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Deep Work by Cal Newport

What is Deep Work?

Deep work is defined as “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.”

There is a ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals like Carl Jung, Woody Allen, J.K Rowling and it is in sharp contrast to the behaviour of most modern knowledge workers, who are rapidly losing the familiarity with deep work. The reason for this is there exposure to a vast number of network tools - email, SMS, Social media sites and infotainment sites like Reddit etc which has resulted in fragmented and narrowed attention span for most knowledge workers.

In contrast to the idea of deep work, there is shallow work which is defined as “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts often don’t create much value in the world and are easy to replicate”. Shallow work has the potential to permanently reduce our capacity to do deep work.

There is an ongoing debate about how the network tools are distracting us from what is truly important. There are people on both sides of the debate - techno-skeptics who argue that many of these tools are damaging society and then there are techno-optimists who argue that these tools are changing the society for the better. The author’s interest though is in exploring, through this book, how there is a work culture’s shift towards the shallow which is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential to do deep work.

Why is Deep Work Important?

1. Deep Work is Valuable.

In the information age, there has been a shift towards deep work, as more and more population are now knowledge workers for whom deep work is becoming a key currency.

There is an increasing evidence that those who cultivate the skill for deep work and make it core of there working life will thrive. Also deep work is becoming increasingly scarce and thus its becoming increasingly valuable. There are two reasons for this value - Quickly learning complicated things and the ability to produce the absolute best stuff that one is capable of producing. ****

The rise of digital technology is transforming the labour markets in unexpected ways. We are in the early throes of the Great Restructuring. There is a rapid increase in the capabilities of a machine and as they improve, the gap between machine and human abilities is shrinking, as a result employers are likely to hire “new machines” instead of “new people”. There has also been massive improvements in communication and collaboration technologies that is making remote work easier than ever before, motivating companies to outsource key roles - leaving the local talent pool underemployed.

This Great restructuring is not driving down all jobs but instead dividing them - though an increasing number of people will lose in the new economy as their skills become automatable or easily outsourced, there are others who will thrive - becoming more valued than before.

There are three groups of people who will fall on the lucrative side of this divide and reap benefits of the intelligent machine age. These are :

  • The Highly Skilled workers : People who are good at working with Machines.

  • The Superstars : People who are great at what they do.

  • The Owners : People who are investing capital in technologies that are driving the great restructuring.

The author focuses on the above two groups - The highly skilled and the superstars and proposes methods on how to become a winner in the new economy. There are two core abilities to 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.

These two core abilities depend on the ability to do deep work. There are following benefits provided by deep work :

Deep work helps you learn hard things : Learning requires intense concentration and deliberate practice.So, what is deliberate practice?

  • Your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master.

  • You receive feedback so that you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

Deep work helps you produce at an elite level

  • High Quality Work Produced = Time Spent * Intensity of Focus

  • Maximizing intensity maximizes the quality of work produced per unit of time.

  • Attention residue: Switching from one task to another leaves our attention fragmented ie. when you move from Task A to Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow - a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.

  • By not switching task and focusing on working on a single hard task for a long time helps maximizing performance and minimizing the negative impact of attention residue from other obligations.

  • Thus to produce at the peak level you need to work for extended periods of time with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. So, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.

2. Deep Work is rare

Below are the trends that are driving the move towards depth which will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable as a result.

  • Busyness as proxy for productivity: Since there are no clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in a job for most people are, they are just keeping busy assuming it to be an indicator of productivity.

  • Deep work should be a priority in todays climate but its not since shallow work is easier and in the absence of clear goals employees tend to gravitate towards shallow work to appear busy and our culture rewards behaviour if it is in alignment with “the internet”. Also there is a difficulty in measuring the value of depth or the cost of ignoring it.

3. Deep Work is meaningful The connection between deep work and a good life is evident in craftsmanship but its a bit muddled when it comes to knowledge work. One of the issues could be clarity as it is difficult to define what does a knowledge worker does and how is it different from others. Another issue is the presence of people who are trying to convince knowledge workers to spend more time in shallow work. The central theme of this following arguments (neurological, psychological and philosophical) is to establish a connection between meaning and depth in knowledge work

The Neurological Argument of depth. We generally place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances assuming that what happens to us determines how we feel. Instead research suggests that we construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. So deeper the attention we place on things that are important to us the deeper we will work on it.

