This is a summary of a good 🌿 branch book. You may read this summary in lieu of reading the actual book, though it’s recommended to read the actual book if you seek inspiration. Read more about book classifications here.
Cal Newport’s 2016 self-help book Deep Work is a handbook for focus in an increasingly hyper-connected, addictive world.
The book is divided into two parts: in the first part, Newport argues for the value of deep work in a modern, knowledge-based economy. In the second part, Newport lays out a whole playbook of techniques designed to help you increase the amount of deep work you do in your day-to-day life.
This summary is intended to be comprehensive, so you may skip the book entirely. That said, the friends who’ve read this have told me that it has been an incredibly inspiring experience, and that the book’s collection of stories has prompted them to make changes to their working styles in the immediate aftermath of reading it. My summary excludes many of these stories; if you want this short-term motivation, feel free to purchase and read the book anyway.
Warning: this is a very long summary, clocking in at over 8000 words (45 minutes reading time). My recommendation is to skip to the techniques in the second part once you are convinced by Newport’s arguments that Deep Work is important, or grab a cup of tea while you read.
Part One: Deep Work Is Important
Newport defines Deep Work and Shallow Work in the introduction to the book, as follows:
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.
Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Newport’s central thesis is that Deep Work is the kind of work necessary to advance in your career; because your time is limited, the Shallow Work that competes for time that you might otherwise spend on Deep Work is bad and you should reduce it.
Why is Deep Work important for career advancement? Newport argues that there are two reasons: first, we live in an information economy that depends on complex systems — systems that change rapidly. Skills we have today are likely to be irrelevant 10 years in the future, the same way someone coming up in the field of marketing in the 1990s had no idea that they’d need to master digital analytics today. (This is the raison d'etre of this blog, for what it’s worth).
Second, Deep Work matters because the impact of the digital revolution favours the best workers. If you can create something useful, your reachable audience of employers or customers is essentially limitless — which greatly magnifies your reward. On the flip side, if you produce mediocre work, you’re likely to get passed over in favour of people better than you. Improving yourself to the point of excellence demands depth, executed over the long term.
More importantly, Newport argues that our work culture is shifting towards the shallow — which in turn exposes a “massive economic and personal opportunity for those of us who are able to resist this trend and prioritise depth.”
Deep Work is more obviously beneficial for some professions than others; Newport is a tenured professor at Georgetown University — a title he achieved at the age of 33, which he attributes to deep work. The book itself was written during his pursuit of tenure, and documents a year in which he doubled his output to nine published papers instead of his usual four.
If you're a knowledge worker, this book is for you. But if you're not, Newport has little to offer you.
If you believe Newport’s argument that Deep Work is powerful and useful in today’s economy, you may skip to the next part (which talks about techniques). Otherwise, Newport fleshes out the argument I’ve listed above by breaking it out into three sub-arguments:
One: Deep Work is Valuable Because Our Economy is Bifurcating
Newport relies on an argument advanced in another book I’ve summarised here at Commonplace: Average Is Over, by Tyler Cowen. He basically buys Cowen’s argument that our labour market is rapidly dividing between a class of winners and losers due to the rise of machine intelligence. In this vision of the future, the losers are the workers who are displaced by technology; the winners are the workers who remain valuable, and who will experience an increase in compensation due to this value.
Newport also quotes Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s 2011 argument that there are three types of workers who will thrive in a bimodal economy:
- The Skilled Worker — These workers are the ones with the ability to work with and tease valuable results out of increasingly complex machines. Newport offers statistician Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, as an example of this type of worker. Silver is able to make remarkably accurate election predictions based on statistical modelling and software programming.
- The Superstar — These workers are the best in their fields. Newport offers Danish programmer David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of popular software framework Ruby on Rails, as an example of this category. Newport argues that today’s digital, globalised world means that you are competing with the very best, as knowledge work knows less geographical boundaries than equivalent work of the past.
- The Capital Owners — Venture capitalists and financiers are examples of this category of worker. Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that capital owners are likely to do well in a machine-bifurcated future, as they stand to benefit from increased machine productivity. They are, after all, rich, and allocating this money helps them stay on the right side of the bifurcation.
