Why deep work matters

    • The ability to concentrate intensely and produce at an elite level is getting more and more valuable (as other jobs get outsourced and eliminated) at the same time that it is getting rarer (reduced attention span and lack of focus due to social media).
    • The few people who are able to go deep and produce prolifically will set themselves apart from the rest.

Rule #1 Work Deeply

    • Batch up hard but important intellectual tasks into long, uninterrupted stretches.
      • You can do this at multiple levels e.g. carving out December every year for long-term planning, retrospection, reading / gaining insightful-ness. Then batching during the week and finally, during the day.
      • Tricks: Havings blocks on “DNS” (do not schedule) on your calendar, having “OOO auto-responder” even though you are in office, but because you want to block off time to get work done.
    • Being a prolific producer is a simple key to success in many fields (e.g. Adam Grant – youngest tenured and full professor at Wharton, with many teaching awards to his credit. He does teaching only one quarter of the year – that’s batching).
  • High-quality work produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
    • The highest GPA students understood this, and maximized their focus. They radically reduced the time required to prepare for tests or write papers.
  • Attention residue: Worth keeping in mind when you are sequentially moving from one task to another.
    • A part of your attention stays as “residue” glued to the previous task, even if you completed it.
    • By isolating the one task that you are working on, you are maximizing your intensity by getting rid of the residue effect.
  • The type of your work that optimizes your performance is deep work.
  • To produce at elite levels, you must work –
    • For extend periods
    • With full concentration
    • On a single task
    • Free from distraction
  • If you are not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, you will not produce quality and quantity required to thrive professionally.
  • Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf that of your competitions, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.
  • Counter-example: Jack Dorsey (Kirtika’s notes: Recent Square/Twitter performance might make a case that Jack is not the counter-example the author makes him to be).  
    • He ends the average day with 30-40 sets of meeting notes that he filters and reviews at night.
    • Dorsey’s attention residue is likely slathered on thick, as he darts from one meeting to another, letting people interrupt him in the space between the meetings.
    • Example of an individual who thrives without depth.
  • Depth does not apply to certain professions –  e.g. salesmen and lobbyists where constant connection is their most valued currency.
  • So, the corporate world is not promoting deep work. What is it promoting instead?
    • Serendipitous collaboration
    • Rapid communication (have near-instantaneous responses)
    • Active presence on social media (for journalism/media/production houses)
  • Wake up on a given day, take some time out to make a list of your priorities and then take a look at your inbox and bucketize/summarize the priorities your inbox represents. The world represented by your inbox is neither a pleasant one to inhabit, nor is it reflective of your priorities. It gears you towards petty concerns.
  • Don’t have a workday driven by the shallow.
    • From a neurological perspective, a workday driven by the shallow is very likely a draining day (even upsetting), even if some of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless and fun.
  • From the book ‘Flow’: Jobs are easier to enjoy than free-time – they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to get involved, enjoy and lose oneself in one’s work.
  • There is a constant innate desire for distraction that all human beings have to fight.
    • In the “Experience Sampling Method”, researchers paged and interrupted people at random times during the day and asked them what they were doing and what thoughts were on their mind. The distraction to do something shallow was on the list, along with other predictable desires such as food, sleep and sex.
    • Figure out what helps you fight it – the author suggests having ambitious goals drive you to a focused routine away from distraction is a good approach.  
  • Build your own Eudaimonia Machine: To make deep work a significant and regular part of your daily schedule, having a work environment that enables all phases of it is useful. (Kirtika’s notes: It’s amazing how much the Google offices match this description of a Eudaimonia machine).
  • Routines and rituals (e.g. going to a coffee shop and reading ~2 hours each morning before the actual workday) maximize the amount of deep work that you can get out of your day. Most people tire out at 4-6 hours per day.
    • Find an approach to integrate deep work into your routine that works for you. This is not easy.

