Deep Work: Limiting Distraction to Produce Valuable Work and a Happier Life

Deep Work by Cal Newport has been a book that has spent a great deal of time on my ‘To Read’ list and It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I finally got around to finishing it.

The main premise of the book is that if you learn to focus intently on your work, you will improve the quality of the work you produce dramatically. Not only that, but you will also enjoy your work more and improve the quality of your life.

Unfortunately, in today’s society a lot of us have lost the ability to focus intently but rather we fragment our attention to the vast array of shiny objects around us looking to distract us. This book reminds us of the importance to pay attention to the distractions in our society and to realise they do also carry negative effects.

If you’re someone who wants to not only produce a higher quality of work, but also a higher quantity of work this book could be of great value to you.

It’s a book packed with many great insights with relevant studies cited to support the points made. I also like the fact that the book has lots of advice that you can put into practice. It’s in this post that I will summarise the book of the points that most appealed to me.

What is Deep Work?

The definition of Deep Work is:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to the limit.“

People who engage in this type of work, create new and valuable work. It is this type of work that can go on to change the world. Not surprisingly this kind of work is extremely hard to replicate.

This work is one of a kind, and an individual who has cultivated a deep work practice into his or her life, will be extremely valuable in the workplace.

If deep work is rare, then there must be another type of work which is common. This is known as Shallow Work:

Non-cognitively 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.

Shallow work is what the knowledge work of today has become. Today, hordes of workers constantly send and receive e-mails, with their attention fragmented over many different activities. With shallow work, work becomes fragmented into tasks that produce little quality and the output at the corporate level is negatively affected.

What’s worse is that this isn’t just an issue for the company, but the individual performing distracted work is affected also. The longer time that is spent engaging in this this type of work, the more the individual loses the capacity to perform deep work. In some respect the worker is making themselves less valuable. People who cannot focus on something because they are constantly being distracted by things are damaging their own capacity to remain focused.

Constant e-mail sending, replying and notifications is only one component of the distraction equation. The rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are also distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration.

How to Be Valuable in The Workplace

We’ve reached a time in history where technology is changing so fast and new things are being brought out at quick fire pace. if you want to stay ahead of the pack you have to be able to be able to master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate the ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.

Two types of groups will thrive in the new economy:

  • Those who have the ability to master hard things.
  • Those who can produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

If you want to succeed you must be producing at the highest level, something that most people are capable of but don’t know how to because such tasks require depth. The few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life will thrive.

The ability to learn hard things quickly isn’t just necessary for working well with intelligent machines, it is also a key role in the attempt to become a superstar in just about any field – even those that have little to do with technology. However, the skill of learning complicated things quickly isn’t enough, you must also be able to produce output. Without being able to produce you will not thrive no matter how skilled or talented you are.

These two abilities depend on your ability to produce deep work.

Why is Deep Work Effective?

The key to learning hard things quickly is to focus without distraction. Focusing without distraction allows you to enter a state of high concentration where you strengthen neurons to learn that new skill. Having constant notifications going off, or half browsing Facebook at the same time you are trying to learn something new, is going to shift you into a state of low concentration. At a low state of concentration, you are firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually want to strengthen.

We then get the following equation:

High Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

From looking at the equation you can see that it is possible to maximise the results you produce per unit of time spent working by focusing only on increasing intensity. Time is not always relevant. This is why some of the best students can spend less time studying but still manage to top the class.

Multi-Tasking does not Increase Productivity

If you think you are being productive because you can work on many things at the same time then think again. The concept of ‘Attention Residue’ debunks any idea that being able to multi-task is an admirable skill that gives you an advantage.

Multi-tasking effects productivity in that when you switch from Task A to Task B your attention doesn’t immediately follow, but rather a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. The residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was of low focus before you switched. However, even if you managed to finish Task A before you switched to a new task, your attention will remain divided for a while.

By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, you minimise the negative impact of attention residue from your other obligations, allowing maximum performance on one task.

