Deep work, the ability to work in a flow state and produce both a quality and quantity of work, is under attack in the current age of distraction that we're in but it has never been more valuable given the extreme technical nature of the knowledge work that most are undertaking. In addition, it provides a greater meaning to work and life because of the richness and focusedness of the experiences. Lastly, it leads to a more rounded life because of the focus on what is most valuable and the discipline to shun the innessential.
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 and that mental strain is also necessary to improve your abilities. Learning something complex requires intense uninterrupted concentration - deep work.
Carl Jung wasn’t shy about taking time off and it was crucial to his goal of changing the world even though it is a burden to prioritize.
Bill Gates takes “think weeks.” Organize your life in a way so that you have lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks where you can work on your most important work.
2012 Mckinsey study found 60% of workweek time engaged in electronic communication and internet searching. In this age, meaningless distractions increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative. If you spend enough time in a state of shallowness then you can permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work. Invest considerable effort to reduce the shallow in your life so that you can maintain voluminous production consistently without working late.
It’s ok to be bored.
Deep work requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking. Google might reduce memory.
To remain valuable in our economy, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. Deep work is becoming the key currency.
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.
Chapter 1: Deep Work Is Valuable
Companies are motivated to outsource key roles to the stars - leaving the local talent pool underemployed. The superstars still win the bulk of the market.
In this economy three groups will do well:
- those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines
- those who are the best at what they do
- those with access to capital
To thrive in the new economy:
- The ability to quickly master hard things
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in both terms of quality and speed
The process of master difficult and hard things never ends. You must be able to do it again and again. If you can’t learn you can’t thrive.
Both of the above principles depend on deep work. To learn requires intense concentration. To learn your field, you must tackle the topics systematically. Batch your hard and important work into long and uninterrupted stretches.
Reflects a life-long period of deliverate effort to improve performance in a specifc domain. There are few exceptions made for natural talent. Core components are:
- attention is focused tightly on a specific skill
- you receive feedback so you can correct your approach
Deliberate practice cannot exist alongside distraction. It’s important to focus intensely so that it triggers myelination. Low concentration causes too many circuits to simultaneously fire to actually isolate the group of neurons you want to strengthen.
To learn, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex system.
Law of productivity:
High-quality work produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
The best students often worked less than those directly below them since they knew how to focus.
Attention residue: when you switch from task A to task B a residue of the first task gets stuck thinking about the first task. Therefore, multitasking is very detrimental. You’re likely to exhibit poor performance on the next task if you have attention residue.
To produce at your peak capacity: you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.
There are some, but few, individuals and roles that thrive on a lack of depth. I.e. executives. You cannot extrapolate the approach of these executives to other jobs.
Managers are not exempt from the need for deep work. They don’t need to be instantly available.
Chapter 2: Deep Work Is Rare
Many of the modern office trends decrease one’s ability to go deep and concentrate. Tools such as Slack, open floor plans, and even email are causing significant declines in focus and promote distraction. The culture of connectivity is actually anti-deep work. Leslie Perlow found that employees spent twenty to twenty-five hours a week monitoring email outside of the office.
Even small interruptions can have a significant impact on performance. The metric black hole allows the shift toward distraction.
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.
Regularly occurring meetings tend to pile up and fracture schedules to the point where sustained focus is almost impossible. These standing meetings manages peoples time and obligations, because of the impending meeting, instead of allowing them to manage them themselves.
Knowledge workers are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value.
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.
Many knowledge worker companies actually encourage their employees toward distracting behaviours.
Chapter 3: Deep Work Is Meaningful
The skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life
We assume that what happens to us determines how we feel. However, research seems to suggest that our brains seem to construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.
Focusing deeply on things of meaning and importance will cause your mind to view your life as rich in meaning and importance. The world represented by your inbox isn’t a pleasant world. 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.
Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than freetime since, like flow, they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges. Freetime is unstructured and requires a much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed. If we give rapt attention to that which is important we’ll see our life as more important and positive. Jobs should be redesigned to resemble flow activities.
“Concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.”
When you lose focus, your mind tends to focus on what could go wrong with your life instead of what’s right.
Task of a craftsmen: is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.
“We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals” – The Pragmatic Programmer
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. However, it really depends on what you focus on. The key to finding meaning in your work is by going deep.
Craftsmenship is a deep work task. If you cultivate the ability to do deep work you’ll thrive professionally.
I’ll live a focused life, because it’s the best kind there is. – Winifried Gallagher
Rule 1: Work Deeply
Eudaimonia: achieving your full human potential.
