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Deep Work - Book Summary

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Anthony Pica
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Deep Work - Book Summary

This is a summary of Cal Newport's book Deep Work.

The Main Message

Focusing intently on a single task is how you leverage your brain power to be creative and productive.

In Five Bullets or Less: Deep Work

Deep Work book cover
  • Deep work is defined by Cal Newport as "professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate."
  • The ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done and must be trained. Like a muscle responding to lifting weights, focusing your attention will strengthen your ability to concentrate, allowing you to work deeply with ease while avoiding distractions.
  • Three groups will thrive:
  1. Those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines.
  2. Those who are the best at what they do.
  3. Those with access to capital.

Highlights of Deep Work

What 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 create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

"The superpower of the 21st century" — Eric Barker

"Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your intellectual capacity." —Cal Newport

"The ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done." — Cal Newport

"Deep work returns more value per time spent, and it stretches your abilities, leading to improvement." — Cal Newport

Intelligent Machine Age

"As intelligent machines improve, and the gap between machines and human abilities shrinks, employers are becoming increasingly likely to hire "new machines" instead of "new people."" — Cal Newport

"Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?" — Tyler Cowen

If you can work w/ the result/output of machines, you will thrive.

Data visualization, analytics, high speed comms, rapid protopying

Remote communications makes it more accessible for consulting, marketing, writing, design, etc.

Only the best in these fields will thrive.

Talent is not a commodity.

Social media and a work culture of shallow work creates an opportunity for those that prioritize deep work.

The ability to perform deep work is becoming rare at the same time it's becoming valuable. Those who cultivate deep work will thrive.

Attention Residue

When you switch from task to task, your attention doesn't immediately follow ... a "residue" of attention stays w/ the first task.

Intense Concentration / Deliberate Practice

Law of Productivity

Time Spent x Intensity of Focus = High-Quality Work Produced

Principle of Leas Resistance & Metric Black Hole

Metric Black Hole: Since it's not easy to objectively measure effects of distraction, we tolerate the shift toward always-connected, info-overload, and FOMO culture.

Principle of Least Resistance: Since it's easy to be distracted, we succumb to the urges. (i.e. asking questions via instant message gives us quick answers, so we do that first before thinking deeply about the idea/issue.)

The infamous "thoughts?" email...

It's so quick and easy to write. It takes that sender only seconds to write, but takes the recipient many minutes. It puts the burden on the recipient. It commands the attention of the recipient. Why do people do it? Because it's easy.

Take more time to craft a more thoughtful email. It'll reduce time in total for all parties, and the outcome of the communications will be more productive.

Busyness as proxy for productivity

Metric Black Hole: Since it's not easy to objectively measure effects of distraction, we tolerate the shift toward always-connected, info-overload, and FOMO culture.

Principle of Least Resistance: Since it's easy to be distracted, we succumb to the urges. (i.e. asking questions via instant message gives us quick answers, so we do that first before thinking deeply about the idea/issue.)

The infamous "thoughts?" email...

It's so quick and easy to write. It takes that sender only seconds to write, but takes the recipient many minutes. It puts the burden on the recipient. It commands the attention of the recipient. Why do people do it? Because it's easy.

Take more time to craft a more thoughtful email. It'll reduce time in total for all parties, and the outcome of the communications will be more productive.

"Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not."

Technopoly

... on your time and attention. —Neil Postman

2 Core Abilities to Thrive

  1. Ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. Ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

These both depend on your ability to perform deep work

"If you don't produce, you won't thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are."

Myelin

Myelin is a lyer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insultator that allows cells to fire faster and cleaner.

The new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effective. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you're forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to being wrapping layers of myelin around the neuron in the circuits—effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it's important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.

Distraction prevents this process because there's too many circuits firing simultaneously.

Attention Fragmentation

Knowledge workers have their time-to-completion for projects reduced when interrupted.
—Gloria Mark

Attention and Happiness

Our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.

Elderly people rewired their brains to ignore negative and savor positive. Laura Carstensen ran a test using imagery and fMRI: you people's amygdalas fired when seeing both positive and negative images; elderly fired only when seeing positive. (Her hypothesis: elders train prefrontal cortex to inhibit amygdala).

By skillfully managing their attention, they improved their world without changing anything concrete about it.

Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to.

If you keep getting distracted by your inbox, your mind will construct your world as being dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. A world represented by your inbox isn't a pleasant world to inhabit. —Laura Carstensen

Memorization - Associate visuals, like a mental room walkthrough, to other things.

(Like King of Diamonds to DJT) (Memorizing a 52-deck of cards)

Email Management

Make people who send you email do more

Set expectations. For example, on webforms, mention who you want to hear from, why, what circumstances you'll respond to, and when. Make people agree to terms when they contact you. (i.e. Antonio Centeno p 247).

