Sure, Slack is great. So is Twitter, and Facebook. I loved it when OSX added iMessage as a core part of their operating system, giving us the ability to send and receive messages. With all of these things added to my life at no point did I realize how lean I was slicing my time. I was loosing any possibility of doing deep work.
I’m betting you haven’t really thought about it either.
In Deep Work, Cal Newport wants to convince us to step away from the ever-increasing series of distractions — those latest and greatest things that pull away our focus and keep us from doing deep work. Newport doesn’t just stop in telling us that distraction is harming us, but goes on to give us four rules to achieve a state of deep work with more regularity so that we can truly produce work that’s industry leading (without working evenings and weekends).
Early in the book he states the reason he wrote the book in the first place.
The Deep Work Hypothesis: 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.
Deep Work is divided into two broad sections. Newport begins by trying to sell you on the idea that you spend way too much time doing shallow work fraught with distractions and that you need to remove as many distractions as possible in favour of singular focus on the things that matter most.
The second section covers a set of rules to achieve this state of focus in the midst of the overwhelming communication tools that are around us now.
If you’re already sold on the idea that you’re too distracted and need to improve your concentration then you could just skip to the second part of the book. I think you’d miss lots of interesting research but you’d quickly get tactics and strategies to implement so you can get into work without distraction.
As one that’s been writing code for years I’ve felt the effects of getting interrupted. Distraction is a productivity crusher of epic proportions. There are even comics depicting what happens to a programmers brain when they get interrupted. The story closest to home for me is from the first week my wife was off work just before we had our first child. In the first two days she was home she must have entered my office about every hour. It got to the point that I took the $20 on my desk and gave it to her with instructions to take someone out for coffee and not return till 5 p.m. when the work day was done.
My wife and I laugh about it now, but her walking into my office so much is only one very obvious way that distraction stops the average worker from doing their job with excellence.
Before we dive deeper into the book, let’s look at what Deep Work is according to Cal Newport.
Deep Work: 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.
Contrast that to the definition of Shallow Work.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively 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.
In terms of your daily tasks things like email, most meetings, all social networking, and many phone calls would fall under the definition of shallow work. Things like programming, writing, design, blacksmithing, and glass blowing would fall into the realm of deep work for their respective practitioners.
The insidiousness of much of the shallow work that’s in our lives is that it feels productive. Sending a bunch of email accomplishes the fabled ‘Inbox 0’ while at the same time usually producing little real value. Most email is much like shuffling the same set of chairs around the deck. Little gets resolved and no decisions are made, we simply defer them to some other time that’s nebulous.
Social networking is even worse in that it feels like ‘marketing’ our businesses. In reality much of it simply trains us to seek novelty like a big Skinner box. In fact the most addictive type of Operant Conditioning is when we randomly produce novel reward for an action. As we sit immersed in networking and the ways it allow us to connect with people around the world and how it can bring new opportunities, it’s so easy to forget that there are whole teams of people at these companies whose goal is to get us using social media more. They want to train us to ‘network’ more and they sell our attention to others.
The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: networking tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention to slivers.
I’ve heard stats (which I don’t cite because I couldn’t find a source I trusted) that say the average office worker only gets two to three hours (maybe four) of real work done in a day. It’s certainly not hard to see this as truth. Take an eight-hour day, remove two hours for meetings of some fashion. That leaves us with six hours. Now take out 15 minutes on each side of lunch for time they’re not really focused on doing work and we have five and a half hours. Take out another 30 minutes spread over the day for coffee breaks or bathroom breaks and we are left with five hours.
Now in those remaining five hours add in some coworkers randomly interrupting them via a chat application or by walking into their office. Let’s assume that at least some of this time is actually worthwhile work discussion and it’s not all just time spent talking about sports, or some other mutual interest. So we’ll take out another one hour instead of one and a half hours. Now we have four hours of work left in the day.
How many people surf Facebook, BuzzFeed, Twitter, or some other distraction of choice during the day? Let’s cut another 30 minutes for that, which is probably a conservative number and now we have three and a half hours left in the work day. That’s three and a half hours to get your real work done, but here’s the thing — in our math above we’ve been thinking of much of this time as solid blocks. It is unlikely that the time remanning resembles anything like a single solid chunk of time.
