“Be like a postage stamp — stick to one thing until you get there.”
~ Josh Billings
Once in a while, you discover one of those quake books. “Deep Work” by Cal Newport was such a book for me. It shook my tree and made me fundamentally rethink the organization of my workflow. I couldn’t resist sharing the concept of deep work, however, this section should by no means be considered a substitute for the actual book. Read the real deal.
Let’s start with the definition:
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”
Single-tasking is a superpower. In a distraction economy, the ability to focus on one thing 3–5 hours at a time blocking out all distractions gives you a huge leg up, as opposed to people who practice task switching. Deep work is impossible to do while multi-tasking — connecting time increments of 15 minutes into 4 hours is not the same thing as a 4 hours session of deep work. This approach can only lead to what Cal Newport calls a “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 easy to replicate.”
Understanding these two concepts outlines the challenge — everyone who wants to succeed in a digital economy must re-assess the organization of his working process and consider the apparent benefits of the deep work paradigm:
- The work of the highest value and hence of the greatest impact and the monetary price is usually produced through deep work.
- Deep work is not simply an approach to work performance. Once deployed, it grows into a personal philosophy. It becomes a source from which higher meanings can be drawn.
- As the ability to concentrate and maintain focus for long periods of time becomes increasingly rare, the ability to deep work will continue to grow in demand.
Cal Newport devises 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.
As we move into a new economy, you will have to constantly reinvent yourself. Those who master single-tasking have a much higher chance to stay relevant in the age of technological disruption.
Let’s look at the arguments for deep work in more detail.
Arguments for the deep work.
Cal Newport states three major arguments:
#1. A Neurological Argument for Depth.
“In work (and especially knowledge work), to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.”
The neurological argument is derived from the set of experiments that suggest that when we perform at a high level of intellectual effort our brains rewire themselves. It was shown that the physical transformation that occurs in the prefrontal cortex as a result of intensive cognitively demanding work is directly related to the sense of fulfillment that comes from the work. In other words, working deep restructures the brain in a way that on a psychological level optimizes the feeling of our contentment.
#2. A Psychological Argument for Depth.
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the brightest minds in the psychology of happiness. His research on how people’s mental state defines their ability to draw genuine satisfaction from work resulted in the development of the ground-breaking concept he called “flow”. Flow state is a state of consciousness in which people are so absorbed in an activity that they completely lose the sense of time. This concept is central in personal productivity so we will be returning to it in the next section.
This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about work: “Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.”
You might have noticed that an idle day never brings satisfaction even though any individually taken moment was spent carefree. Feeling good about yourself doesn’t come from being indolent, feeling good about yourself can only stem from hard work. This statement may seem dubious but now it has firm scientific support.
#3. A Philosophical Argument for Depth.
“A wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be. The same applies to knowledge work. You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.”
We love what we are invested in. Passion follows the effort. In that sense, deep work is a perfect tool for maximizing the effort you put into your work. Nothing can come close to its ability to endow your creation with philosophical meaning the depth of which is only limited by the depth of your execution.
Most of this book was written in sessions of 3–6 hours. It took me more than a year to finish it. I had to rewrite it twice. Needless to say, deep work was the only vehicle that could take me from writing the first line to completion. Indeed, as I learned in the process there is nothing noble in pounding the keyboard, however, it is the way I had my writing done that gave me the greatest sense of purpose. It was never so much a work of the mind as it was a work of the spirit. Every time I dive in, I have an odd feeling — it feels as if all my previous life has been preparing me to this level of depth, to this degree of commitment. Deep work became my philosophy.
Decide on Your Depth Philosophy.
There are several ways to implement deep work in your working process.
#1. The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling.
As the name speaks for itself, taking a Monastic approach you go “monk-mode” and isolate yourself completely from distractions. Cutting yourself from the world will not work for everyone so the applicability of this philosophy will depend a lot on the specificity of your work and your personality type.
#2. The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling.
“This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.”
The Bimodal approach implies the skillful use of time blocking. You can turn your to-do lists into blocks of time assigning the time of your peak performance to deep work and saving shallow work for last. It is worth noting, that shallow work is not necessarily evil. There are certain jobs that require certain flexibility and an ability to multi-task.
#3. The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling.
This is the approach that is recommended to office workers considering the framework of 9 to 5 jobs. The idea of the rhythmic philosophy is to create a pattern of short periods of deep work alternating with periods of rest or shallow work. Cal Newport illustrates the example of Brian Chappel — the doctoral candidate and an ardent disciple of deep work.
“He made a rule that deep work needed to happen in ninety-minute chunks (recognizing correctly that it takes time to ease into a state of concentration) and he decided he would try to schedule these chunks in an ad hoc manner whenever appropriate openings in his schedule arose.”
This particular approach can be useful to someone whose work style requires to focus on multiple utterly unlike tasks.
#4. The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling.
The last approach introduced is popular among battle-scarred adepts of deep work who advanced on the path of mastery of focusing their attention at will. This approach is for those who have perfected their ability to go into “deep work mode” and became able to switch it on and off in a matter of seconds.
Here is what Cal Newport writes about the Journalistic Philosophy: “This approach is not for the deep work novice. As I established in the opening to this rule, the ability to rapidly switch your mind from shallow to deep mode doesn’t come naturally. Without practice, such switches can seriously deplete your finite willpower reserves. This habit also requires a sense of confidence in your abilities — a conviction that what you’re doing is important and will succeed. This type of conviction is typically built on a foundation of existing professional accomplishment.”