Newport agrees that you can’t easily aim to become a Capital Owner. But you can aim to become a Skilled Worker or a Superstar — and depth is the way to get there.
This section of the book closes with a hedge: there are workers in our economy who don’t benefit from deep work. Examples include high-performing managers and CEOs, whose main value are to make decisions and to oversee large, organisation-scale efforts. These workers also benefit from a bimodal economy, as the best managers and CEOs are required to manage complex global operations. But they don’t benefit from deep work, and Newport has little to offer these classes of workers.
If you’re one of these classes of workers, this book is probably not for you. But if your career path demands that you gain rare & valuable skills on your way to becoming a high-level manager or CEO, read on.
Two: Deep Work is Rare Because Modern Workplaces Devolve to Shallow Work
Newport focuses on three business trends in this sub-argument: open offices, work instant messaging (aka always-on communication culture), and social media presence. All three are seen as necessary in today’s working world. But Newport asserts that this is flawed thinking; he argues that you can opt-out of these ‘necessities’ — and that doing so is important to embrace habits for deep work.
Why do these bad attention dividing habits exist in the work place, and are so common? Newport asserts that it's because they're easy. They don't require thought or consideration. Email is instinctive, whereas Getting Things Done takes thinking. Standup meetings are nice and rhythmic, producing the feeling of productivity.
As a result of this, most workplaces devolve to practices that prioritise busyness, not output. Open offices, work instant messaging and social media posturing thus stem from this desire to demonstrate busyness:
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.
Newport also asserts that our conversation around social media use is woefully inadequate. We should be comparing the costs to our concentration (and careers!) with the proposed benefits of engaging in social media. Instead, most discourse around tech use is that technology is ipso-facto good, since it is shiny and new.
The upshot here is that those who are able to perform deep work have a competitive advantage compared to those who can't.
Three: Deep Work is Meaningful Because Managing Attention is Essential to The Good Life
This last segment in support of the idea that deep work promotes a life well lived. Newport proposes three sub-arguments in favour of this idea:
One: the neurological argument for depth — Winfred Gallagher is a science writer who had cancer. After she received her diagnosis, she forcefully focused her attention on the good things in her life: good walks, good movies, a 6pm martini. She wrote about this experience, saying that to her surprise, her focus on good, simple things resulted in a much better lived experience, despite her cancer diagnosis. Newport links this argument to other fields:
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.
On the other hand, shallow work and digital distractions train our brains to give in to attention-grabbing impulses. We thus lose the ability to direct our attention to positive things if we just let the flow of shallow work move us along. Gallagher continues:
(Among them is the notion that) ‘the idle mind is the devil’s workshop’ … when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.” A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun.
Newport argues that fighting your natural impulses in the pursuit of depth is what helps train the same attention muscles necessary to experiencing the good life.
Two: the psychological argument for depth— Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s research into flow states present another benefit of working deep: that is, the feeling of being immersed in a flow state is itself very rewarding. Our minds like ‘being in the zone’, regardless of the subject.
In positive psychology, flow, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one's sense of space and time.
Newport argues that achieving flow states is what deep work is all about, which means filling your days with inherently enjoyable periods of concentrated work.
Three: the philosophical argument for depth — Third, and last, Newport taps into Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining — Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. In this book, Dreyfus and Kelly argue that we have lost the notion of sacredness in our modern age, and that craftsmanship is one way to regain this fundamentally human need for sacredness:
The task of a craftsman, they conclude, “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. At the same time, this meaning seems safer than the sources cited in previous eras. The wheelwright, the authors imply, cannot easily use the inherent quality of a piece of pine to justify a despotic monarchy.
Our obsession with the advice to “follow your passion” (the subject of my last book), for example, 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. The philosophy of Dreyfus and Kelly frees us from such traps. The craftsmen they cite don’t have rarified jobs. 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.
You get the feeling, reading this, that Newport buys this philosophical argument. I find it a bit revealing that he saw fit to invoke secular notions of craftsmanship in the pursuit of the sacred, but no matter — I read the book in search of pragmatic methods to pursue deep work. If you buy Newport’s philosophical leanings, so much the better for your motivation.
Let’s talk about how to accomplish Deep Work.