This explains why you want to stop the habit of working in a state of semi-distraction. Checking the latest tweets, Facebook post or quickly looking at your e-mail inbox is potentially damaging your performance because your attention is spread over many targets.

To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Big trends in business today actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits provided by these tasks are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work.

Deep work isn’t a priority in today’s business because:

  • Deep work is hard and shallow work is easy
  • In the absence of clear goals for your job, the busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving. Knowledge workers, are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value.
  • Behaviour related to the ‘internet ‘is good regardless if it’s important on our ability to produce valuable things e.g. for businesses to have their own social media accounts. To support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and hi-tech. Deep work is exiled in favour of more distracting hi-tech behaviours.

Does the Deep Work Rule Apply to Everyone?

Deep Work can be applied to nearly all kinds of work, even those that require constant e-mail checking, but sometimes in a job it’s not always possible or required. For instance the role of a CEO, or the ‘go-to-man’ who has all the answers and directs people. Such an example is Jack Dorsey, one of the founders of Twitter, who thrives without depth. These individuals receive a lot of input from outside sources who must then process them and act on them. The distractions are highly specific to this type of job.

Deep Work, Focus and Happiness

The connection between deep work and a good life is familiar and widely accepted.

“The satisfaction of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. But when we shift out attention to knowledge work the connection is muddied – part of the issue is clarity.”

Knowledge work exchanges this clarity for ambiguity. It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another. A knowledge worker will nearly always scramble towards work that revolves around e-mail. We live in an era where anything internet related is understood to be innovative and necessary. Depth destroying behaviours such as immediate e-mail responses and an active social presence are lauded, while avoidance leads to suspicion.

Deep work however, can generate as much satisfaction in an information economy as it does in a craft economy.

If we were to ask what determines our feelings, a lot of us would assume that it’s dependent on our circumstances, or what happens to us. If this assumption were true,
how we spend our day isn’t important because what matters most are the large-scale outcomes, such as a new home, good career, new spouse.

Research seem to contradicts this idea. Our brains instead construct our worldview according to what we pay attention to. For example, if you focus on your unhappy career path and job, you’ll become annoyed and frustrated but if you focus on that wonderful holiday you have planned then your life will become pleasant even though the circumstances are the same.

Using this truth, that your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, there’s a sense of importance when you’re in deep work – if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in energy and importance.

Furthermore, such concentration hijacks your attention apparatus, preventing you from noticing the many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the idea of “cultivating concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems.”

Habitually checking your e-mail does not help you focus on the good things in your life, as the topics remain at the forefront of your attention. The world will appear as an unpleasant place to live in, dominated by dominated by stress, anxiety, irritation and frustration. Even if the e-mails are of a positive nature, the ‘idle mind is the devils workshop,’ and the mind will naturally focus on the negatives rather than what’s good with your life, when it has nothing to focus deeply on.

This goes to say that someone who spends most of their day in the shallows, is likely to have a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture their attention are harmless or fun.

To increase the time you spend in a state of depth, is to leverage the complex machinery of the brain in a way that for several neurological reasons maximises the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.

Deep Work is Challenging

We are plagued with constant advertising and thoughts that has us believe that it’s relaxation that makes us most happy. A lot of us believe that winning the lottery, quitting our lousy job and lying in a hammock on the beach all day drinking margarita leads to bliss. However, studies show that relaxation does not make us happy.

Newport explains this in the following way:

‘ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built in goals, feedback rules and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed’.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has discovered that people are most happy when a person’s body or mind is stretched to it’s limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. He calls this a state of ‘flow,’ which he describes in more detail in the video below.

Thus, it seems that as humans, we are most satisfied when we are immersed in something that is deep and challenging. Therefore, if we want to experience deep satisfaction in life, we should build our workday life to incorporate opportunities for us to enter into a state of flow.

How to Apply Deep Work in Your Life

At this point we have two concepts that helps us become more satisfied in life. The first one we discussed is that what we focus on matters. If we give attention to important and meaningful things (by ignoring shallow work), we’ll experience our lives also with importance and meaning.

