Deep Work


His operating definition of deep work is:

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.

This approach to work is how we maximize the value of our current intellectual capacity. It also differs from how most of us approach our work today. We’re instead often working in a state of fragmented attention. His interest in this idea is pragmatic and individual, it is not hypothetical and societal.

There are two reasons that deep work has great value today:

  • We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. This means that our relevance and abilities will themselves require rapid learning to maintain.
  • The impact of the digital network revolution cuts both ways. Mediocre production is no longer competitive enough as geographical boundaries are removed. To thrive we have to produce the very best work that we can.

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.

Deep Work Is Valuable

Why is it that some people excel in an exceptional way? He addresses this by focusing on a couple macro-level concerns relevant to his hypothesis. At the core is the idea that the rise of digital technology is transforming our labor markets in unexpected ways. Instead of driving down all jobs it is dividing them. Three groups will benefit:

  • High-Skilled Workers: these people can treat machines not as a barrier to success but as an accelerant for it.
  • The Superstars: with a global market for talent it becomes a winner-take-all dynamic. An increasing number of people are competing against the very best in their field.
  • The Owners: with less need for labor a greater share of returns will accrue to those investing capital.

This leads us to two core abilities that we need to thrive:

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

Both abilities depend upon your own ability to perform deep work.

Psychologists really began deconstructing expert performance in the 1970s. By the 1990s K. Anders Ericsson published a paper in which he wrote:

the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

In other words: expert performance is not innate but learned. A big part of it comes down to deliberate practice and it’s tight focus on a specific skill with close-at-hand feedback.

Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point in which they had decided to show their full measure.

Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges

Deep and sustained focus ties to skill development as it’s what enables the relevant neural circuits to strengthen. Task switching is the enemy of this and introduces attention residue, or the way part of our attention remains on the prior task even after we switched or completed it. Unresolved attention switches are particularly bad for pulling our focus away.

There are some niches of work, like that of senior executives, where deep focus isn’t necessary (e.g. the Jack Dorsey counterpoint to all of this). But those niches are increasingly rare and often reliant upon others doing deep work.

Deep Work Is Rare

Three trends in business make deep work difficult and rare:

  • The prevalence of open-office floor plans.
  • The dominance of instant messaging.
  • The rise of social media.

These trends actively decrease our ability to perform deep work. There are a handful of reasons as to why we embrace such shallow work in our businesses.

  • The metric black hole. Assessing the real cost and value of many workplace behaviors is difficult and opaque. So we often go forward without an understanding of impact.
  • The principle of least resistance. Without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
  • Busyness as a proxy for productivity. 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.
  • The cult of the Internet. We’ve elevated the Internet into an Uber-ideology that makes any alternative invisible and irrelevant.

Deep Work Is Meaningful

We often (now) look to traditional craftsmanship as the source of deep work opportunities. But it’s just as possible for deep work in an information economy to develop satisfaction. Our knowledge work can be a life well lived.

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. — Winifred Gallagher

It’s our attention, not our circumstances, and where we place it that drives our worldview. By focusing deeply on our work we’re more apt to experience positivity and the depth of that focus pushes out more trivial and negative concerns.

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

Winifred Gallagher

Deep work is well-suited to achieving a state of flow in our work. It helps us push our intellectual ability to its limit and lose ourselves to our attention.

Our work, and its craft, can be a path toward meaning and experience of the sacred (not in a religious sense but a philosophical one). Newport argues that this is true even in mundane jobs; it’s how we approach the job that matters.

Work Deeply

Replacing distraction with deep focus is not a simple task. We fight our desires all day long and, often enough, they win out. Our willpower is like a muscle that eventually tires out, so it’s important that we create an environment that encourages the type of focus we want.

