Deep Work

One trait that differentiated [Gates and Allen] was focus. Allen’s mind would flit between many ideas and passions, but Gates was a serial obsessor.

Walter Isaacson

Deep Work is professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. The book I’m talking about today drills into what makes ‘deep work’ valuable, in clear opposition to ‘shallow work’, which pervades our daily lives. Its author is Cal Newport, also author of So Good they Can’t Ignore You. The book argues that it is the ability to do deep work what sets apart great people like Carl Jung, Mark Twain, Woody Allen, J.K. Rowling, and, of course, Bill Gates, and that the ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers.

This is one of those books that affect the way you look at the world, one of those books that you cannot unread once you go through the last page: the Internet is highly addictive, there is no “I know better”, and it’s undermining our ability to produce high quality work. ‘Deep Work’ is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers, but an enlightener: take a moment to understand that you’re constantly distracted, but so is everyone else.

Part 1: The Idea

In the first part of the book, the author develops what he calls “The Deep Work Hypothesis”: [T]he ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. He dedicates the first part of the book entirely to present arguments that will convince you that this hypothesis is true, like witnesses before the Grand Jury.

The first three witnesses are well known individuals that have achieved success in their work lives: Nate Silver, renowned by his election forecasts and his website FiveThirtyEight.com; David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails, one of the most famous Web development frameworks; and John Doerr, a general partner in a VC firm who helped fund many of the key companies fuelling the current technological revolution. They embody three ways to achieve success in a world where, as intelligent machine improves, there is little room for those who are just average workers:

  1. The “high-skilled workers”, like Nate Silver, who leverage the development of technologies like data analytics, have seen their more abstract reasoning rise in value over the last couple of years.

  2. The “superstars”, represented by the ace programmer David Heinemeier Hansson, in which technological progress have removed borders and have pervaded effectively every line of modern work. For employers, it no longer makes sense to restrict themselves into local employees, when there are what are nowadays called “10X Engineers”, virtuosos on what they do, just one email away.

“Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance”.

– Sherwin Rosen

If quickly amassing capital and becoming the next John Doerr is not within reach, the author lays down two core abilities for thriving in the New Economy:

  1. Quickly master hard things - if you don’t learn, you can’t thrive.

  2. Produce at an elite level in both quality and speed - if you don’t produce, you won’t thrive.

On the first one, to join the group of those who can work well with complicated topics, requires that you hone your ability to master hard things. And this is something you have to do all your life; just exposing kids to technology isn’t enough: Giving students iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for a high-tech economy about as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics.

Now consider producing at elite level: theory is not enough. The ability that sets David Hansson apart is not his ability to program computers well, but to unambiguously produce valuable and concrete results. These two core abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work.

We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. […] Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.

K. Anders Ericsson

Ericsson’s line of research signals that to master a cognitively demanding task requires this specific form of practice, which consists of:

  1. Focused attention on a specific skill.

  2. Receiving feedback.

The first component emphasises that progress cannot exist alongside distraction: you must cultivate intense, uninterrupted concentration. The concept of attention residue, the idea that jumping from one task to another is not accompanied by completely focusing on the next task, but having some ‘residue’ left on the earlier one, helps explain why intensity is much more important than time when it comes to productivity.

Deep work is the type of work that optimises your performance.

Instead, organisations like Twitter or Facebook do not optimise for those who can thrive doing deep work. Jack Dorsey is the notable case. He represents a bunch of people who thrive in building successful companies and do not have the luxury of long periods of uninterrupted thinking. Is that a refutal of the author’s book?

In fact, they help explain why deep work is so rare in our society: they are the decision makers and, although most of the value of technology companies is produced by those who perform some form of deep work, manager’s work is scattered in meetings, small talks and catch ups over the water cooler. Their work is shallow, and they make decisions around that mindset.

That’s why Facebook unveiled in 2012 the plans for a new headquarters with “the largest open floor plan in the world”, and why IBM’s managers estimate that its employees send around 2.5 million instant messages each day.

