Book summaries and book notes are often conflated, so to be explicit, what follow are notes from the book Deep Work.
We read the book — highlighted material that stood out, trimmed it down to the essential & made minor edits to align the text with the note-taking format.
People who have read the book a long time ago, forgotten the book matter to a certain degree, and would like to refresh their memory of its content would benefit the most from the notes considering the way we’ve designed them.
If you haven’t read the book, we’d recommend buying and reading it, because it’s not just about knowing key lessons. Reading a book forces you to think about the idea at length. And if the concept ( Deep Work ) is such that it could increase your productivity by 10x, it becomes a no-brainer. But we leave it up to you to decide what works best for you.
Book Notes of ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’ by ‘Cal Newport’.
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.
Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.
If you study the lives of other influential figures from both distant and recent history, you’ll find that a commitment to deep work is a common theme. The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers—a group that’s rapidly forgetting the value of going deep.
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.
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.
There are two reasons for this value:
- The first has to do with learning. We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.
- The second reason that deep work is valuable is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.
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.
Deep work, the book has two goals, pursued in two parts:
- To convince you that the deep work hypothesis is true.
- To teach you how to take advantage of this reality by training your brain and transforming your work habits to place deep work at the core of your professional life.
PART 1: The Idea
Part 1 ( Idea #1: Deep Work Is Valuable )
Current economic thinking argues that the unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy. In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.
How to Become a Winner in the New Economy
Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy
- The ability to quickly master hard things.
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
The two core abilities needed for thriving in the new economy depend on your ability to perform deep work.
If you want to become a superstar, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient.
Deep Work Helps You Quickly Learn Hard Things
“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
Core Components of deliberate practice: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
Deliberate practice cannot exist alongside distraction, it requires uninterrupted concentration.
“Diffused attention is almost antithetical to the focused attention required by deliberate practice” — Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch Romer, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance
To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy.
Deep Work Helps You Produce at an Elite Level
Law of productivity: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
By maximizing intensity when you work, you can maximize the results you produces per unit of time spent working.
If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally.
Deep work is not the only skill valuable in our economy, and it’s possible to do well without fostering this ability, but the niches where this is advisable are increasingly rare. Unless you have strong evidence that distraction is important for your specific profession, you’re best served by giving serious consideration to depth.
Part 1 ( Idea #2: Deep Work Is Rare )
Big trends in business today actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level).
The Metric Black Hole
It turns out to be really difficult to answer a simple question such as: What’s the impact of our current e-mail habits on the bottom line? Even though we abstractly accept that distraction has costs and depth has value, these impacts, are difficult to measure. Such metrics fall into an opaque region resistant to easy measurement—a region Cal Newport calls the metric black hole.
The 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.
Busyness as a 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.
We could, of course, eliminate this anachronistic commitment to busyness if we could easily demonstrate its negative impact on the bottom line, but the metric black hole enters the scene at this point and prevents such clarity. This potent mixture of job ambiguity and lack of metrics to measure the effectiveness of different strategies allows behavior that can seem ridiculous when viewed objectively to thrive in the increasingly bewildering psychic landscape of our daily work.
The Cult Of The Internet
Writing in the early 1990s, as the personal computer revolution first accelerated, communication theorist and New York University professor Neil Postman, argued that our society was sliding into a troubling relationship with technology. We were, he noted, no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiencies against the new problems introduced. If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed. He called such a culture a technology, and he didn’t mince words in warning against it. “Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in “Brave New World,” he argued in his 1993 book on the topic. “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”
In his 2013 book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov attempts to pull back the curtains on our technopolic obsession with “the Internet” ( a term he purposefully places in the scarce quotes to emphasize its role as an ideology), saying: “It’s this propensity to view ‘the Internet’ as a source of wisdom and policy advice that transforms it from a fairly uninteresting set of cables and network routers into a seductive and exciting ideology—perhaps today’s uber-ideology”. In Morozov’s critique, we’ve made the internet synonymous with the revolutionary future of business & government. We no longer see Internet tools as products released by for-profit companies, funded by investors hoping to make a return, and run by twentysomethings who are often making things up as they go along. We’re instead quick to idolize these digital doodads as a signifier of progress and a harbinger of a (dare I say, brave) new world.
Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and non technological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech. Deep work is exiled in favor of more distracting high-tech behaviors, like the professional use of social media, not because the former is empirically inferior to the latter. Indeed, if we had hard metrics relating the impact of these behaviors on the bottom line, our current technopoly would likely crumble. But the metric black hole prevents such clarity and allows us instead to elevate all things Internet into Morozov’s feared “uber-ideology”
Bad for Business. Good for You.
Deep work should be a priority in today’s business climate. But it’s not. If you believe in the value of depth, this reality spells bad news for businesses in general, as it’s leading them to miss out on potentially massive increases in their value production. But for you, as an individual, good news lurks. The myopia of your peers and employers uncovers a great personal advantage. Assuming the trends outlined in “Deep Work Is Rare” continue, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable.
Part 1 ( Idea #3: Deep Work Is Meaningful )
A Neurological Argument for Depth
“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” — Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
We can use Gallagher’s theory to better understand the role of deep work in cultivating a good life. This theory tells us that your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so consider the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors.
A Psychological Argument for Depth
Among many breakthroughs, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work with experience sampling method (ESM) helped validate a theory he had been developing over the preceding decade: “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.” ( Csikszentmihalyi call this mental state flow. A term he popularized with a 1990 book of the same title )
Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state & to build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
A Philosophical Argument for Depth
In a post-Enlightenment world, we have tasked ourselves to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism. “The Enlightenment’s metaphysical embrace of the autonomous individual leads not just to a boring life,” Philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Dorrance Kelly worry; “it leads almost inevitably to a nearly unlivable one.”
The task of a craftsman, they argue in their book ‘All Things Shining‘, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.” This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning.
In our current culture, we place a lot of emphasis on job description. Our obsession with the advice to “follow your passion” is motivated by the (flawed) idea that what matters most for your career satisfaction is the specifics of the job you choose. In this way of thinking, there are some rarified jobs that can be a source of satisfaction—perhaps working in a nonprofit or starting a software company—while all others are soulless and bland.
Throughout most of human history, to be a blacksmith or a wheelwright wasn’t glamorous. But this doesn’t matter, as the specifics of the work are irrelevant. The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship—not the outcomes of their work. Put another way, 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.
Cultivating craftsmanship is necessarily a deep task and therefore requires a commitment to deep work. Deep work, therefore, is key to extracting meaning from your profession. To embrace deep work in your own career, and to direct it toward cultivating your skill, is an effort that can transform a knowledge work job from a distracted, draining obligation into something satisfying—a portal to a world full of shining, wondrous things.
Part 2: The Rules
Part 2 ( #Rule 1: Work Deeply )
One of the main obstacles to going deep: the urge to turn your attention toward something more superficial. Most people recognize that this urge can complicate efforts to concentrate on hard things, but most underestimate its regularity and strength.
You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. 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. 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.
Six strategies that follow can be understood as an arsenal of routines and rituals designed with the science of limited willpower in mind to maximize the amount of deep work you consistently accomplish in your schedule
Strategy 1: Decide on Your Depth Philosophy
You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life. You must be careful to choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances, as a mismatch here can derail your deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify.
The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.Practitioners of the monastic philosophy tend to have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that they’re pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well. It’s this clarity that helps them eliminate the thicket of shallow concerns that tend to trip up those whose value proposition in the working world is more varied.
The pool of individuals to whom the monastic philosophy applies is limited—and that’s okay. If you’re outside this pool, its radical simplicity shouldn’t evince too much envy. On the other hand, if you’re inside this pool—someone whose contribution to the world is discrete, clear, and individualized*—then you should give this philosophy serious consideration, as it might be the deciding factor between an average career and one that will be remembered.
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. During the deep time, the bimodal worker will act monastically—seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration. During the shallow time, such focus is not prioritized.
