Notes from Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Here's an exercise: Count the number of times you are interrupted while reading this article. And when I say interruptions, I mean all of these things and more:

  • A colleague coming over for a quick question
  • A ting on your phone
  • New email notification on the corner of your screen
  • The sudden craving for a quick cup of coffee
  • Opening up a new tab and doing internet wandering

These interruptions may seem harmless, but they have a significant impact on the quality of our work, productivity and consequently on our life. The book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport explores this idea extensively using solid research.

Some of the concepts in the book should be intuitive knowledge to us. But I've found that when such knowledge is backed by scientific studies, it becomes much more likely to be adopted in real life. (Like the benefits of meditation and why I started doing it after reading about its very real benefits).

This post covers my notes and highlights from the book. Passages from the book are in italics.


WHAT IS DEEP WORK

Deep Work: 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.

If we look back in the past, we’ll find that deep work was ubiquitous in influential people. For example:

Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer. Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention.

This is not an isolated example. The book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey is full of such stories of important historical figures who owe their success to commitment to deep work.

Newport says that our behavior - ‘our’ as in most knowledge workers - is in sharp contrast to this. And he ascribes the reason to network tools and the proliferation of shallow work.

Shallow Work: Non Cognitively 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.

If we look at our usual work day, a lot of the deep work is replaced by the shallow alternative - like the constant sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.

Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.

WHY DEEP WORK

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.

This opportunity will become more apparent in the coming years when the artificial intelligent tools will take over more of our shallow (and some deep) tasks.

The real rewards are reserved not for those who are comfortable using Facebook (a shallow task, easily replicated), but instead for those who are comfortable building the innovative distributed systems that run the service (a decidedly deep task, hard to replicate).

Assuming that you agree with the deep work hypothesis, we'll need two core abilities for thriving in the new economy: 

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

And this is where Deep Work will come handy.

 

1. DEEP WORK HELPS YOU QUICKLY LEARN HARD THINGS

To understand this, we'll get into the science of focus. I found it to be the most fascinating part of the book. A few things to learn:

Myelin: It is a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons. It acts like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner.

What are Skills? Skills, intellectual or physical, eventually are a function of our brain circuits. When we focus intensely on a specific skill, we essentially force the relevant circuit to fire repeatedly in isolation.

And this is how the two are connected:

The new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

By focusing intensely on the task at hand (or in other words, by using a specific circuit repeatedly), we trigger cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons—effectively cementing the skill. Instead, if we are distracted, we fire too many circuits simultaneously to be able to isolate the group of neurons we want to strengthen. It follows that - 

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

 

2. DEEP WORK IS RARE

A few examples of why in today’s work culture deep work is rare:

  1. Open floor offices - My last job was in at a very cool company with good perks, flexible vacation policy and an open floor office. But, that last bit was problematic. Ringing phones, laughter, discussions - all these traveled farther in an open layout. I had to find a meeting room just to be able to focus and do some deep work.

  2. IM in offices - ‘Coffee?’ ‘Smoke?’ ‘Yo what’s up?’ Simple questions which take not just your attention but also your time - The office instant messenger problem.

  3. Social Media presence - The effects of the attention sinks that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al are has been well documented. This problem is more pronounced in the case of creators who not only have to do their deep creative work but also engage in the shallow work of keeping their social media updated since they also use it as a channel of promotion.

These cause a problem which you might have heard before:

Attention Residue - When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.
It implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so. But that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.

 

3. DEEP WORK IS MEANINGFUL

Here's something perhaps you can relate to:

It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another: On our worst days, it can seem that all knowledge work boils down to the same exhausting roil of e-mails and PowerPoint, with only the charts used in the slides differentiating one career from another.

At my work, some days would be spent in meetings with little output. Other times I would use my busyness as a proxy for productivity. It brewed dissatisfaction and a lack of purpose.

Newport quotes Winifred Gallagher, a scientific researcher in the field of focus:

There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work. Gallagher’s theory predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.

By contrast, shallow work begets discontentment.

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction. Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.
A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.

 

4. DEEP WORK HELPS YOU PRODUCE AT AN ELITE LEVEL

Consider this equation:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Newport gives example of a prolific professor who often isolates himself without distraction on a single research task. During these periods, which can last up to three or four days, he’ll often put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response.

If you believe this formula, then Grant’s habits make sense: By maximizing his intensity when he works, he maximizes the results he produces per unit of time spent working.

This idea of working smarter, not harder has been explored in multiple other books and articles. And it seems to make a lot of sense.


The second half of the book is used to lay down the Rules and the Techniques by which we can attain deep work in our life. To give you a short summary of those techniques is just not possible because there's too much information to be compressed in a succinct form.

The aim of this post was to introduce you to the concept of Deep Work, to show the solid foundation behind it and how profound of an impact it can have in our lives. I hope it has served its purpose.

I'd highly recommend you to read the book. You'll get a stronger understanding and hopefully you implement some of those rules in your life. I’ll leave you with one last advice from the book, which I feel is the simplest to implement and probably the most powerful.

 

RITUALIZE

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.
Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
Without structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.

“Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.”

-Antonin Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the post, share it with someone who might find it useful. Leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

If you want to read more on the topic of focus, here's something I wrote: A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus

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