This book recommends cultivating the practice and skill of Deep Work; being able to concentrate absolutely and without distraction on the task, to achieve valuable and consistent results that most people cannot reach due to their difficulty.
The book is available widely on-line and in book stores. The following is an affiliated link for amazon.co.uk and by using it to purchase the book a percentage of the sale will be given to me.
The modern knowledge worker spends a huge amount of time doing shallow tasks. Answering emails, going to meetings, being interrupted by a colleague, checking something on Google or Stackoverflow, or any repetitive piece of work that doesn't require a great deal of concentration.
My own personal experience as a software developer is that I'm lucky to get a solid two hours in any day where I can concentrate completely on a single task. I regularly get interrupted by instant messages, emails or desk calls, having to switch project context repeatedly. And I attend many meetings. After the housekeeping required to manage my team that leaves little time to get actual work done.
Another issue faced by software developers is staying current in the rapidly changing IT landscape. Training sites such as Pluaralsight are useful to me, as are pod casts - I can download a course or episode and watch or listen while jogging or commuting. Many knowledge workers face the same issue - when to get time to improve themselves? Fitting in small chunks of time here and there is not the greatest way to study, yet we rarely set aside time in our working weeks to properly learn something.
Technology has improved dramatically over the last decade making remote work practical and, some argue, better than working in the cubicle farm or open office environment. But its rise now means that we need to compete with workers not only in the city where we are based but against employees headhunted from anywhere in the world. We can no longer rely on being the big fish in our own small pond.
It feels like there is something malfunctioning here, and that if we don't attempt to fix it we will simply wallow in the shallows, possibly even becoming obsolete in the near future. Is there anything that we can do to protect what we have as knowledge workers, to improve our feeling of accomplishment in work, to challenge ourselves and to develop new skills and abilities? Cal Newport thinks that there is: deep work.
What is Deep Work?
When you can focus entirely on a problem or piece of work for an extended period of time, ignoring any outside influence, making progress towards a defined and concrete goal, and are working to a level that makes the task a challenge, this 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 produce new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
The enemy of deep work is distraction, and we face many in the course of our professional and personal lives; things like the telephone, email, television, the Internet, and social media to mention but a few. Our ability to concentrate on a single subject for enough time to make significant progress is constantly under attack from distraction, preventing us from achieving a state of deep work.
The book is divided into two parts, the first giving explanation for its title, and a justification of why it has become so important in a knowledge based society. The second part contains advice and strategies on how to practice deep work, to build up the "muscles" that allow us to enter the state regularly and keep distractions at bay.
Who is deep work for?
The book lists three groups who are poised to reap the rewards of modern society. First are those highly skilled workers who can make use of computers and technology, leveraging them to achieve great things. The second group is superstars, people who are head hunted in a range of disciplines, and now, thanks to the availability of remote work, can compete with local workers anywhere in the world, the local workers losing out. The third group is the money men, those with funds to invest in new opportunities.
The purpose of the book is to convince you that both the first two groups are attainable by everyone, but only if we are willing to attempt to master the skill of deep work.
When I consider those times that I achieve success involving intense concentration, for example, completing a difficult work task in a much shorter time than expected, and think about what allowed this success, the main reason is that I was in a state of deep work.
When I ask what allowed this, the answers resemble the prerequisites that the book suggests: I set time aside, I avoid distraction, I ask casual interrupters "Can it wait, I've got a deadline?", I am able to focus, I silence my phone, I ignore conversations around me, I feel challenged, I am under time constraint.
The feeling of achievement you get from periods like this are exhilarating, but unfortunately I don't experience them as often as I'd like.
So I was sold on the concept of deep work before going too far into the book. It's hard to argue with the value unlocked by being able to regularly go deep on research or problem solving, especially for a professional software developer trying to keep up with the constantly evolving landscape. The value to me in this book is the strategies it lays out to avoid distraction. I'll summarise a few here, but suffice it to say that the chapters are loaded with good sense and advice.
Before you can work deeply, you have to have a depth philosophy. Consider someone who's profession allows them to shut out the world for days, weeks or even months at a time. This isolation and distraction free environment is a perfect existence to allow deep work. The author calls this the monastic philosophy.
In reality, the majority of people simply can't shut out family and friends, oh yeah, and of course our boss, for months at a time. But we may be able to take extended periods away from it all. In the bi-modal philosophy one might take a retreat to a quiet, distraction free location for a few days or a week, or whatever time is necessary to get a tough task completed.
Even that sort of commitment may be difficult. The rhythmic philosophy is where we set aside certain hours of the day for deep work, such as first thing in the morning. I like to get into the office an hour early. This distraction free time allows me to get a solid ninety minutes done before I start to get callers at my desk. I also try to wake up early to get a quiet hour working on personal side projects such as this blog before going to work.
A final philosophy for people with less structured days Newport calls journalistic. This is where one can switch into a deep work state as opportunity arises. Not for the novice but sometimes that's all the time one can get. I have a short, twenty minute commute on the bus which I try to fill with something meaningful.
Once you have determined when you are going to enter the deep work state, part two gives advice on how to do so. First develop rituals. For example, in the rhythmic style, you set aside the same time every day for deep work. If possible create an environment which is distraction free. Rituals improve our ability to enter a deep work state.
