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Deep Work by Cal Newport

  • Rating: 5/5
  • Amazon
  • Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
  • Sherwin Rosen, “Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” Talent isn’t commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best.
  • Unprecedented growth and impact of tech are creating economy restructuring. Three groups have advantage, those:
    • Who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines
    • Who are the best at what they do
    • With access to capital.
  • Core abilities for thriving in new economy
    1. Learn, if you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.
    2. Quickly master hard things
    3. Produce at an elite level, in both quality and speed
  • Central book thesis: core abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work. Be a disciple of depth in a shallow world.
  • Differences between experts and normal adults reflect life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance by
    1. Focusing attention tightly on specific skill or idea you’re trying to improve
    2. Receive feedback to correct approach and keep attention where most productive
  • Focusing on specific skill forces relevant circuit to fire again and again. This repetition triggers oligodendrocytes cells to wrap layers of myelin around neurons, cementing skill. If trying to learn new skill with low concentration, too many circuits are firing. Learning, in other words, is act of deep work.
  • High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
  • Business trends actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even as benefits promised are arguably dwarfed by benefits deep work produces.
    • The Principle of Least Resistance: In business, without feedback on bottom-line impact, we tend toward easiest in the moment behaviors.
    • Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In absence of clear productivity and value indicators, we turn back toward industrial indicators: doing lots of stuff in visible manner.
  • Myopia of peers uncovers great personal advantage, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore valuable.
  • “To do it right, it is the most complicated thing I know how to make, and it’s that challenge that drives me. I don’t need a sword. But I have to make them.” Ric Furrer
  • A deep life is not just economically lucrative, but also a life well lived.
    • “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” Winifred Gallagher
    • “After running my tough experiment [with cancer]…I have a plan for living the rest of my life. I’ll choose my targets with care…then give them my rapt attention. In short, I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” Winifred Gallagher
  • Jobs 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, concentrate, and lose oneself. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be enjoyed. ESM studies confirmed relation between flow experiences and higher life satisfaction. At our best when immersed deeply in something challenging. Deep work (stretching your mind to limits, concentrating, losing yourself in an activity) well suited to generate flow.
  • The Pragmatic Programmer quotes medieval quarry worker’s creed: “We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.” Always room for individuality and craftsmanship within project. One hundred years from now, engineering may seem archaic while craftsmanship still honored.
  • “I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.” Donald Knuth
  • Deep work approaches
    • Monastic: attempt to completely eliminate distraction and shallowness from professional lives
    • Bimodal: eliminate only during periods spent on projects, divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. Division can happen on multiple scales, four-day weekend to depth and rest to open time or one season to deep stretches. Minimum unit of time in this philosophy tends one day.
    • Rhythmic: perhaps fails to achieve intense levels of deep thinking, however, works better with reality of human nature. Deep work with rock-solid routines, make sure little bit gets done on regular basis.
  • Cal uses none, instead facing each week as it arrives and doing best to squeeze out as much depth as possible.
  • Grand gestures: change of environment, quiet, and psychology of committing so seriously to task at hand help. Exotic location, take week off to think, or lock yourself in hotel until completion to push goal to level of mental priority that helps unlock needed resources. Sometimes to go deep, you must first go big.
  • Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply on what you encounter. For some problems, working with someone can push you deeper than working alone.
  • Distraction remains destroyer of depth, separate pursuit of serendipitous encounters from efforts to think deeply and build on these inspirations.
  • Four disciplines of 4DX framework adapted to deep work habit,
    1. Focus on the wildly important: “The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish”. For deep work, identify small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with deep work hours.
    2. Act on the lead measures: Lag measures describe thing you’re trying to improve, e.g., customer satisfaction scores. Problem is they come too late to change behavior. Lead measures measure new behaviors that drive success on lag measures e.g., number of customers who receive free samples. For deep work, lead measure is time spent deep working toward wildly important goal.
    3. Keep a compelling scoreboard: “People play differently when they’re keeping score”. Public place to record/track lead measures creating sense of competition driving focus on measures.
    4. Create a cadence of accountability: “a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns a wildly important goal”. Few minutes to confront scoreboard, commit to specific improvement actions before next meeting, and describe what happened with commitments made at last meeting. For deep work, weekly review, plan for workweek ahead, look over scoreboard to celebrate and help understand what led to bad weeks, and most important, figure out how to ensure a good score for days ahead.
  • Decades of work from multiple different subfields conclude regular brain rest improves deep work quality. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.
  • Instead of scheduling occasional break from distraction to focus, schedule occasional break from focus to give in to distraction. Record next time you’re allowed to use the Internet. Until that time, absolutely no network connectivity, no matter how tempting.
    1. Works even if your job requires lots of Internet use and/or prompt e-mail replies.
    2. Regardless of how you schedule Internet blocks, must keep time outside these free of Internet.
    3. Schedule Internet use at home too
  • Inject Rooseveltian intensity into workday, identify high priority deep task, estimate, then give a hard deadline drastically below this. If possible, commit publicly or set countdown timer. Only possible way to get done: working with great intensity—no e-mail, daydreaming, social media. Attack task with every free neuron until it gives way under unwavering barrage of concentration. Keep self-imposed deadlines at edge of feasibility, consistently beat buzzer, but only with teeth-gritting concentration.
  • Productive meditation: physically but not mentally occupied period—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus on single well-defined problem. Continue to bring attention back to problem when it wanders or stalls. Be wary of distractions and looping and structure your deep thinking.
    • Review and store variables, answer next-step question, then consolidate gains by reviewing clearly answer identified. Then, push to next level by starting over.
  • Craftsman approach to tool selection: identify core factors determining success and happiness in professional/personal life. Adopt tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
  • Put more thought into leisure time, don’t default to whatever catches attention, dedicate advance thinking to how you want to spend your “day within a day.” To eliminate addictive pull of entertainment sites, give brain quality alternative.
  • Schedule every minute of your day while allowing and encouraging spontaneity. It’s not about constraint, but thoughtfulness. Forces continual moments of asking, “What makes sense for me to do with the time that remains?“. Habit of asking returns results, not unyielding fidelity to answer. Treat time with respect, decide in advance what to do with every minute.
  • Quantify depth of every activity.
    • Shallow work: non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. Tend not to create much new value, easy to replicate.
    • How many months would it take to train recent college grad with no specialized training to complete this task?
    • Knowing where activities fall on deep-to-shallow scale, bias time toward former and set shallow work budget to stick to. Without it, difficult to say no to being on Twitter, tweaking blog. Replace guilt-driven tasks with getting most out of shallow time, but keeping efforts constrained to enable deep work that ultimately drives things forward.
  • Deep work commitment not moral stance or philosophical statement but recognition that concentrating is skill to get valuable things done. Deep work is important not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.

Rocky Warren's blog. Principal Architect, Tech Lead, Product Manager. I do other stuff too.

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