Deep Work

2016-07-24 Sun

Deep Work by Cal Newport

The ability to focus is a key skill in a "knowledge economy".

I was receptive to this book's message, and found it inspiring. (I'm learning to recognize my culpability for wasted time.)

Here's what I took from it.


Deep work: Shallow work:

Silly note: Cal says that deep work is becoming more rare & more valuable at the same time. Isn't the second a function of the first, assuming deep work has positive value? (Nit-picking, I admit.)

Chapter 1: Deep Work is Valuable

"Winners" in today's economy:

  1. Highly-skilled (esp. high-tech)
  2. Superstars (elite producers)
  3. Owners (the rich)

It's hard to change #3 in isolation; work on #1 & #2: learn to quickly master hard things, and to produce at an "elite" level (quality and speed).

high-quality work produced = time spent x intensity of focus

Chapter 2: Deep Work is Rare

Recent workplace trends hurt deep work:

I've experienced the first two; the last seems more specialized.

The "metric black hole": The above trends are tolerated by management because their damaging effects are not obvious.

Principle of Least Resistance
In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

Richard Feynman on being "deliberately irresponsible", openly avoiding administrative responsibilities, to focus on physics:

To do real good physics work, you need absolute solid lengths of needs a lot of concentration...if you have a job administrating anything, you don't have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I'm irresponsible. I'm actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don't do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, "no", I tell them: I'm irresponsible.
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity
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 Cult of the Internet: Anything new is inherently good.

Neil Postman, describing a “technopoly”:

Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World...It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.

Chapter 3: Deep Work is Meaningful

A Neurological Argument for Depth

Winifred Gallagher - serious cancer diagnosis inspired her to focus her attention intentionally. (No more wasting time on trivialities.)

Her "grand unified theory" of the mind:

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.


Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.
The object of your attention shapes your world.

Focus on your inbox, and you'll see the world through the lens of its contents—seldom ideal.

More Gallagher:

'The idle mind is the devil's workshop'...when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.

(Yes, it's possible that distractions—even pleasant or benign ones—leave our brains in an unfocused state, and susceptible to negative thinking. This Hobbesian point felt anecdotal & folksy, though, and I'm not entirely convinced.)

A Psychological Argument for Depth

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – psychologist, created concept of "flow".

Experience Sampling Method (ESM): Survey subject about their current experience, gathering repeated measurements over time. (Externally prompted on a schedule of unknown predictability.)

The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.


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.

A Philosophical Argument for Depth

A wooden wheel is not noble, but shaping it can be. The same applies to knowledge work. You don’t need a rarefied job; you need instead a rarefied approach to your work.

Brings to mind the parable of the stonecutters and the cathedral. (What is the origin of this parable? I suspect it's "modern", and came from business/management books...)

Rule #1: Work Deeply

Deep work philosophies

  1. Monastic
    • Donald Knuth & Neal Stephenson "don't do email"
    • Emphasizes refining craft skills over self-promotion
  2. Bimodal
    • Carl Jung's multi-week trips to his writing & studying home, Bollingen Tower
    • Entirely eliminate "shallow" activities from professional life, for planned extended periods
    • Periodic monasticism
    • More practical for "paying the bills" than pure monasticism
  3. Rhythmic
    • Seinfeld’s "chain" method
    • Do some every day, measured in hours
    • Scheduled
    • Habit-based
    • Fits "real life" pretty well
  4. Journalistic
    • Walter Isaacson, "The Wise Men"
    • Fit in the deep work when you can
    • Requires ability to rapidly change to deep-work mode
    • Requires confidence (in own abilities, & in value of the project)


Don't wait for inspiration. Build & rely upon a deep-work habit. Establish a place & schedule specific start/stop times.

Decide how you'll work, ahead of time. Examples:

Grand Gestures

"Sometimes to go deep, you must first go big"

Don't Work Alone

I conclude that the open plan office is bad. "Serendipitous creativity" happens at the water cooler, not the desk. (Also, why do I dislike management-mandated no-meeting times? "Hey, Bill, let's go ask Sally about X. Oh, she's concentrating? Let's leave her alone. We'll meet next week, when we're all next free, and we no longer remember the context. What? It can't wait? Okay, then let's interrupt her immediately.")

Spoke & Hub layout for the workplace—ideal?

The Whiteboard Effect: A fancy way of saying "working with somebody else in real time"? (Includes immediate feedback, rapid iteration, and built-in urgency mechanism, since somebody's standing there, waiting).

Execute Like a Business

The "4 Disciplines of Execution" (or 4DX, from a book of the same name), applied to deep work:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important
    • "wildly" - the whole thing smacks of effort...
  2. Act on the Lead Measures
    • Lag measure: final desired outcome
    • Lead measure: upstream, near-future outcomes that lead to eventual lag measure changes
    • Don't wait for lag measures to get feedback. Establish which lead measures you care about (presumably by determining which are expected to affect the lag measures), and focus on those. (Rhymes with "agile methodology".)
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard
    • Sounds a little Sales-y? (Perhaps the way it was pitched as a "shared" board...)
    • Cal tallied hours, & marked moments of breakthroughs.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability
    • A stand-up or recurring check-in/review. (For solo folks, a review session.)
    • Learn lessons & take action.
Be Lazy

"Work hard, then be done."

