Why Deep Work is The Superpower You Need To Succeed

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Do you feel you’re truly performing to your highest abilities? If not, what’s stopping you from producing great outputs of lasting value? Your ability to do what Cal Newport calls “Deep Work”. In his fascinating new book, he sets out a manifesto for leaving the shallows of distraction and going deep to become great.

Newport, a professor of computer science, is no slacker. In terms of metrics that matter for academics, he publishes considerably more papers than his peers, and they’re higher rated. He has also published four successful non-fiction books. He also teaches effectively and has tenure. And the kicker: he never works past 530 pm and rarely on the weekends, unlike his colleagues. In simple terms, he “works” a lot less hours but gets a lot more valuable stuff done than others.

Why? Is he a genius? Maybe, but he’s not contending that in his latest book. He puts it down to developing the skill to focus deeply on tasks of high value – what he calls ‘Deep Work.’ His premise is that there’s never been a time when this skill is more of a competitive advantage or of more importance to the knowledge worker. But most of us are terrible at it. He sets out some reasons why it matters, and how to get out of the shallows and go deep.

How Shallow Are You?

Newport defines Deep Work 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.”

It’s about working at the absolute limitations of your abilities, wringing every last ounce out of your intellect. Think of it as intense interval training for your brain. Remember the last time you put your head down, got in the zone, and created something amazing. You know it when you’ve done it. How often do you do it?

Contrast this to Shallow Work, which he defines as: “Non Cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

That’s all the other stuff. Emails. Meetings. Checking social media. Forwarding and processing low value information like “Human Network Routers”. Newport sees this as following the path of least resistance and doing the easiest thing at work, which is signalling our visibility by sending and responding to emails. No lasting value comes of that. But it’s the default mode of most teams and organisations, and consequently where we spend an alarming amount of our time and energy. Do a quick reckoning of your shallow to deep work ratio last week. Yep, mine wasn’t great either. Busyness isn’t productivity.

The core premise of the book is to flip your priorities and let deep work dominate: “Instead of taking a break from shallow work to focus on deep work, take short breaks from deep work to focus on shallow.”

The Winners Will be Deep Workers

He puts several reasons forward for Deep Work as the key skill for the knowledge worker:

  1. Machines are taking over: AI, algorithms, or cheaper labour than you will take over everything that’s not deep. He refers to a lot of what we’re He uses a test question to measure the value of any task: How many months would it take a smart college graduate with no background to do what you’re doing? The lower the number, the less valuable the task, and the more risk of your obsolescence. He argues that for knowledge workers, deep work is about extracting value from information and making connections and inferences. Machines can’t do that. I like his test question of how relevant you are as a knowledge worker: “Can you work well with intelligent machines?”
  2. Things change: Even if you’re an expert today, if you don’t continue to work deeply to develop new ideas, you will be obsolete tomorrow. He says: “To remain valuable in our economy, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work, if you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.” It’s not the first time you’ve heard it – learning how to learn is the key underpinning skill for the knowledge worker.
  3. Demand and supply: We are at an unprecedented moment in history. Access to information, capital and the ability to bring a new idea to market is at an all time high. But at the same time that access to information and always-on connectedness has caused overload. So distractions and drags on our ability to concentrate are also at a peak. The knowledge worker lives in a world of maximum opportunity and maximum distractions. Therefore he argues, those who can work deeply will succeed because your output has to be vastly superior to win in a market with low entry barriers. That requires deep work. As Newport puts it: “The increasing scarcity of deep work set alongside its increasing value. It’s becoming increasingly rare as an ability at exactly the same time that it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. the few who are able to cultivate this skill and make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

    Log Cabin or Last Minute? Four Modes for Deep Work

    The book is full of examples of models and strategies for Deep Work. These include how Mark Twain wrote (in a shed so far from his house that his family called him to mealtimes with a bell), and how Jung developed his theories (in a similarly confined room, working in the morning, walking in the afternoon). He also refers to Bill Gates’ “Think Weeks” where he would disconnect, go to a log cabin and read for a week (during one of these weeks he concluded that Microsoft should probably do something about this Internet thing).