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

One approach that can help us to tune our philosophical approach to the type of work we do. We want to pick a philosophy that fits our individual circumstances. He outlines four approaches:

  • Monastic: eliminates and minimizes shallow obligations. It works well when there’s one thing you must do well.
  • Bimodal: divides time into clearly defined stretches for deep pursuits. It works well when the minimum unit of deep time is one full day.
  • Rhythmic: creates deep work sessions that become a regular habit. This removes the need for you to decide when and where it will happen and can feel more “natural” than the bimodal approach.
  • Journalistic: shifts into deep work at a moment’s notice. Not for the novice!

Those who use their minds to create valuable things are rarely haphazard in their habits. It’s why it’s so important, no matter your approach above, to build rituals for yourself. There are some general questions that can help guide this:

  • Where will you work and for how long?
  • How will you work once you begin?
  • How will you support your work?

In some cases making a grand gesture can also help as it increases the perceived importance of the task.

Properly leveraging collaboration can increase the quality of deep work in your professional life.

Selective exposure to collaborative hubs and peers can help deep end ideas and push you intellectually. But it’s important to separate this from your standard approach to deep work.

He summarizes the key concepts from The 4 Disciplines of Execution. In short:

  • Have a specific goal that will drive an outsized impact.
  • Act on your lead measures.
  • Keep a scoreboard for progress.
  • Create regular accountability through conversation.

Idleness is not just a vacation, and indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a menatal affliction as disfiguring as rickets…it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

Tim Kreider

He suggests a complete disconnection from work thinking at the end of the day. This downtime enables your brain to tap into unconscious processing, which is often useful for getting unstuck in hard problems. It also recharges your energy, particularly if you’re able to spend some time in nature. And ultimately the work you’re likely to do at the end of a day isn’t that high-impact anyway.

The shutdown ritual he recommends includes two key steps. You review all outstanding tasks and:

  1. Plan for their completion.
  2. Capture them in a place to revisit.

We don’t need to complete a task to get it off of our minds. But we do need to wind down; we can’t just stop like a light switch.

Embrace Boredom

You’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.

The more we allow ourselves to shy away from times of quiet and boredom the more we rewire our brains. To get the most out of a deep work habit requires training to counteract and undo this. This enables us to improve our ability to concentrate intensely and overcome our desires for distraction.

We often start by scheduling our periods of focus. It can be more effective to instead schedule our distraction, and presume that focused time is the default.

Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.

It’s not about less time on the internet, just deliberate time. So this approach can work well even if your job requires lots of connected time. One thing that helps is resisting the initial urge to look things up and fall back on past habits. This is also where planning in advance for the work we’ll do can help. Our goal is to give ourselves plenty of opportunities to resist switching to distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.

Embracing boredom isn’t about working with laziness, though. We’ll often need to introduce artificial constraints (e.g. intentionally short deadlines) into our day to drive intensity. These can act as interval training for our mind. Newport also suggests a concept of productive meditation. In short he defines this as:

The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.

Quit Social Media

There are two trends in our relation to social media. First, we recognize the distraction that it has. But second, we feel impotent to address those. A sabbatical or internet sabbath is not the answer. We instead need to shift our approach from an any-benefit one to a craftsman-like one.

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.

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.

Newport outlines a multi-step process for working toward this shift:

  1. Identify the main high-level goals in your life.
  2. List for each goal the two or three most important activities.
  3. Assess each tool you currently use and its contributions to these activities and goals.

Everything we pay attention to pulls from the same finite storage so it’s on us to be selective (and highly so). One thing that can help here is to put thought into our leisure time. If we’re deliberate in how we use this we can maximize what we get from it and enter each day feeling more refreshed.

If you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative.

Drain the Shallows

If we really evaluate where our work impact comes from we’ll find that we can remove our shallow work with no real impact to our business and professional aims. Our goal, though, should be to tame shallow work’s footprint in our day, not to eliminate it. We want to treat shallow work with suspicion and always evaluate its necessity.

Newport recommends scheduling every minute of your day. We’ll almost certainly underestimate how much time each task will take, which is okay. If we’re deliberate over time, though, we’ll improve our process. The goal isn’t to force rigidity but to instead encourage thoughtfulness and planning.