Can Deep Work by Cal Newport Help Me?
I can’t read anything longer than 5 minutes without bouncing over to check email or Facebook.
Even within those 5 minutes, I find myself skipping over the words looking for anything that will stick, but the words are Teflon coated.
Watching one of my favorite TV shows (Homeland) where the drama and tension are high, I still feel the urge to pull out my phone to look for updates.
I’ve read over a dozen books on these topics, so why am I still failing?
- Did the books offer theory vs practical solutions?
- Did I simply fail to implement the solutions?
- Were the suggestions flawed?
I don’t know.
So, I’m reading another book on the topic. And this time, I’m determined to extract an action plan. If the book doesn’t offer one, I’ll create my own damn plan.
The book is Deep Work by Cal Newport, and it comes highly recommended. (Don’t they all?)
For my benefit, and hopefully yours, I’m going to paraphrase the key points of the book.
This isn’t a comprehensive review of the book. I’m simply pulling out highlights and commenting on the parts I find valuable.
If you’re focus deprived like me, you’re probably thinking:
“Hurry up and get to the point so I can check email.”
Sorry. You’ll need to slow down a bit, just for a few minutes.
Science and History
The early parts of the book, like all the others in this genre, point out the nature of the problem, and then he gets somewhat technical when explaining how the brain works.
The point being, what we feel at an emotional level is backed up by science.
That feels like table stakes these days. If you’re going to make any recommendation in any realm of self improvement, you better have some science backing it up.
I’m a fan of science as much as anybody. But, I’m a bigger fan of things that work. So, if science says something works 60% of the time, but I’m in the other 40%, the science is useless to me.
The flip side is a solution that only works on 10% of the population. If I’m in that 10%, I’m loving science.
Newport uses the term “deep work” for what occurs when we are in the mode of extreme focus on a task.
He maintains this is how significant results are accomplished. And, he gives examples of ground-breaking historical work that has been accomplished with deep work.
He suggests a period of 90 minutes of deep work before a work break. A lot of people like the 20 minute Pomodoro method. For me, 20 minutes is too short and 90 minutes is a little long without a stretch. My optimal interval is about 60 minutes.
Impact on Our Sense of Well-Being
Newport says deep work gets us into the state of flow and is enabling a state of happiness and satisfaction.
The opposite of deep work is shallow work, such as checking email, twitter, texting and attending meetings.
This makes sense, I’ve never felt a sense of accomplishment from performing shallow work all day. The inclusion of email in the shallow category is puzzling. I’ll reserve judgment for now.
He points out the negative effects of interruption (as have many others). If you’re trying to perform a deep work task and still check every email that pops-up, the effect is not proportional.
Meaning — when your brain switches to the other task for a minute, it will spend an additional minute or more to get back to your original place of deep thought. And, the strong neurological connections our brain needs — are not forming. (There’s the science stuff again).
Knowledge vs Application
We all understand the benefit of focused deep work, but understanding doesn’t automatically lead to application. There’s the little matter of willpower, which he points out — is in limited supply. We need to form habits and routines to lessen the load on our willpower.
How many times have we been in a somewhat focused mode, and then see an email or Facebook notice pop-up. You can literally feel a tug-of-war in your brain as you try to ignore it. When we check that pop-up, we get a little boost of dopamine.
Messages, photos, and “likes” appear on no set schedule, so we check for them compulsively, never sure when we’ll receive that dopamine-activating prize. ~ Tristan Harris in the Atlantic
Naturally, there’s a startup named Dopamine Labs founded by neuro-scientists to develop an api to increase engagement.
Tips for Deep Work Focus
Form Habits and Routines. Most of us can’t cut ourselves off from the world for an entire day. So, pick a 4 hour deep-work time slot and schedule it, or perhaps schedule a 2-hour slot in the morning and another in the afternoon.
Put this in your schedule.
Make this a daily routine. Once it is established, your brain won’t waste energy thinking, “Now, how do I get ready for deep work?”
- Place: some people prefer their office, others need a change of scenery.
- Background noise: pick a place with your idea noise level, some people like absolute silence, if that’s too quiet, go to a coffee shop or do a web search for coffee shop background noise.
