Cal Newport on Developing the Power of Deep Work

Cal Newport on the Power of Deep Work

Developing the ability to work deeply on important work without interruption will lead to great things.  Make it a priority.

We Are Losing Our Ability to Work Deeply

As a lawyer, manager, and business owner, on most days I juggle client work, needs of coworkers, and management and administration tasks.  If I’m not careful, the day can be swallowed in seconds entirely by an endless list of unpredictable moment-to-moment engagements.  They all matter in some way, but unchecked, they obliterate the opportunity to do deep, meaningful work on revenue-generating matters.

Cal Newport’s newest book Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World theorizes about success in the modern knowledge economy and identifies implementation tactics. Newport’s central claim is that we are losing ability to do deep work:

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 vs. Shallow Work

Newport defines his terms as follows:

Deep Work: 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.

Despite the value of deep work, modern knowledge workers are losing their ability to create it due to the ubiquity of the distraction of 24 hour networks:

In aggregate, the rise of these [networks], combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.

You can’t produce deep work with fragmented attention.  But Newport recognizes that you are not lazy.  To the contrary, you probably feel more busy than ever.  What can explain this disconnect?  You feel busy because you’re overrun with shallow work:

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

This isn’t a conscious choice.  Our culture has shifted, and we now use “busyness” as a proxy for productivity.  Don’t worry – there is great opportunity here for those who can wrestle command over time to commit to deep work:

Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow (whether you think it’s philosophically good or bad) is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth….


Strategies for Reclaiming Your Time to Perform Deep Work

Newport outlines a number of great strategies for time protection.

The power of distraction

First, you must simply recognize the power of distraction, as so many great thinkers did in the past:

The sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne … work[ed] in a private library he built in the southern tower guarding the stone walls of his French château, while Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer…. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts. It was during a 1995 Think Week that Gates wrote his famous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo that turned Microsoft’s attention to an upstart company called Netscape Communications.

If you make time for thinking, you’ll have time for thinking.  It’s as simple as that.

Learn to embrace boredom

Second, be wary of distractions.  Embrace boredom and learn to be by yourself.

If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where … it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.

If you’re not in the habit of sitting quietly by yourself with your thoughts, start practicing.  These are habits that you can develop over time.  But you need to start.

Structure your deep thinking

Thinking deeply is difficult without a method.

[Start] with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem and then storing these values in your working memory. Once the relevant variables are identified, define the specific next-step question you need to answer using these variables…. The final step of this structured approach to deep thinking is to consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified. At this point, you can push yourself to the next level of depth by starting the process over. This cycle of reviewing and storing variables, identifying and tackling the next-step question, then consolidating your gains is like an intense workout routine for your concentration ability.


Quit Social Media

This is a tough one for most people to swallow.  I must admit I have not gone cold turkey. But you should certainly be conscious about whether your social media time is adding to your life or simply serving as a distraction.  I’ve cut my Facebook and Instagram time by about 95%.  Twitter remains a valuable communication tool to reach people that I otherwise lack access to.  But I’ve recognized that it’s almost always a waste of time.

Commit to Fixed Schedule Productivity

The beauty of this idea is that there is plenty of time in your day to make it work well.

The typical workday is eight hours. The most adept deep thinker cannot spend more than four of these hours in a state of true depth. It follows that you can safely spend half the day wallowing in the shallows without adverse effect.

Newport suggests dividing the hours of your workday into blocks and assigning activities to the blocks.  You should not dedicate every block to a work task. There will be time blocks for lunch or relaxation breaks.  But, “when you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.”

This may sound rigid and overly disciplined, but it is not.

This type of scheduling, however, isn’t about constraint—it’s instead about thoughtfulness. It’s a simple habit that forces you to continually take a moment throughout your day and ask: “What makes sense for me to do with the time that remains?” It’s the habit of asking that returns results, not your unyielding fidelity to the answer.

Finally, end your day when it’s over.  Deep work requires rest.  It’s like interval training. You can’t do it constantly.  So when the day is over, go home.  You can return to focus on your most important work tomorrow.

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