Deep Work - Cal Newport

I've been following Cal Newport's YouTube podcasts and was interested in his ideas for Deep Work, and therefore decided to pick up this book and learn more. I am giving this book 5 stars because I took away a lot.

The author describes Deep Work as -

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 critical distinction between Deep Work and Shallow work is the ease with which the work can be repeated by someone else or automated. Those jobs requiring low-level cognitive skills and repetitions are considered shallow work.

I should note here that the book covers Deep Work from the perspective of Knowledge Workers - workers that use knowledge as the primary input for a task.

The author proposes an interesting technique for classifying work. How long would a recent College Graduate need to become proficient in a particular task? A month? A few months? A year? Depending on the field and the type of task, this scale could be adapted to determine if a job constitutes deep work.

This book is divided into two parts.

First Part

The first part makes a case for deep work. I was already sold on the concept of Deep Work going into this book. Nevertheless, this first section introduces compelling research and anecdotes that make a strong case for the deep work necessary to increase one's value. This is not to say we should discard shallow work but rather recognize how to balance the two appropriately.

There were two concepts that I took away from the first part of this book.

  • Metric Black Hole
  • Busyness as Proxy

Metric Black Hole

The "metric black hole" is the term the author uses to describe the lack of concrete metrics supporting the benefits of shallow tasks, a few of which include -

  • frequency and immediacy of email or instant message replies
  • serendipitous connections while working in open floor settings
  • speaking at and/or attending many conferences

It can be challenging to gauge the correlation between these tasks and the value of the work produced. Because of this lack of data, companies continue to place weight on these tasks. Hence, the importance of deep work over shallow work can get blurry.

Busyness as Proxy

I found the following quote interesting, as it accurately represents what working without indicators of success can feel like, and I suspect most people have been here.

In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

The Second Part

The book's second part establishes 4 rules for making Deep Work part of your daily routine. There were a lot of exciting concepts in all these rules, and I will note below those that I thought were personally interesting

Productive Meditation

During mindfulness meditation, it is typical to concentrate on one's breath and to gently bring that concentration back when it wanders. Practitioners often refer to this as a practice because the aim is to continually improve.

Similarly, during Productive Meditation, while doing Deep Work, it is necessary to identify when concentration wanders and bring it back. Over time and with practice, it becomes easier to remain focused.

Getting off Social Media

The chapter (and rule) on quitting social media was easy to agree with. There is a memorable example of a Farmer named Forrest Pritchard. His decision to sell his Hay Baler makes a great case study for deciding the pros and cons of using a tool. The hay baler could save costs for the farmer but also take away value from the land. In this circumstance, the lost value was more significant than the saved costs, and the decision was easy.

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.

Suppose a social or networking tool doesn't add significant value to your professional goals. In that case, it doesn't make sense to use it.

A Day within a Day

If we separate our professional and non-professional lives, we discover another day within a 24-hour period. Rather than going with the flow, the author suggests structuring our non-professional time to some degree. Decide upon hobbies, reading material, or entertainment ahead of time. As someone who likes to go with the flow, this feels like extra tedium. However, having preplanned moments and completing tasks results in a feeling of accomplishment.

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you'll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.

Journalistic Deep Work

The author lists 4 different techniques of Deep Work. The last one is - Journalistic Deep Work. It mirrors the deep work performed by Journalists who can quickly switch between shallow and deep work when working on news stories. Seeing this defined in the book feels validating because it is the technique I tend to follow when I can. The author does note that his method of Deep Work may not be for the novice -

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.

Draining the Shallow

I call this commitment fixed-schedule productivity, as I fix the firm goal of not working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow me to satisfy this declaration.

Here the author proposes time boxing your work day into 8 or 9 hours and then optimizing those hours through several iterations. He also suggests making a plan for that workday (on paper) and outlining the hours spent doing deep and shallow work. It is ok to revise this plan if work changes. The idea here is to understand how many hours one works on deep vs. shallow work and then attempt to cut down on shallow work where possible.