Philosophies of deep work

  • Monastic:  What Donald Knuth employs by not doing email at all, having his secretary batch-process paper mail and bring to him, using all his time to study complex concepts by himself and then coming up with ways to make them more accessible for others who cannot do what he did.
    • Fully retreat from the outside world. There is a science-fiction novel, Anathem, by Neal Stephenson dedicated to what would happen if most intellectuals did this.
    • Most people with a job don’t have the luxury to do this.
  • Bimodal: What Carl Jung did when he was breaking away from his mentor, Sigmund Freud. He actively lived a city life, with his clinic practice, but would retreat away for long periods of time to a stone-house he built in the woods.
    • Divide your time, some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leave the rest open to everything else.
    • This is a philosophy which the SF Bay Area techie can successfully emulate.
  • Rhythmic: This focuses on “building a chain” of deep work events. If you force yourself to work out in the gym for 20 minutes a day, and mark an X on your calendar for 20 days, then those chain of 20 Xes will be good enough motivation to do it again on the 21st.
    • Rhythmic method follows from the observation that scheduling ad-hoc periods of deep work on your calendar doesn’t really work.
    • Folks who have embraced the rhythmic philosophy of deep work have been able to attempt two full-time jobs or more at a time. e.g. author’s example of the guy who wrote his PhD thesis with a full-time job and while parenting a toddler.
    • This is a philosophy that works best for folks in standard office jobs.
    • What are the things that you can get done between 5.30 and 7.30 in the morning if you hold yourself to it, every single day?
  • Journalistic: This philosophy of deep work is the hardest to adopt – it requires switching into a deep work mode on-demand, whenever there are chunks of time and opportunity.
    • The name derives from the obligation that journalists have to churn out pieces at little notice whenever an event of interest occurs unexpectedly.
    • This approach is not for the deep-work novice. But for the expert (who schedules and plans his activities in advance in detail), this is a great way to squeeze out large amounts of depth from an otherwise demanding schedule.
    • Most tech company execs exhibit various forms of the journalistic deep work philosophy.
    • What makes the difference between an average career and one that will be remembered?
    • What are the insights from Anathem, the science-fiction that talked about people leading monastic deep lives, closing themselves off to the outside world for tens or hundreds of years?
    • “[Great creative mind] think like artists, but work like accountants.” – David Brooks, NYT.
  • Ritualize
      • Those who use their minds to create valuable things are rarely haphazard in their work habits.
      • Most great thinkers, like Charles Darwin, had surprisingly rigid and mechanized work habits – wake up at 7, walk and breakfast by 8, retire to study from 8 to 9.30, take a long walk after the workday and so on.
  • What should rituals address?
        • Where will you work and for how long?
        • What will and won’t be part of your work environment?
        • What will you keep around to facilitate the work? (food, water, coffee, other aides like walking)
        • How will you work once you start to work? (e.g. are you banning the internet? are you using pomodoro intervals?)
  • Make grand gestures
      • J K Rowling booked a $1000 a day room while struggling to finish the seventh and last part of Harry Potter.
      • Investing significant amounts of money and effort into your work ritual solidifies the mental commitment in your head, and goes a long way towards eliminating the desire for distractions.
      • Planning week-long retreats to complete specific goals, especially in the lap of nature, is proven to be effective, even if the nature/weather scene isn’t a pleasant one.
      • (Kirtika’s notes: Several people fly to Hawaii or Miami to complete their annual book-reading targets. This is a wise move, if it works for them.)
      • History is chock-full of examples of people who locked themselves in a hotel room while they needed to get something done, and emerged only when the task was over.
  • What ideas about “deep work” and “grand gestures” could I have applied to my life so far?
  • Collaboration is helpful
      • Academic collaboration that is structured and doesn’t interfere with individual deep work is good. Industry’s idea of a chaotic “collaboration” by placing everyone in open floor-plan offices is not.
      • Someone waiting for your next insight can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth. (Kirtika’s Notes: The Undoing Project – A friendship That Changed Our Minds is a fascinating story of such a deep-work collaboration between Nobel winning economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman).
    • The 4 disciplines of execution (4DX) is a book that talks about separating the “what needs to be done” from the “how it needs to be done” and explains the “how”. It is intended for companies, can be applied to an individual’s pursuit of deep work.
      • Focus on the Wildly Important: Let a small number of ambitious outcomes drive your pursuit of deep work and take you away from distraction. You should have a small number of “wildly important goals” that you intend to accomplish during your deep work hours. As an example, the author’s anecdote about the PhD candidate who wrote his PhD thesis every morning from 5.30-7.30 while pursuing a full-time job and parenting was doing this.
      • Create a compelling scoreboard (that tracks both input and output): The author tracks the # of deep-work hours put in, along with key milestones, such as figuring out a proof (theoretical math) or completing a paper draft. Over time, his sense of how many deep work hours (units) it takes to accomplish a task gets better calibrated.

 

  • Translate Lofty Goals into Specific Actions / Act on the lead measures: There are “lead measures” (how many hours of deep work did you put in) or inputs to your goal, and then there are the “lag measures” (how many citations did your paper get). Not only are lag measures not as much in your control, they are also very delayed in the feedback loop. Focus on your lead measures (time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal) and use those to improve yourself.  
      • Lag measures change too slowly to influence your behavior. When you receive them, the performance that drove them is already past.
      • The author moved from 4 published papers a year to 9 in the year he was practicing 4 DX (along with a book). Every extra hour of deep work was immediately reflect in his tally that year and motivated him to get better.