People fight desires all day long (aka willpower). Expect to be bombarded with the desire to do anything but work deeply throughout the day. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
Move past good intentions by adding routines and rituals designed to minimize the amount of willpower necessary to maintain a state of flow. Use a set time and quiet location used for your deep tasks each afternoon. Commit to a particular pattern for scheduling your work and develoop rituals to sharpen your concentration before each session.
Deep work can produce extreme productivity only if the subject dedicates enough time to such endeavors to reach maximum cognitive intensity.
Different deep work philosophies:
- Donald Knuth: “What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”
- Big batch, once every three months or so.
- Maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations
- Applicable to a minimal number of individuals
- Generally a minimum of a day as the unit of time
- Rythmic strategy
- Make deep work a regular habit
- Eliminate the simplest scheduling decisions such as when to do the work reduces the barrier
- Some used 90 minute chunks and started at 530
- Fails to achieve the most intense levels of deep thinking, as in the bimodal model, but this approach works better with human nature
- Will likely log more hours over the course of a year compared to other methods.
- Shift into deep work at a moments notice
- Not for the deep work novice and it doesn’t come naturally
- Difficult to pull off
- Waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible plan
- Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants
- Rituals reduce the friction required to transition into deep work
- Ad hoc (don’t use and doesn’t work)
General questions that must be answered by any ritual:
- Where you’ll work and for how long
- No internet use
- Quotas or metric such as words written per twenty minutes
- How you’ll work once you start to work
- How you’ll support your work
Collaboration can increase the quality of deep work in your professional life. Large numbers of coworkers in a workspace is incredibly distracting. Hub and spoke architecture is much better than the open floor plan since it supports the serendipitous encounter and isolated deep think.
Solo work is not necessarily the best strategy. There are collaborative forms of deep work.
The whiteboard effect is where some type of problems are better solved while working with another person. Isolation is not completely required for deep productive work. However, distraction is still the destroyer of depth. Second, even when you retreat you can leverage the whiteboard effect.
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.
Discipline 1: Focus on the wildly important Execution should be aimed at a small number of “wildly important goals.”
Don’t try to say no to the trivial distractions; say yes to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.
Discipline 2: Act on the Lead Measures Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve. Unfortunately, lag measures show themselves too late to change behavior. Lead measures, measure the behaviors that will drive the lag measures and thus future success. Time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal is a good lead measure.
Discipline 3: keep a compelling scoreboard Have a public place to record and track their lead measures (deep work hours along with result points marked according to those hours to calibrate the number of deep work hours for specific tasks). Possibly a physical artifact in the workspace.
Discipline 4: Create a Cadence of Accountability A rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns a wildly important goal. Make a habit of a weekly review in which you plan the week ahead. Also look over and review your scorecard. Execution is more difficult than strategizing.
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body. At the end of the workday, shut down work thinking completely.
- Downtime aids insight. Some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle (unconscious thought theory (UTT)).
- Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply. Being out in nature aids productivity and insight (up to or more than 20%). Attention Restoration Theory (ART) claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate (directed attention). If you keep interrupting your evening to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration. Trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day.
- The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important. A novice and put forth around an hour of intense concentration whereas an expert can put in up to 4 hours but rarely more. By the evening, you’re beyond the point where you can continue to effectively work deeply. By deferring evening work, you’re not missing out on much of importance.
Shutdown ritual: 1. have a plan that you trust for its completion; 2. capture items that arise in a place where they can be revisted when the time is right. 3. have a set phrase that you say that indicates completion (“shutdown complete”).
- review the email inbox to look for anything that requires an urgent respons
- transfer any new tasks to the task list
- skim every task in every list
- Make a rough plan for the next day using the above information
- say “shutdown complete”
Zeigarnik Effect: the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our minds. We don’t need to complete a task to get it off of our mind. Consider it done once you get it on a list to be done later with a plan to complete it. That allows your brain to not think about it any longer.
Shutdown rituals add about 10 to 15 minutes to your workday but they’re necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness. Regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. You’ll make up for any volume missed in the evening since you’ll be rested and ready to focus deeper the next day.
Rule 2: Embrace Boredom
You cannot consider that you fulfilled your daily obligation unless you stretch yourself to the limits of your mental capacity on a daily basis. It builds your mental muscle. The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.
Efforts to deepen your focus will fail if you don’t wean your mind from its dependence upon distraction. Constant attention switching has a huge negative effect on your brain. People who multitask can’t filter out irrelevancy.
If every moment of potential boredom is relieved by a look at your smart phone your brain will never be ready for deep work.
Don’t take breaks from distraction, take breaks from focus when you are allowed to give into distraction.