Part Two: Achieving Deep Work
Newport covers four rules (or strategies) for achieving deep work. They are, in order:
- Work Deeply — techniques for implementing deep work in the messy demands of modern life.
- Embrace Boredom — techniques to increase attention control.
- Quit Social Media — a method for evaluating the place of social media in your life.
- Drain the Shallows — techniques for reducing the amount of shallow work in your work life.
We’ll cover the techniques of each rule in order.
Rule #1: Work Deeply
The core idea of this rule is that our willpower is a finite, exhaustible resource. Newport relies a lot on Baumeister’s findings on willpower, of which the most interesting are:
- Willpower is a limited resource that is depleted by use and restored by sugar (drink lots of coke!)
- Having to make too many small decisions in a day causes “decision fatigue”. Decision fatigue leads to bad decisions.
- Using willpower a lot is like exercising: using it a lot increases your willpower capacity, which is great!
- People with more willpower do better in life — the most famous example being the marshmallow study, where children who were able to resist eating a marshmallow for a few minutes in order to get two marshmallows had better life outcomes twenty years later.
- Willpower is a fake thing and it’s mired in the replication crisis that is gripping psychology.
Yes, and I’ll repeat it: finite willpower is fake and wrong. It turns out that the research on which Newport rests his case is bunk: willpower is not limited, is not restored by sugar (unless you think it is!) and is susceptible to the right inducement (like a desire to not get fired). For more information: read this, this and this.
Why do I bring this up? Well, I want to prevent someone from saying: “Oh! Baumeister and co’s seminal result has failed to replicate, and so therefore everything Newport says here is rubbish.” This is nonsense. This is like saying “Oh! The physics that explains the bicycle is mistaken!” while the Tour de France happens behind you.
If you think of self-help as technê, then Newport’s techniques are still worth looking into — because they work. And if you don’t believe Newport achieved tenure because of the techniques in the book, there’s an easy way to test them: by trying them out.
So what does Newport suggest?
Newport gives us six strategies in this segment:
1) Decide on Your Depth Philosophy
The first step of integrating deep work into your life is to pick a philosophy, or approach, that fits your goals and the nature of your life.
The Monastic Philosophy — Donald Knuth and Neal Stephenson both isolate themselves from shallow obligations in order to do their work: Knuth writes the most comprehensive monograph of computer science, Stephenson writes novels. Both persons are notoriously difficult to reach. Newport notes that this philosophy is only viable for those who have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal, and whose professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well. They also have to be able to never answer email.
The Bimodal Philosophy — practitioners of this philosophy split their work year into deep work periods in isolation, along with shallow work periods engaged in more normal activities. Adam Grant and Carl Jung are both examples of this approach: Grant concentrates all his teaching obligations in one semester and uses the next for research; he also occasionally takes a few weeks off to become completely monastic. Jung, on the other hand, divided his time between monastic periods in the woods outside Bollingen, and intensely social periods in Zurich.
The Rhythmic Philosophy — practitioners of this philosophy set aside a specific time each day to engage in Deep Work, and defend this time aggressively. For instance: spend 5:00 to 7:00 writing, before heading to work at 8:00. Best typified by Seinfield’s chain method. This method depends on rhythm and consistency to work — once you’ve got a set time to do something, you find it easier to keep doing it for days on end. This is a simpler method than the next one, which is:
The Journalistic Philosophy — Newport named this philosophy after journalist Walter Isaacson, who could take one to two hour breaks while on holiday to write his books. Journalists are trained to fit deep work wherever they could into their schedules, due to the nature of reporting. Newport warns this approach is not for the inexperienced, though it is what he uses himself. The requirements to do as he does are that you have to be confident in the value of what you’re trying to produce, as well as practiced in the skill of going deep for that activity that you’re doing. Newport notes that he maps out when he’ll be able to work deeply at the beginning of each week, and refine those decisions as needed at the beginning of each day.
The summary for this technique is that you should pick the philosophy that best fits your life and your work.
There’s the adage “be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Newport posits that the most creative people don’t wait for inspiration to strike; he quotes David Brooks, who summarises the reality of great creative minds with the pithy line that they “think like artists but work like accountants”.
