Deep Work

The Gist that I got:

Create a place or places for deep work free of distraction for
extended periods of well defined chunked work that are part of a strong
formed habit with daily rituals of getting up and winding down. Each
part of your day is segmented. Do not allow distractions or boredom
to get in the way. Make sure your outside activities help support
deep work meaning you don't extensively used social media, lots of
video games, etc--these things train you for consistent attentional switching
which is not part of deep work.

Before I say anything else, I need you know that I already accept the premise of this book for myself. I don’t know about anyone established and I would prefer to speak to my own experience not others.

The reality is that we are in an era in which shallow and low priority tasks consume our time from social media sites, to low quality tv shows that don’t tell us stories of what it means to be human or how to care for one another.

The best way to drown out highly valuable information rich content is not through suppression but with dilution; just dump so much information into the world that filtering out irrelevancy becomes increasingly difficult. I n an information saturated world with low quality content is the norm, deep thought and grappling with big ideas is the exception, the craftsman, deep worker, and thoughtful people are the rarity. Our time needs to be well spent, whatever that means to you, and in many cases being constantly connected provides the opposite.

This book is primary answering the question of how one gains valuable skills in the job market and getting increasingly high amounts of work done which makes us valuable. Cal Newport’s answer is deepwork.

What is Deep Work and how is it valauble?

The definition provided in the book is

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.

The book starts to cover some of the big names who use deep work which include: Carl Jung, Bill Gates, Neal Stephenson. Deep work is extremely common amongst people known for their productivity.

Why are knowledge workers losing their connection with deep work? The term Newport uses is Network tools to describe a set of tools designed to connect us.

Shallow work is the opposite of deep work. I think of it as trivial or easy tasks that don’t push the needle forward much on the big and high value tasks in our lives.

Cross referencing some work from other sources social media reduces your ability for deep work, potentially permanently. [I’ll look more into this later]. I hope that thought scares you as much as it does for me.

His main points about why you should consider deep work valuable is:

1. Deep work is becoming rarer, thus knowing how to do it is an advantage.
 Assuming it is valuable, which depends on your career.


2. The network effect

I just think of bloggers, youtubers, etc. who make tons of money since they can reach a larger audience than ever before. You can become more famous than any other time period.

The goals of the book is to convince you that the above assertions are true and to take the bull by the horns using deep work in your own life. I believe this will improve your personal life. I am already starting to feel less stressed since I am not frantically trying to check my social media accounts, cellphone messages, etc. Although, sometimes I am bored more easily, but whatever.

To quote Cal Newport: A deep life is a good life.

How is Deep Work Valuable?

The robots are coming for shallow work first. Many of the daily tasks we do like data entry, reading and replying to email, driving an automobile, basic customer service, etc. are going to be first. Deep workers will thrive when these tasks are taken away? Maybe, but I am of the view that most of the intense knowledge workers that will succeed below actually only will for a time. It is just postponing the inevitable rise of automation taking human jobs. If you haven’t seen it yet I’d recommend Humans Need Not Apply on youtube.

In the book Average is Over which covers the three groups who will profit from this:

  1. The High-Skilled Workers

Those with high degrees of technical knowledge, using the tools to their advantage. I do not believe this means necessarily software engineers but people with a decent degree of technical knowledge. Probably mostly STEM people, self taught techies, etc.

  1. The Superstars in a field

Like many things in life, it functions under power laws e.g. 80/20 rule, or if you like, earthquake scales which get increasingly powerful with each incremental increase. Christian Rudder used this analogy for beauty as a scale in his book Dataclysm. The better you are, the more you get for it. Elitism in free market economics is probably inevitable.

  1. The Owners of capital to invest in the Great Restructuring.

Think Venture Capitalists, billionaires, etc. Think of them as the new Master’s of Men from the Wealth of Nations book.

These category definitely seem like they will do well.

So what are the general set of skills needed?