Using an online chat application you get a message and then a few minutes later you get a response, just as you were looking back at the task at hand. Add in some random email checks every 30 minutes and then break up more with bathroom and coffee breaks. It’s easy to see how you don’t actually get three and a half solid hours of work in. You get those three and a half hours split up into a myriad of 10-15 minute chunks. Maybe even small chunks of five minutes.
Looking at it like this we see that it’s going to be hard to accomplish anything of value that requires deep thought. Yes we can look busy and productive but we’re mostly just pushing those chairs around the deck again.
The whole first part of the book is dedicated to convincing you this work schedule habit is a terrible thing that is damaging your brain.
…there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.
Is it any wonder that so many people end up working late into the night and on weekends? Is it any wonder that so many people report that going into the office an hour before everyone else allows them to get 90% of the work they need to get done, done?
You end up working late because you weren’t focused during regular business hours. You get so much done when no one else is in, precisely because no one else can interrupt you. You have a large swath of time with no distractions in which you can do work not sliced up into tidbits of limited attention.
We haven’t talked about the other aspect of insidiousness that creeps into our day and even our job descriptions, and that’s multi-tasking.
The problem this research identifies with this work strategy is that when you switch from Task A to Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow — a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.
For a long time ‘multi-tasking’ was the buzz word of productive people. It was thought that if you could pay attention to six things at once then you were awesome at your job and were of higher value. Really what happens is that you do six things poorly and slower as you constantly switch your attention to those six things and the ‘residue’ builds up — a series of loops that are never closed.
The results from this and her other similar experiments were clear: “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task,” and the more intense the residue, the worse the performance.
To combat this time-sliced, multi-tasking day Newport recommends you work through his rules. He contends that following these rules will result in a significantly more productive day.
I’m sure that little of the time-sliced, shallow life described above sounds like something you want for yourself. I think that there is a deep-seated desire in people to provide value and develop something of meaning in the circles that matter to them. That desire seems to remain unsatisfied if we can’t spend time working on what matters to us most without interruption.
To try and help us achieve a more regular state of focused work Newport gives us the ‘Rules of Deep Work’ in the second part of the book.
Rule 1: Work Deeply
This is probably the least actionable of the rules in the latter half of the book. It’s more like agreeing that “I am someone that quests after deep work and I will continue that quest to go deeper and cut distraction.” This rule is setting the stage for the rules that follow which have tactics and strategies more easily implemented in your day.
You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit: it’s instead like a muscle that tires.
Recognizing that and agreeing to its basic premise is the real thing to get out of Rule 1.
The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
I call these rituals and routines my Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and they cover things like:
- not answering my phone if it is even in my office at all
- not doing business via text message (I literally don’t respond)
- only checking my email if there is time in the day
- only conducting meetings on Tuesdays and only two meetings (only one with a new possible client)
By putting these SOPs in place I have a bunch of decisions I don’t need to make. If I hear my phone ring and it’s not my wife calling (who has a special ring) then I simply don’t even look at my phone. If I don’t have my basic prospect questions answered I am unwilling to book a call with a prospect. That means I don’t deplete my willpower throughout the day.
You could just try to make deep work a priority. But supporting this decision with the strategies that follow — or strategies of your own devising that are motivated by the same principles — will significantly increase the probability that you succeed in making deep work a crucial part of your professional life.
What Rule 1 does introduce us to is the broad ideas of what Deep Work can look like through a few models of Deep Work one could adopt.
- The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: Shut yourself off and do your work. Ignore all distractions.
- The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: Shut yourself away for portions of the year like the monastic way. The rest of the year you deal with life as it comes at you.
- The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This would be building a chain of say writing 1,000 words a day and then not breaking the chain. Look up Jerry Seinfeld’s method for writing jokes.
- The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: Paying attention in your day and seizing every opportunity to escape and work with focus. Like when a kid is taking a nap and putting in that hour of work with no interruptions.
I’m not sure where my main method of Deep Work fits, but I set aside at least 60 minutes a day to read/write. I don’t worry so much about word count but about the time focused on one of those tasks. I start my day with this, when I’m working on a review like this one I write, when I’m trying to finish a book I read.
I think that this method (probably the chain method) is the easiest to implement in your life. Get up an hour earlier, put some headphones on and do what you need to without distractions. Why do I say get up earlier? Few other people are up so the chances of someone simply texting out of the blue is much smaller.
Whatever your method for Deep Work is you need to create a place where that’s possible. One of the most effective cues I’ve found for my focused work is putting on my headphones. Put me in a noisy house with kids running around or a loud coffee shop and when I put my headphones on focus just finds me with ease.