To ritualise your deep work, consider the following factors when creating your ritual:
- Where you’ll work and for how long — Think about where you’ll work since environments matter. You want places where you know you can be productive. Also, decide beforehand how long you’ll do deep work for each session, so it doesn’t become an open-ended slog.
- How you’ll work once you start to work — Use rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example: you may institute a ban on Internet use, or maintain a metric like words produced per twenty minute interval to keep your concentration honed. The principle at work here is to set rules so you don’t have to keep self-regulating; you merely have to follow the rules you set for yourself without reasoning about them.
- How you’ll support your work — Figure out what’s necessary to support you in successfully finishing your allocated deep work time. It might mean a cup of good coffee at the beginning, or access to enough food to maintain energy, or to perform your deep work session after light exercise.
Newport closes with the conclusion that it’ll take some time to come up with a deep work ritual that works for you. He urges that you keep at it, because the rewards are significant once you do find something that works.
3) Make Grand Gestures
Grand gestures are a known technique for creating deep work. Newport gives us the example of JK Rowling retreating to the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh to finish The Deathly Hallows, Bill Gates’s strategy of retreating to a cabin with a stack of papers and books during his time as Microsoft’s CEO, MIT Physicist and award-winning novelist Alan Lightman, who retreats each summer to a ‘tiny island’ in Maine to think deeply and recharge.
The principle here is that grand gestures — even the ones that aren’t as ridiculously expensive as Rowling’s — work not because of the change of environment or the seeking of quiet that enables more depth. The dominant force is the psychology of committing so seriously to the task at hand.
When you put yourself in an exotic location to focus on a writing project, or take a week off from work just to think, or lock yourself in a hotel room until you complete an important invention: these gestures push your goal to a level of mental priority that helps unlock the necessary mental resources. They don’t have to be madly expensive, they merely need to provide the adequate mental push.
4) Don’t Work Alone
The relationship between successful deep work and collaboration is a tricky one. It’s clear that deep work demands solitary execution, but at the same time there is a growing body of research that shows that open collaboration produces serendipitous creativity. Newport argues that the balance between collaboration and solitary deep work should depend on two things:
First, distraction is a destroyer of depth. To balance between the two, separate your pursuit of serendipitous encounters from your efforts to think deeply and build on these inspirations.
Newport describes MIT’s famous Building 20, a shabbily-built structure made to house researchers of numerous disciplines during the intensive period of World War 2. In the decades following the Second World War, the lab produced, amongst other things: the first solar cell, laser, communication satellite, cellular communication system, and fibre optic networking. But Newport notes that when it came time to replace Building 20, the academics requested for sound-proofing on the doors to their offices. The replacement building — the State Center — combined sound-proofed offices with large common areas, a hub-and-spoke architecture of innovation that balances between serendipitous encounter and isolated deep thinking.
Second, Newport draws on this hub-and-spoke model to argue that even when you retreat to a spoke to think deeply, it’s reasonable to deploy a particular model of collaboration, one that Newport terms the ‘whiteboard effect’.
The whiteboard effect is when one other party pushes you to a level of depth that you otherwise can’t achieve on your own. Newport describes the collaboration between experimentalist Walter Brattain and quantum theorist John Bardeen while working on their invention of the point-contact transistor. Brattain would concentrate intensely to engineer an experimental design that would exploit Bardeen’s latest theoretical insight; then Bardeen would concentrate intensely to make sense of Brattain’s latest experimental results. In this way, they pushed each other deeper than they would have if they worked alone.
As a side note, I find this idea quite similar to the way pair programming works to push two programmers towards non-stop productivity. This collaborative technique probably only works when it comes to two people, not more.
- Separate activities where you seek serendipitous creativity and chance encounters from your attempts at performing deep work.
- When collaborating with someone, find a dynamic where the work each of you outputs pushes the other to new levels of depth.
5) Execute Like a Business
Newport notes in this section that the details of execution is far more important than strategising. He adopts a business management technique called ‘The Four Disciplines of Execution’, or ‘4DX’ which builds on extensive consulting case studies for helping companies successfully implementing high-level strategies. He then applies this to the individual seeking deep work:
a) Focus on the Wildly Important — The authors of 4DX point out that ‘the more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish’. For the individual pursuing deep work, Newport argues you should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue your deep work hours.
