In our ever distracted world of social media and email, the ability to do “deep work,”meaning perform difficult tasks with a with uninterrupted focus for long stretches of time, is becoming increasingly compromised. Part social commentary, part instruction manual, storytelling and candid advice are used to motivate his readers to get the most out of their workday by changing their habits. Newport warns his readers of the professional cost of not having the systems in place to have a strong work ethic.
Key Takeaways from Deep Work by Cal Newport
Takeaway #1 Multi-Tasking Does Not Make You More Productive
Contrary to what you might think and have probably been led to believe, multi-tasking in order to get more done actually makes you less productive. This is because when you switch from task 1 to task 2, whilst your body might be able to switch seamlessly, your brain is still focused on the first task you were doing. You might think of multi-tasking as cooking dinner whilst helping the kids with their homework, but it also comes in the form of checking your email and responding to the pings on your phone when writing that report.
Takeaway #2 4 Ways of Getting Deep Work Done
- The monastic approach: Eliminating all sources of distraction; working in isolation.
- The biomodal approach: Setting clearly defined work time boundaries I.e. the 9-5.
- The rhythmic approach: Getting into the habit of doing deep work for 60 or 90mins.
- The journalistic approach: Using unexpected free time in your day for deep work.
Whichever method you use, it must be made into a habit as the difference between 'deep work' and simply 'being in the zone' is that deep work is scheduled, it's intentional whilst being 'in the zone' usually only comes after hours/days/weeks of procrastination and time-wasting.
Takeaway #3 Rewiring Your Brain for Focus
Technology has changed our lives so much in recent years, making it much easier to get certain things done but also bringing many more distractions as we forever refresh the social media feeds and responding to the pings and beeps of emails and messages, scared that we're going to miss out on something and that we must respond instantly.
There's a way to rewire your brain so that it can focus and that's through productive meditation. This doesn't mean sitting in a room silently contemplating the meaning of life, it means making use of 'unbusy times' when your phone is not in your hand to problem solve without distraction – This could be when you're commuting to work, walking the dog, or taking a shower. Consider the problem, come up with some solutions, weight them up, decide on one and then figure out what you need to do to accomplish that goal.
Takeaway #4 The Work / Life Balance Must Be Scheduled
How many things in your personal life do you keep meaning to do but don't get around to because you're too busy or too tired? The solution to a happy and healthy work/life balance is to schedule everything in using 30 or 60 minute blocks, not just for work and the chores at home but for your hobbies and social life too. This makes you more mindful of how you spend your time so that you don't waste 5 nights a week watching mindless TV, checking work emails at home, or losing time by scrolling through social media posts on your phone when you could be reading a book, working on a hobby, or having a proper conversation with friends and family without other things going on around you. You might even go so far as to turning your phone off for an hour or two to ensure you can focus on your weekend and evening 'me time'.
Key Lessons from Deep Work
- Deep Work is focused and uninterrupted work. Distractions and conflicting demands hinder deep work.
- Deep Work allows people to master complex topics fast. Some of the best ideas and meaningful progress come from deep work.
- The ability to do deep work allows you to feel a sense of meaning and being ‘in flow’.
- Evaluate your habits and actions with the aim of structuring your time to protect your attention and allow time to do the deep work.
- Consider quitting certain social media channels, embracing boredom, and “draining the shallows of your life” in order to get down to deep work.
- The key is to develop your ability to focus more intensely and at the same time, resist distractions. You can train it like a muscle.
- Every time you allow yourself to get distracted, such as checking your mobile phone, you weaken your ability to focus and do deep work.
- Focus ruthlessly on your most important goals. Exclude work that does not add meaning to your life and resist the temptation to justify distractions.
Lesson #1. Deep Work Matters
Deep work is carried out free from distractions. It’s that place of being “in the zone” and is the opposite of shallow work, which contributes little to what’s truly valuable. Shallow work doesn’t require much of your genius or creativity and is often linked with carrying out mundane, repetitive, and uninspiring tasks.
Shallow work can be costly because it has limited value to society, especially these days with new technology popping up all the time. Those who do the shallow work may find themselves struggling to keep up due to advancements in automation and “high-skilled superstars” doing work that is valuable.
In order to become one of these superstars and take your career and business to new heights, you want to be able to master your craft, learn complex material fast, and function at an elevated level. Ultimately, you would want to be able to do deep work.
Furthermore, our experience of life is largely based on what we pay attention to. Therefore, when we focus on deep work--when we focus on topics that matter--we shape our reality in deep and powerful ways. The structured nature of deep work allows us to get into the psychological state known as “flow” which makes doing the deep work rewarding in itself.
Deep work allows us to return to the sacred, which becomes more and more distant nowadays. When we do focused work we move from “having to create meaning” to “finding meaning in the work we create.”
Lesson #2. Deliberate Practice Makes Perfect
In order to do deep work you must apply deliberate practice, this means focusing on the specific skill you’re trying to develop and not flitting between several tasks at once. You need uninterrupted concentration to be able to get specific neural circuits firing repeatedly which will allow your brain to fix the desired skills in place quickly.
