Does it ever feel like your brain is overheating from fragmenting attention between too many things, flitting back and forth between tasks, with sometimes little progress to show for it? Well you’re not alone, and Cal Newport is going to be our Dr. Phil of attention, helping us to improve our quality of work and quality of life. The following summary of Deep Work walks through his advice on how to build our ability to engage deeply with our activities.
Newport argues that in the modern economy there will be three types of winners: 1) those with access to capital, 2) those that are the best in their fields, and 3) those who work well with increasingly complex machines. The most viable route to economic success for must of us will be Path #3.
To work well with ever-evolving machines, you must be a great learner who can do deep work, i.e. focus intensely. Fun fact: intense focus triggers the same brain cells repeatedly and builds up myelin, which bulks up that neural pathway. Sort of like body building for your brain.
1) The measure of deep work is time spent x intensity of focus. That’s what you want to maximize!
2) Deep work can be done bimodally (days to months as a time); rhythmically (several blocks of time each day); or like a journalist (whenever you can squeeze time in on the go)
Note on Technique: for those with less control over your schedule and less recent practice with deep work, the Pomodoro Technique may work best for blocking off deep work sessions followed by shallow work sessions or breaks. For example, 40 minutes of deep work followed by 20 minutes of shallow work 6 times a day can still achieve the target of 4 total hours of deep work per day. These shallow work periods may end up as over-flow buffers initially as you train yourself up to longer, unbroken periods of time.
You need to have 10 consecutive unbroken deep periods of a given time increment, as short as 10 minutes, before you start building up to longer periods.
3) Set up a systematized ritual – create a time bound, distraction free environment with all the right materials and enough food/energy
4) Avoid frequent task switching, as this leaves “attention residue”, a state of semi-attention as you’re still thinking about the last task when you start a new one
5) Choose to work on “the wildly important”
6) Collaborate with others in a way where you still break off for independent deep work
Pitfalls and solutions
1) Switching to an easier thought task – avoid this by structuring the path forward
2) Looping, i.e. reviewing what you know already – avoid this by consolidating gains upon which to build
3) Shallow activities – cut these out without excessive apology
4) E-mail – lay out a ‘path to closure’ to open-ended e-mails by laying out all steps to completion in one fell swoop
Note on E-mail: we’ve all rattled off quick replies that we know will generate three or more back-and-forths. Nip this in the bud by laying out everything you know will be discussed, including your availability for meetings requested, or any further information you will need. Add “no reply expected” or “I will consider your reply a confirmation” to minimize future e-mail traffic.
The path forward laid out by Newport is a call to action, with the knowledge that this means dragging our brains kicking and screaming. Our brains are seekers of distraction yet, paradoxically, convey the most satisfaction to us when we hit the “flow state” associated with deep work. Like eating your greens or hitting the gym, your body and mind will thank you for the deep work exercise you put it through. So pull out that weekly schedule or that Pomodoro timer, block out that time or set that target daily hours tally. You can start sculpting that focused mind today. (I say this having written this post with only one coffee break and two 5 minute side chats in between. We’re all a work in progress 🙂