This division of time between deep and open can happen on multiple scales. For example, on the scale of a week, you might dedicate a four-day weekend to depth and the rest to open time. Similarly, on the scale of a year, you might dedicate one season to contain most of your deep stretches (as many academics do over the summer or while on sabbatical).
Bimodal working is compatible with more types of jobs than you might guess. People will usually respect your right to become inaccessible if these periods are well defined and well advertised, and outside these stretches, you’re once again easy to find.
The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.
The rhythmic philosophy provides an interesting contrast to the bimodal philosophy. It perhaps fails to achieve the most intense levels of deep thinking sought in the day-long concentration sessions favored by the bimodalist. The trade-off, however, is that this approach works better with the reality of human nature. By supporting deep work with rock-solid routines that make sure a little bit gets done on a regular. basis, the rhythmic scheduler will often log a larger total number of deep hours per year.
For many, however, it’s not just self-control issues that bias them toward the rhythmic philosophy, but also the reality that some jobs don’t allow you to disappear for days at a time when the need to go deep arises. This is likely the biggest reason why the rhythmic philosophy is one of the most common among deep workers in standard office jobs.
The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
The approach, in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule, is the journalist philosophy. This name is a nod to the fact that journalists, like Walter Isaacson, are trained to shift into a writing mode on a moment’s notice, as is required by the deadline-driven nature of their profession.
This approach is not for the deep work novice. 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.
Isaacson, for example, likely had an easier time switching to writing mode than, say, a first-time novelist, because Isaacson had worked himself up to become a respected writer by this point. He knew he had the capacity to write an epic biography and understood it to be a key task in his professional advancement. This confidence goes a long way in motivating hard efforts.
Strategy 2: Ritualize
An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits. There’s no one correct deep work ritual—the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued. But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address: where you’ll work and for how long, how you’ll work once you start to work (rules and processes to keep your work structured) & how you’ll support your work (activities like walking or exercise).
Strategy 3: The grand gesture
The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.
When you study the habits of other well-known deep workers, the grand gesture strategy comes up often. Bill Gates, for example, was famous during his time as Microsoft CEO for taking Think Weeks during which he would leave behind his normal work and family obligations to retreat to a cabin with a stack of papers and books.
It’s not just the change of environment or seeking of quiet that enables more depth. The dominant force is the psychology of committing so seriously to the task at hand. To put yourself in an exotic location to focus on a writing project, or to take a week off from work just to think, or to lock yourself in a hotel room until you complete an important invention: These gestures push your deep goal to a level of mental priority that helps unlock the needed mental resources. Sometimes to go deep, you must first go big.
Strategy 4: Don’t Work Alone
The relationship between deep work and collaboration is tricky. It’s worth taking the time to untangle, however, because properly leveraging collaboration can increase the quality of deep work in your professional life.
When it comes to deep work, consider the use of collaboration when appropriate, as it can push your results to a new level. At the same time, don’t lionize this quest for interaction and positive randomness to the point where it crowds out the unbroken concentration ultimately required to wring something useful out of the swirl of ideas all around us.
Strategy 5: Execute Like A Business
Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important: You should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours.
Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures
Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve. For example, if your goal is to increase customer satisfaction in your bakery, then the relevant lag measure is your customer satisfaction scores. The problem with lag measures is that they come too late to change your behavior: “When you receive them, the performance that drove them is already in the past.”
Lead measures, on the other hand, “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.” In the bakery example, a good lead measure might be the number of customers who receive free samples. This is a number you can directly increase by giving out more samples. As you increase this number, your lag measures will likely eventually improve as well.
In other words, lead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals.
Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
“People play differently when they’re keeping score” the ‘4 Disciplines of Execution‘ authors explain.
They then elaborate that when attempting to drive your team’s engagement towards your organization’s wildly important goal, it’s important that employees have a public place to record and track lead measures. This scoreboard creates a sense of competition that drives them to focus on these measures, even when other demands vie for their attention. It also provides a reinforcing source of motivation. Once the team notices their success with a lead measure, they become invested in perpetuating this performance.
Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability
The 4DX authors elaborate that the final step to help maintain a focus on lead measures is to put in place “a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns a wildly important goal.”
During these meetings, the team members must confront their scoreboard, commit to specific actions to help improve the score before the next meeting, and describe what happened with the commitments they made at the last meeting.
They note that this review can be condensed to only a few minutes, but it must be regular for its effect to be felt. The authors argue that it’s this discipline where “execution really happens.”
Powerful heuristic: 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. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free
Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights
Providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges. A shutdown habit, therefore, is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you’re engaged in productive work, but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy.
Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply
You can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this activity a rest. The confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow. Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.
Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important
When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done. Your average e-mail response time might suffer some, but you’ll more than make up for this with the sheer volume of truly important work produced during the day by your refreshed ability
Part 2 ( #Rule 2: Embrace Boredom )
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. This idea might sound
obvious once it’s pointed out, but it represents a departure from how most people
understand such matters.
There is, however, an important corollary to this idea: Efforts to deepen your focus
will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on
distraction. Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside
of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration
if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.
Constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain.
Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Clifford Nass,(the late Standford communications professor who was well known for his study of behaviour in the digital age) discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.
To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having
to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration
Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.
It’s unclear who first introduced the Internet Sabbatical concept, but credit for
popularizing the idea often goes to the journalist William Powers, who promoted the
practice in his 2010 reflection on technology and human happiness, Hamlet’s
BlackBerry. As Powers later summarizes in an interview: “Do what Thoreau did,
which is learn to have a little disconnectedness within the connected world—don’t run
Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside
these times. The idea motivating this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from
low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest
hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an
absence of novelty.
To help you succeed, here are three important points to consider.
Point #1: This strategy works even if your job requires lots of Internet use and/or prompt e-mail replies.
If you’re required to spend hours every day online or answer e-mails quickly, that’s
fine: This simply means that your Internet blocks will be more numerous than those of
someone whose job requires less connectivity. The total number or duration of your
Internet blocks doesn’t matter nearly as much as making sure that the integrity of your
of line blocks remains intact.
Point #2: Regardless of how you schedule your Internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use
Point #3: Scheduling Internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training.
To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.
Work Like Teddy Roosevelt
“The amount of time he spent at his desk was comparatively small,” explained Morris, “but his concentration was so intense, and his reading so rapid, that he could afford more time off [from schoolwork] than most.” — Edmund Morris, author of Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy Bundle: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt
Inject the occasional dash of Rooseveltian intensity into your own workday. In particular, identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. 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—for example, by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible (or if it puts your job in jeopardy), then motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid
seeing it as you work.
The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.
Consider scheduling a walk during your workday specifically for the purpose of applying productive meditation to your most pressing problem at the moment.
To succeed with productive meditation, it’s important to recognize that, like any form of meditation, it requires practice to do well. To help accelerate reaping the fruits of productive meditation, Newport offers two suggestions.
Suggestion #1: Be Wary of Distractions and Looping
When you notice your attention slipping away from the problem at hand, gently remind
yourself that you can return to that thought later, then redirect your attention back. Distraction is the obvious enemy to defeat in developing a productive meditation habit.
A subtler, but equally effective adversary, is looping. When faced with a hard problem, your mind, as it was evolved to do, will attempt to avoid excess expenditure of energy when possible. One way it might attempt to sidestep this expenditure is by avoiding diving deeper into the problem by instead looping over and over again on what you already know about it.
Suggestion #2: Structure Your Deep Thinking
Start with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem and then storing these values in your working memory.
Once the relevant variables are identified, define the specific next-step question you need to answer using these variables.
Assuming you’re able to solve your next-step question, the final step of this structured approach to deep thinking is to consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified. At this point, you can push yourself to the next level of depth by starting the process over.