Secondly, we want to enter a state of flow, by stretching our minds to the limits and focusing to the point where we lose ourselves in our work.

To engage and include deep work into our lives, would cover both points. Therefore, it is clear that this is something we want to apply to our lives as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, deciding that you want to start working ‘deeply’ does not automatically lead to deep work. It is not easy for us to go from a mind that is used to distraction to one of focus immediately. You will have to apply systems in your life to help you do it.

IF you are not smart about your habits, you will get drawn into all the non-stop distraction that surrounds you all day long no matter how strong your intentions are to work deeply. In addition, we all possess a finite amount of willpower, which becomes depleted as the day goes on. If there is constant distraction around you, at some point you will give in.

Newport tell us that, “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 minimise the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

This means if you decide in the middle of a distracted afternoon of browsing the web to switch your attention to a cognitively demanding task, you’ll draw heavily on your finite willpower to draw your attention away from the addictive distraction. This type of switching is likely to fail.

Newport goes on further to say, “On the other hand if you deployed smart routines and rituals (perhaps a set time and quiet location used for your deep tasks each afternoon) you’d require much less willpower to start and keep going. In the long run, you’d therefore succeed with these deep efforts more often.”

The 4 Different Depth Philosophies

In his book, Newport outlines 4 different methods of integrating deep work into our lives. It is up to the individual to be careful as to choose the correct philosophy that suits their own specific circumstances.

1) Monastic philosophy of Deep Work

This philosophy attempts to maximise deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimising shallow obligations e.g. Having no e-mail address or social media accounts.

  • Uses of this philosophy tend to have well defined and highly professional goals, and their success comes from doing this one thing extensively well.
  • In the book one novelist who approaches his work in a Monastic style says, ‘I rarely accept speaking engagements, if I organise my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive uninterrupted time chunks I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.

2) Bimodal Philosophy

This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.

  • During the deep time, the bimodal worker will act monastically, seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration but at some point, will come out into the open to promote his work.
  • One example is Carl Jung, who would flee to his work place in the forest to do his deep thinking for months at a time. He would then come back into society after those periods to present his findings and keep up with the other administration of his profession.
  • The division of time between deep and open can happen on multiple scales. E.g. Dedicate 5 days to depth and 2 days open time once a week. However, the time of depth needs to meet a maximum cognitive intensity that a state of real breakthrough can be reached, usually this is at least one full day rather than a few hours every morning.
  • Those who work deeply this philosophy admire the productivity of the monastic but also respect the value they receive from the shallow behaviours in their working lives.

3) The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work

This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a singular habit.

  • The goal is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to resist energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep into your work.
  • An example of this approach could be someone who is working full time, but decides that they will wake up every day at 5am to work on their side business for two hours before work.
  • This method perhaps fails to achieve the most intense levels of deep thinking sought in the day long concentration sessions favoured by the bi-modalist. However, this method fits best in modern society.

4) The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

This philosophy happens involves fitting deep work into your day whenever you can.

  • This relies on the ability to shift focus quickly between shallow and deep work which we described before as being difficult. However, if you’re confident in the value of what you’re trying to produce and practical in the skill of going deep, it can work. One person who had this skill was the writer Walter Isaacson.

The idea of working deep and having such a strict schedule may be uncomfortable for some who believe that the best and most creative work is done when inspiration strikes. However, the great minds rarely waited for inspiration to strike but were strict about their habits and never waited until the creative juices hit them.

They instead relied on rituals that minimised the friction whenever they wanted to go deep. Not only could they enter a focused state more easily but they could stay in the state longer.
If they had waited for inspiration to strike settling into serious work, their accomplishments would have been greatly reduced.

Other Tips for Working Deep

Out of the four philosophies there is no one correct deep work ritual. It depends. But there are some things an effective ritual will address.