 

  • Create a cadence of accountability: Hold a weekly check-in / post-mortem with yourself.
        • What did you get done? (Your leaderboard)
        • What could you do better?
  • The author’s own story is a very strong incentive to follow the deep work principles – if an approach more than doubles your output in a single year, it would be foolish to not adopt it.
  • Downtime is good
  • “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is an indispensable to the brain as Vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
      • Downtime aids insights: Using your conscious mind, without tapping into the subconscious, to solve everything is like using your home computer for calculations when you could you use all of Google’s data centers. Your subconscious mind is that powerful, and it needs downtime to recharge.
      • Researchers gave two groups of people information about various car models and their constraints in buying a car. One group was distracted with puzzles afterwards and forced to make a decision immediately, the other was allowed to mull / plan on the decision overnight. The first group did better.
      • Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT): When there is large amounts of information, and vague/conflicting constraints, your subconscious mind does way better at the decision.
      • Downtime helps recharge energy needed to work deeply:
      • Attention Restoration Theory (ART): People concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature, even if the weather / environment is not favorable. Nature gives you (1) inherently fascinating stimuli – this is enough occupation for your mind not to get bored, but also too little i.e. (2) freedom from directed concentration, so you don’t need to summon your attention, like you would while crossing a road. As a result, your focused-attention replenishes.
      • Find activities with these two criteria (fascinating stimuli and freedom from directed concentration) – cooking, going for a run, boardgames with friends to help you recharge.
  • Work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important: If you’ve worked deeply for 4-6 hours in the day, you are likely to be tired by evening and spend the evening with shallow, busyness-as-proxy-for-productivity tasks. It is better to take off and recharge.
  • Have a shutdown routine
    • It is unlikely that a knowledge worker’s plate of tasks will ever be empty.
    • Pending tasks increase the risk for attention residue – a part of your attention stuck in your work, preventing you from recharging after work freely.
    • The solution is to have a “shutdown ritual” for your brain – take all your pending tasks, put them into a list and make sure that each is addressed in the following way –
      • You have a plan for its completion.
      • Or if that’s not the case, you’ve captured all details somewhere it will be revisited when the time is right.
    • This ritual allows your brain to take attention off the task fully.
  • The author’s shut down ritual actually involves him saying to himself “shutdown complete” once he has assessed his tasks at the end of the day. This allows him to dive deeper the next morning than his exhausted peers.

Rule #2 Embrace Boredom

  • Social media / mobile connectivity puts you in a state where your brain is craving new dopamine every single time you have a free moment.
  • “Your mind never tolerates an absence of novelty.”
    • This makes you a mental wreck, incapable of working deeply even if you pour your will-power into it.
    • By embracing boredom, you (a) improve your ability to concentrate intensely (b) overcome your desire for distraction.
  • Carve out online and offline blocks, for both work and personal time
      • The purpose of the offline blocks is to make sure you commit to staying away from the internet and distractions, for however small periods, and stick to it.
      • Learn to get work done or move to something else, if you need online help during an offline block.
      • (Kirtika’s notes: You could adopt this like Pomodoro. 15 mins at a time online to finish up all the email you can for this slot.)
    • Set a challenging deadline for yourself and try to work like Teddy Roosevelt once a week.
      • Roosevelt dashes” (he gave himself only 2-3 hours per day to study a course) are like “interval training” for your brain.
      • Side-note: TR’s sample time-table
  • Indulge in productive meditation
    • That implies taking your thought-process to its limits when you are walking to work, hiking or cooking.
    • Like mindfulness meditation, even here you gently guide your mind back to your agenda when it drifts to something shallow.
    • The author learnt to extract output from his afternoon walks to home and back, by meditating productively. Entire chapters of the “Deep Work” book were conceived on these walks.
    • Your brain proactively distracts you by: (a) offering something more interesting (b) going on in a loop with existing information instead of working toward further findings. Productive meditation combats both these behaviors and improves focus.
    • Structure for deep thinking: (a) get the context / variables in your head (b) identify the “next-step” (c) consolidate your gains – review clearly what you’ve identified.
  • Common theme among elite memory trainers – they have mastered “attentional control” and can focus on the “essential information”. A side-effect of learning to memorize a deck of cards is that your ability to concentrate improves.
  • Adopt card memorization or a similar hobby that has hard cognitive requirements – instills in you a commitment to train.

