For many years, Cal Newport has been writing about ways to get better at doing difficult things. His first three books were manuals for students, advice on learning techniques and where to focus one’s efforts during high school and college. In 2012, he wrote So Good They Can’t Ignore You, about building career capital by mastering valuable skills. While he was writing these four books, he also published the Study Hacks blog, which covers similar topics on a weekly basis.
Cal’s latest book, published last week, is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. This one offers the following challenge: to improve your ability to do what is difficult, you first have to spend less time doing what is easy.
Deep Work and Shallow Work
In the introduction, Cal provides a definition of deep work and shallow work. Here’s how to recognize deep work:
It involves activities that you do as part of your job. Though Cal does have a lot to say in the book about what you do in your leisure time, deep work refers specifically to activities that happen during work hours.
You have to concentrate to do it. You can’t do deep work while you’re multitasking.
It’s the best work you can currently do. If you’re not trying hard, you’re not doing deep work.
It makes you better at your profession. To stretch yourself, you have to try new things. If you’re just rehashing something you have done countless times before, you’re not doing deep work.
It produces something new and valuable. If no one benefits from your work, you’re not doing deep work.
It’s something that only you, or people with your specific skills and background, can do. If you’re doing something that anyone with the appropriate college degree and a few months of training could do, you’re not doing deep work.
In Rule #4 in the book, Cal explains a process to calculate a numerical value for how deep a particular work activity is. I’ll let you consult the book for those details. He also provides some general guidance on identifying shallow work, the type of work you have to seek out and eliminate if you’re going to meet your deep work quota for the day. Here’s how you can recognize shallow work:
It doesn’t demand very much of you. It’s easy to do.
It tends to be the type of logistical work that comes up in the course of working in an organization.
It doesn’t require concentration. You can work on multiple shallow things at once.
It’s not work that requires you specifically. You could delegate it to someone else, and it would still get done well enough.
Though it may be necessary to keep an organization running smoothly, it doesn’t create any enduring value on its own.
Shallow work is an inevitable part of knowledge work, and there’s nothing wrong with it in moderation. But, Cal argues, what distinguishes successful knowledge workers is their goal to be intentional about the type of work they take on. Shallow work is easy to do, available in endless quantities, and seemingly urgent. As a result, it tends to crowd out deep work. Many of the strategies presented in the book focus on getting your shallow work hours down to a low enough quantity that you have time for deep work.
The Age of Online Distractions
It’s hardly a new idea to lament that online distractions are preventing us from being as effective as we could be. In the introduction to Deep Work, Cal lists several books that cover this topic, notably Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows in 2011. There is also a long tradition of writers hiding themselves in a remote room or building so they can concentrate on their work. Cal mentions Michel de Montaigne, who lived over 400 years ago, and draws other historical and modern examples from Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals.
Given these literary precedents, why do we need another book on the topic? One reason is to push against the prevailing trends. It may be common knowledge that what Cal calls network tools have unintended effects on our ability to work. And yet, new versions of these tools keep appearing. We need a book like this one every once in a while just to keep one side of the argument going.
But a better justification has to do with Cal’s multi-pronged approach to the topic. Each section of the book contains these three types of evidence:
Science: Anyone can grumble about kids and their smartphones, or make up a theory about how the brain works. The minimum standard for a good business/psychology book for a popular audience is including references to actual scientific studies.
Interviews: In Rule #3, Cal meets a farmer while shopping for organic burgers, and the next thing you know he’s interviewing him about hay balers and the craftsman approach to tool selection. Original interviews with real people have been a consistent feature of Cal’s books since the beginning, and it’s a good reality check for the ideas he is promoting.
Cal the guinea pig: Research and interviews provide an objective foundation, but when it comes to practical tips, it’s always a plus if the author uses his own system. Cal is constantly testing the ideas he writes about, and he isn’t shy about documenting his successes and failures. Part 2 contains a collection of practical ideas to help reduce the time you spend on shallow work and increase the amount of deep work that you pack into your schedule. To keep his audience happy between books, Cal reports once a week or so on his blog. And if that isn’t enough, you can always check his list of publications to see how that’s going for the year.
The book is full of observations and suggestions for getting on the deep work bandwagon. Here are a few that I found especially interesting:
Deep work is a lot like deliberate practice
In a footnote in Rule 4, Cal suggests that there is a set of “cognitively demanding” activities that includes both deep work and deliberate practice, and that these two activities substantially overlap. Where don’t they overlap? One aspect may be the purpose of the work. Deliberate practice is, by definition, practice. It doesn’t include work done for some other reason, like receiving a paycheck. Perhaps deep work is a way to derive the benefits of deliberate practice without having to schedule separate practice time. In other words, by bringing the deliberate practice mindset to your job, you can pay the bills and improve yourself at the same time.
Deep work has a built-in limit
One of the results from deliberate practice research is that even experts can only focus intensely for about four hours per day. This ties in well with one of Cal’s core strategies, fixed-schedule productivity, which suggests ending your workday at a fixed time. As long as you find a way to squeeze in four deep work hours before the day ends, you can spend the rest of the day reading email and attending meetings without feeling guilty. And if you can make the one equation in the book (Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity) work for you, those four hours will gradually produce more results over time, up to some theoretical upper limit of focus intensity.
Memorizing card decks
Along with the work-oriented strategies, Cal throws in one that is purely for brain training: learning to memorize a deck of cards using the Memory Palace technique (as Joshua Foer does in Moonwalking with Einstein). At the end of the tip, Cal encourages readers who don’t think much of card memorization to practice “any structured thought process that requires unwavering attention.” This, of course, made me think of programming puzzles, which may even be slightly less geeky than memorizing card decks.
This is a book about work, but Cal also discusses the hours after work. With fixed-schedule productivity providing reliable blocks of time on evenings and weekends, you need something to do with that time besides surfing the Web. One of the themes of the book is that learning to concentrate has its own rewards. It’s an effective work habit, but it’s also something that helps you get more out of life.
Like those before him who have urged you to kill your television, Cal suggests unplugging in the evening and taking up a hobby. His own preference is nonfiction books, which he likes to read in parallel, several at a time. You can see the influence of that evening reading habit in Deep Work‘s extensive bibliography.
I don’t plan to step away from the computer after work — when would I get these blog posts written? — but I agree with Cal’s idea (see Rule #3) that you should put as much thought into your leisure time as you do into your work time. Part of the goal of deep work is to rewire your brain. After the hard work of building concentration skills during the day, it would be a shame to undo it all with aimless surfing in the evening.
Deep Work is a fun read, the type of book one might pick up in the evening while relaxing on the couch. The danger with these types of books is that it’s all too easy to breeze through the case studies and success stories without taking any action to apply the suggested strategies.
The key is to pick one idea and start experimenting. Cal suggests starting with fixed-schedule productivity, the strategy of setting a fixed end to the workday as a way of introducing artificial time scarcity and promoting a sense of urgency during work hours. I also like time goals, as I have written before. Cal’s version of that approach is a log of deep work hours that he keeps next to his monitor.
There’s no way to know whether any particular deep work strategy will work for you. Cal has filled the book with examples from his own and others’ work, but every person is different. That’s why it’s important to cultivate an experiment mindset: a willingness to try out ideas, measure results, adjust parameters, try again until you find something that works, and then adjust again to keep your systems fresh.
(Image credit: Alien research lab by Paul Albertella)