- Music: pick your genre, use headphones if necessary.
- Food: keep it handy if necessary, and choose ones that give you energy.
- Drink,: whatever works to help your energy and brain.
- Plan: create a clear intention of your task and desired outcome.
- Distractions: turn off your phone and computer notifications.
The first few times you try this the results may be mixed. Don’t give up. It takes a couple of weeks to form the habit.
If you need an extra boost, Newport suggests Grand Gestures. Examples are things like checking into a hotel room, going to a cabin or taking a long airline flight (writing on the plane). The grand gesture has a psychological effect of raising the stakes.
I didn’t consider his grand gesture examples to be practical for most of us. (He chose Bill Gates and J. K. Rowling among others as his examples).
A grand gesture for the rest of us might be reserving a room at our local library. Or, staking out the perfect table at your coffee shop. For some people the coffee shop is a norm, for others, it is a new thing. Defining your grand gesture is wide open.
Strategy vs Execution
Newport recalls the story of a meeting between Clayton Christensen (Harvard professor) and Andy Grove (Intel CEO) that resulted in a strategic decision to introduce a lower end processor, the Celeron. The meeting also called to attention the difficulty of executing the strategy.
For all of us that have been working professionally for any length of time, the dilemma of strategy vs execution isn’t a revelation. That’s exactly what I’ve noted in this post, my own personal difficulty in executing a strategy of deeply focused work.
Christensen developed a method for execution called 4DX. (Disciplines of Execution). The emphasis is on organizations, but Newport applied the concepts to himself as an individual and we can do the same. Here’s the condensed idea. (again, these may seem rather obvious).
- Focus on What is Most Important
- Act on Leading Goals
- Keep a Score Card
- Scheduled Accountability
Focus on the important: This is pretty simple. If you’re going to develop a habit of deep work, you need to apply it to your most important and difficult to accomplish goals.
Act on Leading Goals: Newport talks about leading vs. lagging metrics. It’s most easily explained with an example. If your goal is to write a book in 60 days, that can’t be your daily goal. Writing a chapter can’t be your goal either. Make the objective something like 4 hours of deep work. That is an objective that leads to your true goal.
Keep a Score Card: This is where we go old-school. I don’t recommend an app. You need something on your wall that is a visible reminder of what you have accomplished and what lies in your future.
Try a calendar where you make notations in the days you fulfilled your deep work objective. I’m trying the following technique. I put a dots on my calendar for each half-hour of focused work. On a good day, I might have seven hours.
Scheduled Accountability: This is mostly applicable to organizations and teams. But, at the individual level, at the end of the month, you can review your calendar and give yourself a grade for how many days you met your commitment.
You could even gamify the method. On your whiteboard write:
“22 Straight Days of at least 4 Hours of Deep Work”
Update it each day, just like factories post “22 Days Without an Accident”.
You could also set up a reward system either on a weekly or monthly basis. If you meet your target, you get to reward yourself with something out of the routine, (restaurant, music, movie, plays, gadgets or a trip).
The term, flow, has become very popular. We all instinctively know what it feels like to be in the zone. Most of us feel like we don’t get enough of it. That’s why we read books like, Deep Work. The term, flow, was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
What if you’ve followed all the tips for habit, routine and grand gestures, and you’re staring at a blank screen and nothing is happening — there’s little or no creative brain activity occurring. In my experience, you just start typing.
Once you start typing, the ideas will follow. I think this is a hack I read in The War of Art by Pressfield.
Damn You Blackberry
I recall when the blackberry first came to market, this would have been around 2004. I was working in Dallas and made a trip to Santa Clara for meetings. I was mystified that several people in our meeting were looking at their Blackberries and responding to emails continuously during the meeting.
My first thought: “How is this any different from carrying on a side conversation? It’s rude and distracting.”
My second thought was: “How can they be listening to the conversation in this meeting and responding thoughtfully to an email at the same time?”
My third thought was: “How can I get in on the action?”
When this type of multitasking started, it was heralded as a technical solution to boost efficiency.
It took a few years for us to figure out that our brains and our work is suffering when we do this.
Fighting to Get My Focus Back was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.