My notes on the Deep Work book
In this post I distill the key concepts that I learned from the Deep Work book by Cal Newport. I added some of my personal observations and experience.
Would I recommend this book? Yes Book rating 4/5
This is one of the most suggested books around, and it’s one of the best I read so far. And I read lots of books.
The TL;DR of the book is: to do great work you need to put yourself in an environment that lets you have lots of time focused, uninterrupted, distraction free.
This is where you’ll do deep work.
This concept is very common to programmers. We need to have all those castles in mind when we are working on a piece of code, and the smallest of the distractions can really affect our ability to work.
It’s not a mystery that open offices are bad for productivity. I read stories of people waking up early and getting to the office to work before all the other people arrive, or work at home after work because at work there were too many distractions.
I am lucky enough to have never been in an office except in my internship, and I always worked from home, although this comes with its own set of challenges.
In my opinion the only way to perform great work is to spend lots of hours alone, with nothing that can distract and let your mind wander.
As a knowledge worker, you need to keep doing this kind of work all your lifetime. You can’t just stop learning new things, right? You always need this kind of quality time to perform. Or you’ll stall in a limbo in terms of abilities and career.
The book makes a great point: the internet makes our world very small and we compete with people all around the globe. You are doomed to mediocrity unless you are able to do your best work, otherwise people will go and “follow” the person living 10.000 miles from you, doing a better job than you.
Anxious already? There’s a way though: deep work. Do awesome work and you will thrive, because deep work is one of the rarest things nowadays in a society that’s so prone to distractions and immediate gratification.
The book starts by defining the 3 main properties of deep work:
- deep work is valuable
- deep work is rare
- deep work is meaningful
As knowledge workers, our most important ability is to know how to learn and master new things quickly, and to apply this knowledge to our craft.
There is no evolution without learning, and we learn all our lifetime. If you stopped learning how phones work 10 years ago, you’d be out of the society. If you stopped learning about those new machineries at the factory, the factory would have been out of business. Or someone else would work there, not you.
This is where deep work lets you shine. It lets you learn quickly and in a very profound way. Learning is a skill that needs lots of focused time. The more focused, the less time it will take. Great musicians are worth the concert ticket price because of all the deep work performed in the past, that made their career.
If you don’t perform deep work, someone else will and will be more valuable than you in the long term.
Deep work is rare. People working at big companies almost never get the chance to perform deep work because of how those companies operate. Too many people, too many meetings, too many emails and phone calls don’t let you focus.
The business world wants us to have clear, measurable and micromanaged steps we need to take every day, reply to emails ASAP, and in general do shallow work, the opposite of deep work. React to the latest meeting agenda.
Play the busy developer part. There is no way to measure deep work, and how well you are performing on it, so it’s discouraged at all levels. It’s better to act busy than seemingly be unproductive while trying to perform deep work. Better tweet 20 times a day and fake knowing it all than not tweeting for one month.
As a remote worker you can have more opportunities for remote work. Set aside uninterrupted chunks of time to work on things, close the email, and get back to the communication tools 3 hours later. It’s doable.
Independent workers like me have this easier. I don’t have to respond to anyone else than customers, so I can set aside the number of hours I need to get in the flow and perform my best work. Deep work is a rare resource during the day, too. You can’t have 8 hours of deep work. The mind drains. 3 hours is already a great achievement.
As people working at the margin of the grid we can do better work, do it more frequently, and in general have a better outcome of those that have too many things to juggle in their life.
We live in a world where responding to 20 emails feel more productive than thinking about strategies to move that project forward. It’s easier to measure, it’s also easier for your mind as procrastination is more likely to drive you to the inbox to perform shallow, unimportant work. And it gives instant gratification.
This gratification is not long lasting though.
Deep work leads to a much, much deeper satisfaction in the things you perform. Just as a wood craftsman spends months working on a single item, creating art out of bare dead trees, you are a skilled worked and focusing on making your work as perfect as it can be is an incredible satisfaction on its own.
Learning to appreciate the result of your craft, and the craft itself, is the first step to start performing deep work.
How to perform deep work
The mind is geared towards shallow work and looks for every possible distraction to get yourself back to doing shallow work.