The Psychological Argument of depth The experience of the flow state enables us to go deeply into the work we are doing as it orders our consciousness and makes our life worthwhile.

The Philosophical Argument of depth. The task of the craftsman is not to generate meaning but to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there. A similar potential for craftsmanship can be found in the jobs in information economy. Whether you are a writer, marketer, consultant: Your work is a craft, and if you work diligently to hone it and give it its desired respect and care then you will be able to generate meaning in your daily efforts in professional life.

There is potential of craftsmanship that can be found in knowledge work as well. Be it a writer, marketer, consultant : Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then you can generate meaning in your professional life as well.

How to implement Deep Work

We have a finite amount of will power which is different from character that can be summoned(deployed) when needed without limit instead will power is a muscle that gets tired. So, we need strategies in place to cultivate deep work, make it part of our routine to minimise the amount of willpower needed.

There are different type of depth philosophies-

  1. The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling : Attempts to maximise deep work by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow work.

  2. The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling : This philosophy has divided time into some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.

  3. The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling : This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal is to generate a rhythm for this work instead of deciding if and when you are going to go deep.

  4. The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling : Indulge in deep work whenever time or one’s schedule permits. It based on your moment to moment decision to whether to go deep or not.

Strategies to implement Deep Work

1. Ritualize

To make the most of deep work sessions, we need to craft/ build rituals like the greatest men or thinkers have had. The rituals must address some general questions like

  • Where will you work and how long?

  • How will you work?

  • How will you support your work?

2. Make Grand Gestures

Commit seriously to the task at hand. Put yourself in exotic location to focus on a writing project, or take a week off away from work just to think, or lock yourself into a hotel room are all examples of making grand gestures which pushes your deep goal to a level of mental priorities that help unlock the needed mental resources.

3. Don’t Work Alone

There seems to be an assumption that indicates that deep work which is an individual endeavour is incompatible with generating creative insights which is said to be a collaborative endeavour. Big corporations like Facebook believe that new ideas emerge with smart collaborations. The key is to have both in an arrangement called the hub and spoke architecture of arrangement where you expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply in what you encounter.

4. Execute Like a Business The 4DX method of execution:

  1. Focus on the Wildly important : Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours

  2. Act on the Lead Measures : There are two types of metrics to measure your success : lead measures and lag measures. Lag measures is a metric that defines what are you trying to improve and Lead measure is the behaviour that will drive success on the lag measures. The problem with lag measure is that it’s something that you can’t control. For example if you write a blog post than how many people read and appreciate it is not in your control but you can control how many hours will you work on a blog to produce quality output which is a lead measure. So take action on things that you can control

  3. Keep a compelling Scoreboard : Have your deep work hours on display

  4. Create a cadence of Accountability: Do a weekly review by looking at your scoreboard, celebrate good weeks and try to understand what led to the bad weeks and how can one improve.

5. Schedule Down-time from deep work

6. Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.Schedule a fixed time to complete an identified deep task and then commit publicly to the deadline.

7. Try Productive Meditation. The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you are physically but not mentally occupied and focus on a single well defined professional problem. Keep bringing back your attention to the problem at hand whenever it wanders.

8. Try to chose and pick your preferred network tools by following the craftsman approach to tool selection instead of the any-benefit approach to tool selection The any-benefit approach to tool selection states that using a networking tool is justified if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything that you possibly miss out on if you don’t use it. The craftsman approach to tool selection on the other hand states that one identifies the core factors that determines success and happiness in one’s personal and professional life and adopt a tool only if it positive impacts on these factors substantially outweighs its negative impacts

9. Apply the law of vital few to your internet habits : which is 80% of a given effect is due to 20% of the possible causes

  • First identify your personal and professional goals.

  • Then list for each of the two goals three important activities that helps satisfy the goals

  • Next consider the network tools that you currently use. For each such tool, go through the key activities you identified and ask whether the tool has a positive, negative or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity.

10. Drain the Shallows

  • Schedule every minute of your day

  • Quantify the depth of every activity : Ask how much would it take to train someone with lesser experience to complete the task

  • Ask your boss for a shallow work budget

  • Fixed Schedule productivity : Fix a firm goal of not working past a certain time and then work backward to the productivity strategies that help with the implementation of this rule.

  • Become hard to reach

A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement - it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done - Cal Newport


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