Rule #3 Quit Social Media

  • The craftsman approach to tool selection – choose your tools very carefully, don’t just be satisfied if the tool provides any or some benefit, make sure it’s benefits outweigh the total, long-term costs of owning and using it.
      • Social media is a tool that appears to have some (usually negligible) benefit but has a high long-term usage, ownership cost (destroys attention, ability to concentrate or work deeply, produce at an elite level) that most people either don’t comprehend or ignore.
      • What factors determine success & happiness in my personal and professional life?” Adopt a tool if its contribution to your positives list significantly outweighs that to the negatives list.
  • When it comes to your time and attention, you are playing a 0-sum game. What’s being put in here must be taken out of somewhere.
    • Why is social-media so addictive?
      • Grabbing people’s’ attention online is hard, hard work (outside of social networks, say, at a blog). Social media short-circuits by establishing a circle-jerk culture that makes everyone feel wanted/respected despite not putting in effort on the quality of the content.
  • Structure your leisure time
  • Use the principles from the book ‘Flow’.
    • The author does this with books, managing to read 1-2 books per week.

Rule #4 Drain The Shallow

  • The damage done by shallow work is under-estimated.
    • Schedule every minute of the day (indirectly) – you’ll find that initially your estimates to get anything done are way off-base.
    • A rigorous schedule can still allow for bursts of spontaneity – in fact, keep the option to rewrite your schedule available. The key is to make yourself accountable for the all the time you are spending.
      • It will be painful for the brain to stick to this initially – a habit of dividing your time into blocks and closely tracking how much you get done in each block.
    • Deep work requires that you treat your time with respect.
  • How to order your work from deep to shallow?
      • Which parts of your to-do list are “deep” work?
      • To answer this, try this alternate question – how long would it take, in months, to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in your field to complete the task at hand?
      • How much of my to-do list is something that can be outsourced or automated? That part cannot be deep.
  • For how little time in my busy schedule am I actually producing real value?
      • The longer the time period, the more likely this is to be deep work.
  • Deep tasks provide double value:
    • More immediate value per unit of time spent on them
    • Stretching and improving you and your skills
  • For folks in office jobs, stick to a predetermined ratio of shallow to deep work. Most bosses would not be OK with you spending more than 50% of your time on shallow tasks (or you should get out of such jobs), 30% might be a reasonable lower limit for some professions.
  • Less is more – “Fixed Schedule Productivity” by Radhika Nagpal is a good read.
  • Have a good “sender filter” – The author makes people who send him email work harder – so that each email he gets is worth his time reading and responding. Think about how you can tailor that to your personal and professional.
  • When you send or reply to emails:
    • Do more work / Be more thoughtful
    • Hash out as many details as possible
    • Be process oriented.
  • Close the loops as soon as someone opens a new one – less mental clutter!
    • If someone proposes a new open-ended project idea, close the loop with details of what it would take for you to accept it, what details and homework you’d like from their end.
  • “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.” – Tim Ferris
  • Being maniacally focused and a serial obsessor has benefits – Bill Gates is the shining example.
  • Keep thinking about the next phases of your career and personal life – a large part of the reason that the “Deep Work” book happened was because the author was figuring out how to scale his productivity from a grad student to a post-doc to a tenured professor.
  • “I’ll live the focused life, because it is the best kind of life there is.” – Winifred Gallagher, cancer survivor

Critique

  • “The task of a craftsman is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself, the skill of discerning meanings that are already there” (citing a wheelwright).
    • This is so much BS. For many knowledge workers, the meaning comes from the outcome/impact of their work, not some abstract figuring-out-meanings . For a coder, there is meaning in the final code that she produces. For a product manager, there is meaning in the user’s experience with the final product.
  • On one hand, the author touts the sense of sacredness that comes with now obsolete professions such as wheelwrights and blacksmiths. On the other hand, he touts the “elite-level production” that was presumably behind the people whose “deep work” enabled mechanical inventions that rendered these professions obsolete. He also touts “impact to the bottom-line”, which is clearly higher in the mechanized and non-sacrosanct scenarios. The whole narrative becomes confusing and frustrating.
  • The point about sacrosanct-ness and craftsmanship in 21st century occupations seems weird to me. For example, as a software engineer, yes, I respect the craft of churning out clean, robust code, yet there is nothing sacrosanct about my code if a machine (or should I say machine-learning enabled thing  :P) can churn out an equally effective substitute codebase.
  • It should be possible to bring structure to shallow work (for those who are in professions where shallow work is a significant amount of their time).  The author does not address this at all, presumably because as an academic, he doesn’t have to deal much with this category of folks.
  • A lot of the concepts in this book lend themselves nicely to exercises. For example, a point like “identify and cull the shallowness in your personal life” could be followed with a near-term, medium-term and long-term to-do lists to achieve that, much like those in the book “The Startup Of You”. Would love an alternate version of this book that cuts down on verbose explanations and adds detailed actionable items instead.