Deep Work: How to Develop the Most Valuable Skill of the 21st Century
Some books you read, and then forget. Others change a small part of your life. Then there are the rare gems that fundamentally change the way you think, live, and work.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport is one of the latter.
As the world advances, three kinds of people will survive and prosper:
- Owners of capital or people with access to it
- Those who can work with intelligent machines and technology
- Superstars in their field of work
Deep Work focuses on the third type. To become one, you need to develop two skills: the ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
Deep Work is the concept that interlinks these two skills.
Hard things are complex and you need to give them all of your attention and focus.
The batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches is key to high productivity.
The new law of productivity is:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
So why aren’t we all performing Deep Work?
“Deep work is hard and shallow work is easier and in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving.”
Our goal is to systematically develop your personal ability to go deep — and by doing so, reap great rewards.
What Is Deep Work?
Each task on your list can be divided into two main categories: deep work and shallow work.
Cal Newport defines deep work 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.”
On the other spectrum, we have shallow work:
“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
These are the rituals of the modern workplace, such as meetings, emails, and reports. While they are hard to escape, you should make a conscious effort to diminish the time spent on them in order to maximize the time you have for deep work activities.
The world is a distracting place and we are more distracted than ever.
We constantly engage most of our time on shallow work activities, thus reducing our capacity to perform deep work. As a result, this ability is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly valuable in our economy.
Only the few who cultivate this skill and make it the core of their working life will thrive.
Deep Work is about working smarter, not harder.
It is the superpower of the 21st century.
How to Develop the Ability to Do Deep Work
In order to make this guide easier to follow, I broke it down into 5 simple steps:
- Choose Your Deep Work Philosophy: there are four strategies — monastic, bimodal, rhythmic or journalist — to integrate Deep Work into your life on a sustained basis. Decide on your philosophy and start designing your work accordingly
- Make Deep Work a Habit: commit to scheduling Deep Work blocks into your calendar and sticking to them. Build rituals and routines to minimize friction in your transition to depth, such as choosing your Deep Work location, timeframe and execution method
- Execute Like a Business: knowing what to do and how to do it are two very different things. To successfully implement high-level strategies, focus on the wildly important, act on the lead measures, keep a compelling scoreboard, and create a cadence of accountability
- Remove Distractions: constant task switching lessens our capacity to focus. I’ll provide a few tips on how you can remove distractions in order to improve your focus
- Use Downtime to Enhance Deep Work Efforts: we can be fully focused for only about 4 hours a day. Long stretches of intense concentration should be balanced with quality rest. Rest is something that everyone does. But mastering the skill of rest can transform your life and make you more productive
Let’s get started!
Step 1: Choose Your Deep Work Philosophy
In an environment and culture that makes Deep Work difficult, we have to add smart routines and rituals to our working life. Design them to minimize the amount of our limited willpower necessary in transitions and maintain unbroken concentration.
There are four philosophies to integrate Deep Work into your life on a sustained basis:
- Monastic: maximize Deep Work by minimizing or removing shallow obligations. Isolate yourself for long periods of time without distractions; no shallow work allowed
- Bimodal: divide your time into some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leave the rest open to everything else. Reserve a few consecutive days when you will be working like a monastic. You need at least one day a week
- Rhythmic: the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The rhythmic philosophy involves creating a routine where you define a specific time period — ideally three to four hours every day — that you can devote to Deep Work
- Journalistic: alternate your day between deep and shallow work as it fits your blocks of time. Not recommended to try out first
Decide on your philosophy and start designing your work accordingly.
Only you know what works best for you. A strategy that may work for one person can be a failure for another.
Step 2: Make Deep Work a Habit
After choosing your work philosophy, you must ruthlessly commit to scheduling Deep Work blocks into your calendar and sticking to them. Scheduling in advance takes away the need to use willpower.
“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”
To make the most out of each session, build rituals and routines to minimize friction in your transition to depth:
- Where: identify a location used only for depth, such as a conference room or a quiet library
- How Long: set a specific time frame for each Deep Work session. Always have an end time rather than keeping it open-ended
- How: your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. Should you ban internet during Deep Work sessions? Are there metrics like pages, words, etc. that you can use to measure your work productivity?