Let’s disabuse ourselves from the idea that managers are evil people who go for open offices because they find a weird sense of amusement in our incapacity to focus: they choose open offices because those are the sort of offices that are optimal for them. If it’s not optimal for the decision makers, it’s simply not going to happen. The real reason why managers can’t let their employees do deep work is that the control-freak, workaholic mindset is still celebrated and encouraged among managers.

“To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time… it needs a lot of concentration… if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, ‘no’, I tell them: ‘I’m irresponsible”.

Richard Feynman

The author ends this section talking about the work of Csikszentmihalyi (whom we have spoken about before). His research helped validate the theory that the best moments [in life] usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Csikszentmihalyi calls this mental state flow, against the common assumption that relaxation is what makes people happy.

Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state.

Part 2: The Rules

In an ideal world- one in which the true value of deep work is accepted and celebrated- we’d all have access to a work environment designed to help us extract as much value as possible from our brains. Unfortunately, this vision is far from our current reality

– Cal Newport, Deep Work

Up until this point, the author has focused on convincing you that deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. However, we find ourselves in distracting environments where shallow work is the easiest thing to do, whereas deep work is effectively impossible. A set of rules is what the author suggests that will help simulate a deep work environment and its effects in the otherwise distracted life.

First, we need to address the fact that people fight desires all day long: as Roy Baumeister summarised in his book Willpower: Desire turned out to be the norm, not the exception. You are not your willpower, it’s like a tank that empties out slowly.

Rule 1: Have a ritual

The key, then, is to develop routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimise the amount of willpower to maintain a deep level of focus. Some people, like Donald Knuth, have become famous for many innovations in computer science, and among his peers, maintain an aura of infamy for not using email.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

– Donald Knuth’s website

This monastic philosophy of deep work attempts to maximise deep efforts by eliminating shallow obligations; it prioritises a well-defined and highly valued professional goal. The science fiction writer Neal Stephenson even wrote an essay on why he is so unaccessible. It looks like, for him, writing good novels trumps being accessible. This is obviously an extreme: the majority of us do not have the option to do this.

However, not everything is lost. The book indeed opens with the story of Carl Jung, who from time to time spent some time in a house in the woods, isolated, so that he could focus on the advancement of his career, but have most of his time in Zurich running a busy clinic, being a regular at the coffeehouse with his peers and attending lectures at the university.

Jung belongs to the bimodal philosophy of deep work. This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open. This division of time can happen on multiple scales: deep work days within the week, or deep work seasons within the year. Adam Grant, mentioned several times along the book, schedules his time in a classic bimodality case:

On the scale of the academic year, [Adam Grant] stacked his courses into one semester, so that he could focus the other on deep work. He would, perhaps once or twice a month, take a period of two to four days to become completely monastic. He would shut his door, put an out-of-office e-mail auto-responder on his e-mail, and work on his research without interruption. Outside of these deep sessions, Grant remained famously open and accessible.

– Cal Newport, Deep Work

People are in the habit of respecting your time to become unaccessible if that is something planned and let known, which makes the bimodal case very compelling.

If that’s not your cup of tea, you can always try the chain, or rhythmic, philosophy, which argues that the easiest way to consistently do deep work is to transform them into a simple regular habit that you do every day.

  1. Keep a calendar on your wall.

  2. Every day that you produce deep work, cross the date with a big red X.

  3. Don’t break the chain.

Sounds familiar? This is what Alcoholics Anonymous do: don’t think about doing what you want to do forever, just do it today. The mental effort needed to resist temptation once is of course less that thinking of yourself as not falling into it anymore.

If you are like me, this would do wonders: GitHub allows you to see how many days in a row you have committed code to any repository of yours. It piles up, day after day, and it builds motivation on you to not break the chain. That’s how you start one day, commit code to the repository, and keep going on for weeks or months. At some point, it may even become addictive to keep going!

The decision between rhythmic and bimodal philosophies can come down to how your day is scheduled, and how much time can you allocate and stack for deep work.