The general exhortation to ‘spend more time working deeply’ doesn’t inspire a lot of enthusiasm. But a specific goal with real career benefits will generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm. For Newport, this was “publish five papers this year” — which had real professional benefits as it contributed to his tenure.
b) Act on Lead Measures — The 4DX method has two types of metrics to track your success: lag measures and lead measures. The authors of the method point out that lag measures are the true goal you’re aiming for (e.g. higher sales, better customer service) but that indicators for such goals usually lag too far behind the actions you take to achieve them. What you need are leading indicators that tell you you’re on the right path.
For the individual pursuing deep work, your goal — and therefore, your lag measure — might be ‘achieve tenure’ or ‘get that promotion’, but the lead measure is simpler: the number of hours you spend on deep work. If you track this, you should be able to adjust your work methods appropriately to focus on the metrics that matter to your eventual goal.
c) Keep a Compelling Scoreboard — it’s not enough to just identify your lead measure, the 4DX authors explain, instead, you need to keep a highly visible and compelling scoreboard to help you keep track of the leading indicators.
When applied to the individual, Newport argues that this scoreboard should be a physical artefact in the workspace that displays the individual’s current deep work hour count. Newport’s solution takes the following form:
I settled on a simple but effective solution for implementing this scoreboard. I took a piece of card stock and divided it into rows, one for each week of the current semester. I then labeled each row with the dates of the week and taped it to the wall next to my computer monitor (where it couldn’t be ignored). As each week progressed, I kept track of the hours spent in deep work that week with a simple tally of tick marks in that week’s row. To maximize the motivation generated by this scoreboard, whenever I reached an important milestone in an academic paper (e.g., solving a key proof), I would circle the tally mark corresponding to the hour where I finished the result.
Circling the milestone allows him to 1, connect the accumulated deep work hours to tangible results at a visceral level, and 2, helps him calibrate expectations for how many hours of deep work he needs per result.
d) Create a Cadence of Accountability — The final step in 4DX is to ‘put in place a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings to evaluate the performance of the team with regard to the scoreboard.
Newport recommends that you implement a weekly review in which you make a plan for the workweek ahead, and look back on your previous week’s record of deep work. The goal of looking back is to first, celebrate the good weeks, and second, figure out what led to bad weeks. This information is useful only in so far as it helps you keep a good score for the days ahead; don’t beat yourself up if you fail to achieve your desired lead measure.
6) Be Lazy (aka Have Downtime)
Newport closes off with the unintuitive observation that people perform better when they regularly schedule downtime for themselves. The reasons are threefold:
- Downtime helps with insight. Newport quotes research that shows, for complex decisions with lots of vague, discrete bits of information, it’s far better to let your subconscious mind chew on the problem instead of thinking about it consciously. (This is why sleeping on a problem works!)
- Downtime helps with recharging directed attention. Newport discusses research on Attention Restoration Theory, that argues directed attention may be restored by involuntary attention — that is, attention that is captured by inherently intriguing stimuli, like a walk through nature. Redirecting your attention during downtime to sources of involuntary attention helps with restoring your ability to direct attention, or so Newport thinks.
- Last, the work you do in the evening isn’t important to your career anyway, so why do it? Newport points out that if deep work is the sort of work that will help you achieve your goals, then it doesn’t make sense to spend your downtime on work that wouldn’t help you in your career. And if you’re already spending enough time doing deep work in your daytime work, then there’s no way you can go beyond that — research on deliberate practice show that the maximum most professionals can execute deliberate practice (which is equivalent to deep work) is just four hours. A novice can usually only manage one.
Newport’s recommendation is radical: to perform a shutdown ritual at the end of every workday, and then to stop thinking about work completely after the ritual.
The components of this technique are as follows:
- If you need more time, extend your work day. But if you decide to execute your shutdown ritual, recognise that you’re not going to work anymore after you’ve completed it.
- Begin your shutdown ritual by looking at your email inbox, to ensure there’s nothing requiring an urgent response before the day ends.
- Then transfer new tasks from your mind or recorded earlier in your day into your official todo list.