Schedule in advance when you’ll use the internet and don’t use it outside of those times. If you can’t adhere to the schedule then change the schedule but only do so rarely. Enforce at least a 5 minute gap to instill discipline and separate the desire from the reward. Switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities at the slightes hint of boredom or challenge teaches your mind to never tolerate the absence of novelty.
You must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.
Schedule your work and work during those periods with blistering intensity and focus.
Identify a deep task and give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline. Always keep your self-imposed deadline at the edge of feasibility.
Deep work is like interval training for the attention centers of your brain.
Productive meditation: focus your mental capacities when you’re occupied physically but not mentally on a single well-defined professional problem.
- Be wary of distractions and looping. When you notice your attention slipping, gently remind yourself to get back on course. Looping is where your mind keeps going over and over again what you already know. Say to yourself that you seem to be in a loop.
- Structure Your Deep Thinking.
- Review the relevant variables
- Define the specific next-step question
- Consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified
The biggest difference between memory athletes and the rest of us is their attention ability that is learned. A side effect of memory training is a general improvement in your ability to concentrate. Memorizing a deck of cards. Your mind can retain lots of detailed information if it is stored in the right way.
Rule 3: Quit Social Media
These tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate. 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. You must take a 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 it positive impacts significantly outweigh its negative impacts.
Try internet sabbaticals. Reject the state of distracted hyperconnectedness. The bar for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention should be high and stringent.
The benefits from social media are minor and somewhat random. Don’t believe in the any-benefit approach to network tool selection since the services are engineered to be addictive. They rob time and attention from activities that more directly support your professional and personal goals.
Identify the high-level goals in your professional and personal life.
Create goals with a title and key activities supporting the goal (pg 196).
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.
A power law distribution over impact.
Social media is largely a masterful marketing coup that has convinced most people that they will miss out if they don’t participate.
Social media short-circuits this connection between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you. It has instead replaced this timeless capitalist exchange with a shallow collectivist alternative.
Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself.
The typical man should instead use this time as an aristocrat would: to perform rigourous self-improvement. Put more thought into your leisure time. It is your most important time. Establish a set program of reading.
Figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin.
Neglect your smartphone and computer between the end of the workday and the next morning. Give your brain a quality alternative.
**The mental faculties are capable of continuous hard activity. All they want is change–not rest, except in sleep.
Rule 4: Drain the Shallows
The shallow work that dominates the time and attention of knowledge workers is less vital than it often seems in the moment. The goal should be to tame shallow work’s footprint in your schedule, not eliminate it.
Deliberate pactice: an hour a day is a reasonable limit though up to 4 hours can be done. (Paper on deliberate practice - Anders Ericsson).
Once you hit your deep work limit you’ll start experiencing diminishing returns. Shallow work becomes dangerous when it begins to crowd out your bounded deep efforts for the day.
Treat shallow work with suspicion.
Schedule every minute of your day: don’t spend your day on autopilot. Divide the hours of your workday into blocks (min 30 mins). Batch similar things into generic task blocks. Two things will go wrong: your estimates will be off and others will introduce greater priorities.
If your schedule is interrupted, take a few minutes to revise your schedule for the day. Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs but to maintain, at all costs, a thoughtfuls say in what you’re doing with your time going forward. The schedule is about thoughtfullness not constraint.
Create buffer periods around tasks that may go long and throughout the day. Be liberal with task blocks so that you can take care of the shallow work. Schedule significant blocks of time for speculative thinking and discussion. Without structure your time will gravitate toward the shallow.
You must overcome your distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter.
Shallow work: noncognitively challenging, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Shallowness measure: 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? Deep tasks return more value per time spent.
Ask your boss how much time should be spent on shallow work. Most of the time it will be 30 to 50%. Drop the weekly status meeting in preference for results-driven reporting. Spend mornings in communication isolation.
Create fixed schedule productivity by stating your end time. Set a limit of number of hours to work in a week. Fixed schedule productivity shifts you into a scarcity mindset which encourages frugality of time usage.
Be very cautious about the word “yes”. Be clear in your refusal but ambiguous in your explanation for the refusal. Avoid providing enough specificity about the excuse so that the requester has the opportunity to defuse it. In turning down obligations, resist the urge to offer a consolation prize–a clean break is best. Your default answer should become “no”.
Become hard to reach so that you can protect your deep work time and your personal relationships. Create a contact form filter by stating that you don’t owe them a response.
Dealing with communications, answer the following:
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.
Process centric approach to email.
Requires that you spend more time thinking about messages before you send them. Process-centric messages can seem stilted and overly technical so add a conversational preamble to your messages.
Default behaviour when receiving an email is to not respond. It’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver of its worth.
Email sorting, do not reply if:
- It’s ambiguous
- It’s not something that interests you
- Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.
Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.