The last one, in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule, journalist philosophy, it’s not for the deep work novice. If, like journalists, you’re trained to shift into writing mode in no time, at this point deep work doesn’t come as news to you.

When I start making typos, I know I’m getting tired. That’s four hours or so. I’ve hit a point of diminishing returns. I wrap up for the day. […] It’s three, three-thirty. The office is closed. How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance.

– Steven Pressfield, War on Art

Whatever philosophy you choose, to make the most out of your deep work sessions, you must build rituals of strictness and idiosyncrasy: great minds depend on their ability to go deep, systematically, and the rituals minimise the friction in this transition to depth.

This ritual must address where you will work, how, for how long, and whether you will support it with external factors such as coffee or exercise. In fact, by leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled with a significant investment of your time (really far from home) or money (renting an office of your own) you increase the perceived importance of the task, injecting you with motivation and energy. The dominant force is the psychology of committing so seriously to the task at hand.

Open offices

Working on your own is difficult. Imagine working with other people, then. Research has systematically busted the myth of brainstorming, but it hasn’t dented its popularity, which is also at the core of open-offices.

It only takes a look at MIT’s famed Building 20 to see why open offices are so wrong. As noted by a New Yorker article, it was seen as a failure: erected as a temporary shelter during World War II, when the war ended it was kept as overflow space.

It doesn’t resemble a modern office; it was constructed using the standard layout of private offices connected to shared hallways. The key was not the open office plan, but a hub-and-spoke style arrangement.

The result was a mismatch of different departments sharing the low slung building. Because the [Building 20] was cheaply constructed, these groups felt free to rearrange space as needed. […] This haphazard combination of different disciplines, thrown together in a large reconfigurable building, led to chance encounters ad a spirit of inventiveness that generated breakthroughs at a fast pace, innovating in topics as diverse as Chomsky grammars, Loran navigational radars, and videogames.

– Cal Newport, Deep Work

How to organise, then, once you have become convinced that deep work is worth trying? The 4DX framework lays out four pillars to understand how companies execute their missions, and it can easily be translated into actionable advice for deep workers:

  1. Focus on the wildly important: Don’t just say ‘no’ to distraction, say ‘yes’ to what you want to do.

  2. Act on the Lead Measures: Measure the number of hours you spend doing deep work, rather than the work you eventually produce by going deep.

  3. Keep a compelling score: People play different when they’re keeping score.

  4. Create a cadence of accountability: Do a retrospective on what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what could’ve been improved.

Be lazy

I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know.

– Tim Kreider

On the research paper from Ericsson that we mentioned earlier, he dedicates a section to reviewing what the literature has to say about an individual’s capacity for cognitively demanding work. Ericsson claims that only experts can concentrate for up to four hours, but most people can’t go north of just one.

This means that the capacity for deep work is limited, and by the evening you’re beyond your capacity to do something meaningful. It’s better to rest and put off what you’re doing, because the next day you will be in a position to care about it, indeed, deeply.

  • Once your workday shuts down, you can’t allow any sort of professional work into your attention span.
  • Once you are ready to shut down, you have to support it with a shutdown ritual at the end of the workday to avoid the Zeigarnik effect.

Rule 2 - Embrace Boredom

Have you checked your phone? Of course you have. This is the digital era, everyone is connected and constantly on their phones all day. A ridiculous era, I must say.

If you’ve ever been to London, I recommend that you go to a museum. The one you like the most, because they’re all free. If you go to the National Gallery, where you can contemplate van Eyck’s The Arnolfini portrait or van Gogh’s Sunflowers, do acknowledge the people around you at the precise moment that you turn your head into those paintings. Chances are, there’s going to be someone taking out their camera or smartphone, taking a picture of the painting, and rushing onto the next one. This guy might be even you!

The problem with that approach is, you don’t get to enjoy it. You’re probably not going to look at that picture ever again (perhaps it took you a couple of seconds to post it on your feed), so in that case you have wasted your time there. Even worse: research by Clifford Nass reveals that constant attention switching online has a negative effect on your brain, as he summarised in an interview.

