The key to long-term professional success – Deep Work

Deep Work by Cal Newport is a must-read for knowledge workers that struggle with focus, concentration and output. Even more nowadays, when COVID-19 imposed a work-from-home policy to many, forcing us to work from a generally distracting environment – our own homes. The book is written in a bit lengthy, but unambiguous and easy to read style. It doesn’t have any groundbreaking discoveries, yet the clear structure and intelligently gathered facts convey the point very effectively – Deep Work is needed for long-term success in many knowledge fields.

1. What is Deep Work?

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.

From the definition is clear that Deep Work is hard. The common knowledge work environment, with its emails, instant messaging, constant meetings, fast feedback, etc., rarely leaves time for “distraction-free concentration“. Even if such time did exist, we need to overcome the built-in mechanism (or rather one we have trained ourselves in) to procrastinate in the face of challenges or avoid them altogether. And “pushing your cognitive abilities to their limit” is exactly this – a big mental struggle.

To succeed in the Deep Work endeavour we need to have a good reason to do it, a strategy to introduce it and understanding of the biggest obstacles in front. The book covers all of these points in depth, ensuring the needed conscious efforts yield the best possible results.

2. Why Deep Work?

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare, yet at 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.

Staying relevant
We are living in a dynamic environment where technology is advancing beyond comprehension. Classes of jobs are becoming obsolete, new ones are being created. Staying relevant and ahead of the curve requires constant development and learning. Quick and effective learning requires Deep Work.

To remain valuable in our economy you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.

If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work.

Deep work is valuable
Great results in any knowledge field require Deep Work. Lots of it. Yet distractions are all around us, making it increasingly harder to get the much needed focus and concentration. The few that manage to cultivate this skill will reap great results – increased quality and quantity of their work.

The unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy. In this new economy three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

Deep work is rare
The more distracted the world becomes, the more rare (and thus valuable) Deep Work becomes. In professional environments the focus is often put on shallow activities (like email, instant messaging, meetings, being always available, etc) as opposed to truly value-generating efforts (that require concentration and Deep Work). Most companies simply don’t have the data which activities generate most benefits, so they default to the “being visible” metric. But being busy does not necessary mean being productive. Being busy does not automatically generate value.

The same pattern applies to our personal lives – social media; constant sharing and messaging; streaming services and countless TV channels; and a million other things constantly seek our attention. It requires conscious effort to preserve our focus and direct it towards something worthwhile.

Diffused attention is almost antithetical to the focused attention required by deliberate practice [needed to improve performance in a specific domain].

Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.

Deep work is meaningful
People are generally happier when engaged in meaningful work – one that makes a difference. Most probably answering to your emails within 5 mins is not going to make a dent in the world, whereas a new breakthrough in your field might. Immersing yourself deep in your work, getting to the state of flow, making leaps of progress, the fulfilment after an Achievement – this is what really matters and brings deep happiness.

When you loose focus your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body and mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

3. Train your focus

Focus and intense concentration are vital for long-term success in any knowledge field. They are skills that must be trained with diligence. The biggest obstacles are the distractions mentioned above. Unfortunately we have rewired our brains to resist boredom at all cost. Our minds never tolerate an absence of novelty. We give-in to high-stimuli / low-value activities at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge. Many fallback to a distracting habit (like checking your phone) every time there’s a 3-minute “free” slot for it.

Once the brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it’s hard to shake the addiction even if you want to concentrate.

To succeed with Deep Work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.

The goal then becomes two-fold – to deliberately train your focus and concentration; and to drill yourself in resisting distractions as much as possible. Mental exercises are a great way to progress with both. Cal gives the example of productive meditation (focus your attention on a single well-defined challenging problem during a period when you are physically occupied, but mentally free – e.g. walking jogging, driving, showering) or memorising a deck of cards (memorise a shuffled deck of cards and reproduce it later). Drawing a map of your home town; using your non-dominant hand; learning new skills; etc. – anything that keeps you cognitively challenged and requires you to bring your focus back on the task for prolonged period of time will bring similar benefits.

Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it.

By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention to a well-defined problem, [mental exercises] help strengthen your distraction-resistance muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, they sharpen your concentration.

A side effect of memory training is an improvement in your general ability to concentrate.

