Here are my notes, quotes and thoughts from Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport.
This was one of the best books I’ve read in recent years and I would include it on my 10 must-read books for any leader. I’m glad I chose it for my 2017 reading list.
Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”
Bill Gates described how this works when explaining how he takes “Think Weeks” twice a year.
Network tools are distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused.
“Our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind.” – Brynjolfsson and McaAfee, Race Against the Machine.
Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy
- The ability to quickly master hard things
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
Learning requires concentration. K. Anders Ericsson calls this deliberate practice. It’s focused attention, usually on a singular problem, plus helpful feedback.
To produce at peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
Without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment. For example, forwarding an email and asking for “thoughts” is easiest, but the result is usually widespread distraction.
In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. You convince yourself and others you are doing your job well. It’s a potent mixture of job ambiguity and lack of metrics to measure effectiveness.
Today’s society wrongly assumes if something is online or technical, it’s more important.
Science tells us that where we choose to put our focus in large part determines our attitude. We can improve our world without changing anything concrete about it. When you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right. You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.
#1 – Work Deeply
The world around you is wired for shallowness – crowded inboxes and incessant meetings, where quick responses are valued over producing the best results.
You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. So, schedule time for deep work.
Sometimes, grand gestures can help. J.K. Rowling decided to check herself into a suite in Edinburgh to finish a book. Bill Gates retreats with books in order to think and concentrate for a week. Peter Shankman once booked a $4,000 flight to Tokyo in order to meet a deadline.
“The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish” – The 4 Disciplines of Execution. Aim your execution at a small number of wildly important goals.
Measure how much time you spend in deep work. That’s a leading indicator.
“I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know.” – Tim Kreider
Providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges. Spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. Trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.
Try a shutdown ritual at the end of the work day. It could be as simple as saying, “I’m done with work until tomorrow” or “Shutdown complete.” There are always tasks left incomplete. Fortunately, we don’t need to complete a task to get it off our minds.
#2 – Embrace Boredom
Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Once you are wired for distraction, you crave it.
Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give into distraction.
Productive meditation – occupy yourself physically, but not mentally – and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.
#3 – Quit Social Media
Online tools fragment your time and reduce your ability to concentrate.
The threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention should be much more stringent, and most people should therefore be using many fewer such tools.
We’ve bought into the “any benefit” approach, where any possible benefit serves as sufficient justification for using a tool. This approach doesn’t factor in all of the negatives.
Instead, treat your tool selection with the same level of care as other skilled workers, such as farmers or craftsmen.
Keep using a tool only if you conclude it has substantial positive impact and that these outweigh the negative impacts. Facebook offers benefits to your social life, but are the important enough to justify giving it access to your time and attention?
All activities, regardless of important, consume your limited time and attention.
Much of the Internet is carefully crafted titles and easily digestible content, often honed by algorithms to be maximally attention catching.
Figure out what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin.
#4 – Drain the Shallows
The shallow stuff that can seem so urgent in the moment rarely turns out to be indispensable. Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.
Don’t spend your day on autopilot, giving little attention to what you are doing with your time. Treat your time with respect. Decide how to spend your time.
When thinking about a task, here’s an illuminating question to ask yourself:
How long would it take to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?
Finish your work by 5:30. You don’t have to be so easy to reach.
Ask people who send you an email to do more work. Do more work when you send or reply to emails.
This is not a moral or philosophical issue, but a way to get valuable things done.