Find your cues and then let those around you know what they are. When your co-workers, spouse, friends, or whomever sees you with your queues in force they’ll get the hint and leave you alone so you can stay focused.
I did this as a junior developer in my first weeks in a job. I put on headphones and then ignored a bunch of the people that were trying to get my attention. They almost never sent emails to follow up. They were just wandering the office looking for someone to talk to and figured that I could be interrupted. By establishing that “headphones on” meant I was working and likely wouldn’t respond, I had more focused work time and got more done and got higher pay than anyone else in the office.
You don’t have to be working on your own to make that happen.
What’s your first impulse when you’ve got two seconds of nothing to do? How about when you’re standing in the line at the grocery store or coffee shop? Next time you go in look around and see what most people in line are doing. I bet that you’ll have a hard time making eye contact with anybody as most of them will have their phones out and have their eyes glued to it.
This is my first reaction and as we talked about in the introduction, this constant need for something to occupy our brains simply trains us to search for novelty. That means focus without something new invading our brain becomes harder and harder. While you may want to work with focus succumbing to your first impulse when standing in line is simply going to make it harder to focus any time.
Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.
It may feel productive to pull out your phone and read for two minutes or to always have some headphones in listening to some podcast or book but the truth is it’s not.
Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction , Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life — say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives — is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work — even if your regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.
This is the essence of Rule 2 — embrace the boredom around you. For me it means leaving my phone on top of the fridge and telling my oldest child to remind me to stay away from my phone if she sees it in my hand.
When I’m heading out to the grocery store it means leaving my phone in the car where I can’t access it. At worst that means I have a text waiting for me when I get back to the car and I have to go back in and get the one thing that we forgot to put on the list.
It means when I’m bike commuting I mostly don’t put my phone on the pocket on the outside of my shoulder strap, I bury it in my bag. Then when I stop for an errand I simply can’t get my phone out.
I know I’m currently a person with weak willpower. In the past I’ve often caught myself with phone in hand and eyes glued to the screen when I know I should be embracing the boredom.
One of the other key thoughts in Rule 2 is to change how you think about focus and distraction. Instead of making focus a break from distraction you need to flip that on its head.
I propose an alternative to the Internet Sabbath. 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.
For me that’s a single task a day to check the stats on my website and check the comments. Without that single reminder I’d easily fall into checking it 20 times a day just to see if I’ve suddenly become hugely popular.
To put Rule 2 into action, keep your distractions where you can’t reach them. Simply exist in the moment and when you’re bored let yourself be bored. Start thinking of focus as your natural state and schedule a break or two (timed) in the day to allow for distractions like social media or checking in on all the other things that the Internet thinks is so interesting.
This is probably the most extreme and scary one for many people. Rule 3 tells you to quit social media. I’m sure that many of you may be reading this article via a link shared on social media. I am (in theory) on Twitter, Facebook and a few forms of social media, but note I said in theory. I actually rarely interact directly with them anymore.
Most of the content I share goes out through Instagram when I share a photo or through Buffer when I find an article I think would be interesting for my audience. As far as checking Twitter or Facebook, I block it for eight hours a day with an application called Self Control and I don’t have either application on my mobile devices.
The thing is, with most social media or messaging tools we fall into the ‘any benefit’ mindset according to Newport.
I don’t doubt, for example, that the first commenter from this list finds some entertainment in using Facebook, but I would also assume that this person wasn’t suffering from severe deficit of entertainment options before he or she signed up for the service. I would further wager that this user would succeed in staving off boredom even if the service were suddenly shut down. Facebook, at best, added one more (arguable quite mediocre) entertainment option to many that already existed.
or looking at forums…
Another commenter cited making friends in a writing forum. I don’t doubt the existence of these friends, but we can assume that these friendships are lightweight — given that they’re based on sending short messages back and forth over a computer network.
The key thoughts above are not that there is no benefit to social media but simply that we default to assuming anything online is good by default. We rarely go through a process to evaluate the good vs. bad in the use of these tools. That’s called the any benefit approach to evaluating options.
The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.
Looking at the negatives of Twitter and Facebook it’s quickly apparent that it’s so easy to pull out my phone and check something then get distracted for 30 minutes following the ever-entertaining rat hole that is the Internet. It’s easy to think that I’m continuing friendships with people I haven’t seen in 10 years by liking the latest picture of their kids doing something cute.