- Support: to maximize success, you need a systematized support — so you deplete willpower — your efforts to go deep. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy
Step 3: Execute Like a Business With 4DX
Knowing what to do and how to do it are two very different things.
Individuals and companies focus a lot of time and resources figuring out the what but fail to figure out how to execute the identified strategy.
Execution is more difficult than strategizing.
The book The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) describes 4 “disciplines” to successfully implement high-level strategies:
- Focus on the Wildly Important: have a small number of really critical goals that you will pursue on Deep Work hours. These should return tangible and substantial professional benefits to generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm. Less is more
- Act on the Lead Measures: measure your success with 2 types of metrics: lag and lead measures. Lag measures are the ultimate goal you are trying to reach, such as the number of papers written. Lead measures measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures. For Deep Work, the relevant lead measure is time spent in a state of Deep Work dedicated to your goal
- Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: people play differently when they’re keeping score. Newport uses a simple calendar tracking Deep Work hours completed each day and circles the days that produce tangible results, such as solving a key problem
- Create a Cadence of Accountability: you need regular accountability towards your wildly important goal. Get into the habit of a weekly review in which you plan for the workweek ahead
Step 4: Remove Distractions
We live in a world of distraction.
As a result, our attention span has decreased. Our brain expects and requests distraction.
“Interruption, even if short, delays the total time required to complete a task by a significant fraction”
Constant task switching lessens our capacity to focus. Deliberate focused work, on the other hand, leads to the reinforcement of neural pathways.
Here’s how to remove distractions and improve focus:
- Headphones: I rate my Bose QuietComfort 35 as one of the best investments I ever made. Coworkers will think you can’t hear them and the barrier to interrupt you is much higher
- Work Remotely: start by asking for a half-day, preferably mornings
- Email: treat email as a to-do and schedule it in your calendar twice per day: late morning and late evening. Have an end time, such as one Pomodoro cycle
- Disable Phone Notifications: disable all notifications. If it’s truly urgent, people will call
- Schedule Internet Time: schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet and avoid it outside of those times. Restricting your usage at home improves your concentration training
- Clear to Neutral: at the end of the day, close all your tabs and programs, delete or move all the files from Downloads, empty the trash, and shut off your computer. Clearing to neutral helps “future you” get started
Step 5: Use Downtime to Enhance Deep Work Efforts
Long stretches of intense concentration should be balanced with quality rest.
Research shows that we can be fully focused for only about 4 hours a day. After that, our ability to focus intensely decreases.
Rest is very important to enhance your Deep Work efforts.
“At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning — no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.”
You must be equality ruthless in protecting your rest as you are with your Deep Work.
Here’s why downtime is so important:
- New Insights: as your conscious mind rests, the unconscious mind takes over and provides valuable insights or creative ideas and consolidates memories
- Recharge: rest fills up the energy needed to work deeply. You restore your ability to direct your attention by giving this activity a rest
- Evening Work Is Usually Not Important: work that you fit in your downtime isn’t normally high-value activities that really advance your career but rather low-value shallow tasks (executed at a slow, low-energy pace)
Rest is something that everyone does. But mastering the skill of rest can transform your life and make you more productive.
How to Get Better at Deep Work
Improving your Deep Work ability is a process and as such you need to practice it constantly.
Here’s how to get better at Deep Work:
- Quit Social Media: all those notifications hurt your ability to focus and stay focused. Social media isn’t all bad but it’s definitely a bad habit. Here’s how to remove Facebook and more about digital minimalism
- Practice Saying “No”: be selective when deciding what opportunities to go after. Anytime you fail to say “no”, you’re saying yes by default. Read Essentialism by Greg Mckeown
- Meditate: 10 minutes of meditation in the morning will greatly increase your ability to focus throughout the day
As with any new practice, adjust it to your own life.
There’s no one-size-fits-all model of Deep Work. There’s only the way that works for you.
And once you find it, you’ll become unstoppable.
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