’s school but during the vacations, you completely avoid distractions and commit yourself completely to working deeply.

Third is the rhythmic approach. This is when you have specific periods in your day for deep work. If you have to engage in shallow activities throughout the year, this is a good approach. If you are a student, you can block off certain periods before or after school specifically for deep work. Then every day, you use those specific time periods for working deeply without any distractions.

Fourth and final is the journalistic approach. This is basically for those who have unpredictable schedules. If you can’t have specific periods in your day for deep work because you don’t know how many other obligations you’ll have to deal with, this is a good approach. Using this approach, you work deeply whenever you find the time for it. This approach is not recommended for those who are not used to deep work as your mind will probably try to find excuses to avoid deep work even when you have the time.

For me, the rhythmic approach works best during the school year. I get up really early so I can fit in a small chunk of deep work before school usually filled with programming or mathematics. After school, I really don’t have the motivation to engage in mentally strenuous tasks so it helps to have a set routine that I can follow.

Deep Work Rituals

To shift into deep work from shallow work, Cal recommends implementing depth rituals. Habits that you do every time right before you go into deep work mode. Here’s an example of a depth ritual from Cal’s blog: http://calnewport.com/blog/2014/09/13/deep-habits-jumpstart-your-concentration-with-a-depth-ritual/

My own depth ritual includes the following things:

  • Organising my work space
  • Deciding how long I’ll be working for before a break
  • Defining exactly what I need to accomplish
  • Reminding myself why what I’m doing is important
  • Gathering everything I will need for my work
  • Playing instrumental music on headphones if there are noisy distractions
  • Adjusting my posture
  • Starting a timer

After going through this ritual, I am fully concentrated on my work and don’t get up until the time is over (or if there’s some emergency). This has been helpful for me so far. I recommend you make up your own depth ritual to get you in the mood for deep work.

Four Step Process

Cal talks about four disciplines of execution. These are:

  1. Focus on the wildly important. Not only do you have limited time, you also have a limited amount of energy. It makes sense to spend your time and energy on a small number of worthy pursuits rather than spreading yourself too thin.
  2. Act on the lead measures. Lag measures describe the thing you’re trying to improve. If you’re a student, your lag measures could be your grades. Lead measures, however, are behaviours that improve your lag measures. A lead measure could be how much time you spend studying or you performance in practice tests. It is better to focus on your lead measures (by spending more time studying or trying to maximise your score in practice tests) than worrying about your lag measures (your grades).
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard. Keep track of your lead measures. For example, you could keep a tally of hours you’ve spent studying or write down how your performance in practice tests has increased over time. This will motivate you to keep working and acting on those lead measures.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability. Review your scoreboard. Make commitments. Write progress reports. You need to keep track of progress and realise when you’re falling behind.

Embrace Boredom

Constant stimulation is the reason why we have so much trouble focusing when we need to. My aversion to boredom is why I had so much trouble when starting to write this post – staring at a blank word document and writing the first sentence is a teeny bit uncomfortable while it is just so much more interesting to browse Reddit or my favourite blogs. New information is exciting. Thinking and creating something from scratch is not. Sometimes, I can’t even eat a meal or read a book mindfully without having the constant urge to check my phone or google some random question. It is clear to me that learning to embrace boredom will not only increase my capacity to focus but also improve my enjoyment of life. I’m trying to do that by checking my emails and messages during specific times only, by not multi-tasking and by practising mindfulness – focusing on just one activity and not letting my thoughts wander.

Quit Social Media

One of the boldest pieces of advice Cal always gives is to quit social media. He has given a TEDx talk on this topic as well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E7hkPZ-HTk

There isn’t much I can add to that. What worked for me was that I just simply logged out of my social media accounts and stopped posting for a while (without writing a “I am taking a break from social media” post). I realised that I wasn’t missing out on much and that thought drastically culled my usage of social media.

Be Lazy

In the 1980s, at the height of his intellectual productivity, Stephen Hawking used to head home from his office between five and six. He rarely worked later.

Here’s how he explained his behavior to his PhD student Bruce Allen:

“Bruce, here’s some advice: The problem with physics is that most of the days we don’t make any major headway (on our projects). That’s why you should do other stuff: listen to music, meet good friends. There’s one exception to this rule: If you find a solution for a given problem, you work 24 hours a day and forget everything else. Until the problem is solved in its entirety.”

If you’re only doing shallow work, then you can probably afford to be busy all the time. However, if you want to do more deep work, then breaks and relaxation are important. You need to be able to chill outside of work so that you can give it your full attention when it actually is time to work. Also you need to not spend all your time just doing work. Otherwise, you may fall into the common trap of always being busy rather than being actually productive. This goes hand in hand with the earlier advice of focusing on the wildly important.

Bonus: Fixed Schedule Productivity

This is something that wasn’t really mentioned in much detail in the book but it is the idea that has had the greatest positive impact on my productivity. Cal wrote a blog post about it: http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/02/15/fixed-schedule-productivity-how-i-accomplish-a-large-amount-of-work-in-a-small-number-of-work-hours/. It’s a small post and you should definitely read it. Essentially, what Cal recommends is: “Fix the schedule you want. Then make everything else fit around your needs.” Don’t goof off during the times you have fixed for work in your schedule. Don’t work outside of those set times. At least for myself, if I don’t have a fixed schedule, I either find myself working all the time on unimportant tasks or slack off too much because I haven’t planned enough time for resting and recharging.

I hope this post has been helpful. Thank you for reading!

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3 thoughts on “Deep Work

  1. Thanks for writing this up. I haven’t had a chance to read the book, and it looks like this post ~80/20’s the insights. Will think more about what it means to lean more in this direction and see.

    Like

  2. Deep Work does an excellent job thoroughly explaining the process, and you have done an excellent job summarizing key points

    Tell me a little something!

    … Of all the items on this post, which one is the most important to you and your productivity?

    Like

    1. Hmm. Deep work rituals are the most important to my productivity as they help me get into a more focused mindset for when I’m trying to get some important work done. Thanks for reading the post and leaving feedback btw!

      Like

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