This cycle of reviewing and storing variables, identifying and tackling the next-step question, then consolidating your gains is like an intense workout routine for your concentration ability. It will help you get more out of your productive meditation sessions and accelerate the pace at which you improve your ability to go deep.
Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it.
Part 2 ( Rule 3 #Quit Social Media )
Network tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate. This reality no longer generates much debate; we all feel it.
Willpower is limited, and therefore the more enticing tools you have pulling at your attention, the harder it’ll be to maintain focus on something important. To master the art of deep work, therefore, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.
The problem with a binary approach, wherein you either use the internet/social media without restrictions or abandon it completely during periodic sabbaticals is that these two choices are much too crude to be useful.
Newport proposes a third option: accepting that these tools are not inherently evil, and that some of them might be quite vital to your success and happiness, but at the same time also accepting that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention (not to mention personal data) should be much more stringent, and that most people should therefore be using many fewer such tools.
The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.
The problem with the Any-benefit approach, of course, is that it ignores all the negatives that
come along with the tools in question. These services are engineered to be addictive
—robbing time and attention from activities that more directly support your professional and personal goals (such as deep work). If you don’t attempt to weigh pros against cons, but instead use any glimpse of some potential benefit as justification for unrestrained use of a tool,
then you’re unwittingly crippling your ability to succeed in the world of knowledge work.
Once you put aside the revolutionary rhetoric surrounding all things Internet —you’ll soon realize that network tools are not exceptional; they’re tools, no different from a blacksmith’s hammer or an artist’s brush, used by skilled laborers to do their jobs better (and occasionally to enhance their leisure). Throughout history, skilled laborers have applied sophistication and skepticism to their encounters with new tools and their decisions about whether to adopt them.
There’s no reason why knowledge workers cannot do the same when it comes to the Internet—the fact that the skilled labor here now involves digital bits doesn’t change this reality.
The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
Notice that this craftsman approach to tool selection stands in opposition to the any-benefit approach. Whereas the any-benefit mind-set identifies any potential positive impact as justification for using a tool, the craftsman variant requires that these positive impacts affect factors at the core of what’s important to you and that they outweigh the negatives.
Even though the craftsman approach rejects the simplicity of the any-benefit approach, it doesn’t ignore the benefits that currently drive people to network tools, or make any advance proclamations about what’s “good” or “bad” technology: It simply asks that you give any particular network tool the same type of measured, nuanced accounting that tools in other trades have been subjected to throughout the history of skilled labor.
The three strategies that follow in this rule are designed to grow your comfort with
abandoning the any-benefit mind-set and instead applying the more thoughtful
craftsman philosophy in curating the tools that lay claim to your time and attention.
Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits
The first step of this strategy is to identify the main high-level goals in both your
professional and your personal life. Once you’ve identified these goals, list for each the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal.
The next step in this strategy is to consider the network tools you currently use. For
each such tool, go through the key activities you identified and ask whether the use of
the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little
impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity. Now comes the
important decision: Keep using this tool only if you concluded that it has substantial
positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts.
The Law of the Vital Few
In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the
possible causes. For example, it might be the case that 80 percent of a business’s profits come from just 20 percent of its clients, 80 percent of a nation’s wealth is held by its richest 20
percent of citizens, or 80 percent of computer software crashes come from just 20
percent of the identified bugs.
There’s a formal mathematical underpinning to this phenomenon (an 80/20 split is roughly what you would expect when describing a power law distribution over impact—a type of distribution that shows up often when measuring quantities in the real world), but it’s probably most useful when applied heuristically as a reminder that, in many cases, contributions to an outcome are not evenly distributed.
The law of the vital few reminds us that the most important 20 percent or so of these activities provide the bulk of the benefit. Assuming that you could probably list somewhere between ten and fifteen distinct and potentially beneficial activities for each of your life goals, this law says that it’s the top two or three such activities—the number that this strategy asks you to focus on—that make most of the difference in whether or not you succeed with the goal.
If you service low-impact activities, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game. And because your time returns substantially more rewards when invested in high-impact activities than when invested in low-impact activities, the more of it you shift to the latter, the lower your overall benefit.