3 reasons downtime is important:

  1. Downtime aids insights (engages subconscious mind)
  2. Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply
    • Attention Restoration Theory (ART)
      • Time in nature improves concentration
      • Concepts of directed attention & attention fatigue
    • Nature walk: few demanding situations, but many fascinating ones
  3. The “work” that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important anyway
    • Ericsson paper: “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”
      • A novice can intensely concentrate perhaps 1 hour per day; an expert, “up to” 4.
      • In other words, after-hours work would probably be poor quality anyway. (Reminiscient of arguments for why constant crunch-time is not ideal for the final product—AAA game studios, etc.)

At the end of the work day, perform a shut-down ritual:

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Intense concentration is a skill that must be learned, not an inherent ability.

Focus is more difficult when the brain constantly seeks distraction & diversion. Indulging in mental junk food in off-hours trains the brain to seek the same during work hours (my analogy).

Don’t take breaks from distraction, take breaks from focus.

Schedule internet use (not breaks from the internet):

  1. Need to use internet much for job? That's fine, just be more liberal in scheduling internet blocks of time
  2. When offline, stay offline
    • What if you need an answer & are stuck?
      • Do something else
      • Schedule a new block sooner - 5 minutes from now? (Avoid immediately giving in & going to the internet. Separate the impulse from the rewarding action.)
  3. Treat internet use the same after work.
    • Feel free to schedule longer or more frequent blocks of time, but remember to resist boredom-induced internet use.

Work like Teddy Roosevelt

Cal says that Roosevelt made time for so many extra-curricular activities in college by setting aggressive artificial deadlines for his study. "Roosevelt dashes".

Be so aggressive that only intense concentration will make success possible. Push yourself.

"'Interval training' for the attention centers of your brain"

Meditate Productively

While physically occupied but mentally free (e.g. walking), focus attention on a single, well-defined problem. As with mindfulness meditation, if your attention wanders, intentionally bring it back to the problem.



Memorize a Deck of Cards

Memory athletes don't have "better memory" than others, they have better control over their attention.

Train your memory → improved concentration

Describes a technique from Ron White (also in an Art of Manliness article, "How to Memorize a Deck of Cards").

"Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it."

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

Hyper-connectedness is bad.

Cal doesn't use Facebook. (See Why I’m (Still) Not Going to Join Facebook: Four Arguments that Failed to Convince Me.)

Internet sites & services are tools (for entertainment, information, connecting, etc.). Such tools shouldn't be considered worthwhile for providing "any" benefit. They're only worthwhile if their benefits outweigh their drawbacks.

Law of the Vital Few

  1. Identify key high-level goals (professional & personal)
  2. List the 2 or 3 key activities to help satisfy each goal
  3. Hold each tool up to each activity, and determine how positive or negative each tool is for the activity

Cal focuses a lot on "network" (i.e. "internet") tools. I think the same principles can be applied more broadly.

Law of the vital few (Pareto principle, 80/20 rule)

Don't Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself

Arnold Bennet, English author "near the turn of the 20th century":

Take the case of a Londoner who works in an office, whose office hours are from ten to six, and who spends fifty minutes morning and night in travelling between his house door and his office door...great and profound mistake which my typical man makes in regard to his day...he persists in looking upon those [unenjoyable] hours from ten to six as 'the day', to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.

This is "utterly illogical and unhealthy", Bennet says. You've got another "day" in every day—use it deliberately!

What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity: they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

37Signals (now Basecamp): 4-day week "as productive" as a 5-day week—the shallow work was reduced, not the deep.

Schedule Every Minute of your Day

People underestimate time spent sleeping & watching TV, and overestimate time spent working. Conclusion: Much unintentional use of time.

I really like this scheduling idea. It:


Quantify the Depth of Every Activity

"How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?"

Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget

What % of time to spend on shallow work?

Provides professional "cover" in case this ruffles feathers

Finish Your Work by 5:30

Determine your work-end time, and stick to it. Schedule backward from this time to account for the day’s requirements.

"Fixed-schedule productivity"

Say "no" to shallow work offers.

Become Hard to Reach

All about managing email.


Questions I asked myself, and my attempts at answers.

Q: Cal repeatedly describes deep work as being "professional", but is this essential?
A: I assume the same concepts can apply to "hobby" activities also—consider deliberate practice.)

Q: How does Cal feel about the pomodoro technique?
A: I don’t recall a mention in the book, but I imagine he’d find it too limiting, a source of built-in interruption. Related blog post: Deep Habits: The Danger of Pseudo-Depth.)

Q: Is "diffuse thinking" compatible with the idea of deep work?
A: I think not (p. 35-36), but it might well be complimentary.

Q: Are daily stand-ups useful?
A: I imagine Cal would classify them as shallow work. (How frequently do they trigger unanticipated activity?)

Q: Does Cal think that evening deep study is detrimental? He advocates "shutting down" in the evenings, but is that just for "work" topics, or for all "deep" endeavors?
A: I imagine that some amount of downtime is essential, but hopefully all "deep" non-work endeavors aren't forbidden, Arnold Bennet's words notwithstanding.