Notes from my reading: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Arindam Basu
Jan 12, 2017 · 8 min read
From Cal Newport’s Website, click to learn more

Professor Cal Newport(link) wrote a book on what he says “Deep Work” (a combination of points 1 and 2 achieved in deep concentration with minimal distractions). In this book, Professor Newport starts with a vision of the future of humanity where he says there will be three kinds of people who will survive and prosper:

  • Those who will have money to invest in technology (those “people” are not likely to be you and me …, er …, and this book is not about them either, so don’t worry about this class)
  • People who will be working in sought after “niche” areas and areas that are difficult and complex to grasp but high impact
  • People who are superstars.

You and I have a chance to elevate ourselves to the latter two statuses (“niche people”, and “superstars”), and to do that we need to achieve two things together:

  1. We should continually upgrade and skill up and learn really difficult to master skills and be persistent about it
  2. Produce continually at the level of elites

Achieving only item 1 is not enough in itself, and you have to have item 2 to make things work. Doing both together needs a state for you to achieve where you will need to work with deep concentration continually with minimum distraction. But as we all know, this is not easy in a world where there are far too many sources of distraction. Among others, our workplaces do not help either. Particularly, open-plan offices (no doubt crafted by the management with intention that you will come up with “serendipitous discoveries” etc etc), ever-on emails where you are expected to instantly get back with a response, and then, ahem, social media the continue to buzz — are three biggest obstacles to this state of deep work.

But.

We have to excel and cut it out.

So, how do we cut the distractions and get to the point of deep single minded concentration and continue to produce at an elite level? Surely people do that. How do they achieve what they do?

The story is long but this book will show you the way. I recommend that you read the book from front to end at least twice. It is packed with tips, advices, explanations and motivational stories. The style of writing is attractive, so he does an excellent job of retaining your attention. I’d go so far to suggest that if you take your creativity and need to excel seriously, absolutely cannot miss this book, no matter what profession you are in. Here are my key bullet pointers from the book:

  • To achieve deep work, you will need to follow four principles
  1. You must engage in deep work itself
  2. You must learn how to embrace, rather than avoid “boredom”
  3. You must have a plan to “quit social media”
  4. You should definitely have a plan to “drain the shallows”

(The book does an excellent job of explaining and detailing the steps)

Principle 1: You must engage in deep work itself

In general, four general styles (I suppose you can choose from)

  • Like a monastic. — Cut out all distractions and focus on a few narrow specialised area to the exclusion of all distractions. Donald Knuth used to work like that.
  • Bimodal. — Reserve a few days when you will be working like a monastic. On those days, cut out all distractions and deeply involve yourself in work. You need at least one day (less than one day in a week is not, well, going to work). Somewhat realistic for those who work in say universities, or who can park times in weeks or part of the year. Great strategy.
  • Rhythmic. — Every day, take say three or four hours when you will be working on your project, deep work style. Works well with book writing, paper writing, understanding a project deeply, reading books. Same thing, everyday. Here, Seinfeld’s chain becomes a great tool.
Jerry Seinfeld and his Chain Method of Productivity, click on the picture to learn more

Journalistic. — If I were to write this, I’d call this opportunistic. Carve out a three to four hour or whatever time period of deep work in your everyday. The style Walter Isaacson used to write his tomes. This is also professor Newport’s style.

  • The Power of Rituals. — Rituals are very important to keep out decisional clutters. You set up rules and constraints when you work. Newport recommends three points for rituals. “Great minds think like artists but work like accountants”. Account for every minute you work.
  1. Set up your place and decide how much time you want to work — Set it up before you start. Do not make ad hoc changes. When you do, nothing will distract you from the work you are doing.
  2. Decide how you will work. — What will you work on, tools you will use, the exact work you will do.
  3. Arrange the accompaniments. — Again, this cuts out indecision and distractions. This includes ambient music, reference materials, coffee, food.
  • Power of Grand Gestures. — Grand gestures were things done on a large scale to root out distractions — think of setting up a cabin in your backyard to do deep work, or take a flight where there is no scope of distractions but just work, or checking into a large hotel (the stories here were amazing).