Do more work when you send or reply to emails

Be specific and thorough when sending emails to people. It'll save time in the longrun, because you won't have to respond with additional details or clarification. Be proactive and put in the time up front. Dashing off quick emails will cost you in the longrun. Process-centric approach to email minimizes the #of emails and closes the loop. To not make it not seem cold, you can add conversational text above the process messaging, and even add distinguishing formatting.

Don't respond

It's sender's responsibility to convince read it's worth a reply and minimize the effort to reply. Don't reply to ambiguous, difficult-to-answer, irrelevant, or inconsequential messages.

MIT researches discovered people are quick to adjust their expectations to your style of communication habits.

Deep Life

Deep Life is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to habits. For many, there's comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid email messaging and social media posturing, while a deep life demands that you leave it behind.

Depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.

Distraction isn't evil, but deep work enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.

Establish a shallow work budget. What % of time should be spent on shallow work?

(Fixed-Schedule Productivity)

"Yes" is the most dangerous word in one's productivity vocabulary

Be clear in the refusal, but ambiguous in the reason to avoid the requester defusing the reason.

"Non-cognitively demanding, logical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate."

Thought experiment: "How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?" — Cal Newport

Schedule every minute of your day. Schedule breaks, too.

Batch your tasks into blocks of themes.

Use overflow blocks w/ alternate tasks if you don't need it.

Be deliberate, thoughtful. Decide in advance what you're going to do with your day.

37signals/Basecamp instituted a 4-day work week. Not 4 10-hour days, but 4 8-hour normalish days.

Fewer work hours makes your time more valuable.

Fewer work hours cut the fat: interruptions, surfing, politics, personal.

Four hours is max for deep work, any way.

If you try to cram in more, it's diminishing rewards.

It's about the quality of your time, not quantity.

"...mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep."

Give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all waking hours; you'll go to sleep more fulfilled and start the next day more relaxed. Be deliberate. (Arnold Bennett)

Don't use the internet for entertainment.

Be deliberate. Put more thought into leisure time.

Don't check infotainment sites while waiting in line because it detracts from focused attention.

Packing Party

Ryan Nicodemus decided to simplify his life. He packed up things he owned. Then spent next week going through his normal routine. If he needed something that was packed, he'd put it where it used to go. He got rid of everything else.

Do this with your network tools.

Tool Selection

Any-Benefit ApproachUsing a tool because you've identified "any" benefit. But if you don't list pros/cons of your network tools, you diminish ability to succeed in the world of knowledge work. No different from a blacksmith or artist choosing their tool. Forrest Pritchard and haymaking: his farm used to make its own hay. But the hay baler cost too much time and money, plus opportunity cost. Sold the hay baler, started buying hay instead and focused on other things. Cons outweighed the "any" benefit.

Craftsman ApproachIdentify core factors that determine success and happiness. use a tool only if its positives substantially outweigh negatives.

How do the tools you use help achieve personal and professional goals?

Pareto principle: 20 of activities and tools provide 80% of results.

Like a muscle responding to lifting weights, focusing your attention will strengthen your ability to concentrate, allowing you to work deeply with ease.

You ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it.

Attention Control

Ability to maintain focus on essential info.

(one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us)

Be wary of distractions and looping

When attention slips from the problem at hand, remind yourself that you can return to the new thought later. Then, redirect your attention back.

To avoid expending energy, you mind might loop on what you already know instead of diving deeper into a problem.

Productive Meditation

When you're occupied physically, but not mentally, focus your attention on a single well-defined problem. Just like mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring attention back when it wanders or stalls.

Work Life of Teddy Roosevelt

When you work, work with extreme intensity. Give yourself hard deadlines. Be busy less. Enjoy the pleasures of life with the time gifted to you by your deep work.

Schedule Internet Blocks and offline blocks

"To succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli."

  1. The strategy works even if your job requires lots of Internet use and/or prompt email replies. Just create more Internet blocks. The quantity or duration of Internet blocks doesn't matter as much as the integrity of offline blocks.
  2. Regardless of how you schedule your Internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use. Even if you need to find a critical piece of research or fetch an email, resist the urge because it spirals into looking at other things. And it defeat your concentration training and behavior change training.
  3. Scheduling Internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training. Give yourself opportunities to resist stimuli even outside of work.

3 Groups Who Will Survive

  1. Those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines
  2. Those who are the best at what they do
  3. Those with access to capital

Embrace Boredom

Don't take breaks from distraction; instead take breaks from focus.

Schedule breaks from focus to give in to distraction.

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.

Mental calisthenics

Build your mental muscle through practice

Efforts will be negated if you don't wean your mind from its depend on distraction

Constant attention switching has a lasting negative effect on your brain.

