Deep work

Deep Work: what I learned

Cal Newport has a massive following in the productivity world.

A computer science professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, Cal started writing study advice for students in the mid 2000s and started blogging on the subject on 2007. Since then, he has written four more books, including So Good They Can’t Ignore You (2012), which focuses on creating value through excelling at your craft, and the hugely influential Deep Work (2016), which is about honing the ability to focus without distraction and why this matters.

I’ve wanted to read it for a long time but never quite enough to get hold of the book and actually sit down with it. The past few weeks though, while I’ve been sorting through in my head what I want my 2022 to look like, I realised that one of the things that keeps getting in the way of me doing what I want to do is a constant flow of distractions, both from myself and from my environment. As I was looking at ways to overcome this, Deep Work popped up more than once so I decided it was time to stop procrastinating and read it.

Thank you, The Library.

I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of the best books on productivity I’ve read. It’s very easy to read and Cal explains the ideas very simply.

There are two parts to the book. The first part explains what deep work is, why it’s important and why it is so hard to accomplish, and the second part sets out four key rules to follow in order to be able to engage in deep work.

I made tonnes of notes, which are effectively my own summary of the book and I’m not going to write them all out here because there are plenty of other blogs that do that. (Also, they are very long.) If this is something you’re interested in, I recommend you read the book to get the full picture and to extract the things that are most relevant for you, because what I need to do might be quite different from what you need.

The book Deep Work by Cal Newport next to a cup of coffee
Deep Work

My key takeaways from Part 1

Your capacity to thrive as a knowledge worker depends on your ability to quickly learn new things and to produce at an elite level, and you can’t do either of these things without being able to do deep work. You can’t do deep work when you’re distracted, because this requires uninterrupted concentration.

Switching between tasks is highly inefficient because of “attention residue”. When you switch from task A to task B, some of your attention is still with task A, rather than on what you’re doing now. As a result, you’re not fully concentrating on task B. You’ll achieve more if you work on a single task for a long time without switching.

Open offices might create more opportunities for collaboration, but the way most open offices are designed contributes to massive distraction which negates any benefits obtained by collaboration. Cramming as many desks as possible into an open floor space and providing a couple of quiet rooms where people can go if they need to concentrate doesn’t provide the environment needed for deep, focused work. Any distraction will ruin what you’re concentrating on because, even though you may not be aware of it, your brain responds to distractions.

Our attention—what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays a role in defining the quality of our life. Cal says that if your workday is driven by shallow work (emails, responding to requests, phone calls, unnecessary meetings), your day is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, with very little meaning and satisfaction. I imagine the long-term implications of this on your mental health, as well as your capacity to engage in deep work when you finally get the opportunity to do so, could be quite significant.

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained—it’s not a “habit” you can develop with enough motivation. Cal says that you will fail to deepen your focus unless you can also wean your mind from its dependence on distraction.

“Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it’s hard to shake the addiction, even when you want to concentrate. If every moment of potential boredom is relieved with a quick glance at your phone, then your brain has likely been rewired to the point where it’s not ready for deep work, even if you regularly schedule time to practise this concentration.”

(I glanced at my phone. Point proved.)

I feel a bit like I’ve let myself down by letting my brain become this dependent on my device.

This section of the book also helped me understand why, no matter what I do to try and reduce distractions, I’ve been unsuccessful. I’ve changed my brain and I can’t undo that overnight. I was keen to read on to find out how to reverse the damage I’ve caused.

In terms of how deep work can create meaning, Cal says that what you’re actually working on isn’t relevant to whether your work has meaning. He suggests that meaningful work comes from applying the skills you have mastered to your work, whatever that is.

“You don’t need a rarified job,” he says. “You need a rarified approach to your work. To embrace deep work and to direct it toward cultivating your skills is an effort that can transform a knowledge work job from a distracted, draining obligation into something satisfying—a portal to a world full of shining wondrous things.”

The tools

Part 2 explains Cal’s four rules for regaining your focus and ability to do deep work.

  • Work deeply
  • Embrace boredom
  • Quit social media
  • Drain the shallows

There’s a lot of material in this part of the book and I don’t think it’s possible to implement it all at once because it would become overwhelming. I found this blog post that distils the actions from these sections in one place, although the author notes this is not a substitute for reading the book.

Next steps

As I’ve been planning my approach to 2022, I’ve decided to settle on two or three areas I want to focus my efforts on this year, or at least for the first two or three months, and set out some actions and habits in those areas to work on. This will form the basis of my 22 for 2022 list. Improving my capacity for doing deep work is going to be part of one of those areas.

I’ve chosen this because it’s something I desperately need to work on and I think if I can develop these skills and habits this will help me across my entire life, not just work. (I won’t tell you that I’ve got up at least five or six times while writing this post to go and do something else, or check my email or my phone *insert eyeroll*.) I feel comfortable writing about this part of my life and (maybe) what I learn might be useful to someone else. I think there are things in here I can measure and be accountable for so it should make for a bloggable experiment over the next few months.

I’ll write about this more in coming posts, but I’ve started out by identifying three (four) steps to take first. One is a single step, and three are new habits that kind of bounce off that first step.

Now I need to decide whether I should take my own advice (actually, Cal’s advice) that I refer to in this post and just try to do one at a time, or whether they are sufficiently inter-related that it would make more sense to do them all together . . . (I hope that’s enough to spark your interest for the next instalment!)

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