Deep Work

July 9, 2017

The ability to sustain deep focus on our most important work is growing rarer at the same time it’s becoming more essential.

For the past year, I’ve been tracking how I spend my time at work. Every 15-minute chunk gets a category like “communication” (e.g. email, chat), “helping people,” “project management,” or the task I enjoy the most and for which I’m ostensibly paid, “programming.” I was a bit surprised to learn at first that only half my time as a programmer was spent “programming,” although I love our culture of mentorship at work and have to acknowledge that time spent helping my team build better software is at least as valuable as building it myself. But then there was the 10% of my time spent on email and company chat and another 5% on administrative tasks like filling out forms and attending staff meetings. And, as I’ve grown into the role of leading projects, my time spent figuring out what to build and planning it has ballooned. This all came to a head last week when I realized I’d spent just two of my forty hours writing code.

Cal Newport’s Deep Work was a wake-up call. The book is about drawing a line between the shallow, administrative tasks we call “work” and the kind of deep, focused problem-solving that makes us most effective, and from which we draw the most meaning. And once we draw that line, Newport offers strategies for maximizing the amount of time we spend in deep, enriching focused, side of it.

The Value of Deep Work

First, what is deep work?

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.

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.

The benefits of deep work are many:

Strategies for Maximizing Deep Work

First (and least realistic) is what Newport calls the monastic approach, where you disconnect for months from sources of distraction in order to focus on your work. Newport gives the example of famed computer scientist Donald Knuth, who doesn’t have an email address and only checks his postal mail every 3 months or so. I enjoyed this Knuth quote:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.

He has produced brilliant work, to be sure, but this approach is unattainable for most.

A slight compromise from the monastic approach is the bimodal approach, which you shut yourself off from the world but only for shorter periods of at least one day. Newport cites the psychologist Carl Jung, who maintained a busy practice in Zurich, but would regularly retreat to a stone cabin out in the woods in order to focus on thinking and writing. Like most, Jung needed a day job to pay the bills, but like few, he has aspirations to revolutionize the field of psychology and needed to make time for bigger, deeper thoughts.

If days in the woods aren’t your thing, a further compromise is the rhythmic approach, by which you fit even shorter periods of deep work, perhaps just an hour or few, into your regular daily routine. These shorter periods are naturally less productive because of the time it takes to settle into deep-work mode, but one can counteract that by maintaining a strict routine. As with any habit, if your brain is used to deep work at the same time and for the same duration each day, it can more quickly and easily approach that task. This approach seems the most attainable for the average knowledge worker.

And finally, there’s the journalist approach where by practice or necessity you shift into deep-work mode whenever you have a spare moment. Personally, I find it takes at least 10 minutes after switching contexts before I can bring all my focus to bear on a task, so when Newport says this approach is “not for the deep work novice,” I suspect that’s an understatement.

The Four Disciplines

Once you’ve decided on an approach to working deeply, Newport suggests four habits to help keep your deep work regimen and make the most of it. First, focus on only the most important things to you. Naturally, “the more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.” Make “No” your default answer to new responsibilities and distractions. As a favorite author of mine, Neal Stephenson, puts it:

All of my time and attention are spoken for—several times over. Please do not ask for them.

I like to make a list each morning of the most important things to finish. Until each item is crossed off, it serves as a reminder that I can’t afford to be distracted from it for very long. I’ve tried this same approach at the level of my entire life, drawing up a list of priorities as a reminder that everything I say “yes” to that’s not on the list is a “no” to some of the priorities on it. This has proven less successful because with vague, high-level priorities it’s easier to justify that some exciting side-project actually pertains to one of them even if it really doesn’t.

Next, act on “lead measures,” which is the immediately available feedback about how you’re doing, as opposed to “lag measures” which are more important but take longer to materialize. For instance, if you want to focus on deep work in order to write more, the lead measure will be minutes spent working deeply or perhaps words written, while the lag measure will be the number of papers or articles published. Early on, simply focus on maximizing the amount of time working deeply and the more impactful goals will follow.

The third discipline, related to the one above, is to keep a scoreboard:

I took a piece of card stock and divided it into rows, one for each week of the current semester. I then labeled each row with the dates of the week and taped it to the wall next to my computer monitor (where it couldn’t be ignored). As each week progressed, I kept track of the hours spent in deep work that week with a simple tally of tick marks in that week’s row. To maximize the motivation generated by this scoreboard, whenever I reached an important milestone in an academic paper (e.g., solving a key proof), I would circle the tally mark corresponding to the hour where I finished the result.* This served two purposes. First, it allowed me to connect, at a visceral level, accumulated deep work hours and tangible results. Second, it helped calibrate my expectations for how many hours of deep work were needed per result. This reality (which was larger than I first assumed) helped spur me to squeeze more such hours into each week.

And finally, create a cadence of accountability, to look at both lead and lag measures in order to track and analyze your progress:

During my experiments with 4DX, I used a weekly review to look over my scoreboard to celebrate good weeks, help understand what led to bad weeks, and most important, figure out how to ensure a good score for the days ahead.

Additional Tactics

Allow yourself to be bored:

Idleness is not just a vacation, an 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 mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

Make a “grand gesture,” some significant or expensive sacrifice for the sake of your work in order to kick-start your brain into recognizing its importance. When finishing Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling checked into an expensive hotel:

Rowling’s decision to check into a luxurious hotel suite near Edinburgh Castle is an example of a curious but effective strategy in the world of deep work: the grand gesture. The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.

Deep work doesn’t need to be done alone: make time for it (and not just fraternizing) with colleagues:

This back-and-forth represents a collaborative form of deep work (common in academic circles) that leverages what I call the whiteboard effect. For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone.

Get outside:

This study, it turns out, is one of many that validate attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.

Make focus your default:

Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.

Set yourself hard deadlines so you have no choice but to focus. Newport calls these “Rooseveltian dashes” after President Theodore Roosevelt, who adopted this strategy:

inject the occasional dash of Rooseveltian intensity into your own workday. In particular, identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time.

This not only forces you to avoid distraction, but the occasional strain helps build strength in your “attention muscles”:

Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable. Roosevelt dashes leverage artificial deadlines to help you systematically increase the level you can regularly achieve—providing, in some sense, interval training for the attention centers of your brain.

Engage in “productive meditation”:

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. Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.

A suggestion I’ll take especially to heart: “Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself.”

Plan every minute:

Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter.

When saying “no” to requests for your time and attention, be firm and don’t offer specific reasons why or else you’ll turn your refusal into a debate:

“Sounds interesting, but I can’t make it due to schedule conflicts.”

And resist the urge to soften your refusal with the offer of half-measures that will still consume your time and attention:

I also resist the urge to offer a consolation prize that ends up devouring almost as much of my schedule (e.g., “Sorry I can’t join your committee, but I’m happy to take a look at some of your proposals as they come together and offer my thoughts”). A clean break is best.

Final Thoughts

If I have one criticism of Deep Work, it’s that Newport is overly critical of social media. (An entire section of his book is called “Quit Social Media”.) I heard about my first job as a programer from a college acquaintance on Twitter, so perhaps I’m a little biased toward the value of weak ties. And it seems entirely possible to follow the spirit of Newport’s advice by using social media intentionally, rarely, and only at scheduled times—without eliminating it from one’s life entirely.

But ultimately, Deep Work was a rousing call to bring more depth to my life and work, with practicable advice on how to make and keep a commitment to focus. I’ve already begun implementing some of his suggestions—not using the internet for entertainment, planning well-defined chunks of time for deep work, and sequestering myself away at the library—and seen promising results.