4. How to add Deep Work in your working life?

Adding Deep Work in your life requires conscious effort. Treat it as adding a new habit. Past a certain point, once you and those around you see the benefits that deep concentration brings, it will become much easier to prioritise Deep Work and push back on the shallow, distracting activities that might be the default stance now. The more you sharpen your focus and ability to concentrate, the easier it becomes to enter the state of Deep Work.

The key to developing a Deep Work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life.

Cal suggests 4 broad philosophies for incorporating Deep Work.

1. The Monastic Philosophy -> “maximise deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimising shallow obligations. Practitioners of it tend to have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that they’re pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well.

2. The Bimodal Philosophy -> “It asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.

3. The Rhythmic Philosophy -> “The easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal [of this philosophy] is to generate a rhythm.

4. The Journalistic Philosophy -> The most difficult strategy to pull off, especially if you are just starting in the field. It asks you to transition into Deep Work state whenever you have a free moment in your daily schedule, making use even of the shortest blocks.

A mix of these worked best for me, taking parts of each. The key is to start small, looking for tiny wins along the way. Minimising the shallow obligations is a good long-term way to free up some of the busy schedule. Saying “No” is often harder than saying “Yes”, but it leaves you in control of your own time. Blocking some well-defined periods for deep efforts is achievable in most knowledge fields. In the beginning these blocks were just 20 min long for me, as I was struggling to keep my focus even that short. With time a rhythm and habit started to form, allowing me to increase the deep efforts.

The process is a habit building one, so I suggest you check the Atomic Habits book by James Clear. On top, Cal provides a few extra tips:
Ritualise -> define a specific ritual around your Deep Work efforts. Could be as simple as making a cup of coffee before you start or taking a 5 min walk around the house/office. The idea is to give your brain a well-defined cue it’s time to switch to focus-mode.

Make Grand Gestures -> “A radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort and money, can increase the perceived importance of a task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.

Don’t work alone -> Sharing commitments can keep you on track. Best is to do this with a friend that’s also trying to improve their work habits. Dedicate time for a brief commitment chat where each puts specific, challenging, time-bound goals.

5. How to boost Deep Work?

Once the habit is formed and Deep Work is part of your working routine, you can start optimising its quality & quantity. There are no magic steps here, it’s about doing more of the topics already covered – stay on top of distractions, keep training your focus and concentration skills, keep reducing shallow work. I found the following concepts useful:

Be wary of the “Any Benefit” approach
Cal warns of the “Any Benefit” approach many people fallback to when deciding what to do with their time. For example, spending time on social media; or a lengthy video chat; or watching a movie; have some benefits, but they also prevent you from doing something else. You should be consciously aware of this Opportunity Cost, so you can tweak your routines if needed.

If you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment websites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative. This preserves your ability to reduce distractions and concentrate.

Adopt a time management strategy
Scheduling your time is about making conscious decisions how you spend it. Any mechanism or strategy works. Primary goal is to maintain a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time. Get into the habit of asking yourself throughout your day: “What makes sense to do with the time that remains?“. After a while, go a step further by validating the depth of each activity. At times this can be hard to measure, so a fun rule of thumb is the question: “How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate to complete this task?“. If the numbers come out too low for most of your tasks – it’s a signal to engage in more challenging activities.

Finish your work by a specific time
Everyone has experienced the increased productivity just before a long vacation – you want to get as much done; close pending work items; finalise decisions; give guidance for the period you are off; prioritise work items; etc. The fixed deadline forces you to structure your work, eliminate time waste and follow your plan more thoroughly. “Fixed-schedule productivity is a meta-habit that’s simple to adopt but broad in its impact.” Strive for the same gains by putting a hard deadline for your working day.

6. Rest

Everything so far might sound hard and challenging – eliminating distractions, stretching your cognitive abilities, prolonged focus and intense concentration, maintaining time schedules, etc. Paradoxically to succeed with all these, you need to rest! Countless studies have shown the need of regular mental and physical idleness. You need this time to recharge your mind and its ability to think deeply.

Worth mentioning here is the Zeigarnik Effect, which describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. To make your rest time most effective, you need to fully disconnect from your professional activities. A simple shutdown ritual can help – write down all your outstanding tasks, what is the next action for each, and which one you will tackle first on the next day. Not only does it help to kickstart the following day, but it’s also a strong mental cue to switch to relaxation mode.

Spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.

Regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work.


Happy Deep Working!

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