Coming out of this state is also import. The shutdown ritual is used to end the day, allowing your brain to disengage - there is no point holding on to things and trying to work in a shallow, haphazard way on subjects that need deep concentration. This psychological book end to the day will make it easier to switch back in the next time. It helps to avoid the temptation to check work emails later on in the evening - that time should be used for something personally meaningful such as spending time with loved ones, reading or another hobby.
Newport's shutdown ritual is simple.
- Review everything that you had planned, and if not done consider when it will be done and how
- Transfer anything that is necessary to the following day's to-do.
- Identify upcoming events on your calendar that may need attention tomorrow.
- Make a rough plan for tomorrow.
The final thing to do is to say "Shut down complete". I like the idea of a vocal command that adds finality to the day. This is something I intend to try out when leaving work each day.
In order to build up resistance to distraction, we need to get used to saying "no" to the impulses that constantly plague us; to look at a smart phone, to check a Twitter feed, to turn the television on in the background. If we get in the habit of giving in to these pulls on our attention, then when we attempt deep work, we will not have armed ourselves with the strength to concentrate.
We should not take breaks from distraction, Newport says, we should take breaks from deep focus. One of the strategies he suggests is to restrict the times you spend on the Internet (both in personal and work life if that is possible) to specific blocks of time. If during one of those prohibited times when you get the impulse, you simply have to wait. If you need access for professional reasons, then allow its use, not immediately, but in five minutes. This short delay breaks the trigger to action to reward cycle and keeps the integrity of the strategy in place.
The author is not shy on his personal distaste for social media. He does not object to it in principle, just to the fact that it would add no value to his own professional and personal goals. His arguments are compelling and he lays down a challenge to readers. Can you go thirty days without any social media?
If we are willing to embrace boredom, then we shouldn't have to turn on our smart phones every time we face a lack of stimuli: a long queue, a television ad break, someone being late for a meeting. Cut out the social media and allow your brain to get used to not being tickled!
I regularly get out for a long walk during my lunch break, and make sure that I've something to listen to on that walk: an Audible book, a Pluralsight course that doesn't require looking at slides, a Podcast etc. I also cram these into the walks to and from the bus, or even on the twenty minute ride. But another valuable use of this time is suggested.
Meditating productively can be done whenever engaged in low cognitive skills such as walking or running. Try to concentrate on a single, well defined issue and map out a solution. Every time that the mind wanders, forcibly bring it back to the issue. By practicing this several times per week you can improve your ability to think deeply. But this requires practice and several strategies are presented on how to avoid some of the pitfalls.
What I will take from this book
An exercise to build up your mental concentration abilities is presented: to learn to memorise a deck of fifty two playing cards. Rather than rote learning, he gives an easy to follow procedure to do this, using familiar objects to provide order and familiar people to represent the cards. The aim is not the "skill" itself, but the powers of mental concentration that are built up by doing so. OK, the idea of being able to surprise my friends by memorising the deck, given five minutes with it is appealing. I've already started to work on this.
For some time now I've been trying to structure my day by identifying the highest priority task that I have to do and tackling it first. Newport suggests a more rigid blocking off of the daily schedule and assigning tasks to each half-hour segment including time for batched up shallow tasks. While seemingly rigid, the schedule can to react to things coming up in the day. The approach allows this flexibility. You can tweak as you go, for example, having a buffer after a deep task in case it needs to overrun. If it doesn't, then simply fill with shallow tasks. I'm looking forward to trying this out.
What is the depth of the task you are working on right now? How long in months would it take to train a college graduate to do it? I plan to start using this metric to track the amount of deep versus shallow work that I do on a daily basis. The company I work for requires us to log time for project billing purposes. I can use the comment field to identify a task as having been deep, and easily get weekly statistics.
Using this way of measuring the depth of work and being able to track the ratio using our time tracking software, I can convince my boss that saying "No" to shallow work is the right thing to do. Rather than flat out refuse, I will build up a case, explain the difference between deep and shallow work and ask for a budget of shallow work using statistics to back up my case. This should produce a worthwhile dialog and help to free up time for more important work.
Throughout the book Newport refers to the danger of just checking your email - it's a constant temptation and can switch your context completely away from deep work. I already try to set specific periods for email checking. But I find that figuring out what people want is sometimes difficult, especially when I get a message such as "What do you think of this?" with an email trail that I was not part of stretching back several weeks. It takes time to decipher the trail. From now on I will avoid trying to do this and ask for a better summary of what input I can add.
Being hard to reach in your job, is another suggestion from the book to enable deep work, one which I cannot really afford to follow. A suggestion to limit time wastage from emails could be applicable, however. Do more work when responding! By specifying the shortest means for concluding the conversation, which requires some thought, you can cut out a lot of back and forwards emails. Sounds appealing.
If you are a knowledge worker and you doubt that being able to work deeply is indeed a key skill to learn now and in the future, please read part one just to get a convincing argument to assuage your doubts. I predict that you will change your mind and be ready to dive into part two and try out some of the techniques.
If you are already sold on the idea but struggle to achieve this state of mental concentration as often as you would like, there is a lot to be gained from this book; plenty of strategies and techniques and well work the read or listen in audio book format.