Based on books, Personal development, Productivity, Psychology, Self-awareness

How to Go Deeper with your Thinking (the Rules of Deep Work according to Cal Newport)

Eternally fighting a losing battle with continuous partial attention at work?

Find yourself ‘just checking email’ whenever you’re waiting at traffic lights for longer than a few seconds?

It seems like every week, someone is warning us about the ‘myth of multitasking’ and how smartphones are the new cigarettes. But connectivity culture also makes our lives pretty great.

In his acclaimed book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, author Cal Newport, argues that being able to focus for long periods on something cognitively challenging, thereby producing work that is difficult to replicate is a dying art.

Cal reasons that all ‘knowledge workers’ – anyone who handles and uses information, or whose job routinely requires thinking deep, and seeing non-obvious relationships between things – must reclaim their ability for deep work in order to stay ahead. “Deep work is becoming a key currency“, he says. “Even if most haven’t yet recognized this reality.”

Plus, it seems like this style of working orders the consciousness in a way that makes life worthwhile.

Skillful management of attention is a common theme on this blog. Let’s take a deep dive into why it matters for our thinking and work. And, drawing on Cal’s research, let’s figure out how to exploit our cognitive capacities to exhaustion, and cultivate concentration so intense, that there is no attention left to think about anything irrelevant.

Key definitions:

Deep work: the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Results are valuable and difficult to replicate.

Shallow work: Non cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks often performed whilst distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

First, we should probably get one thing settled…

Deep work isn’t for everyone

The deep life isn’t for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.

For many, there is comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid email sending and social media posturing, while the deep life insists you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness surrounding any effort to produce the best you are capable of producing, in case it isn’t very good (yet).

Okay, now we have that out of the way, let’s look at how to do deep work.

The rules

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions, and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into, and maintain, a state of unbroken concentration.

1. Pick your poison

The first step is to select your ‘depth philosophy’. Cal suggests that there are a few different ways of implementing deep work into your day.

You could try the monastic approach: eliminating or drastically reducing distractions on a permanent basis. This will probably only suit you if you’re pursuing a well defined and highly valued professional goal.

The slightly more achievable bimodal philosophy has you divide your time dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits, leaving the rest for shallow work. This might suit you if your working life means you cannot succeed without being dedicated to some non-deep pursuits. Following this approach, the minimum time suggested for deep work is one day. This is in recognition of the fact that it takes time to get into a state of focus.

Or, you could adopt the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling. This philosophy argues that the easiest way to implement deep work is to schedule a regular habit of it. Set a time each day for deep work – an hour or two hours. What it lacks in the depth you might obtain in longer periods, it may make up for in what you produce due to the sustainability of the habit.

The rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling is probably the most suitable for most of us Click To Tweet

Finally, there’s the journalistic method. This one probably isn’t for the deep work novice. It relies on your ability to rapidly switch to cognitively demanding tasks whenever you have free time.

The ability to switch from shallow to deep doesn’t come particularly naturally. You also have to feel a lot of confidence in your abilities. But if you are confident in the value of what you are trying to produce, and practiced in the skill of going deep, it is a robust way to squeeze out large amounts of depth from a full schedule.

Okay, let’s move onto step 2.

2. Ritualize

Here’s where things get very serious.

In order to do deep work, we have to ritualize. (Actually, Cal says make a plan at the start of the day that accounts for every minute you’ll spend in the day, in units.) The effective ritual must address:

  • Where you’ll work and for how long
  • How you’ll work once you start
  • How you’ll support your work

All pretty basic.

If you’re really struggling with the logistics of enabling your deep work, try tapping up ‘the grand gesture’ a la author JK Rowling (JK wrote her one of her books in a hotel room, because she couldn’t find the space at home).

From Deep Work:

By leveraging a radical change to your natural environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort and money, all dedicated to supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.”

Why is this motivational hack so effective? ‘Cause sometimes, to go deep you have to go big.

