Deep Work

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I recently finished reading the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. For years, I have been interested in the question of how we can improve our learning and work habits. There is a ton of research on this topic and many great resources (like, for example, the podcast The Learning Scientists). I don’t want to use this blog post to talk about all the different things I have learned and tried in the past years. Instead, I want to use this post to summarize what I have learned from the book Deep Work. This is not going to be a thorough review but rather a summary of the points I find most interesting and relevant for my everyday life.

Introduction

The main distinction important for the book, or rather the basis for Newport’s thoughts is the difference between shallow and deep work. He defines these two kinds of work as follows:

Shallow work: Noncognitively 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.

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.

These two ways of working probably sound familiar. At least they did for me. For example, I often found myself replying to e-mails or Slack messages after being in a tiring meeting for a while. Recognizing this distinction is the first step towards eliminating distracting and shallow behavior. Why is this useful? Or rather: why do we want to focus on deep work? This becomes clear when looking at Newport’s hypothesis regarding the relevance of deep work:

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

The rest of the book is divided into two parts which pursue different goals. Goal one (tackled in part 1) is to convince us that the deep work hypothesis is true. Goal two (tackled in part 2) is to teach us how we can transform our work habits to place deep work at the core of our professional life.

Part 1 - The idea

Chapter 1 - Deep work is valuable

Our economy is changing. This is an undeniable fact. Easy tasks are more and more replaced by automation. Think of autonomous driving as an example. Newport identifies two core abilities for thriving in this new economy:

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

As you might have noticed: skill 2 builds upon skill 1. Having the skills/knowledge doesn’t help if we are not able to transform them into results that people value. I could read tons of books about AI and computer science, attend lectures and study new tools. But without actually applying this knowledge to real world problems it does not do any good.

Both skills depend on our ability to perform deep work. New skills be acquired much faster when being able to focus without distraction. The same holds for putting these skills into use. If our work day is full of endless meetings and/or conversations via e-mail we won’t get a chance to think deeply and find solutions to actual problems.

Chapter 2 - Deep work is rare

Deep work should be a priority. Instead, many companies promote shallow work and distracting activities. This includes open work spaces which make it hard to focus, instant messaging, the expectation that e-mails are replied to promptly, and so on. But why is this the case?

Two of the reasons Newport describes made immediate sense to me because I have observed and experienced them myself:

  1. Deep work is hard, shallow work is easy. This goes hand in hand with the “principle of least resistance”: without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

  2. Busyness is often used as a proxy for productivity. Without clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable we tend to use busyness as an indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Chapter 3 - Deep work is meaningful

Although deep work is challenging it is also more meaningful and satisfactory than shallow work. Newport mentions several arguments to support this claim. To me, the neurological and psychological arguments were most convincing. Let’s start by looking at the neurological argument.

Research shows that our feelings/moods/thoughts/… are shaped by what we pay attention to. That means that, if we focus on the positive things we live a more happy life. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Regrettably, it can be very hard to focus on what’s good. Research shows that when losing focus our mind tends to fix on what’s wrong. Consequently, we like to spend more time complaining about what’s not going well in our lives and comparing ourselves to other more successful/happy/engaged/… people. This is even more the case when spending too much time on shallow work. Shallow work is typically distracting, stressful and trivial, emphasizing our tendency to focus on what’s not going well.

The neurological argument is supported by the psychological argument. Research shows that we are happiest when focused on a challenging and difficult problem. Shallow work is by definition neither challenging nor difficult. It does not fulfill us or give us a purpose. Consequently, we will end a (shallow) work day feeling unhappy and unsatisfied. In summary: even though deep work is hard, it will leave us feeling more fulfilled, happy and focused.

Part 2

In part two of the book Newport talks about four strategies to incorporate deep work into our daily schedule.

Rule 1: Work deeply

Our brain easily gets distracted. I notice this every time I meditate - my thoughts start wandering around and it can take minutes before I realize that I’m not focusing on my breath anymore. Similar to meditation, deep work is a skill that needs to be trained. Because working deeply is hard we need strategies that help us incorporate it into our life. It is important to note that deep work can be integrated in different ways. Choose whatever way works best for you. For example, Bill Gates is known for taking so called ‘thinking weeks’ which he spends alone in a cabin, focusing and thinking deeply about important topics. For me it works best to use certain hours a day to focus on a certain topic, e.g. the hours in the morning when my colleagues haven’t started work yet. Also, you should make sure to create an environment that makes it possible to focus. For example, you should get rid of distractions. For me this means to close my door and programs like e-mail or Slack. In addition, I use the Pomodoro technique when I want to focus: I set a timer for 25 minutes and dedicate to concentrating on a single task during this time. Only after the session I check Slack for messages/questions that need a quick reply. I started using the app Forest years ago and still love seeing the forest of trees I planted after a productive work day. Sometimes, I even draw the trees into my calendar. This kind of success-tracking is a well-known tool to increase motivation and satisfaction.

Another very important part of being productive is downtime. Especially when working remotely it’s tempting to check your phone/laptop for messages after work. Don’t underestimate the importance of rest. It helps our brain with consolidation and recharges our energy. Make sure to set a time at which you stop working and don’t pick it up again afterwards.

