Stefan Knapen

PhD-student – Co-assistent

Deep Work

I read the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Here are my notes and thoughts.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Deep WorkISBN:1455586692
Read: May 2016
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This is a very good book for people working primarily with their heads, for the knowledge workers. Who always can be distracted and seem to always be distracted and about how you can distinguish you from the rest of the people on the job market: with an ability to focus.

All these notes are directly from the book, cursive texts are my thoughts.

My notes

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.

Peter Higgs, a theoretical physicist who performs his work in such disconnected isolation that journalists couldn’t find him after it was announced he had won the Nobel Prize.

The 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.

I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

Tyler Cowen summarizes this reality more bluntly: “The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?”

In other words, talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best.

In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy

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

The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

This 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 effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

The batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.

In a 2009 paper, titled, intriguingly, “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?,” Leroy introduced an effect she called attention residue.

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

About all the new technological innovations (primarily social media): If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good.

Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological.

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

Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”

“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.”

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

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

About Adam Grant: His 2013 bestseller, Give and Take, promotes the practice of giving time and attention, without expectation of something in return, as a key strategy in professional advancement

David Brooks summarizes this reality more bluntly: [Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”

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 types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone. The presence of the other party waiting for your next insight—be it someone physically in the same room or collaborating with you virtually—can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth.

I set out to adapt the 4DX framework to my personal work habits and ended up surprised by how helpful they proved in driving me toward effective action on my goal of working deeply.

  • Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important
  • Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures. For an individual focused on deep work, it’s easy to identify the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.
  • Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard.
  • Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.

Another key commitment for succeeding with this strategy is to support your commitment to shutting down with a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you succeed.

In particular, identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time.

Try this experiment no more than once a week at first—giving your brain practice with intensity, but also giving it (and your stress levels) time to rest in between. Once you feel confident in your ability to trade concentration for completion time, increase the frequency of these Roosevelt dashes. This would be a great experiment with for instance writing a paper.

I propose that if you’re a knowledge worker—especially one interested in cultivating a deep work habit—you should treat your tool selection with the same level of care as other skilled workers, such as farmers. Following is my attempt to generalize this assessment strategy. I call it the craftsman approach to tool selection, a name that emphasizes that tools are ultimately aids to the larger goals of one’s craft.

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

About how to select better tools for your work: The first step of this strategy is to identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life.

Fortunately, Arnold Bennett identified the solution to this problem a hundred years earlier: Put more thought into your leisure time.

To summarize, I’m asking you to treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.

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?

I, too, am incredibly cautious about my use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.”

On responding to e-mails: What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?

To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience.

My Thoughts

This book might easily become one of the best books I have read this year. It makes a very good case on why a knowledge worker (which I am) should become very good in a highly marketable skill: focus (which I need), and it is all written by an author who is working (successfully) in the academic world (where I work as well). So of course, this book resonates with me. What resonates with me especially is the highly applicable material from this book.

A big recommend for anybody else who feels he/she can do with more focus in their life. This books tells you why, and how.

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