What if we cut out all that time checking Facebook and picked up the phone each week and spent one hour talking to a friend we wanted to keep a relationship with? I’m sure we’d still have a few hours of leftover time that was formerly spent on social media and we’d be putting more deep connection into those relationships.
Throughout history, skilled laborers have applied sophistication and skepticism to their encounters with new tools and their decisions about whether to adopt them. There’s no reason why knowledge workers cannot do the same when it comes to the Internet — the fact that the skilled labor here now involves digital bits doesn’t change this reality.
This thought would expand into another definition offered up by Newport.
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 impacts.
Looking at it this way, I get few clients from Twitter. I do make some connections with readers but when I look through my email list at those who are opening everything and purchasing most of what I put out, it’s the people that I’ve talked to on Skype or email with me once or twice a quarter. Cutting most of my interaction on social media and diverting it to emailing more of my email list one-to-one seems like a much higher benefit to my business.
This fact that most of my benefit comes from a small number of interactions is the old 80/20 rule in action. I get 80% of my results from 20% of my actions.
The Law of the Vital Few: In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes.
Newport at least asks us (and I concur) to test this rule out and take a 30-day break from social media. At the end of 30 days we ask ourselves if we really missed out on anything important. This separation from ‘any benefit’ it makes it easier to judge if there is enough of a benefit to justify the bad parts that come with social media.
For me the answer is yes, there are some good parts, mainly in the interactions with my readers and being able to answer their questions. I’ll be using Twitter still, just only once my work for the day has been accomplished and only from my desktop.
This all comes back to my goals for my professional life which are to earn my income from writing and coaching and speaking. To accomplish those I need to connect with people at more than a shallow level. This is facilitated much better via email than social networks.
The first step in this strategy is to identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and personal life.
To be a writer I need to write and while social network sharing of my content does bring in a wider audience the only way to really be a writer is to write.
In my personal life I want to be a good husband and father. Neither of these goals is accomplished by email or social networking so I’m cutting them out of my home life. Additionally I don’t just show up at home and do whatever seems easiest after the kids go to sleep, I decide before hand the activities that I partake in.
It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin.
This is why I read around 60 books a year, because at least five nights a week I don’t turn on the TV, but instead I sit on the couch and read. I’ve made the choice that I’m not someone who watches TV during the week, and sometimes weekday Curtis joins me on Saturday night and he reads then as well.
If you get anything out of Rule 3 it should be to not just take any benefit as a good reason to use a new tool. Stop and take your time to weigh the utility of a tool against the backsides and only use it if that pro/con list comes out pro.
Secondly, be intentional with your time all the time. Don’t just default to the easiest/normal path. Remember normal is average and I’m pretty sure you don’t wake up in the morning hoping to be average. You don’t set out to train your brain to lack the ability to concentrate.
Newport offers a great summary as the closing paragraph in the chapter.
To summarize, if you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative. Not only will this preserve your ability to resist distraction and concentrate, but you might even fill Arnold Bennett’s ambitious goal of experiencing, perhaps for the first time, what it means to live, and not just exist.
Have you heard of the 4-day work week? No, I don’t mean working four 10-hour days — I mean just working four normal days and then not working on one day of the week. Yeah it sounds idyllic doesn’t it? Many people that try this out and stay serious about it find that they can get the same amount of work done in the shorter work week. Why is this?
I’m sure you’ve also heard the saying about how work will expand to fill the available time. That’s exactly why the 4-day week above works — you don’t have the time to waste on frivolous things that don’t accomplish your goals for the week so the work doesn’t expand.
Here’s a quote from Jason Fried on the topic of 4-day weeks.
Very few people work even 8 hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday.
Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek. Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that’s a good thing. They don’t waste it on things that just don’t matter. When you have fewer hours you usually spend the more wisely. – Jason Fried in Deep Work
You ‘drain the shallows’, which means you cut out the shallow work and that’s what Rule 4 is about.
The strategies that follow are designed to help you ruthlessly identify the shallowness in your current schedule, then cut it down to minimum levels — leaving more time for the deep efforts that ultimately matter most.
We’ve done some of this in Rule 3 as we worked to identify and use only the tools that hold enough of a benefit for our work, but Rule 4 takes it further.
Ninety-nine percent of the time email is shallow work. It’s shuffling those chairs around on the deck but it’s crucial to most businesses. I have no clients that are local to me — almost all of my initial contact work with prospects is done via email. I’ve written a whole book about how I do it effectively without a bunch of back and forth.
It’s far too easy to open up my email client and just see if something new has come in, yet doing so doesn’t move any of my projects forward at all, it just gives me a possible payoff in the form of novel stimuli.
I’ve cut email down to one 25-minute block a day and I schedule all my emails to send at 4 p.m. using Right Inbox. I know I’m not going to get replies to my questions because no one is getting my email until 4 p.m. and by that time I’ve already left the office and am at home. This scheduled email sending change alone greatly cut down my desire to constantly check email.
I also practice a weekly schedule so I know I write on Fridays for the whole day (which is my day off client work). I don’t go as far as Newport recommends and schedule by the minute, but I do have a plan by the hours going into any week. There is no autopilot in my work week and that’s how I work from 6 a.m. till 1:30 p.m. daily, with a lunch break and 90 minutes to work out, plus take those Fridays off client work as I work to get my writing/coaching/speaking business off the ground.
We spend much of our day on autopilot — not giving much thought to what we’re going with our time. This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work, and then adopt the habit of pausing before action and asking “What makes the most sense right now?”
Using a variation of this method I create that single task a day to check my site stats. I decide that I can only check social media when my work for the day is done early. I give myself one 25-minute Pomodoro block to check email. Inside all this structure I get enough work done that when I feel unproductive and talk to other people about it they laugh because my ’unproductive’ days still usually include 1,000 words written and a few hours focused writing code for clients.
On top of that I’ve cut out much of my shallow work. I no longer enter any of my receipts for tax purposes. I don’t set up my weekly emails to the email list. Pretty soon I’m going to stop checking my email and delegate at least a first pass through my inbox to my assistant. None of that is stuff I really need to do. At the very least for my email my assistant can flag the emails that I really need to deal with.
This is the essence of the ‘say no, automate, delegate’ philosophy you see often. If you can’t simply say ‘no’ to something (and you can say ‘no’ way more than you think) then look to automate it with services like Zapier. If you come up with some things you can’t automate then delegate them. Only do the things that are left over.
To start this process Newport says you need to give yourself a ‘shallow work’ budget.
What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work? This strategy suggests that you ask it. If you have a boss, in other words, have a conversation about this question…If you work for yourself, as yourself this question. In both cases, settle on a specific answer. Then — and this is the important part — try to stick to this budget.
See, it’s so easy to end your day and realize that you really didn’t push anything you needed to forward. Sure you were ‘busy’ but nothing has been produced. That’s because you spent the day in shallow work and didn’t realize it.
I bet if you took stock of your day you’ll find that you spent way more time in shallow work than you initially guessed. By setting a budget of time you can look back at your day and figure out if you’ve really been effective that day.
Even as an employee who’s past the entry-level position it’s highly likely that your boss won’t want you to spend more than 50% on the high end doing shallow work. That means that the boss is going to be on your side when you start turning down meetings or when you say no to a project that you shouldn’t be involved in.
I, too, am incredibly cautious about my use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.”
I’ve written about the opposite of this before when I wrote about the most productive word in your vocabulary: no. Long before I read Deep Work this was the reason I only took meetings one day a week and don’t join many of the ‘groups’ that could have some benefit to me.
If you want to be truly effective in your life then you need to get comfortable saying ‘no’ to people. I regularly say ‘no’ to coffee with friends or helping out with some opportunity in my city. Yes there would be some benefit gained by them, but they most often don’t match up with my goals so I say ‘no’ and wait for an opportunity to come along that does match up with my goals.
While there are more interesting ideas in Rule 4, those are the keys that will yield the highest level of change for you.
Yes I do think that this book is worth your time. Despite my lengthy look at it I still just skimmed the surface of the interesting research cited and strategies given. I feel that through this book, Cal Newport achieved his goal of convincing us that Deep Work is crucial and that we need to build out strategies in our life to make it happen with regularity.
If you’re looking for a little bit more practical book on productivity in general and already agree with the premise that Deep Work is needed in your life then you may want to start with David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It skips a bunch of the research and simply gets down to the business of organizing your life. Just don’t stop there. When you’re done with Getting Things Done, go read Deep Work for a bigger picture on what it’s going to take to be effective in your work.
I know that after years of pursuing this philosophy of cutting distraction I still found many things in Deep Work that helped me cut out even more distraction and get more done with my time working.
Get Deep Work on Amazon
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