Deep Work (Book)

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Rules for focused success in a distracted world. By Cal Newport

Part 1

  • Chapter 1: Deep work is Valuable
  • Chapter 2: Deep work is Rare
  • Chapter 3: Deep work is Meaningful

Part 2

  • Rule #1: Work deeply
  • Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
  • Rule #3: Quit social media
  • Rule #4: Drain the Shallows


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

So far the introduction resonates a lot with the writer's workshop book in that it emphasises that the only way to make cool shit is to grind.

Ch 1 & 2

This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires. Its core components are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you're trying to improve or an idea you're trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can corect your approach to keep you attention exactly where it's most productive.

I think one big reason it's hard to master skills deeply is because the feedback is delayed. The feedback is not instantaneous. That's something that should always be kept in mind. Various forms of feedback might come in an hour, or a day, or after 10000 hours of practice, a year, or ten years. It's important to have enough stamina to keep going until you recieve feedback—and to actively seek feedback.

I interviewed around fifty ultra-high-scoring college undergraduates from some of the country's most competitive schools. Something I noticed in these interviews is that the very best students often studied less than the group of students right below them on the GPA rankings. One of the explanations for this phenomenon turned out to be the formula detailed earlier: The best students understood the role intensity plays in productiviey and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration—radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers without diminishing the quality of their results.

Raffi commented "it could be because they're smarter". I disagree, kindof. They might be smarter, but they are smarter because they've internalized good learning habits and intensity. Perhaps 'being smarter' is a merely the ability to do this. Even though it's probably the case that some people are genetically predisposed to be able to do this well; the point is it's a better way of viewing the world because there is room for improvement.

The problem this research identifies with this work strategy is that when you switch from Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn't immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.

Attention Residue. This is what I was trying to get at in my context swiching blogpost. Residue extends to concept of congnitive overhead to include whatever you were last thinking about. If you're thinking about 16 different things in one day; you probably won't be able to focus well.

Metric Black Hole

The concept of a metric black hole is interesting and new to me. A metric black hole points to the fact that when it's hard to measure something explicitly, people ignore it. In the context of deep work, the idea is that fragmented attention is bad for business, and employees who can focus well are good for business. However, it's very hard to measure how well your employees are focusing, and very easy to measure how much they're tweeting. So you optimize for tweeting over focus.

(p 81)

Many knowledge workers spend most of their working day interacting with these types of shallow concerns. Even when they're required to complete something more involved, the habit of frequently checking inboxes ensures that these issues remain at the forefront of their attention. Gallagher teaches us that this is a foolhardy way to go about your day, as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that's dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox, in other words, it't a pleasant world to inhabit.

(p 89)

Gonzalez discusses computer programming similarly to the way woodworkers discuss their craft in the passages quoted by Dreyfus and Kelly.

The Pragmatic Programmer, a well-regarded book in the computer programming field, makes this connection between code and old-style craftsmanship more directly by quoting the medieval quarry worker's creed in its preface: "We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals." The book then elaborates that computer programmers must see their work in the same way:

Within the overall structure of a project there is always room for individuality and craftsmanship... One hundred years from now, our engineering may seem as archaic as the techniques used by medieval cathedral builders seem to today's civil engineers, while our craftsmanship will still be honored

This way of viewing work extends to many fields. Including in academia.

The 'cult of genius' is a wide-spread myth among in academic disciplines such as math and physics; it's symptome is imposter syndrome. Terrance Tao emphasises that you don't have to be a genius to contribute to academia, and I agree with him intelectually, but in order for this argument to make sense viscerally you have to de-glamourise his work. The Stonemason analogy is perfect.

Terrance Tao is an extreemely impressive individual but imagine now that he were a stone mason, something a lot more tangible than mathematician. The institution of mathematics is like a bunch of stone masons building a huge cathedral. Learning math can be likened to climbing the cathedral, and producing math can be likened to making stones. Solving problems is like practicing of chipping away at stones to fashion bricks.

In this metaphore, Terrance Tao is nothing more than a skilled climber and cutter, and just because he climbs and cuts alot doesn't mean that you should be discouraged by that fact that his output exceeds yours by an order of magnitude, because every brick counts, and Terry Tao wouldn't really have much to work with if no-one else was climbing and building—he would be like Archimedes. The message is that if you work hard and deeply every day, the amount of walls you climb and bricks you fasion will only go up. It's an encouraging message.

(In this metaphore Donald Knuth's role is to climb walls and create maps and footholds to help others climb more efficiently.)

(p 132)

On page 132 he talks about the "hub and spoke" model for collaboration. Talks about Bell Labs and MIT's Building 20 collaborations. The idea is that it's good to have a space for serendipitous encounters, but there must also be spaces deviod of distractions for deep focus.

Steve Jobs had a workplace with only one toilet so that people would bump into each other when they went to the bathroom.

(p 144-50) Shutting down

  1. Downtime Aids Insights
  2. Downtime Recharges your deep work batteries
  3. The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important

(p 152)

[The Zeigarnik effect] describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. It tells us that if you simply stop whatever you are doing at five p.m. and declare, "I'm done with work until tomorow," you'll likely struggle to keep you mind clear of professional issues, as the many obligations left unresolved in your mind will, as in Bluma Zeigarnik's experiments, keep battling for your attention throughout the evening (a battle that they'll often win).

