Notes from "Deep Work"

2018-06-14   ·   4 min read

Notes from Cal Newport's Deep Work.

Deep Work Shallow Work
distraction-free usually distracted
creates value low value if any
hard to copy easy to copy
requires focus logistical tasks

Deep work is the means to the production of new and high value. It is efficient; it does not necessarily mean working more hours per day.

Part 1: The Idea

According to two economists at MIT, there are at least three groups of people that will thrive in the coming years.

  1. High Skilled Workers

  2. These workers thrive off the new technology and are creative. Newport uses a high profile data scientist as an example.

  3. Superstars

  4. The talent market is becoming increasingly more accessible. Many companies will want to hire a faraway superstar over a local average worker. A superstar can do work with greater quality and speed than an average worker. The peak of the talent pool will thrive at the expense of the rest.

  5. The Owners

  6. Those with access to capital can find the next Big Thing and reap the returns on investment (e.g. venture capitalists).

The first two groups are accessible to anyone. To thrive in the new economy, one must be able to:

  1. "quickly master hard things" (p.19)
  2. "produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed" (p.19)

To thrive, one must produce.

Deliberate, distraction-free practice produces myelin around the relevant circuits of neurons. The myelin "allows the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively" (p.23). In other words, deep work physically improves the condition of specific parts of the brain.

"High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)" (p.26)

There's positive correlation "between deep work and a good life" (p.45). "deep life is not just economically lucrative, but also a life well lived" (p.46)

"....skillful management of attention is ....the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience" (p.47). Choosing to focus on the positive rewires the brain, in the long term, to ignore the negative.

"I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is." --- W. Gallagher

Part 2: The Rules

There are at least four, not necessarily mutually exclusive, ways to integrate deep work into a schedule:

  • cut out the shallow work altogether
  • schedule separate long term periods (e.g. days) for deep and shallow work
  • make deep work a routine set to start and end at specific times everyday (easiest and most accessible approach for most)
  • do deep work whenever there is free time

Develop a work ritual. Define where and how long you will work. There must be a way to support the work so the work ritual is maintainable (e.g. walking breaks, cup of coffee).

Identify an important goal. Keep track of hours spent on deep work.

Downtime replenishes energy and alots time for unconscious thinking that can sometimes produce valuable insights that may not occur during conscious, purposeful thinking. The activity chosen for downtime should offer light stimuli and freedom from deliberation (e.g. yoga, running, listening to music).

If you need to leave a task incomplete for the time being, create a plan for when or how it be completed. The plan will keep the incomplete activity from lingering in the background.

"The Law of the Vital Few: In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible 80/20 split is roughly what you would expect when describing a power law distribution over impact"(p.118)

For leisure, swap out the Internet for more fulfilling activities (e.g. reading a good book, origami).

"Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday." (p.134). Do not be obsessed with following the initial plan. The purpose is to be thoughtful about where time is spent.

Practice fixed-schedule productivity. Set an end time and then work backwards to determine how you'll make the most of this artificially-restricted workday. This ensures you don't spend too much time working.

"Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester" (p.152)

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