1. Meta-learning and then quickly mastering difficult things.

2. Highly effective, quality and speed, production.

To paraphrase Yuval Noah Harari from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century you will suffer from economically irrelevancy. Thus, it seems likely we will need deep work to thrive.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is from Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges said in The Intellectual life:

Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention;
let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your
mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.

Sertillanges also stated that you must systematically grapple with the relevant topics to enabling your attention to converge on an uncovered truth latent within each area.

What is one thing that we can use to do this? One tool is called Deliberate Practice which is simply deliberate effort to improve performance in an area.

This idea of deliberate practice is well established idea in learning. What are the keys to deliberate practice? Laser focus on a task and a quick feedback loop on improvement.

Malcolm Gladwell and Cal Newport both seem to think that innate talent plays less of a role than people think. I am starting to believe this is true in most fields, especially after listening to numerous Tim Ferriss Podcasts. From many of my neuroscience classes “those neurons that fire together wire together.” Myelinate yoself so you can succeed over time. Build that fortress of expertise.

If you start to see these things as scientific problems it becomes clearer you need to batch interrelated important tasks into deep work sessions without interruption.

The equation presented in the book is:

HQ Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Additionally, being distracted creates attention residue which has effects well after you have left a shallow task. I have heard this called task switch cost or switch cost, which reduces the current effectiveness of your work since your mind is distracted with a previous task. Some exceptions do exist, but if you are reading This commentary of the book I am guessing they’re not relevant to you.

I asked myself this question in this section of the book:

Can you think of many niches where shallow work is the better
option and are those fields shrinking or growing?

One researcher, Gloria Mark at UC Irvine, has studied the effect of attention fragmentation on workers. The summary is that short interruptions increase the total time spent by a high amount. He mentions trends in business That make deep work harder. I have definitely noticed the open office, respond right now to my thing, etc. issues working in tech. Luckily I have noticed that a lot of pushback exists too. It may be worth bring up to management if you think that the shallow work has taken your work culture.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done task-management methodology: using a fifteen-element flowchart for making a decision [find the flowchart]

Richard Feynman, everyone’s favorite physicist states:

To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time...
it needs a lot of concentration...if you have a job administrating anything,
you don't have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I'm
irresponsible. I'm actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don't do anything.
If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, "no," I tell them: I'm
irresponsible.

Anything I can automate, push off, etc. will be done in time so that I can filter out irrelevancy in my life. I am rarely busy outside of work or minor obligations. This reduces stress and life is too short for things of low importance. Do you agree? Prioritizing, optimizing, and a general discipline creates more freedom, less stress, and more room for what matters. Who doesn’t want that? My guess is the filtering starts when people actually have to put in the work.

Is Deep Work Meaningful?

He brings up the idea of the Craftsman Mindset eloquently stated by Ric Furrer, a blacksmith:

I do all my work by hand and use tools that multiply
my force without limiting my creativity or interactivity with the material
What may take me 100 blows by hand can be accomplished in one by a large
swaging machine. This is the antithesis of my goal and to that end all my work
shows evidence of the two hands that made it

Another quote by Matthew Crawford that complements Furrer well:

The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through
manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.

So what does this craftsman economy have to do with the information economy? He goes over some seriously stoic shit. One of the scientist quoted in the book to try to make this seem true is Barbara Fredrickson, who specializes in cognitive appraisal of emotions states that simple choices can provide a “reset button.”

By adding emotional “leverage points” your emotional states after events can be improved. To be honest, this is basically just a bunch of stoic and zen
philosophy with some studies to back it up. To the astitute reader of this blog you should already be aware of these philosophies. Actively practicing them is another level. Maybe meditate like every other hipster in Silicon Valley who also has a thang for productivity. Who doesn’t like to live out a cliche?

Much enjoyment can be had in a state of flow which is actually a Book by Csikszentmihalyi and Larson about something other than removing constipation from your life.