    Do you have to go all Thoreau and get a cabin in the woods for deep work? Fortunately not. Newport sets out four modes for deep working

    1. Monastic: Well, this is the log cabin approach. Spending long consecutive periods, weeks or longer utterly focused, to produce a specific result, unplugging completely from all shallow distractions. He suggests this isn’t for the novice, but if you’re trying to finish that novel, or create your product, consider it.
    2. Bimodal: The monastic with a day job approach. Spend long periods, maybe weeks or days, but return to other shallow activities as your job necessitates between stretches. He uses professors as an example, who might bunch all their teaching into one semester and all their writing into another. Again, hard to fit with most people’s commitments but works in some professions.
    3. Rhythmic: I think this is the most practical for knowledge workers. Focus on periods in your day or week, he suggests 1.5 hours at a time for novices, to work deeply without distraction. If you can do this 4 times a week, and ruthlessly protect the time and block all distractions, you can get a surprising amount of high value output. He recommends setting the same time each day – early mornings seem to be favoured for most, before the distractions of the workday kick in.
    4. Journalistic: Short bursts of deep work whenever it fits or your schedule allows – often spurred by a deadline (hello fellow bloggers). Most people find it difficult to switch in and out like this, but sometimes you just have to switch into deep work to get it done.

    Newport encourages you to experiment and find the mode that best suits your professional and personal life.

    Rules, Rituals and Really No Internet: 10 Deep Work Habits to Develop

    He then sets out some useful rules and habits for getting into your Deep Work Mode, these include

      1. Know your goal – you must be clear on the purpose of the deep work and the next action before you sit down. Deep work isn’t the time for wondering if this is a good idea, or randomly waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s a time for doing. I like his quote: “Creative minds think like artists, but work like accountants.”
      2. Routines and rituals: Have a place you go to and a time you go there for deep work. Bring coffee, whatever you need to get through it. Make it feel different from shallow work. If you work in an open plan area (shallow play zones), you probably need to go somewhere else to focus.
      3. Schedule every moment in your day. Don’t just check your mail whenever the mood strikes. Set times for checking, responding, being present for colleagues. But before that, schedule deep work and defend it vigorously.
      4. Disconnect completely from the internet. That’s where all the shallow lives. Internet includes all work related tools – email, CRM, whatever you’re hooked into. Even if you think you need to check an email to help you advance your deep work, don’t do it. You’ll take look at your inbox and see all the other mails you really should probably read and respond to right now. You’ll leave part of your attention with them, he calls it “attention residue”. That saps your willpower to stay focused on deep work.
      5. Disconnect from colleagues – this is a curious one. He does give a nod to the power of collaboration and serendipity from working with others and water cooler moments, but says that only very specific deep work projects should need collaboration and only at specific phases. Most brainstorming isn’t really deep work unless it’s very focused. I think this depends on the work and is worth more analysis, I’m not quite as ready to go hermetic – but that might be personal working style.
      6. Set a target and follow lead measures: You’ve got to keep score of the deep hours. At first don’t track the output of your deep work, but track the amount of time you spend per week that’s your lead measure (or might be word count, or some metric that shows you’re getting stuff tone). He recommends marking it on the calendar so you can see each day you’ve done it. Hold yourself accountable for hitting your target – or better, ask someone else to.
      7. Do not default to being always available: The prevailing organisational culture is to ping responses back very quickly. But they’re usually of low value and multiply the shallow workload. Living in your inbox is no way to get deep work done. He cites organisations who have been brave enough to disconnect en masse for extended periods. Boston Consulting Group were advised to let every consultant take one day a week away from all mail, including clients, to focus on doing deep work. Our clients will fire us if we don’t get back immediately, they worried. Their clients didn’t notice. The quality of the work went up. They noticed that. 37signals gave their staff the whole month of June to do deep work. They came up with radically better product ideas than if they’d been squeezing that thinking in between meetings.
      8. Don’t answer all of your email. Most of it doesn’t really need answering. He quotes Neal Stephenson the novelist who said he could answer all my emails, or create a book that will be around for a long time. Which is a better use of limited time?
      9. Negotiate the right to deep work: Ask your boss how much of your time she’d like you to do deep rather than shallow work. That’ll give you the right to say “No”- the most important word to enable working deeply and skip the next status meeting, or respond tomorrow, not immediately to that email. If everyone in the organisation agrees that slower, more considered responses to emails are better than 1am “read this. thoughts?” type mails, that could help create more space for deep working.
      10. Quit all social media: Um. Yes. All of it. Well, nearly. This is where it gets tricky…

    Social Media: Deep Work’s Deadly Enemy?