  • Decide where you work and for how long. Some examples include:
    • In your normal office, with your desk cleared and door closed.
    • Nearby conference room or local library.
    • A specific time frame of how long you’ll work that will keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.
  •  How you’ll work once you start.
    • Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured.
    • Will you remove your phone from your room and cut off internet access?
    • You may choose a goal such as the number of words you’ll produce per minute.
    • Note that without rules you’ll be using willpower to decide what you should or should not be doing.
  •  How you’ll support your work.
    • Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth.
    • You may decide to prepare a cup of tea before you work.
    • Have access to food to maintain energy.
    • Light exercise such as walking to keep the mind clear.

Creating your own deep ritual will take time but the results will be worth it. Expect to make many adjustments along the way, but once you’ve got something that feels right the impact can be significant.

Downtime and Being Lazy

It’s impossible to work deeply all day and taking breaks and allowing freedom from your work is vital to enhancing the quality of your deep work. The most common way for us to do this is to have a set time where we shut down and choose not to consider any more work issues until the next morning. This means no peaking at work e-mail or even thinking about work after this shut down time, allowing even a brief intrusion can generate a string of unwanted thoughts that will negate all the effects described.

If you have never done this before, you may find that shutting down for the evening is easier said than done. You may have to adopt a ‘shutdown ritual’ where you write down where you will pick up from the next day. Whatever shutdown ritual you choose, it must release your mind from its duty to keep track of these obligations so you can get some much needed downtime.

There are three reasons why this type of downtime is important. The book outlines the following:

Aids insight

Sometimes it’s not always best to sit down and try to think your way to the best solution to your problems. Some decisions are in fact best left for your unconscious mind to deal with. Decisions that involve large amounts of vauge and conflicting information are dealth best by the unconscious mind. To try and push yourself to come up with a decision is more likely to lead to a wrong decision being made. This concept means by deciding not to work, you aren’t necessarily reducing the time you spend in productive work.

Helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply

There are studies that validate the Attention Restoration Theory (ART) which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. To concentrate requires what ART calls ‘directed attention’. This resource is finite: if you exhaust it you’ll struggle to concentrate.

Directed attention is used in almost all of our daily activities, such as walking in a busy street. Attention is required to cross the road, avoid tourists and focus on staying on a narrow path. When walking through nature, however, you’re freed from having to direct your attention, as there are fewer challenges to navigate. In addition, walking around looking at the trees, rivers and birds provide enough interesting stimuli to keep your mind sufficiently occupied to avoid the need to actively own your attention. This state allows your direct attention source to replenish. It has been shown that around fifty minutes of walking in nature is enough to replenish concentration.

ART does not have to be reclaimed solely from walking in nature but also can involve a relaxing activity that provides similar inherently fascinating stimuli and freedom from directed concentration e.g. going for dinner, talking to a friend, listening to music.

It can be seen that taking effective breaks is important to working deeply. By trying to push too hard, may affect the quality of your work.

The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important

Studies show that your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited. Therefore, by evening, it’s most likely you’re beyond the point where you can continue to work deeply as you should have hit your daily capacity for deep work during the day. It would make no sense for you to keep working.

Embrace boredom

One of the key concepts in helping integrate deep work into your life is the idea of learning to embrace boredom. Learning to focus deeply will never happen if you don’t learn how to stop giving into distraction whenever you experience the slightest hint of boredom.

If every moment of potential boredom in your life (such as waiting in line or waiting to cross the road) is relieved with a quick glance at your phone, then your brain has probably been rewired to a point where it is not ready for deep work – even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.

Further Resources

This post left out much of how to deal with the constant distraction as well as internet addiction. Not many people realise they are addicted to the internet, but simply think it’s just the way of life now.

If you are someone who is addicted to the constant distraction of the internet (checking of social media sites, e-mail, or can’t stop watching youtube) and want to make a change, I recommend taking a look at the nosurf community on Reddit. This community recognises that their inability to focus on anything other than the internet is destroying their lives and making them unhappier. It’s an inspiring community which I am well in support of.

Once again all these points came from Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work. For a much more in depth and thorough explanation of these points I’d recommend reading the book for yourself, especially if you love reading about studies that support many of the ideas discussed.

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