- Once you’ve done that, quickly skim every task in your todo list, and then look at the next few days on your calendar. At this point, you’ve reviewed everything on your professional plate.
- To end the ritual, make a rough plan for the next day.
- Finally, say “Shutdown complete”, which signals to you that your work thoughts are done for the day.
Why does this work? This works because of the Zeigarnik effect — that is, incomplete tasks dominate our attention. The best known way for fighting this effect (because you don’t want to think of work during your downtime!) is to simply make a plan for how you would complete the incomplete task. This magically frees cognitive resources for other pursuits.
Newport warns that a shutdown ritual can be annoying, as it adds an extra 10 to 15 minutes to the end of your workday. However, he adds that they’re necessary to achieve the rewards of systematic idleness. In his experience, it takes about a week or two before the shutdown habit sticks — after which your mind will trust your ritual enough to actually begin releasing work-related thoughts in the evening.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
The goal of this section is a collection of techniques that will increase your ability to focus and resist distraction. Newport argues that if you constantly let your brain take the least-resistance path to digital addiction, eventually your brain rewires until you can no longer focus when you want to. For this, Newport quotes Clifford Nass’s research on behaviour in the digital age:
Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass 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.
Newport suggests a number of techniques to build resistance:
Technique 2.1: Take Breaks From Focus, Not Distraction
Most online recommendations propose taking a break from distraction — aka an Internet Sabbath; Newport suggests the reverse: that your default mode should be ‘off the internet’, and you should take breaks to go online.
There are objections to this idea, of course, but Newport deals with them (I think) adequately:
- Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.
- It’s a good idea to keep a notepad near your computer, and record on it the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no internet connectivity is allowed.
- The core principle — it isn’t the amount of time you spend distracted that matters, it is 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. The goal of this technique is to build the ability to resist stimuli when you’re bored or cognitively challenged.
- But what if your job requires lots of Internet use? Simple: increase the duration and number of your Internet blocks. Remember that the important thing here is to protect the integrity of your offline blocks, not reduce your internet use.
- But what if you need to use the internet to work? Newport agrees; an inevitable issue with this technique is that you’ll soon face an offline block where there’s some critical piece of information that you need to retrieve online to continue making progress. The answer: you must resist this temptation to go online! If you compromise, it defeats the purpose of the exercise, as your brain no longer recognises the differences between Internet and offline blocks. Instead, a) do some other task if you can, b) switch to shorter offline blocks in the future, or c) if you really must go online, then you must wait at least five minutes from the decision to go online, to the time you actually go online — the idea here is to keep training your brain that it can’t have instant Internet gratification.
- Newport also suggests doing this at home — your brain doesn’t recognise a difference between work and home; Newport argues that you should simplify matters by keeping up this habit outside of work. You may still allow time-sensitive communication (e.g. looking up the location of a restaurant, and chat); but otherwise, schedule offline blocks where you don’t reach for a phone to read infotainment articles while waiting in line for food.
Technique 2.2: Work Like Teddy Roosevelt
This technique draws a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s life: set very tight deadlines, right at the edge of feasibility. Having an incredibly tight deadline forces you to concentrate on finishing the task you’ve set for yourself, and naturally pushes you to ignore all distractions.
Newport warns that you should try this experiment no more than once a week at first, in order to give you brain time to practice with intensity, but also to allow it to rest. When you’ve pushed your ability to do Rooseveltian dashes, you may perform a few of these in any given workweek.
Technique 2.3: Productive Meditation
Productive meditation is a technique where you focus your attention on a single, well-defined professional problem while you’re performing a mindlessly physical task. This is a variant of ‘mindful meditation’ that Newport adapted for his daily walks to campus — though he notes you may do it for any mindless physical activity like mowing the lawn or walking your dog or waiting in line for a bagel.
There are three key parts to this strategy:
- In order to be productive with this form of meditation, structure your problem. First, identify the variables needed to solve the problem, and store them in your working memory. Second, define the specific next-step question you need to solve. For example, the problem might be writing this summary post, the variables might be “what are all the things I need to include?” and the next-step question would be “how do I organise this post?”. Finally, summarise your findings at the end of the process, before moving to the next question.