People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage working memory. they’re chronically distracted.

– Clifford Nass

This leads to something that makes perfect sense: concentrating, like a muscle, must be trained. If you’re one of those people who say “when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused”, well, you’re wrong.

Once you’re wired for distractions, you crave it. There is no use for Internet sabbath, where breaks from electronic devices are periodically followed, in the same fashion that the Sabbath in the Hebrew Bible induces a period of quiet and reflection.

Instead of planning for occasional breaks from distractions so you can focus, why not scheduling occasional breaks to give in to distraction? The constant switching from distraction to focus is what Nass found to be bad for your brain, so you need to teach your mind how to tolerate boredom. On a personal note, the Pomodoro technique is what works best for me: small blocks of 25 minutes that are spaced out by 5 minutes off. This technique allows you to consistently train your mind to obey your will, and do without checking your mobile.

calvin-and-hobbes-creativity

And there is no better motivator than having little time. Artificially give yourself hard deadlines, not for the sake of speed, but for you to remove any ounce of distraction and focus completely on what you’re doing.

At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task on time: working with great intensity.

Mediate productively

I’m a fan of walking to work. I’ve been lucky enough to do it during my time in London. The first time, I was working in the Hays Galleria, which is next to London Bridge and looking at the river Thames. My commute implied crossing Tower Bridge daily, it was delightful. The second time, I had to walk across the Square Mile, starting at the Gherkin, passing under the Cheesegrater, then Bank, St Paul’s cathedral, and finally the Old Bailey. Every single day. I loved it, and thus I spent a lot of time on my feet back then.

It also allowed me to think about my own things. There’s something spiritual in walking rather than just waiting for the bus and being driven to work. There’s time to reorganise your thoughts, and clear your mind, in a way that is not possible if you stand still.

Productive meditation is useful for taking a period that would otherwise be wasted and use it instead to focus on a well-defined problem. If done right, can actually increase your professional productivity.

It is also a great training for your concentration muscles, as you must constantly keep yourself vigilant of intruding thoughts, which helps you strengthen your concentration and sharpen it. In fact, some activities like productive meditation and memorising are proved to be an improvement in your general ability to concentrate. If mindlessly scrolling down through our feed is rusting out your brain, mental athletics is definitely the cure for it.

Rule 3 - Quit your social media

I have been on and off social media up until very recently, when I decided to simply remove all social media apps from my phone. I experienced what so many others before me did: the first couple of days is panic, FOMO, whatever you want to call it. The third day is back to normal, and you suddenly realise that you don’t need it at all. You simply stop craving for attention, and having the impulse to share documentary evidence of your existence.

I hate to say it, but the worst part of quitting social media is realising that I used to be addicted to it. It’s like the story that Jeff Bezos told once about estimating how much time of her life had her aunt lost because of smoking and how her aunt reacted when he told her his final estimation. Not everyone starts whipping, but all of us cry on the inside.

But that’s not new: you know it already. We increasingly recognise that social media is bad for our lives. The problem is that the notion of giving up Internet is absurd: everyone else relates with the world online in such a way that avoiding it is effectively not possible. And because of that, everyone is justified for accepting our current distracted state as inevitable.

If you’ve been clever, you noticed that the three stories above end up in the same spot: sliding back to social media, like nothing happened.

Most of us have become addicted the same way we fall asleep: first, really slowly, then suddenly you notice that the alarm clock is ringing on and you have been asleep for hours. I can trace back my first steps with social media when I started using MSN Messenger to chat with my friends, and it was really addictive back then: given that we couldn’t go online unless we gave up getting calls on the home phone back then, the arguments at home were frequent, usual, normal.

The usual scams were also part of our reality, like the recurrent “MSN is going to close”, and we sent GIFs all day long, with much poorer quality. I still use the retro happy face :) instead of the emoji.

Do also notice that baby boomers are now following our breadcrumbs, making the same mistakes we did back then, and they need mentoring. They were happy without it before, I don’t see why they would need it now.