The amount of elite work you do depends on the time you spend on the task and how focused you are. By switching tasks regularly you will suffer from “attention residue” meaning that a part of your focus gets stuck on a previous task leaving you with a lower performance and less energy.
In today’s world, people tend to do the least they can get away with, focusing on the work that is easier to complete, and using busyness as a label for productivity. This often includes responding to emails as soon as they land in the inbox and keeping up with social media rather than pausing to evaluate the best use of time and prioritizing the most important tasks at hand. The problem is that it’s easy to measure how fast tasks get completed but difficult to measure quality and even harder to measure knowledge.
Lesson #3. How to Work More Deeply
There is no one way to do deep work. Some people completely shut themselves off from the world for weeks at a time when doing deep work (J.K. Rowling checked into a hotel to finish writing the last Harry Potter book, while Bill Gates would regularly take “Think Weeks” away at his cabin). Of course, this method may not be practical for the majority of us due to personal and work commitments. The most convenient and practical way is to schedule deep work at the same time daily or weekly. Either way, when you find a method that works for you, be sure to create rituals so that you are continually building habits that support focus and deep work.
Eliminate the distractions that decrease your focus, such as TV, gaming, email, and social media, and develop a deep work routine. Make this a regular part of your life. For without some structure, it’s all too easy to waste hours in shallow and uninspiring experiences.
Plan where you can do the work without distractions (at the office? At home? At a library?) and how long you can reasonably focus for. Will you need to clear your mind by taking a walk before you settle down into deep work? Will you need to eat so that hunger pangs don’t interrupt you? Plan how you will maintain your focus, i.e. turning off your phone, turning off pop-up notifications on your computer, and forewarning others that you’re not available between such and such a time. Lastly, define how you will measure success. Remember, for deep work to succeed, you should be scheduling an occasional break from focus to allow yourself the pleasure of distraction rather than the other way around.
Evaluate your Social Media Use. Social media platforms are entertaining and help you to stay in touch with friends, family, work colleagues, and even customers. However, these benefits are meager when you realize how much social media robs you of what you truly want in life. Name your top 3 goals in your personal and professional life. Next, name the top 3 activities that contribute to you reaching those goals. Is ‘check social media’ on your list? Probably not. So evaluate and review the networks you use and how they impact your time and ability to achieve your goals. You may need to spend more time on LinkedIn and less time on Instagram so that you can reach your true goals in life.
Protect Your Time. When we become more picky and selective, we are draining the shallows and protecting our deep work time. You do not have to respond to every email that lands in your inbox and will rarely have to answer immediately. Learn to respond to emails very selectively, and when there’s no penalty, skip the “I’ll get back to you,” “You’re welcome” or “Will do” emails. You’re not being rude, you’re just protecting your precious time.
Deep work is not easy like shallow work, that’s why shallow work manages to overtake deep work at every opportunity possible. Deep work is meant to be more challenging, that’s why it’s important to know that most people have a maximum capacity of a few good hours of deep work per day and that they have to build up to that level. Start at 1 to 2 hours a day and work your way up.
It’s easy to overestimate how much deep work you are capable of. It is also easy to underestimate how much time you spend on shallow work and distractions so start to schedule your workday, grouping batches of related activities together. The goal is not to make you rigidly adhere to a schedule but to get you using your time intentionally.
Track your deep work activity. This will allow you to see how much time those interruptions rob you of, how new activities take you twice the amount of time you expected, and generally, how much your thoughts on time may be wrong. When this happens, don’t sweat it. This is a learning experience meant to help you harness your time. As such, just create a new schedule with times that are closer to the truth when you realize you got it wrong and allow for both inspiration and overflow time. This will help you get the task finished and allow you a head start on the next task on your list. No more racing from 1 task to the next.
Construct a “shallow work budget” by working out how many hours per week you spend doing shallow work. The norm ranges from 30%-50% due to answering emails and phone calls, attending meetings, filling out paperwork and so on. Needless to say, your aim is to reduce your “shallow work budget” and spend a higher percentage of your time doing deep work.
Finally, embrace a bit of boredom in your life. Remember, if every moment of boredom in your life is relieved by reaching to your electronic device or distraction of choice, your brain has likely been rewired to be addicted to novelty and unable to bear boredom. This is a vicious cycle that feeds on itself, so find ways to be more comfortable with boredom.
Deep Work Chapters
Chapter One - Deep Work Is Valuable
Chapter Two - Deep Work is Rare
Chapter Three - Deep Work Is Meaningful
Chapter Four - Rule #1: Work Deeply
Chapter Five - Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
Chapter Six - Rule #3: Quit Social Media
Chapter Seven - Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
My Favorite Quotes from Deep Work
"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."
"Think like artists but work like accountants."
"Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not."
"Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on."
"What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life."
"To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable."
"We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel... According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to."
"Human beings are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging."
"Your will is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires."
"Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking."
"To remain valuable in our economy you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances...“Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed."
"In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital."
"To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work."
― Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
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Tal Gur is a location independent entrepreneur, author, and impact investor. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His most recent book and bestseller, The Art of Fully Living - 1 Man, 10 Years, 100 Life Goals Around the World, has set the stage for his new mission: elevating society to its abundance potential.