    Newport is vehement in his attacks on social media and entertainment sites like BuzzFeed, Reddit, and what he collectively calls “Network tools”. He sees them the Shallow Hall of Fame, and more generally (and by his own admission in a somewhat curmudgeonly tone) a general ill in society. His concern with them is their distraction level: “Social networks offer personalised information arriving on an unpredictable intermittent schedule – making them massively addictive and therefore capable of severely draining your attempts to schedule and succeed with any act of concentration”.

    His advice? Quit them all. See what happens. And he doesn’t just mean don’t look at them while you’re doing deep work. He means get off them for good. He has a rationale for this based on their utility: “You should accept that these network tools are not inherently evil and that some of them might be quite vital to your success and happiness, but at the same time also accepting that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention should be much more stringent, and that most people should therefore be using many fewer such tools.”

    He puts forward two ways in which you can let a new social tool into your life:

    • “Any Benefit” approach: Sign up to a tool because it might give you a benefit (e.g. my friends are on it, I might find a connection). That’s ignoring all of the potential downsides, e.g. it might take up a lot of my time, it will distract me. Because nearly all tools are free, and are well marketed, he argues that the any benefit approach dominates our decision making.
    • “Craftsman” approach: He says that choosing tools should be done with the care of anyone serious about their work. Consider your professional and personal goals, his example is “I want to regularly read the cutting edge information in my field.” Now consider each tool you use. e.g. Facebook. Does their positive impact on your goals significantly outweigh the negative impacts (absorbing your time, your concentration, not to mention personal data used for advertisers). If not go without it for 30 days and see if your life is significantly worse, or if anyone else notices (if you think your friends are waiting breathlessly for you to chime in on their post or tweet something magnificent, they’re not.) Don’t miss it? Drop it.

    This value based approach to tool selection does make sense in principle. However I I think he’s missing a dimension here, which is many of us use Facebook, Twitter and other sites to discover trending and relevant content to our interested, not just be distracted or see photos of the amazing sandwich our old roommate’s brother had today. We rely more on what our friends and influencers share than traditional news sites to stay informed. The problem is they are not focused or filtered to align to our goals, so we’re still seeing irrelevant information in our filtered feeds. That does support his argument, which is to filter down to tools that cut out distraction and add genuine value. More on that below.

    5 Ways Anders Pink Can Help Your Deep Work

    Deep Work is a great read. It’s full of inspiring stories, great data and practical advice. Putting it into practice isn’t going to be easy. For many of us, doing more deep work is a difficult behaviour change, even if we see the benefit. So it’s very timely for us at Anders Pink, as we really want to help everyone do their best deep work supported by the highest quality information delivered in the most efficient way. Here are some ways we are trying to help you with that in our tool:

    1. Better filters: In line with the “Craftsman” approach to assessing the value of a tool, our approach is to filter the world’s content so you only see highly trusted, relevant content to support the specific topics of your deep work, which is then further filtered by the views of your team. You control what you see. No random distractions. Better quality content with a fraction of the search time.
    2. Drop other tools: With our Anders Pink app, there is no need to check multiple sites and sources, which is the road to shallow work and distractions. You choose your trusted sources from a combination of our suggestions and your preferences. It’s all in one place. Check it once a day. Then apply it.
    3. Making connections: An inspiration for deep work, Newport writes, is connecting information from diverse disciplines and making new inferences. We enable you to combine different sources and have a streamlined view on a range of sources, again cutting out the distractions.
    4. Reducing email: It’s valuable to collaborate with colleagues to discuss the value and implications of an idea, before delving into deep work. Newport calls this the “Hub and Spoke” approach: share ideas, get inputs then go deep on your own. In our new app, conversations are tightly connected to shared articles and views. There’s no email links and chatter that drives you back into your inbox and other distractions.
    5. Shorter in the shallow: Let’s be modest and say that using our app to find quality content related to your deep work is still a shallow task. Even if that’s the case, it’s a far more productive use of that shallow time than searching multiple email threads and social sites. You’ll find better content with less effort. So you can go deep faster and more often.

    We would love you to try it and see if it helps.