To abandon a network tool using this logic, therefore, is not to miss out on its potential small benefits, but is instead to get more out of the activities you already know to yield large benefits.
Quit Social Media
The last strategy provided a systematic method to help you begin sorting through the
network tools that currently lay claim to your time and attention. This strategy offers
you a different but complementary approach to these same issues.
This strategy asks that you perform the equivalent of a packing party on the social media services that you currently use. Instead of “packing,” however, you’ll instead ban yourself from using them for thirty days. All of them: Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, Snapchat, Vine—or whatever other services have risen to popularity since I first wrote these words.
Don’t formally deactivate these services, and (this is important) don’t mention online that you’ll be signing off: Just stop using them, cold turkey. If someone reaches out to you by other means and asks why your activity on a particular service has fallen off, you can explain, but don’t go out of your way to tell people.
After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following
two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit:
- Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use
- Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?
If your answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service permanently. If your
answer was a clear “yes,” then return to using the service. If your answers are
qualified or ambiguous, it’s up to you whether you return to the service, though I
would encourage you to lean toward quitting. (You can always rejoin later.)
Social Media can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they’re a lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper. Or maybe social media tools are at the core of your existence. You won’t know either way until you sample life without them.
Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself
Entertainment-focused websites designed to capture and hold your attention for as long
as possible are a class of network tools that are particularly relevant to the fight for depth.
The most popular examples of such sites include the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, and Reddit. This list will undoubtedly continue to evolve, but what this general category of sites shares is the use of carefully crafted titles and easily digestible content, often honed by algorithms to be maximally attention catching.
To make matters worse, these network tools are not something you join and therefore they’re not something you can remove from your life by quitting. They’re always available, just a quick click away.
When it comes to your relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead dedicate some advance thinking to the question of how you want to spend your “day within a day.
Figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific actions with specific goals to fill your time.
If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.
Part 2 ( Rule 4 #Drain The Shallows )
The goal of this rule as taming shallow work’s footprint in your schedule, not eliminating it.
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. The strategies that follow will help you act on this reality.
Schedule Every Minute of Your Day
We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. Scheduling every minute of the day might seem extreme at first but will soon prove indispensable in your quest to take full advantage of the value of deep work: Schedule every minute of your day.
Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks. To keep things reasonably clean, the minimum length of a block should be thirty minutes.
When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.
Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward—even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.
If you’re not sure how long a given activity might take, block off the expected time, then follow this with an additional block that has a split purpose. If you need more time for the preceding activity, use this additional block to keep working on it. If you finish the activity on time, however, have an alternate use already assigned for the extra block (for example, some nonurgent tasks). This allows unpredictability in your day without requiring you to keep changing your schedule on paper.
Deploy many task blocks throughout your day and make them longer than required to handle the tasks you plan in the morning. Lots of things come up during the typical knowledge worker’s day: Having regularly occurring blocks of time to address these surprises keeps things
If you stumble onto an important insight, then this is a perfectly valid reason to ignore the rest of my schedule for the day (with the exception, of course, of things that cannot be skipped). You can then stick with this unexpected insight until it loses steam. This not only allows spontaneity in your schedule; it encourages it.
Scheduling isn’t about constraint—it’s instead about thoughtfulness.
Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
An advantage of scheduling your day is that you can determine how much time you’re
actually spending in shallow activities. Extracting this insight from your schedules,
however, can become tricky in practice, as it’s not always clear exactly how shallow
you should consider a given task.
To do so, it asks that you evaluate activities by asking a simple (but surprisingly illuminating)
question: 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.
If our hypothetical college graduate requires many months of training to replicate a task, then this indicates that the task leverages hard-won expertise. On the other hand, a task that our
hypothetical college graduate can pick up quickly is one that does not leverage expertise, and therefore it can be understood as shallow.
Once you know where your activities fall on the deep-to-shallow scale, bias your time toward the former. Of course, how one biases away from shallow and toward depth is not always obvious—even after you know how to accurately label your commitments.