- Be wary of distraction — one of the first things your mind would do is to offer up unrelated but seemingly more interesting thoughts (e.g. “Think of that email you’ve been procrastinating on! Now would be a good time to compose it!”) Just like in mindful meditation, guide your attention gently back to the problem at hand each time this happens.
- Be wary of looping — the next thing your mind would do is to constantly loop on subproblems that you’ve already solved. For example, if you’re working on a difficult proof, your brain might decide to fixate on a lemma you’ve already proven. Again, like with distraction, gently guide your attention back to the problem at hand.
Technique 2.4: Memorise a Deck of Cards
Memorise a deck of cards is a catchy phrase that actually means: “engage in structured thought processes that require unwavering attention”. These activities increase concentration power significantly. Newport gives examples of studying the Talmud, or practicing productive meditation, or learning the guitar part of a song by ear, all of which give benefits to the practitioner beyond the activity itself.
The name of this technique comes from the intriguing results of the USA Memory Championships, where competitors are required to memorise a deck of cards within a given time limit.
Newport tells us the story of Daniel Kilov, who started memory training for competitions in college. By the end of college, he had won his first national competition medal. Newport focuses on what happened to Kilov’s academic performance during the period: he went from a struggling student with a diagnosed attention deficit disorder to graduating from a demanding university program with first-class honours.
It turns out that a side effect of memory training is an increase in concentration ability. This is the true goal of this section; Newport recommends doing any activity that requires concentration to benefit from this side effect. For the actual technique used to memorise a deck of cards see this link.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
This rule is a misnomer. Newport isn’t arguing for you to quit social media; he’s instead arguing that you approach your social media use the same way a practitioner might evaluate their tools. Look at your social media use like a farmer considering a potential machinery purchase: by thinking about its pros and cons, and then thinking about the way it fits into your life goals.
Newport argues that we tend to fall into ‘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.
This is an unreasonable mindset to adopt given the costs to your attention. Instead, Newport argues that you should consider the ‘Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection’:
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.
To this end, Newport has one concrete suggestion: quit all forms of social media for 30 days, without telling your friends. Don’t delete the account, don’t deactivate it; merely stop using it for 30 days. After this activity is done, evaluate:
- What are your professional and personal goals?
- For each profession and personal goal, what are the activities that best contribute to your achieving it? List one to three activities per goal.
- Then, for each social media tool, ask yourself whether your use of the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activities outlined in (2).
- Cull the social networks that impact your activities in a substantially negative manner.
The bit about not telling your friends is key, Newport thinks, because it tackles the underlying psychology that ties us to social networks. Social networking companies know of this effect, and use it to manipulate us consciously.
The psychological effect is reciprocity: on most social networks, the implicit agreement is that in return for receiving attention from your friends and followers, you’ll return the favour by lavishing attention on them:
You “like” my status update and I’ll “like” yours. This agreement gives everyone a simulacrum of importance without requiring much effort in return.
When you drop off without announcing anything, you can test the value that people have in your content creation on the networks. If nobody notices anything, then perhaps you’re not creating much of value.
At the very least, sidestepping this psychological tic is something that might make your evaluation of social media tools more objective:
These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers. They 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, Newport says, they are super important — but you won’t know for sure until you vanish for 30 days.
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
The techniques in this section are about reducing the amount of shallow work in your life. The argument for this is that shallow work easily grows to eat up time for deep work, so you will need several techniques to stem its growth.
Technique 4.1: Schedule Everything
Newport begins with a technique that sounds horrifyingly difficult: schedule everything.
At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook you dedicate to this purpose. Down the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you typically work. Now comes the important part: Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks. For example, you might block off nine a.m. to eleven a.m. for writing a client’s press release. To do so, actually draw a box that covers the lines corresponding to these hours, then write “press release” inside the box. Not every block need be dedicated to a work task. There might be time blocks for lunch or relaxation breaks. To keep things reasonably clean, the minimum length of a block should be thirty minutes (i.e., one line on your page). This means, for example, that instead of having a unique small box for each small task on your plate for the day—respond to boss’s e-mail, submit reimbursement form, ask Carl about report—you can batch similar things into more generic task blocks.