‘”The dominant force is the psychology of committing so seriously to the task in hand. To put yourself in an exotic location to focus on a writing project, or to take a week off from work just to think, or to lock yourself in a hotel room until you complete an important invention: these gestures push your deep goal to a level of mental priority that helps to unlock the needed mental resources.”

3. Don’t do it alone (maybe)

Some deep work benefits from collaboration in order to take it to a new level.

Just don’t lionize interaction to the extent that you can’t benefit from the inspiration of all the ideas it generates by not allowing for the unbroken concentration needed to wring the benefits out.

4. Execute using the 4 disciplines of execution

What are they?

  • Focus on the wildly important – the small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue within your deep work hours.
  • Act on the lead measures – identify and do only the key necessary things to advance the goal.
  • Keep a compelling scoreboard – record your deep work intervals.
  • Create a cadence of accountability – do a weekly review of your progress.

Okay so that’s your work time. What about your downtime? Surely all the bets are off then?

How you spend your downtime matters

Unfortunately not. ‘Diffused’ attention (where you’re checking Facebook, whilst watching a TV programme, whilst having a conversation with your girlfriend) is almost antithetical to focused attention. In other words, you can unwittingly harm your ability to focus during ‘on’ time, with how you spend your leisure time.

So what are Cal’s tips on that?

1. Be lazy

Deep work tests your cognitive capacities. But sometimes a solution or an insight will elude the rational seat of our brain, and instead will come from the subconscious part. That is why you need to be lazy and properly switch off during your down time.

Cal says for decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague and perhaps conflicting constraints, your unconscious mind is best positioned to tackle the issue.

How you spend your down time affects your capacity to concentrate during work hours Click To Tweet

What’s more, it is during your downtime that you restore your ability to direct your attention.

To assist you to be lazy, include offline stints during your downtime and let yourself get bored.

2. Embrace boredom

To claw back our attention skills, we need to stop ‘curing’ every minor boredom episode with our smartphones.

From Deep Work:

“If every moment of potential boredom on your life – say, having to wait five minutes in a line, or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives – is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where it isn’t ready for deep work. Once you’re wired for a distraction, you crave it.”

The use of a distracting service does not by itself reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It is the constant switching from low stimuli/high value activities to high stimuli/low value activities at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge that teaches the mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.

It is crucial to gird yourself for temporary boredom and fight through it with the company of your thoughts Click To Tweet

What’s the one place that even the most disciplined among us will be tested?

Queues. Anywhere you are forced to wait.

Cal’s advice?

“It’s crucial in these situations if you’re in an offline block, to simply gird yourself for the temporary boredom and simply fight through it with the company of your thoughts. To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of brain training, it’s incredible valuable.”

4. Quit social media (for thirty days)

Yes, they are a lot of fun. But in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram might be an unimportant distractions threatening to derail you form something deeper.

But don’t forget to give your brain a quality alternative to social media. Cal suggests that if your downtime is ruled by internet use, implement structure to it. Schedule in reading time, when you will catch up with friends, or watch quality movies.

Allowing the mind to bathe in unstructured web surfing during relaxation time harms capacity for deep work Click To Tweet

If you give your mind something meaningful to do in the evenings and weekends, you will wake up (or get to Monday) feeling more relaxed than if you allowed to bathe your mind in unstructured web surfing.

Summary

Deep work isn’t the easiest option. If responding to email and other forms of targeted distraction were to move to the periphery of your day, you’d be required to deploy a more thoughtful approach to figuring out what you should be working on and for how long. This type of planning is hard.

If you decide to make a concerted effort to do deep work, you are, by default, adopting a rarefied approach to your work. But you will probably produce valuable things.

If you are game, then to recap on the above, here is what you do:

  1. Select your approach.
  2. Ritualize your deep work habit.
  3. Structure your downtime better.
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About Rezzan Hussey


Hi, I'm Rez, and this is my personal development blog! Brain training techniques, ancient teachings, personal transformation courses, self-development books - nothing's off the table here. I post twice per week. Stay and look around :)