I like to share ideas on some of the books that I read that offer up some interesting points to ponder or ideas to put into action. One such book I read recently was Deep Work by Cal Newport. Newport’s premise is that we have lost the art of craftsmanship and meaning in our work. Craftsmanship to Newport is mastering a skill that takes time, deep thinking to become an expert and add value. There are several things preventing us from becoming true experts at anything. The rise of network tools is ubiquitous. Smart phones (tweets, emails, social media outlets, message bells) interrupt us. Offices designed for open spaces and less quiet seclusion prevent quiet contemplation. Over scheduled frenetic lifestyles all keep us in the “shallows” and prevents us from going “deep” in thought and accomplishing great things. Knowledge workers increasingly are becoming human network routers and have lost the ability to do deep work. These distractions consume more of our time and the important work of concentration and contemplation is squeezed out of our lives. The author argues that cultivating a “deep work” ethic will produce massive benefits in our lives.
The different and bizarre does not have to be the way but it does cause a pause and open the mind if you are willing to be patient. From the great psychologist Carl Jung building a stone tower in the woods to focus his mind to a leading business mogul who purchased a round trip business class ticket to Tokyo to write a book free of social media distraction, there are ample examples to share on how finding time and performing deep work can really make a difference. But let’s spend a bit more time understanding what is deep work and the benefits before we talk about Newport’s four rules for allowing deep work back in our lives.
Deep Work Definition: 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.
Shallow Work Definition: 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.
The author’s argument: Deep work is valuable, rare and meaningful and we need to learn how to do more of it.
If you study the lives of influential figures you’ll find a commitment to deep work is a common theme. Mark Twain conducted much of his writings in a shed on his property in New York where he spent summers. Bill Gates has “think weeks” where he isolates himself in a lakeside cottage to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.
We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. To remain valuable in our economy the author argues that you must master the art of learning quickly complex things. To do this, it requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you risk falling behind as technology advances. Additionally, in our connected world, if you create something useful you can reach a limitless audience so technology that disrupts us can benefit us. But with all this is increasing competition, so you must produce the best stuff. Newport says that deep work is becoming increasingly rare at a time it’s becoming even more important. Those that cultivate this skill will thrive.
Cal Newport is his own test case. As a teacher at a major university, he had to publish while having to teach and have time for his students. He had to master deep work to publish at a rate that would advance him. He doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account or any other social media presence outside of a blog. He committed to four hours a day, five days a week of uninterrupted concentration to produce four books, earned a PhD, wrote peer reviewed academic papers at a high rate and become a tenured track professor in a relatively short period of time. He rarely worked past 5 or 6 pm during the week. When he’s home, he rarely connects to the computer, so he can be present with his wife and family, read some good books or listen to a baseball game on the radio. He says his mind is calmer and less frenetic. He allows himself to be bored and believes that can be a healthy state to just disconnect and recharge. In sum, schedule less, disconnect, plan and allow for deep work consistently will enable you to produce quality work at a high rate and be present for other things in your life that are important.
Newport makes a case that unprecedented growth and the impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy. Three groups will have an advantage: those who can work well and creatively with complex machines, those who are the best at what they do and those with access to capital. If you can join any of these groups, you will do well. The two core abilities for thriving in the new economy are the ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. To do that requires bringing deep work back into our lives.
The Four Rules
Rule #1 – Work Deeply – You need to be smart about your habits. Newport offers up six strategies you can deploy around scheduling time to do deep work and where you can do it. Holding yourself accountable by tracking your schedule and progress. Additionally, deep work is not easy, learning to concentrate for periods of time in a consistent manner is like any habit. But success will beget more success and inspire you to value it even more.
Rule # 2 – Embrace Boredom – once you are wired for distractions you are habituated to crave it. We are no longer even used to being bored with so many distractions. But regular downtime can allow the brain to turnover insight to you when you are quiet and sometimes not expecting it. To succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. Meditation is good practice for this.
Rule # 3 – Quit Social Media – Newport reports on Baratunde Thurston, a digital media consultant who launched an experiment to disconnect from his online life for 25 days. His friends had described him as the most connected man in the world before this trial. After one week, he started noticing change. He was less stressed about not knowing about things or missing out. He struck up conversations with strangers. He enjoyed his meals more. He reasoned that network tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate. The only way to master the art of deep work is to unplug at frequent intervals and you may need to unplug entirely for a while to gain back control in your life.
Rule #4 – Drain the Shadows – if you really examine how much time you spend doing shallow work, you will likely shock yourself. This rule argues that most of what we do is shallow and that if we carved out time to do more deep work, that we could work a lot less but make significantly more contributions to ourselves, our family, our businesses and communities. Akin to the 80/20 rule but it goes deeper into treating your time with respect, so you can create things that matter.
In wrapping up, Newport lays out the craftsman’s 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.
I recommend picking up this book and dig deeper like he asks his readers to do then implement some of his ideas and see if it makes an impact on your life.
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