The purpose of this activity is to be mindful about how you spend your time. Newport says that you’re almost certainly not going to be able to stick to your schedule. If something unexpected comes up, or if a task takes longer than expected:
- Don’t feel bad if your plans change. Instead, take five minutes to readjust your schedule, removing some task blocks, reorganising others. The purpose of this exercise is to be thoughtful about how you’re using your time; you should always be asking “what makes sense for me to do with the time that remains?”
- Newport maintains a rule that he may throw out his schedule if he ever stumbles onto an important insight, in which case he may throw out all personally-directed activities that he has planned.
- Over time, make an effort to get better at estimating how long you’ll take for certain tasks.
- If it helps, use overflow conditional blocks. By this Newport means blocks that are allocated for overflow time of a specific task; if the overflow doesn’t happen, the block may be used for an alternate activity already assigned to the block.
- Finally, be liberal with task-blocks. Deploy many throughout your day and make them longer than required to handle the tasks you plan in the morning. Then, use the regularly occurring blocks of time that remains to address surprises that pop up during the day.
Technique 4.2: Create a Shallow Work Budget
Newport offers an alternative definition of shallow work here, to make it easier for you to evaluate your work.
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?
The longer the number of months, the more unlikely that the activity is shallow work, as it implies a huge amount of specialised knowledge to perform. Newport then argues that you should use this metric to differentiate shallow work from deep work, and to create a shallow work budget for your life.
How much time should you allocate for shallow work? Newport argues that you should try and ensure you have a maximum of four hours in each working day for deep work. Whatever that is left over may be used for shallow work. But he also warns that shallow work often grows to occupy all the time available. So be careful.
Obviously, this technique doesn’t work for every job. But the core idea of creating a work budget and trying to keep to it appears useful.
(Note: I’m skipping a technique here about asking your boss for a shallow work budget, since it appears incredibly unlikely to work given my experiences. Newport suggests confronting your boss with your shallow work budget, something that hasn’t been tested in his experience, and wouldn’t pass muster in mine.)
Technique 4.3: Cap Your Day
Newport caps his day at 5:30pm every day. He notes that this is extraordinarily difficult for someone in his position: most academics do not end up achieving tenure despite working long hours; Newport is artificially capping his workday instead, making life seemingly more difficult for himself.
Why does he do this? The argument Newport presents here is that capping your day forces you to throw out all the shallow work that isn’t necessary to achieve your professional goals.
The Pareto Principle (aka the 80/20 rule) implies that only a vital few causes directly contribute to an effect. Implementing a cap on your day acts as a forcing function to concentrate solely on the activities that help Newport achieve his tenure.
The downstream effect of this is that Newport is forced to carefully consider every responsibility and activity he takes on. This ‘scarcity-mindset’ is healthy for those engaged in deep work, as the bar for gaining access to your time and attention rises.
Technique 4.4: Become Hard to Reach
The last technique Newport has to offer us is the observation that email is a huge time-suck, and that you may employ a few hacks to reduce your dependence on it.
- Make people who send you email do more work. This applies to public-facing individuals. In a contact form, explain that you have severe restrictions on your time, and lay out the conditions for a response. Newport’s website is a good example.
- Do more work when you send or reply to emails. Newport suggests adopting a ‘process-centric response’ style, to short-circuit the long back-and-forth nature of email. That is, instead of “what time works for you”, write “I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I listed two days next week when I’m free. For each day, I listed three times. If any of those day and time combinations work for you, let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation for the meeting. If none of those date and time combinations work, give me a call at the number below and we’ll hash out a time that works. Looking forward to it.” Newport notes that you can soften the process-oriented nature of the paragraph by sandwiching it with some preamble.
- Don’t respond. This technique obviously only works for certain kinds of jobs, and certain kinds of emails, but the core principle here is that ‘it is the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile’. If your boss demands something of you, it is probably a good idea to reply … but if the email is not important, open-ended or overly vague, feel free to not reply.
This is the longest book summary I’ve done so far, in part because I found it so inspiring. I wrote this summary in three separate sessions of two hours each.
Deep Work works. Try it.
Photo of Balmoral Hotel by Patrick Franzis, licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY NC ND 2.0 License