"People who multitask can't filter out irrelevancy. And they can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their mind irrelevant to the task at hand. Mental wrecks. They're suckers for irrelevancy. Can't keep on task." (Clifford Nass)

3 Reasons to Shut Down after work

  1. Downtime aids insightsSome decisions are better left to the unconscious mind because it has more bandwidth. Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT). Conscious mind is better suited for decisions requiring application of strict rules, math. Unconscious mind is better suited for decisions involving lots of various info. Resting your conscious mind gives your unconscious mind time to sort through complex challenges.
  2. Downtime helps recharge energyAttention restoration theory (ART) says spending time in nature can improve ability to concentrate. Concentration requires directed attention. Attention fatigue. You need uninterrupted rest for attention restoration.
  3. The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that importantDeliberate Practice Theory: systematic stretching of your ability for a given skill. Novices have a limit of 30 minutes, expert 4 hours. Hit daily deep work capacity during the day to produce value. Work completed after hours isn't as focused or important.

"inject regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day, providing you with the idleness paradoxically required to get deep work done."

Zeigarnik Effect: incomplete tasks dominate attention, so how can shutting down be effective? The solution is to make a plan for you'll later complete the incomplete task.

When you work, work hard. When you're done, be done.

4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX)

  1. Focus on the Wildy Important The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish." Identify small # of ambitious outcomes to devote to deep work hours.
  2. Act on the Lead Measures
  3. Lead = proactive, in the future, directly in control that will have positive impact on goals
  4. Lag = in the past, already happened (i.e. customer sat score = lag vs giving out free bakery samples= lead)
  5. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard "People play differently when they're keeping score." Have a public place to track lead measures. Drive competition with yourself and others.
  6. Create a Cadence of Accountability Create a "rhythm of regular and frequent meetings for any team that owns a wildy important goal." Confront scorecards. Weekly reviews. Celebrate.

"If you want to win the war for attention, don't try to so 'no' to trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say 'yes' to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else."
—David Brooks, "The Art of Focus"

Grand Gestures for Deep Work

Use a radical change to your environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money to increase perceived importance and mental priority of the task and deep work session.

For example, book a hotel room for writing.

For example, Peter Shankman had only 2 weeks to finish a manuscript. So he booked a roundtrip biz class ticket to Tokyo. He wrote during the whole flight, drank an espresso in the Japan biz class lounge, turned around and flew back doing it again. The cost was $4,000.

Outside of deep work sessions, give your time and attention generously without expectation of something in return.
(Key strategy in professional advancement).
From "Give and Take"
Adam Grant, Wharton Business School Professor

Deep Work Philosophies

Monostatic: Maximize deep efforts by eliminating shallow obligations.

Bimodal: Divide your time by dedicating/scheduling stretches for deep work, allowing the rest to be shallow.

Rhythmic: Transform deep work sessions into a simple, regular habit. Generate a rhythm that removes the need to invest energy into deciding if and when you're going to go deep (i.e. chain method) (preserves mental energy).

Journalistic: Fit deep work into your schedule wherever you can. (i.e. retreat to closed office like Isaac Watson did to write his books) (not easy, can deplete finite willpower).

Waiting for inspiration to work deeply is a bad idea.

Build rituals with the same strictness and idiosyncrasy as all the important thinkers and Pulitzer prize winners.

You can't win a Pulitzer without pushing your brain to its limit.

Willpower

"People fight desires all day long"

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

"Your will is not a manifestation of your character; it's instead like a muscle that tires"

"The key to working deeply is to establish routines and rituals that minimize the amount of willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration"

Wilhelm Hofmann, Roy Baumeister, Cal Newport

Theory of Serendipitous Creativity

When you allow people to bump into eachother, smart collaboration and new ideas emerge.

Separate secluded deep work from collaboration environments

'Hub & Spoke' Hub: Collab and whiteboard effect Spoke: Deep Work

Eudaimonia

Eudaimonia is a state in which you're achieving your full human potential.

Eudaimonia Machine: work environment designed to help us extract as much as possible from our brains.

Flow

"The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This state of mind is called Flow.

Meaning is derived from the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship, more so than the outcome.

Cultivate the skill to increase satisfaction.

"You don't need a rarified job; you instead need a rarified approach to your work."

"We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals." —The Pragmatic Programmer

People assume relaxation makes them happy.

Jobs are easier to enjoy than free time.

Humans are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.

Deep work generates flow state.

Build your life around flow produced by deep work.... a means to achieve deep satisfaction.

"The idle mind is the devil's workshop"

When you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what's right.

Winifred Gallagher

What about Jack Dorsey?

30-40 sets of meeting notes per day

Not deep work, but certainly not shallow because it's highly valuable

Executives are like automated decision engines, not unlike IBM's jeopardy-playing Watson

To ask a CEO to spend 4 hours thinking about a single problem is a waste. Instead, hire 3 smart individuals to think deeply and bring solutions to the CEO for a final decision.

Other professions like sales and lobbyists.... connect-currency

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