The strategies that follow, which will provide specific guidance on how to accomplish this tricky goal.
Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget
Here’s an important question that’s rarely asked: What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work? This strategy suggests that you ask it. If you have a boss, in other words, have a conversation about this question. (You’ll probably have to first define for him or her what “shallow” and “deep” work means.) If you work for yourself, ask yourself this question. In both cases, settle on a specific answer. Then— and this is the important part—try to stick to this budget.
Obeying this budget will likely require changes to your behavior. You’ll almost certainly end up forced into saying no to projects that seem infused with shallowness while also more aggressively reducing the amount of shallowness in your existing projects.
Finish Your Work by Five Thirty
Fixed-schedule productivity is the firm goal of not working past a certain time, then working backward to find productivity strategies that allow you to satisfy the declaration.
Be incredibly cautious about the use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.”
A commitment to fixed-schedule productivity shifts you into a scarcity mindset. Suddenly
any obligation beyond your deepest efforts is suspect and seen as potentially disruptive. Your default answer becomes no, the bar for gaining access to your time and attention rises precipitously, and you begin to organize the efforts that pass these obstacles with ruthless efficiency.
Fixed-schedule productivity is a meta-habit that’s simple to adopt but broad in its impact. If you have to choose just one behavior that reorients your focus toward the deep, this one should be high on your list of possibilities.
Become Hard to Reach
Just because you cannot avoid emails altogether doesn’t mean you have to cede all authority over its role in your mental landscape.
Use the following three tips to regain authority over how this technology accesses your time and attention. Resistance is not futile: You have more control over your electronic communication than you might at first assume.
Tip #1: Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work
The notion that all messages, regardless of purpose or sender, arrive in the same undifferentiated inbox, and that there’s an expectation that every message deserves a (timely) response, is absurdly unproductive. If you’re in a position to do so, consider using sender filters as a way of reclaiming some control over your time and attention.
Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails
Interrogative e-mails generate an initial instinct to dash off the quickest possible response that will clear the message—temporarily—out of your inbox. A quick response will, in the short term, provide you with some minor relief because you’re bouncing the responsibility implied by the message off your court and back onto the sender’s. This relief, however, is short-lived, as this responsibility will continue to bounce back again and again, continually sapping your time and attention.
Newport suggests, that the right strategy, when faced with an email, is to pause a moment before replying and take the time to answer the following key prompt: What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
Once you’ve answered this question for yourself, replace a quick response with one that takes the time to describe the process you identified, points out the current step, and emphasizes the step that comes next. Newport calls this the process-centric approach e-mail, and it’s designed to minimize both the number of e-mails you receive and the amount of mental clutter they generate.
Process-centric e-mails might not seem natural at first. For one thing, they require that you spend more time thinking about your messages before you compose them. In the moment, this might seem like you’re spending more time on e-mail. But the important point to remember is that the extra two to three minutes you spend at this point will save you many more minutes reading and responding to unnecessary extra messages later.
Tip #3: Don’t Respond
Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies:
• It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
• It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
• Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad
would happen if you didn’t.
In all cases, there are many obvious exceptions. If an ambiguous message about a
project you don’t care about comes from your company’s CEO, for example, you’ll
respond. But looking beyond these exceptions, this professorial approach asks you to
become way more ruthless when deciding whether or not to click “reply.”
There are two common tropes bandied around when people discuss solutions to e-mail overload. One says that sending e-mails generates more e-mails, while the other says that wrestling with ambiguous or irrelevant e-mails is a major source of inbox-related stress.
The approach suggested here responds aggressively to both issues—you send fewer e-mails and ignore those that aren’t easy to process—and by doing so will significantly weaken the grip your inbox maintains over your time and attention.
The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.
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.
“I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” — Winifred Gallagher
More Books by Cal Newport:
We’ve created a list of books every aspiring/existing entrepreneur should read. Just so you know, it’s unlike the regular business book lists you will come across on Google. We explain how the list is different here.