How to deep work?
I have summarized some of the deep work practices from the training regimen provided in the original book that I find the most valuable. These life hacks, if you will, will help you to get immediate results.
#1. Work Deeply.
Ritualize. Deep work is like brushing teeth. It brings you no value unless you do it consistently. Only through performing the ritual of deep work on a day-to-day basis your long plan will come to fruition.
Make Grand Gestures. The book illustrates a brilliant example of a grand gesture — J.K.Rowling. Struggling to finalize the last book of the “Harry Potter” series she booked a suite in a 5-star hotel isolating herself from the world. Such gesture was definitely not cheap but as you know from the massive success of “Deathly Hallows” it was worth every penny. The takeaway here: sometimes deep work requires hefty capital injections but in the case of success the end result is more than rewarding.
Don’t Work Alone. Deep work can be enhanced by the presence of like-minded. As I am writing these words, a friend of mine is sitting in the next room grinding through his music project. Every morning he comes to my place to share the ritual of deep work. Similarly to writing, music composition is a highly cognitively demanding task that requires sharp focus and complete immersion. Despite our crafts are distinctly different by their nature, going through the creative process together helps us both to stay on track to our goals.
Execute like a business.
Focus on the Wildly Important. Apply the proverbial Pareto principle aka the 80/20 rule. Deep work on 20% of the tasks that make 80% of the positive impact on your life.
Act on the Lead Measures. Key performance indicators (KPIs) are a type of performance measurement that helps the company to make intelligent business decisions. Working individually, you can also set up KPIs that would be specific to your line of work. For instance, something as simple as the time spent in a state of deep work can be used as a KPI.
Keep a Compelling Scoreboard. Startup teams normally brainstorm on a whiteboard to ensure that no idea escapes their sight. As an individual worker, you can implement solo-brainstorming in the form of daily journaling. Track your KPIs and they will provide you with valuable insights. Thus, measuring and registering the time spent in deep work helped me to better manage my time and served as a push by creating a sense of urgency.
“The individual’s scoreboard should be a physical artifact in the workspace that displays the individual’s current deep work hour count.”
Create a Cadence of Accountability. Implement regular progress revisions. In many cases it is not the intensity of the deep work session that makes the difference, it is the regularity.
“For an individual focused on his or her own deep work habit, there’s likely no team to meet with, but this doesn’t exempt you from the need for regular accountability.”
Be Lazy. In the previous section, we learned that our willpower is finite. The quality of our rest directly affects the depth we are capable of reaching. Idleness can be healthy:
- Relaxation promotes mind wandering. Mind-wandering propels creative ideation.
- Rest is needed for physical recovery and energy recharge.
- The work that rest replaces is usually not important.
#2. Embrace boredom.
Focus. The only technique you need to learn to develop your ability to concentrate your attention at will is meditation. Mediation is per se a workout for attention. Through meditation, you will learn the power of witnessing — a special kind of mental discipline to sit through distractions without naming names. This ability will be ‘unlocked’ at a substantial level of mindfulness so consistent practice is a must. Thoughts unrelated to the task at hand can be discarded only if they are detected. With practice, your ability to evoke and hold tunnel vision of the object will boost your deep work.
“To summarize, to succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. This doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate distracting behaviors; it’s sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviors to hijack your attention.”
Commit. Create an environment that will compel you to immerse yourself in deep work. Introduce artificial elements of coercion: a public declaration, a deadline, a penalty for not meeting the deadline — use any method that would stop you from sabotaging your commitment. Discomfort is inevitable but that’s what it takes to get the job done.
“Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline.”
#3. Quit Social Media.
Social media severely erodes your ability to concentrate. Pop-up notifications is cancer to your attention. Deploy app minimalism. Use ‘plane mode’ for your deep work sessions. Cut the distractions. The time you waste on SNS will plunge, the concentration will improve within a week. Trust me, those who really have an irresistible urge to contact you will find a way to do it.
#4. Drain the shallows.
Minimize shallow work. Shallows keep you in the illusion of business. As a rule of thumb, if the task doesn’t make you cringe it probably lacks depth.
“To summarize, I’m asking you to treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated. This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact.”
That was my humble attempt to squeeze the value of a 300 pages book into one section. Whether I succeeded or failed is for you to decide.
If I was asked to summarize the key message of the whole book in one sentence it would be:
In your work, go all in.
The deep work has become not just another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of my worldview, it became an integral part of my life philosophy.
“The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.
But if you’re willing to sidestep these comforts and fears, and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.”
You can’t control the length of your life, but the control over its depth is something no one can take away from you. Someone who made his life an ode to depth would never change his evanescent existence even for a thousand years of dabbling in shallowness.
Full credit for this section goes to Cal Newport and his incredible piece of writing “Deep Work”. I hope Dr. Newport would forgive my frivolous interpretation of his book, my only motive was to distribute his moving ideas. I owe him my life — a life of focus.
“I’ll live the focused life because it’s the best kind there is.”
~ Winifred Gallagher
Thank you for reading my book “Meditations of the Millennial”.
If you want to support me on my mission, please, share this book with someone you love. Maybe they will find what they seek on its pages.