Once you decide on your preferred style and set up your ritual to get to work, you need to develop four disciplines:

  1. Focus on the wildly important work. — What is it that you must do? What will lead you to your desired goal? Got to know yourself.
  2. Act on lead measures. — Measure yourself how you are doing. Not just your goals, but the quanta of work you are doing.
  3. Keep a scoreboard. —
  4. Create a cadence of accountability. — A continual process where you are held accountable for your own productivity.

One other theme that Cal Newport writes is the importance of rest and taking your mind away from the work. This is a very “structured laziness” where you build into your routine patches of time where you are not going to be immersed in your work but take yourself away from your work context. Let the work go on in the background but you are not immersed in it. We shall see in the next principle, in the principle of embracing boredom how that is done.

Principle 2: Embrace Boredom

There is work that is persistent, and you do the same thing every day. This is practice. As I read this part, I could not help but think of the “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”

Jiro dreams of Sushi

I found this section very powerful where he talked about three of four strategies worth pursuing:

  • Internet Sabbath. — Just plug off the Internet for a day. Switch off. Work. Play. But no Internet for that day.
  • Develop a practice of Meditation. — He calls it productive meditation. Essentially, you deeply meditate on your work. Distractions will invariably arise, but you will need to gently come back to your topic of work. As I read it, I was thinking of the practice of mindfulness meditation or Metta meditation where you do the same thing. Focus on your breath, as mind wavers, gently bring back the focus to your breath. If you are interested in the know how, check out the following youtube video
Here’s Jon Kabat zinn showing you how to do mindfulness meditation.
  • Teddy Roosevelt Style. — Pick up a task, have an estimation as to how long that might take (say 90 minutes). Then set a timer that is “drastically” shorter and set up a situation where you will be held accountable to complete the task in that time. I am not sure how much reduction is “drastic” (let’s say you choose to reduce by 40%) and set yourself to work. Remove all distractions and intensely focus on the work. Newport advises not to do this more than once a week when you are starting out and then progressively increase the duration and frequency of this.
  • Memorize a deck of cards. — Visualise you are in a house, visualise rooms and objects and people and then place the cards on those objects and people. A great way to build memorisation skills. Very different from rote memorisation. Get the full text of the book to learn more.

Principle 3: Quit Social Media

This is a complex chapter and complex set of arguments. YMMV. I certainly would find it hard to quit social media lock stock and barrel. But where social media are distracting, and I’d certainly not use social media for entertainment. One strategy that he offers is great:

  • Without deactivating, stay off consciously from your social media of choice for 30 days. After 30 days, evaluate:
  1. Was it impossible for you to stay away or were you greatly inconvenienced?
  2. Did people who were on your “circles” or “friends” notice that you were absent? Did that make a difference?

I ran a similar experiment with Facebook sometime ago (before I read this book) somewhat out of my frustration with the Facebook experience. I have given up on Facebook since. I do not miss a thing. As a matter of fact, focusing deeply on Medium for that matter, has been far more rewarding. I can read more books, write more and longer posts, generate ideas. I’d definitely encourage you to check out this strategy.

Principle 4: Drain the shallows

This was repetitive but essentially, here you manage your time. Chunk off calender time and plan your day and _stick_ to it. As I read this, I thought of a recent post by Mike Rohde on “Daily Plan Bar”. Here is the post, read it:

It also has some strategies of structuring your email communications and making yourself unavailable. I found it startling that you can go about in life without worrying about responding to your emails. Interesting section of the book.

Summary

Overall, a great book. Here are my five take away lessons:

  • Persistently upskill by learning new tools and be always on the hunt for new ideas — learn to go out of your comfort zones
  • Publish, write, create (publishing and writing is relevant to my profession but YMMV)
  • Reduce social media time and when writing emails, use more process focused language
  • Engage in bimodal or rhythmic style of deep work. I found that more practical than either a hermit like focus or shifting between work and engagements
  • Fine tune skills of attention. Meditation is a great way.

Arindam Basu

Written by

Epidemiologist (Environmental Health) at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in: https://refind.com/arinbasu, & https://mastodon.nzoss.nz/@arin_basu

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade