We live in a distracted, and distracting, world. Thanks to our connected culture, distraction beckons almost every second of every day, with little to no friction to slow us down as we seek its welcoming embrace. The slightest hint of boredom can be obviated with zero effort, and we pay that cost gladly.
But the cost is higher than it may seem. This is part of Cal Newport’s argument in his book Deep Work. The effect of distractions on software developers specifically has been discussed again and again, and many have offered different techniques to help reclaim focus.
Newport expands this problem to all modern knowledge workers and offers a more unified theory of what he calls deep work. His definition from the book:
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.
The Benefits of Deep Work
The book begins with a series of arguments about why deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. Several examples of high performers are offered, as well as related cognitive studies.
To thrive in the new economy, Newport argues that you need two things, both of which are best achieved by deep work:
- The ability to quickly master hard things.
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
But if deep work is so valuable, why is it rare? Other than the myriad ways we can distract ourselves, the modern work environment is full of things that give the illusion of productivity and that are easy to accomplish. Without clarity about what matters, and a lack of metrics to measure it, we fall back to what is easiest.
Getting to “inbox zero” provides an obvious measure of accomplishment, and it’s a lot easier to let email rule our day than taking the significant effort of figuring out where to direct your precious attention.
As a result, we lack a concrete sense of accomplishment. In that absence, we want to prove we are earning our keep. That what we do matters.
This is part of the reason why working with our hands is still so satisfying. A craftsman starts with plain wood, puts in some sweat and grind, and at the end, has made something tangible. He or she can point to it. Touch it. A lot of modern knowledge work lacks this.
To close out this section, Newport discusses why deep work is so meaningful, and that by engaging in it often we can improve our overall satisfaction with life. We are at our best when our minds are stretched to their limits to do something we feel is important. We thrive on challenges.
In many cases, the content of the work doesn’t even matter, just the intense focus that is required to accomplish it. As the book puts it, “a wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be.” No matter what our vocation, deep work allows us to find and access the nobility in that work.
More deep work sounds like a worthy goal, and many others have touched on similar ideas. For example, Tim Ferriss has said that in a world of distraction, single-tasking is a superpower.
So how do we get this superpower? Deep Work does not disappoint.
How to Achieve More Deep Work in Your Life
Newport is not content with theory. The majority of the book offers suggestions and tips to achieve more meaningful work in your life. Some of these suggestions sound obvious in retrospect. Some sound radical. But to achieve more life-changing deep work, it makes sense that we might need to develop some life-changing habits.
1. Rituals and Routines
The recommendations in this section underpin or support the intention to work more deeply, and cover two main aspects: figuring out how we personally prefer to get focused work done, and then carving out (and protecting) that time with rituals, routines, and habits.
This section is about discovering how best to engage in deep work, and when, intersected with what is actually possible given our life circumstances. This will be unique to almost everybody. For some, this could include going on long sabbatical stretches. For others, they need to grab whatever time they can at random points in the day. Still others need a daily rhythm and habit, like a two hour block every morning or evening.
The book gives examples of many famous producers of prodigious output, and they all have rigid rituals that look weird from the outside, but that enable them to get things done. J.K. Rowling, for instance, had to make the grand gesture of staying in an expensive hotel room so she could focus on completing the last Harry Potter book. Paying $1000 per day just to have a quiet place to work might certainly help one muster the required energy.
No matter what we choose, it’s important to make the decisions beforehand, so we don’t have to choose every single day anew about the what, when and how. Make it as easy as possible to settle into deep work.
For me personally, I feel like I need at least 2 hours of uninterrupted time to get into the groove and feel like it was beneficial, and this time needs to be regular and recurring. This means in my professional life, I try to block out at least two 2-3 hours segments of time per day. I try to fit my shallow work in the surrounding margins. It doesn’t always work out. Stuff comes up. But if I hit a 70% success rate, that’s a good week.
In my personal life, I have tended to work at night after the rest of the family is in bed. I’ve found it has to be almost every day, though, or else my ramp-up time for these sessions become too long and too intensive, so I can’t relegate things only to huge blocks during the weekend. I wouldn’t do well with grand gestures.
Newport rounds out this section by applying principles from the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution, which can help measure something that might seem unmeasurable. These are helpful tips to maintain motivation and accountability. One key takeaway, find a way to measure your deep work time and make sure you're progressing toward greater consistency. This might be as simple as x's on a calendar for each day where you met the goal.
As a lead into the next section, the last piece of advice is to be lazy. Embrace downtime. Give your conscious mind a rest. If we fill every moment with a mental stimulus, we are like a professional athlete occupying our recovery time with Crossfit sessions.
2. Retrain the Mind by Embracing Boredom
Merely carving out the time in our schedule is insufficient to achieving consistent deep work. This ability can't be turned on and off with the flip of a switch. Instead, we must train our attention.
If we are prone to distraction or diversion, our ability to concentrate will atrophy. Newport claims modern forms of social media and the nature of the Internet have left us addicted to distraction. According to one study that Newport cites, our brains have been rewired by these forces, losing the ability to filter out irrelevancy.
So how do we rewire our brain toward concentration? How do we ensure we get the most out of our designated “deep work” time?
Don’t take breaks from distraction, take breaks from focus.
Resist the temptation to be distracted again and again. As an example, the Internet, in general, is a good stand-in for “distraction,” so set a schedule for when we can next use the Internet, and do not use it until that appointed time. Even if it’s five minutes from now, you are training your brain to wait and stay focused rather than giving it the dopamine fix it craves.
For me, one application of this principle was to stop checking my phone at red lights, and promise that I would only check it once I got home. After a few days, the urge to scratch that itch diminishes.
If you are a Mac user, the Focus app might be a great tool to facilitate this. There are also browser plugins like WasteNoTime.
The idea behind this is to practice focusing on just one problem while we walk, drive, or exercise. Outline an article, get that perfect opening sentence, work through a tricky bug, figure out the ideal gift to get your spouse for an anniversary.
The key here is to keep bringing our attention back to the problem at hand. It will wander. Sometimes it will wander really far, and we'll be confused why we’ve been thinking about how unfair our fourth-grade teacher was in giving us a low grade on that one paper on Abraham Lincoln...Where was I again?
The task Newport recommends is learning how to quickly memorize a deck of cards. The act of creating your mini mind palace, establishing scenes in each room, and then building up so you can mentally walk through these rooms in an established order strengthens your ability to concentrate.
It's also a great party trick.
3. Quit Social Media - Approach Your Tools Like a Craftsman
Social media is literally engineered to grab as much of our attention as possible, so it is particularly pernicious when battling for more in-depth, focused time. Newport is not demonizing all social media and similar tools, but instead advocates a more intentional approach to choosing the tools that we use.
We shouldn’t decide to use a tool just because it provides a benefit. That should just be the start of our evaluation, which should also include disadvantages and opportunity cost. For some people and organizations, certain social media sites will pass the test.
One of the exercises recommended is to quit social media for 30 days. A complete fast. But don’t tell anyone, and don’t cancel your accounts. After this period, you’ll be in a better position to honestly evaluate your use of these sites. The truth for most people is that, during this 30 days, no will notice that you ever left. No one will miss your hot takes. That’s clarifying.
4. Drain the Shallows
We are notoriously bad at estimating how much time we spend doing things, from sleeping to watching TV. We don’t know where our time is really spent. In order to achieve more deep work and segregate necessary shallow work, Newport offers some final thoughts on time management.
- Finish work at a specific time every day. And keep it strict. This is related to embracing downtime and being strict about not working when appropriate. Adding this constraint can do wonders for our productivity.
- Schedule every minute of every day. He recommends coming up with 15-30 minute time blocks and sitting down for a short period every morning to sort things out. Only when you measure our use of time can we better quantify the value of that time.
- Learn to say “no.” And when we say no, make a clean break. Don’t equivocate or offer a consolation prize. Truly value your time.
- Email management techniques, including things like establishing sender filters, focusing on process-centric email responses that decrease total email volume, and making yourself intentionally hard to reach.
Some of these may seem unrealistic or disadvantageous on the surface, but Newport makes good arguments and offers plenty of examples of putting them into practice.
This book was a needed kick-in-the-pants. As I was reading, many of things Newport addressed rang true from my own experience and struggles with focus. I’ve gradually begun implementing some of the recommended tips and have already reaped benefits in both my personal and professional lives.
I’ll finish this overview the same way Newport ends his book: with a quote by Winifred Gallagher.
I’ll live the focused life because it's the best kind there is.
Deep Work can help you do this, and I can’t recommend it enough.