One of the most helpful things I learned from the book is the advantage of using a shutdown ritual. A shutdown ritual is an algorithm - a series of steps you always conduct, one after another before ending your work day. A shutdown ritual allows you to
a) free your mind from work related thoughts
b) structure your next work day, looking for opportunities to do deep work
c) make notes about where to start the next morning, including ideas for solutions, open problems, etc.

My ritual looks as follows:

  1. I take a final look at my e-mail inbox/Slack/MS Teams to ensure that there’s nothing requiring an urgent response before the day ends.
  2. I transfer any new tasks into my ‘To Do’ list, making notes about open problems, ideas how to approach them, etc. This allows me to jump right back where I left off the next morning.
  3. I skim all other open tasks on the list and the next few days on my calendar. This ensures that there’s nothing urgent I’m forgetting or any important deadlines or appointments.
  4. To end the ritual, I use this information to make a rough plan for the next day.

Rule 2 - Embrace boredom

As mentioned in the previous section our brain easily gets distracted. The ability to concentrate, thus breaking the cycle of distraction, is a skill that must be trained. Filling every minute of potential boredom (e.g. when waiting in line) with a glance at our phones is certainly not helping. Instead, it causes our brain to become used to on-demand distraction. How can we solve this?

For me it helps to schedule in advance when I’m allowed to check my phone/Slack/e-mail/etc. and to stick to this rule. During work time (which requires a lot of interaction with my team mates) I use the Pomodoro technique to schedule breaks which I use to check messages. I could even check my messages every 10 minutes if that’s necessary. It’s more about doing it deliberately, making time for focused/deep work. This also applies to leisure time. I usually turn off my mobile data when being outside such that I only receive messages when checking them deliberately. If someone really needs an answer they can call me (which is rarely the case). I also try to put my phone away at 7pm every night making room for an ‘offline’ block completely free of internet use.

Rule 3 - Quit social media

The title of this chapter sounds drastic. However, while reading it the idea behind the title becomes clear. The chapter is not about shutting down all your social media accounts right away. Instead, it tries to teach the lesson that you should only use a tool if its positive impacts substantially outweigh its negative impacts on your life. If you are not sure about a tool quit it for a while (e.g. 30 days) and re-evaluate after this time. Quitting social media can be a wonderful way to free up time and reduce stress.

Another idea described in this chapter resonated with me quite strongly. Newport describes that we should not regard the work day as ‘the day’ and the other hours as prologue and epilogue. This stuck with me because I tend to do this myself. We usually feel happier and more fulfilled when we spend our time in meaningful ways (instead of spending hours surfing the web or watching Netflix). For me (during the pandemic) this means going for a walk right after work, reading a book (instead of watching Netflix) or participating in our company yoga sessions on Wednesday night.

Rule 4 - Drain the Shallows

We can only work deeply for a limited amount of time. Therefore, we tend to fill the rest of the work day with shallow work. Research suggests that a shorter work day usually gets more or equally much work done. Why? Because we value our limited time more, work in a focused fashion and avoid/eliminate unnecessary shallow work. What can we learn from this?

Most importantly, we should try to keep shallow work to a minimum such that it does not prevent us from doing the deep work that actually determines our impact. I implemented this with various strategies:

  • I use the Pomodoro technique when I want to get stuff done. It helps me to avoid distraction and concentrate on what I want to achieve.
  • I schedule my workday in advance.

Creating a schedule relieves us from the cognitive burden of having to decide every 30/60 minutes what we will be doing next. Of course the plan can and should be open to changes - if something comes up, adapt the plan. In my experience planning ahead is extremely helpful. Even if the plan has to be adjusted multiple times it helps a lot with keeping track of important activities, preventing from getting lost in shallow activities, using the time between meetings for deep work, etc. Especially in combination with the shutdown ritual I always know what I will be doing the next morning and can jump right back to where I stopped.

Another way to limit shallow work is to finish work by 5.30pm (or any other specific time). This helps to be more cautious about what we say ‘yes’ to/what obligations we put on our plates. Also, it will make it easier to minimize the amount of time we spend on shallow work because we simply have less time to get the important things done.

The last tip I want to summarize is to do more work when sending e-mail messages. Instead of sending a few words just to get the e-mail off our plate, we should think about how to get from the current state to a desired outcome with a minimum of messages required. Our reply should clearly describe this process and the current situation stand. This has two advantages:

  1. It reduces the number of e-mails in our inbox. This in turn reduces the time and energy spend on writing e-mails.
  2. We don’t have to keep the project in mind as something that has been brought to our attention and eventually needs to be addressed.

Newport also mentions some tips for people who get a lot of e-mails (e.g. professors). Since they weren’t relevant for me I won’t mention them here.

Summary

I enjoyed reading the book and got a lot of food for thought. At times I was missing the scientific evidence for Newport’s claims but nevertheless I believe that the book is worth reading. Especially in the current remote setting some of Newport’s advice helped me to improve my working habits and get more work done.