Cal Newport published Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World in 2016.1 He 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.2
He goes on to formulate something he calls 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. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
I’m not going to discuss the deep work hypothesis. If you want to see the evidence Newport has for it, you’ll have to read the book. I didn’t learn anything from reading the book a couple of months ago, but I did find his four rules to be a useful framework for understanding what I already do (or try to do).
Rule #1: Work deeply: The fundamental (but not particularly new) insight is that to accomplish any significant work that requires understanding complex ideas or creating novel ideas requires large blocks of uninterrupted time. I have adopted two new insights from Newport’s book: Scheduling my blocks of uninterrupted time to ensure that more immediate, and often important, distractions don’t crowd deep time out of my work week.3 Ritualizing my deep time. When I am in deep time, I’m usually working on my MacBook or my iMac. I have both of them set up with two desktops. When I’m in deep time, I switch to a desktop that has only the applications and documents I need open. It takes some discipline, but by opening a different desktop it’s easier not to check e-mail or respond to other notifications that appear on my screen.
Rule #2: Embrace boredom: This was a new one for me, but I think the way Newport states it is misleading. The fundamental idea is that concentration is a skill. With practice and exercise, you can improve your ability to focus, and since deep work requires concentration, the more you exercise your concentration, the better you’ll get at deep work. Here the strategy is what I alluded to in the last sentence of the last paragraph: Take breaks from focused work. Allow yourself to be distracted by e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever only when you’re not engaged in deep work. Schedule your deep time, or at least commit to spending a specific amount of time in deep work before you begin, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Even if you’re not making progress on the project, force yourself to stay away from distractions until you’ve reached the end of your deep work block. You may be bored, but you’ll be training yourself to resist distraction. This is related to the pomodoro technique.4
Rule #3: Quit social media: That’s overstated, but it’s good advice. Take a careful look at how much time you spend on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and other social media platforms. Ask yourself: “How much of the time I spend on platform X advances the work I want to do?” As for me, I use Facebook only once or twice a month. I post to Twitter pretty regularly, and I look at recent posts 2-3 times a day, but I don’t have Twitter open in my browser. I think I have an Instagram account, but I haven’t used it more than once or twice, and that was 4-5 years ago. I use Twitter with some regularity (a) because I want to draw the attention of my small audience to items I’ve found interesting and (b) not infrequently the scientists I follow will post a link to an article with an interesting idea I need to follow up on. There’s a good chance, especially if you’re younger than I am, that you find Facebook a good way to stay in touch with friends and family. If so, I see no reason for you to quit using it. I do suggest, however, that you think carefully about when you use it and that you keep Facebook closed (and silence Facebook messenger) when you’ve blocked out time for deep work.
Rule #4: Drain the shallows Newport suggests scheduling every minute of your day. That might work for you, but it doesn’t work for me. What reading Deep Work did remind me to do, however, was to focus on the small number of things that are really important. Before agreeing to do anything, ask yourself “What would happen if I said ‘No’?” If the answer is “little or nothing”, say “No.” Only do things where (a) there is no one else who can make the contribution you could make, (b) making your contribution could mean the difference between success or failure (or between an excellent and a mediocre outcome), and (c) success or failure is important (in whatever way you judge importance in this context). This is clearly an ideal, and there are certain to be circumstances in which you have little choice but to do something that doesn’t fit these criteria.5 Nonetheless, you’ll thank yourself in the long run (if not before) if you depart from the ideal as little as your circumstances allow.
- The link takes you to the Deep Work page on Amazon.com. The book is available from many different sources. I just happen to find Amazon convenient. The link is not a sponsored link. I won’t receive any money if you click on the link, nor will I receive any if you happen to buy the book. ↩
- I can’t provide a page number for the quotation, because I’m reading this on my Kindle. I rarely buy or read hard copy books. ↩
- This insight isn’t entirely new, but Newport inspired me to make it more formal. ↩
- Rule #1 and Rule #2 are almost redundant, but they emphasize different things. Rule #1 emphasizes what you should do – focus, concentrate. Rule #2 emphasizes what you shouldn’t do – let yourself be distracted. ↩
- More about that next week. ↩