I don’t, and neither does the author of this book, who acknowledges that some people find Facebook entertaining, or helps you find friends that you remotely wouldn’t see, or even allows you to meet new people. The problem isn’t the added benefits, but the added value: what are you giving up to be on Facebook?

The opportunity cost is the clear path on making decisions about your time, as it is limited and scarce: you want to make the most of it. Probably, for some cases, Facebook address a problem that it wouldn’t be solved otherwise. But for most cases, it’s just a TV screen that follows you everywhere you go, and it’s always on the commercial break.

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 possible impacts on these factors substantially overweight its negative impacts.

– Cal Newport, Deep Work

Whereas the any-benefit approach identifies any potential positive impact as the reason for using a tool, the craftsman variant requires balancing pros and cons at the core of what is really important to you. Oddly enough, the books makes the outdated claim that neither Malcom Gladwell nor Michael Lewis use Twitter when, at the time of writing this, are now active members. The late David Carr wrote a piece about the benefits of Twitter that was later countered by George Packer’s admission of non-Twitter use.

[David Carr’s article is] the most frightening picture of the future that I’ve read thus far in the new decade.

– George Packer

I recently watched a documentary called “The Minimalists”, where the authors of Everything that Remains explain the idea of living with a lot less stuff that we need. I can make the connection between the two issues: we have so much stuff that we don’t need because there is a potential benefit somewhere, sometime; same happens with the apps in our smartphone, with the added problem that they are designed to be addictive.

Try the following: give yourself 30 days without social media. Not closing the account, just simply delete it from your phone. If you really needed it, download it again, but avoid it if possible. I would say that, after those 30 days, you won’t look at those apps the same way ever again. And do the same for those Huffington Post, Business Insider, BuzzFeed and the likes, even Hacker News.

Put more thought into your leisure time.

– Arnold Bennet

Rule 4 - Finish your work by 5.30pm

Remember when we said that you should give yourself a hard deadline? Do it today. Not just about your medium or long term goals, do it about the day that it’s about to happen. Finish early. Do whatever you have to do in less time.

There is a problem though, and that is that we are wired to expand our effort across the time we are allocated to work. You must resist the temptation to say “that was enough for today”. It wasn’t. If you say “I’ll finish by 5.30 no matter what”, the shallowness in your life should make way for you to make that deadline. Every single day is an opportunity to resist the distractions and keep going, or learn new things, or, if you’re lucky enough, finish early.

The problem is, how to make it visual? How does my boss acknowledge the fact that I need less time than the rest, because I’m more productive? That’s up to you: go somewhere quiet to work on your things, so that you can finish it. Gain traction with your superiors so that they can cut you some slack in terms of time. If you frame it as something that you can reach if you make it the new normal, then you may have a chance to make it real.

Keeping your work visual allows you to integrate this focus into your life. Someone who delivers is much more likely to have advantages in his career.

In most cases, that means reducing the time you spend on your email.

Become hard to reach

Ubiquitous email access has become so ingrained in our professional habits that we’re beginning to lose the sense that we have any say in its role in our life.

We are slowly eroding our ability to explain why it is so wrong for us to complain, resist, or redesign our workdays so that they are manageable.

– John Freeman, The Tyranny of E-mail

If you’ve happened to look at my contact page, I explain how to contact me so that I can give you an answer. It’s an elaboration of what this last section of the book is about:

  1. Make people who send you the email do more work

  2. Do more work when it’s you who’s sending the answering email (reciprocity)

  3. Answer less emails

When it comes to email, it’s the sender responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile.

– Cal Newport, Deep Work

Conclusion

This should be a book that act as a constant reminder: you can achieve more. You can deliver more, more than what you’ve done before, by reframing the way you think and the way you spend your leisure time. Is not about being constantly at work- rather, to be thinking about work as little as possible, but intentionally and with intensity.

See you next time!


If you liked my writing, please consider subscribing to my newsletter.