(p 154)

Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they're necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness summarized previously. From my experiance, it should take a week or two before the shutdown habit sticks—this is, until your mind trusts your ritual enough to actually begin to release work-related thoughts in the evening. But once it does stick, the ritual will become a permanent fixture in your life—to the point that skipping the routine will fill you with a sense of unease.

As a kid I noticed that idleness was productive, and I had it in abundance, but as an adult, true productive carefree idleness is a rare and precious resource that can only be brought thorough deliberate and intelligent life-management.

(p 158)

Quote from Clifford Nass 2010 interview

So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand... they're pretty much mental wrecks.

This is a Ted Talk by Clifford Nass; it's very good.

(p 168)

At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep tak done in time: working with great intensity—no e-mail breaks, no daydreaming, no Facebook browsing, no repeated trips to the coffee machine. Like Roosevelt at Harvard, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.

Raffi commented

I feel this when working on a pset right before the deadline

Me too. Truely the ability to turn this on and off at will is a superpower. Marcello Garcia was once caught asleep 10 seconds before the brazilian jiu-jitsu world final started. He won the game and kept his title of world champion. He was able to transition from totally relaxed and care-free to hyper-focused in a matter of seconds.

The next passage is

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 fo completion time, increase the frequency of these Roosevelt dashes. Remember, however, to always keep your self-imposed deadlines right at the edge of feasibility. You should be able to consistently beat the buzzer (or at least be close), but to do so should require teeth-gritting concentration.

People give the same advice for building muscle. Only go the the gym once per week for the first few months. Then twice per week. Eventually you'll need to go every day just to maintain your muscle.

The notion of productive meditation (page 170) is worth mentioning: you can think through a problem while doing something that occupies you physically, like running, showering, walkingm, etc. I already do this regularly but perhaps I should be more intentional about it.

37signals seems like a company with interesting management.

Examples of Deep work Working on a research problem. Working through a textbook.

Examples of Shallow work Checking emails, all forms of social media, browsing.

It seems like this book advocates being more intentional about your habits and work. I'm convinced, to a certain extent. One point the book raises and disagrees with is that a rigid structure quenches creativity, I have sometimes been convinced by this line of reasoning because sometimes its hard to sit down and focus on one thing in particular.

However I think the author's attitude is a bit extreem in passages such as the following

Schedule Every Minute of Your Day [...] These examples underscore an important point: We spend much of our day on autopilog—not giving much thought to what we're doing with our time. This is a problem. It's difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule i fyou don't face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work, and then adopt the habit of pausing before action and asking, "What makes the most sense right now?" The strategy described in the following paragraphs is designed to force you into these behaviors. It's an idea that might seem extreme at first but will soon prove indispensable in your quest to take full advantage of the value of deep work: Schedule every minute of your day. Here's my suggestion: At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebok you dedicate to this purpose. Down the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you typically work. Now comes the important part: Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks. [...] If your schedule is disrupted, you should, at the next moment, take a few minutes to create a revised schedule for the time that remains in the day.

This approach works best for knowledge workers. The idea is to schedule everything, and update your schedule every time you have to. This might happen half a dozen times in a day, but the purpose of this excersize is mostly to learn about yourself—not to judge yourself and how slow you are.

First, you should recognize that almost definitely you're going to underestimate at first how much time you require for most things. When people are new to this habit, they tend to use their schedule as an incarnation of wishful thinking—a best-case scenario for their day. Over time, you should make an effort to accurately (if not somewhat conservatively) predict the time tasks will require. The second tactic that helps is the use of overflow conditional blocks. If you're not sure how long an activity might take, block off the expected time, then follow this with an additional block that has a split purpose.

I definitely do this wishful thinking thing. I've implemented this method to keep my work contained. It also helps me keep track of hours so that I can get paid easily.

The following is a particularly helpful rule of thumb for determining how deep a task is.

The purpose of this stratagy is to give you an accurate metric for resolving such ambiguity—providing you with a way to make clar and consistent decisions about where given work tasks fall on the shallow-to-deep scale. To do so, it asks that you evaluate activities by asking a simple (but surprisingly illuminating) question:

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?

Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget is a section in Drain the Shallows.

You should ask yourself

What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?

Most people end up with about 30 to 50 percent of their time on shallow work. I think I should aim for 30% to start with, and try to drive that as low as 10% once I can reliably do under 30%.

This is a good idea. I've never tried to implement it. I'll try.

part of the reason shallow work persists in large quantities in knowledge work is that we rarely see the total impact of such efforts on our schedules. We instead tend to evaluate these behaviors one by one in the moment—a perspective from which each task can seem quite reasonable and convenient. [...] By picking and sticking with a shallow-to-deep ratio, you can replace this guilt-driven unconditional acceptance with more healthy habit of trying to get the most out of the time you put aside for shallow work (therefore still exposing yourself to many opportunities), but keeping these efforts constrained to a small enough fraction of your time and attention to enable the deep work that ultimately drives your business forward.

[Bill] Gates worked with such intensity for such lengths during this two-month stretch that he would often collapse into sleep on his keyboard in the middle of writing a line of code. He would then sleep for an hour or two, wake up, and pick up right where he left off—an ability the still impressed Paul Allen described as "a predigious feat of concentration."