Before you can perform deep work you need to set up a way to make it possible. There are different ways, or setups, that give you the ability to do it. You need a ritual, and there are different rituals for different kind of people, suited for different lifestyles.
- you can remove all the distractions from your life in a permanent way, so you have lots of time to dedicate to your craft. You do one thing, and you do that thing exceptionally well. You remove all the things that can add distractions. The book cites examples of book authors that are just focused on writing books, not doing conferences or replying to emails, as those are things that drain their productivity.
- you can have some periods of the year where you are completely focused on something, and another period where you do other kinds of things. And you do this regularly, like going to the cabin in the summer months. This includes going to a retreat for a month to finish that project you started a couple years back.
- you can make a habit of doing a little bit of deep work every day. For example you wake up 2 hours before the usual time, and use those 2 hours to do deep work. This is what I do normally, as publish one blog post per day. It allows you to create a chain of effort that you can’t break after some time, because it would be a shame. You wrote 1000 words every day for 20 days, it’s too bad to break that chain. If you can keep up, you’ll write a book in no time.
- you can squeeze in deep work when you have time available. Say weekends or even a few hours here and there, without a regular commitment.
Any way you prefer, depending also on your commitments and your job or school, what you need to do is to create some sort of ritual to get you to work. A great guide about this is the book The Miracle Morning. You can’t just expect inspiration to strike and lead you to your best work. You need to create the environment to make that work possible. I for example block all distractions with an app called SelfControl, and silence the devices when I need to work. Nietzsche said “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”. His way to perform deep work was to walk.
This is often taken to the extreme of having a special place where you perform deep work. For example writers going to cabins, or even building cabins in their own yard. And the more effort you do to build the cabin, the more likely you’re going to actually use it. Some famous writers also use to go to expensive hotel rooms. You paid the room, now you’d better write.
Some people perform best in company, especially when doing innovative work, so a good trick is to get some likeminded people to work along with you.
Don’t focus on too many tasks at once. Focus on a few critical ones.
Keep a “score”. My score is the number of posts I made in the last 30 days. Every day I write a new blog post, my score count goes up. I don’t really track it, but I know when I miss one.
Accountability is key too: working in public, have a public roadmap or launch date, is a great aid. I publish every day and every reader of my blog is my accountability partner. I can’t skip one day.
Take time off. Spend time in nature to recharge. Your deep work time is limited, don’t do shallow work when you exhausted your deep work hours.
Have a clear evening ritual to shut down work. Turn off the computer, close the office door, don’t look at emails (and turn notifications off).
How many times have you gone to Reddit or Hacker News or your favorite newspaper site, even while during some hard work (or perhaps more when your work is hard)? I do, plenty of times! Or even using the smartphone at every tiny idle moment in life.
We are chronically distracted by those sites and tools that exploit the natural inclination to get news and shiny things to look at.
Embrace boredom means we must accept boredom again. To perform deep work we must first learn to not search for easy and shallow distractions.
One way to do so is to schedule distractions. Schedule a 1-hour time for internet browsing, Reddit, YouTube, whatever, and any time you feel the urge to do it outside of that time slot, resist.
A great time to perform deep work is when doing a physical activity that does not require much mental energy. Like walking the dog, or just taking long walks. I remember reading Steve Jobs was known for his long walks. Most of the Apple innovations probably happened this way. I think my best ideas happen while walking the dog for 3-4 hours at a time, and I use the iPhone voice recorder to store any thought I have and which I will surely forget when I get back home.
Social media is one of the most draining things around. You can easily spend hours on Facebook or Twitter, get into arguments, express opinions, network, stay on top of your industry news and trends.
This is not deep work of course. It’s shallow work, the opposite. Staying away from social media is definitely better for us, but for some reason we never abandon them, many times because without them you’d be disconnected from your peers and even friends. This thing permeates the modern world.
The nature of social media drives us to check it regularly, making it a regular interruption in our day. I use apps like RescueTime to know how much time I waste on the computer, and iOS devices let you limit the time spent on social media (great feature!). Some profession require the use of social media, as the work is made with them, and the thing is different.
I could eliminate most social media presence and still be successful if I focus 100% on writing on the blog, but working remotely and without a real world network about my field, social media used with moderation is a great help in knowing what to focus on in the future, for example.
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