📘About Deep Work

Full credit for this section goes to Cal Newport and his incredible piece of writing — “The Deep Work”.

For me, this book was one of those quake books. It shook my perception. I completely changed the way I see work and the way I perform it. I couldn’t resist so I will share the ideas from this book because this is my chance to distribute the knowledge that has to be heard. 

In order to familiarize yourself with details of his and many other researches, take the most out of the idea and develop a mindset of deep work you will have to read the actual book. But in the age of “I-don’t-have-time” excuse I will do what I do best — summarize. 

The Idea.

Deep work is the ability to focus attention on intellectually demanding tasks for long time spans of execution at high levels of cognitive intensity. Deep work implies the skills to eliminate distractions, master complex information and produce high-quality results in short periods of time. 

In order to understand what is the problem that occurs in the society and on the level of individual we need to take a look on another definition of 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.

The problem.

The problem is obvious — many people lack the skill of the deep work which has a set of apparent benefits:

  • deep work delivers the highest value to this world hence has the greatest impact and can be monetized at a higher price
  • deep work is a work ethic that transcends to the level of personal philosophy becoming an invaluable instrument in creating the meaning of life
  • deep work is a skill that helps to secure a future-proof job and stay relevant in the world that is rapidly changing in the age of massive technological disruption. 

Cal Newport outlines Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy that are only possible to achieve through deep work. 

1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Arguments for the deep work

To make the point of how important it is to deploy the deep work approach Cal Newport lists three reasons:

A Neurological Argument for Depth

The neurological argument is derived from the set of experiments (described in the book) proving that when we perform at a high level of intellectual engagement our brains rewire themselves. It was shown that the physical transformation that happens in the prefrontal cortex as a result of intensive cognitively demanding work is directly related to the sense of fulfillment of the work. Our brains restructure themselves through the deep work in a way that is optimizing the feeling of contentment.

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.

A Psychological Argument for Depth

You may have already learned from your past experience that at the days of idleness you always feel unhappy even if any individually taken moment seem joyful. The fact that you feel good from working hard may sound paradoxical but now it has a scientifically proven explanation from the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — one of the greatest psychologists of our time. You can learn more from the book but the major implication of the research is as follows:

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.

The word “flow” that is used refers to the state when you lose yourself in work. The term was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990 in a book with the same title. We will shortly discuss this topic in the next section.

A Philosophical Argument for Depth

We are happy when we love what we do. But how do we fall in love with what we do? The answer is simple — we love what we invest in

The deep work becomes the instrument of maximizing the investment and the cultivation of this skill can become a personal challenge to transform the task at hand into the lifework. 

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.

Decide on Your Depth Philosophy

Once we learned that deep work is indeed a workstyle that will dramatically improve the quality of both our life and professional output it is time to select a personalized approach to deep work that would suit our psyche. 

The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

As the name speaks for itself the Monastic approach implies the complete isolation from the people who may distract you. Cutting yourself completely from the world will not work for everyone and should be considered regarding the specificity of the work. 

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 division of your working day into two periods of time and two corresponding working modes: deep work and shallow work. Shallow work is not necessarily evil, there are certain jobs that require the flexibility that shallow work allows. 

The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

This is the approach that is recommended to the office workers considering the reality of their daily schedules. The idea is to create a habit — a behavioral pattern of shorter periods of deep work than in Bimodal approach alternating with the periods of rest or shallow work. Cal Newport uses the workstyle of Brian Chappel, the doctoral candidate that learned the concept of the 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.

The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

The last approach is deployed by the battle-scarred deep work adepts that mastered to laser focus their attention at will. 

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 taken some of the deep work practices from the training regimen that is provided in the book

#1 Work Deeply

Ritualize. In the Health chapter we discussed the positive benefits of the personal rituals. Here, I just want to emphasize how important it is to make the deep work a top priority ritual in your daily agenda. I am not advocating the deep work approach solely because I was deeply moved by the book of Cal Newport, I do so because I started to live it. The book that you are reading right now had found its physical form only thanks to the deep work ritual that I have integrated — 4+ hours sessions of everyday intensive undisturbed writing.

Make Grand Gestures. In this subsection of the book author describes J.K.Rowling. When she was struggling to finalize the last book in the “Harry Potter” series she booked a room in a 5-star hotel and isolated herself from the world. Such investment was pricey but as you know from the massive success of “Deathly Hallows” was worth every penny. The takeaway here is that sometimes big financial investments into the support of the deep work get compensated a hundredfold. 

Don’t work alone. Sometimes the deep work requires collaboration. Sometimes the deep work can be enhanced by the presence of a like-minded. As I write this book I have a friend who is sitting in another room grinding through his music project. He comes to my place to share the ritual of the deep work and dive into the long sessions of music composition which by definition is an extremely cognitively demanding task and requires extreme focus and complete immersion. The fact that we go through the creative process together despite the fact that the crafts we hone are distinctly different from each other keeps us both on track with our objectives. 

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far go together. 
~ African proverb

Execute like a business.

#1 Focus on the wildly important. Applying the proverbial 80/20 rule the deep work should be focused on the 20% of the results that makes the 80% of the positive change in your life. 

#2 Act on the Lead Measures. As I was running my startup I learned about the concept of KPI — key performance indicators that are crucial to track in order to increase the performance of the company. Working as an individual setting up your KPIs is equally important. The time spent in a state of a deep work is the one that Cal Newport suggests in his book. 

#3 Keep a Compelling Scoreboard. Running a startup I and my team learned how to brainstorm on the whiteboard so no idea would escape our sight. As an independent worker I learned the power of daily journaling. The takeaway is that you should learn how to create your own system of tracking your deep work KPIs and achievements. 

The individual’s scoreboard should be a physical artifact in the workspace that displays the individual’s current deep work hour count.

#4 Create a Cadence of Accountability. If it is hard to stay on track with your deep work find a friend who will help you with that. If you possess enough self-discipline to commit to a deep work integrate additional rituals of regular progress revisions. 

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. Do weekly reviews. 

Be Lazy. As we learned from the previous section about the willpower, it is finite. The quality of your rest time is equally important as the depth of your work. Your “off” time comes with 3 implications:

  • When you rest you get insights.
  • You recharge.
  • The work the rest replaces is usually not important.

#2 Embrace boredom.

Focus. The best practice that you can deploy in order to improve the skill to focus your attention at will is the meditation because the meditation is per se the attention workout. Meditation will teach your brain to create a tunnel vision of focus point at hand — a skill that is essential for the 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. You need to artificially create conditions that restrain your attention to the task at hand. A public declaration, a self-imposed deadline, a self-imposed penalty for meeting the deadline — all of these methods will help you to avoid sabotaging your commitment.

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

No comments. You know what to do. Cut the distractions. One trick that I used — I didn’t delete the apps from my phone, I simply turned off all notifications. Those who need to reach me have my phone number. Trust me , the world won’t end.

#4 Drain the shallows

Simple. Minimize the shallow work. 

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.

Conclusions. 

This was my humble attempt to squeeze the wisdom of a 300 pages book into 2300+ words. 

The message of the whole book can be in one sentence: 
At work — go all in.

The deep work became not just a puzzle piece in the mosaic of my worldview, it became a significant part of me and the way I operate in this world. 

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.

There is a quote that Cal Newport often comes back to in his book and I think he would approve if I finish this section with it. These are beautiful words to live by.

“I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”
~ Winifred Gallagher