So you can really get deep enjoyment out of tasks loosely equivalent to mental weightlifting, sometimes more enjoyment than vacations. Why run away from work when you can enjoy it? Sounds like a super sweet deal-e-o. However, you could up just living to work. Lets just remember that this book is about becoming hyper productive for the 9 to 5, not about every aspect of your life.

Cal Newport states

You don't need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach
to your work.

The more you put in the more you get out, unless you don’t. In which case you need to find another jeb.

An interesting machine is the Eudaimonia Machine which is basically a deep work machine designed by David Dewane. The purpose of the place is for deep work. The deep work limit that seems to appear again and again throughout the book is about 4 hours and 30 minutes. [find a picture]

Like most things, this number probably varies on a bell curve with the mean hovering around here for highly trained deep workers. Someone like Bill Gates probably has an trained upper limit far beyond this while someone with severe ADHD has a much lower limit both naturally and trained.

Echoed here and in The Willpower Instinct is the idea that willpower is like a battery, once it is drained for the day that’s the end. We need to create routines and rituals to our day to maximize deep work in our lives.

Many deep work philosophies exist, and personally, I have not fully chosen mine yet and will continue to experiment:

  1. Monastic Philosophy: Think of the specialists and experts. They need to be good at one thing. It seems like an almost Intellectual monk like existence.

  2. Bimodal Philosophy: Switch between periods of intense work and light work.

  3. Rhythmic Philosophy: Making things habitual integrated within your daily schedule. Like workouts within your day.

He also mentions the idea if Ritualized deep work. I have employed this method in my own life since I am naturally rather messy and disorganized. My workspaces are governed by strict rules. Many people employ morning, work, and evening rituals to their lives because they work well for them. So you can do time boxing when working and have a specific area you work only on deep work tasks. T

his has also been shown to increase your ability to remember information in that area related to it. I would suggest also trying to recall the information in other places so it is usable outside of that space. In Barbara Oakley’s book A Mind for Numbers she also goes over the idea that location affects your recall. Also, exercising in between deep tasks helps.

Cal makes sure to point out a pretty clear tension: deep work and collaboration. How does one strike this balance? That’s very circumstantial and I don’t pretend to have an answer. I have exploratory periods throughout my day dedicated to asking people about their point of view, materials they have used, tips, heuristics, etc. At some point consolidation is necessary for ideas or your principles, tips, etc. get out of control and explode in complexity. Just do some spring cleaning once every couple weeks or months.

How do we accomplish things quickly? The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Clayton Christensen has some insights: high priority, small amount of tasks, lag measures (points of improvement), lead measures (success drivers), scoreboards, and cadence of accountability. It sounds a lot like scrum.

In Bertrand Russell’s essay In Praise of Idleness he goes over the idea that idleness is a virtue. Besides getting a break for your mind to recharge it allows one to integrate and consolidate information. Tim Ferriss calls these Deloading Phases which we can say that constant productivity causes burnout and that’s short term gains for long term losses.

One neuroscience theory used here was: Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT). To borrow from Freudian thinking, the consciousness is the tip of the ice berg. The larger and more complex system is the unconscious.

Some suggestions he made in the book for removing distraction include

  1. Be Wary of Distractions and Looping. For me, I keep a notepad or notetaking device with me so if some random shallow task pops into my head while working on a deep talk it is written down. I have noticed these happen less and less as time has gone along, but within a deep work session and in general. Looping is not a major issue for me, if it does happen I end the cycle more easily after meditating that day.
  2. Structure Your Deep Thinking. His method is: reviewing, storing variables, identify and tackling next step questions, then consolidating your gains. I see it at as analyze -> store -> condense.

One useful metric mentioned is called attention control which is a measure of your ability to maintain focus on relevant data. Most of us drift away from the main priority frequently. Jim Kwik has courses on memory training and this is a todo item for me.

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection was a cool idea, which can be defined as rigorously analyzing tools and whether they provided a net benefit or loss to your life. Instead of what most people do which is mindlessly accumulate items.

