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Book summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport

deep work books

These are some of my notes and highlights on one of my favorite books of all time. I’m starting to implement deep work strategies in my life with the objective of improving professionally. I’m sharing some of them with you because by training our minds to do deep work and use our time productively we immensely raise our chances of success and growth.

Deep Work vs Shallow Work

Deep Work:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work:

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

There are four rules for deep work:

Rule 1: Work deeply

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

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.

Decide on your depth philosophy

Monastic philosophy: The most extreme one where you quit all shallow work activities that could affect your deep work sessions. Think no emails and smartphones. This method is preferred by people like Neal Stephenson that chose not to have an email to be able to produce good work.
Bimodal philosophy: The bimodal philosophy believes that deep work can produce extreme productivity, but only if the subject dedicates enough time to such endeavor to reach maximum cognitive intensity. The minimum unit of time for this philosophy is one day.
Rhythmic philosophy: The easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.
Journalistic philosophy: To understand this one check out the way Walter Isaacson works, according to one of his friends:
It was amazing… he could retreat up to the bedroom for a while. when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book… he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour, we’d hear the typewriter pounding, then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us… the work never seemed to faze him, he just happily went up to work when he had the spare time.

Ritualize

Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.

– David Brooks

The objective is to make the most out of deep work sessions by ritualizing everything:

Where you’ll work and for how long: Office Desk or library?
How you’ll work once you start to work: Will the internet be allowed? For how long? What metric will you use to track progress?
How you’ll support your work: What kind of exercise will you take and at what time? Will there be breaks? What food or beverage do you need to keep working?

Rule 2: Embrace Boredom

Instead of a break from distraction, a break from focus. Schedule when you’ll use the internet and avoid it outside of those times.

Work like Teddy Roosevelt:

Identify a task that’s high on your priority list
estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type the give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time.
Meditate productively

A technique where you use your downtime (bath, exercise, etc) to think deeply about a particular problem or topic that you are working on. By concentrating on it and making a process out of finding the solution you train your mind to concentrate and improve your deep work muscle.

Be wary of distractions and looping: Pay close attention for when your mind ‘loops’ while thinking about a problem. Always try to advance and if you get stuck keep thinking about the problem from different angles.
Structure deep thinking: First review general variables about the problem, search for the next step question and consolidate the problem in your mind.

Rule 3: Quit social media

Social media can be particularly devastating for deep work. They offer personalized information arriving on an unpredictable intermittent schedule. Making them massively addictive and damaging to any forms of concentration.

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.

Using the 80/20 approach to knowing which tool to eliminate

Identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life.
List for each the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy that goal.
Consider the network tools currently in use
Keep using the tools only if you concluded that it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts.
Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself

Nowadays we use our smartphones to fill our downtimes and get cheap worthless entertainment. If you really want to keep improving then you must use a technique used by Arnold Bennet: Put more thought into your leisure time. Figuring out what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin.

If you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative. Not only will this preserve your ability to resist distractions and concentrate, but you might even fulfill Arnold Bennett’s ambitious goal of experiencing what it means to live, and not just exist.

Rule 4: Drain the shallows

Schedule every minute of your day: A deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect. Decide in advance then what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday.
Quantify the deep of every activity: Evaluate and analyze every activity that you do every day and see which are shallow.
Finish your work by five thirty: Fixed schedule productivity enables you to establish an ending time and work backward to make productivity strategies that enable this goal.
If you want further reading I recommend you check out Cal Newport’s blog and buy his insightful book. Its one of those books that multiply your investment exponentially if you apply everything it proposes.

Photo credit: Moyan Brenn

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