Think of it this way: when you add anything to your life it adds complexity in some form or another and removing it is usually more complex that adding. Have a solid filtering system on “what do I own if I only had a finite set of room?”. I apply the same concept to the stuff I buy in general. Everything must have a positive effect and a well defined purpose or purposes.

On this same form of professional and private minimum think of only doing a small number of things, goals, etc. Focus on getting the big stuff done effectively.

e.g. Professional Goal: Write readable, low cognitive load, eloquent code with high impact within the company that builds the right systems.

Key Activities Supporting This Goal:

  1. Reading and applying concepts, algorithms, etc. from different sources on coding, software design, and architecture.

  2. Write, review, test, iterate, and get feedback from more senior engineers

  3. Participate in Hackathons, coding challenges, classes, and building projects incorporating key ideas found from the different sources.

Persona Goals: Develop a larger friend circle and create close and meaningful friendships.

Key Activities Supporting this Goal:

  1. Go out on weekends, say yes to more social events, attention more religious events.

  2. Ask not what others can do for me, help them in meaningful and important ways.

  3. Prune those who are toxic out of my life to make more room for meaningful friendships.

He continues to over some other ideas, but they can be summed up as use your non-work time more wisely, seek not to be entertained my triviality like shows, etc. Deep work and deep relationships are an interconnected thing. Use your time outside of work wisely to better yourself and the fruits of that labor will show. Arnold Bennett said

Put more thought into your leisure time.

[...] What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen
the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly
increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my
typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous
hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is
change—not rest, except in sleep.

I have found this to be true, your brain requires some degree of novelty and it is realistic to know you cannot be participating in the same task all 16 hours of your day. But you can definitely change it up and found tremendous benefits working on two major areas of your life. Personally, I even have a Kanban board for my personal life since I see it as an effective personal tool for managing major tasks. I remember seeing the movie Bladerunner when I was young and contemplated the life It’s too bad she won’t live, but then again who does?. I want to live life to it’s fullest, do you? It requires risk, hard work, and not giving up, but many of us are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to exist and make an impact.

Cal proposes scheduling every minute of your day to help increase structure. I have yet to try this, but it seems like a solid plan. His proposed plan is as follows

1. Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the
  blocks. Give a liberal amount of time for each block, then adjust accordingly.

2. Overflow conditional blocks. Meaning one with dual purpose or more for time slots.

3. Liberally assign blocks. I have noticed time estimations generally are
underestimated. I like to take a time estimation I have for a task and then 2X it.

He then goes onto suggest that you quantify the depth of every activity. Again, not something I have tried so I cannot speak to this strategy. You can also try negotiating with your boss on how much of your work should be shallow. Aka, a Shallow Work Budget. The rule of thumb is 30% to 50% that will likely be given to this, but I bet this varies heavily from boss to boss. I would prefer if he gave some more evidence for this claim.

Another thing we can see from this book is that finishing your work by a specific time is ideal, don’t dilly dally throughout the day. I try to leave the office by 5 or 5:30. It helps create a structure and then I am forced to work harder and more resourcefully when the end of the day is known.

Some other tips that are pretty obvious corollaries of the deep work: Make yourself hard to reach, make sure your emails fully answer questions and dive deeply so emailing doesn’t turn into messenger or other shallow messaging systems, don’t respond. I usually don’t respond to emails often unless it is close family, friends, or a job opportunity I am interested in. Tim Ferriss echoes this idea, but I guess not being cool helps me out. If you are a social butterfly I would suggest contemplating when to cut out communication of this sort and social media. I think introverts probably find most of these things easier than extroverts.

Other reads: The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Clayton Christensen, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov, All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly, The Pragmatic Programmer by someone, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett

Some terms I found useful in the book: the greek concept eudaimondia, culture of connectivity, Principle of Least Resistance (doing the work that’s low hanging fruit first instead of the harder stuff), bewildering psychic landscape by Crawford in Shop Class as Soulcraft, Technopoly, The Internet by Morozov

© 2021 ·