Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Reading notes:

Chp 1. Deep work is valuable

  • The Great Restructuring – technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind. As intelligent machines improve, and the gap between machine and human abilities shrinks, employers are becoming increasingly likely to hire “new machines” instead of “new people”. And when only a human will do, improvements in communications and collaboration technology are making remote work easier than ever before, motivating companies to outsource key roles to stars – leaving the local talent pool underemployed. The Great Restructuring is not driving down all jobs but is instead dividing them. Though an increasing number of people will lose in this new economy as their skill becomes automatable or easily outsourced, there are others who will not only survive, but thrive – becoming more valued (and therefore more rewarded) than before. This is a bimodal trajectory for the economy. Check out the book “Average Is Over” by Tyler Cowen.
  • The Great Restructuring, unlike the postwar period, is a particularly good time to have access to capital. To understand why, first recall that bargaining theory, a key component in standard economic thinking, argues that when money is made through the combination of capital investment and labour, the rewards are returned, roughly speaking, proportional to the input. As digital technology reduces the need for labour in many industries, the proportion of the rewards returned to those who own the intelligent machines is growing.
  • Three groups will have a particular advantage:
    • Those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines
    • Those who are the best at what they do
    • Those with access to capital
  • Two core abilities for thriving in the new economy. These two core abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work:
    • The ability to quickly master hard things
    • The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed
  • Performance psychology, a branch of psychology, explores what separates experts from everyone else. In the early 1990s, professor Anders Ericsson pulled together these strands into a single coherent answer: deliberate practice. The difference between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain. To master a cognitively demanding task requires this specific form of practice, which requires 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 correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.  The first component emphasizes that deliberate practice cannot exist alongside distraction, and that it instead requires uninterrupted concentration.
  • Adam Grant’s law of productivity: High-quality work produced = (Time spent) x (Intensity of Focus). By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, one will minimize the negative impact of attention residue from other obligations, and maximize the performance on this one task.
  • Leroy’s concept of “attention residue”: when you switch from some 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.
  • Deep work – work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, sometimes with strict isolation free from distraction.
  • Exception – Jack Dorsey, former CEO of twitter, ends the average day with 30-40 sets of meeting notes that he reviews and filters at night, not a deep style of work, but not shallow (shallow = low value & easily replicable). The is because: he is a high-level executive of a large company. Life style of such executives is famously and unavoidably distracted, but still successful but this does not undermine the general value of depth. Because the necessity of distraction in these executives’ work lives is highly specific to their particular jobs. A good chief executive is essentially a hard-to-automate decision engine. They have built up a hard-won repository of experience and have honed and proved an instinct for their market. You cannot extrapolate the approach of these executives to other jobs. In addition to executives, we can also include, for example, certain types of salesmen and lobbyists, for whom constant connection is their most valued currency.
  • Scrum project management methodology – replaces a lot of ad hoc messaging with regular, highly structured and ruthlessly efficient status meetings (often held standing up to minimize the urge to bloviate)

Chp 2. Deep work is rare

  • The three business trends (serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and an active presence on social media) actively decrease one’s ability to go deep by producing attention fragmentation and massive distraction.
  • As knowledge work makes more complex demands of the labour force, it becomes harder to measure the value of an individual’s efforts. Metrics fall into an opaque region resistant to easy measurement – metric black hole, as referred to by Cochran. Metric black hole prevents clarity, reduces depth and allows the shift toward distraction in business culture.
  • Culture of connectivity – one is expected to read and respond to emails (and related communication) quickly.
  • The principle of Lease Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviours to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviours that are easiest in the moment.  This may explain why so many follow the lead of Boston Consulting Group and foster a culture of connectivity. Even though it’s likely to hurt employees’ well-being and productivity, and probably doesn’t help the bottom line: 1) immediate response to email makes your life easier; “vague imperatives” 2) the culture of connectivity creates an environment where it becomes acceptable to run your day out of your inbox – responding to the latest missive with alacrity while others pile up behind it, all the while feeling satisfyingly productive. People fall back on the easiest in the absence of metrics.
  • Other examples of business behaviours that are antithetical to depth: the common practice of setting up regularly occurring meetings for projects. These meetings tend to pile up and fracture schedules to the point where sustained focus during the day becomes impossible. Why do they persist? They’re easier. For many, these standing meetings become a simple (but blunt) form of personal organization. Instead of trying to manage their time and obligations themselves, they let the impending meeting each week force them to take some action on a given project and more generally provide a highly visible simulacrum of progress.
  • The plight of the knowledge work middle manager – the “bewildering psychic landscape”
  • Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. This concept is anachronistic “If you’re not visibly busy, I’ll assume you’re not productive.” Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo.
  • Technoply – We were no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiencies against the new problem introduced. If it’s high-tech, we begin to instead assume, then it’s good.
  • Internet-centrism – we’ve made the Internet synonymous with the revolutionary future of business and government.
  • With the trends outlined above, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable.

Chp 3.  Deep work is meaningful

  • A master craftsman’s work requires him to spend most of his day in a state of depth with a clear connection between deep work and good life – because this professional challenge is simple to define but difficult to execute. Knowledge work exchanges this clarity for ambiguity. Another issue muddying the connection between depth and meaning in knowledge work is the cacophony of voices attempting to convince knowledge workers to spend more time engaged in shallow activities.
  • Gallagher finds that what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore plays in defining the quality of our life. Our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Who you are, what you think, feel and do, what you love is the sum of what you focus on. This has a neurological evidence with an example of researcher Laura Carstensen who run fMRI scanner to study the brain behaviour of subjects presented with both positive and negative imagery.  For young people, their amygdala (a center of emotion) fired with activity at both types of imagery; whereas for elderly, the amygdala fired only for the positive images. Carstensen hypothesizes that the elderly subjects had trained the prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala in the presence of negative stimuli. These elderly subjects were not happier because of their life circumstances were better, but because they had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive.
    • by skillfully managing their attention, they improved their world without changing anything concrete about it. 
    • The idle mind is the devil’s workshop, when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right
    • A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun.
    • In knowledge work, to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons to maximize the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.
  • Second argument: Csikszentmihalyi’s work with ESM (experience sampling method) helped validate a theory he had been developing over the preceding decade: the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
    • Most people assumed that relaxation makes them happy, but Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM studies reveal that most people have this wrong: Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.
    • The connection between deep work and flow should be clear: Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state (the phrases used by Csikszentmihalyi to describe what generates flow include notions of stretching your mind to its limits, concentrating and losing yourself in an activity – all of which describes deep work.
  • Final argument from philosophical perspective: craftsmanship provides a key to reopening a sense of sacredness in a responsible manner.
  • Your goal should be to transform your profesional life into one centered on depth. This is a difficult transition.

Rule #1. Work Deeply

  • Eudaimonia Machine – a setting where the users can get into a state of deep human flourishing – creating work that’s at the absolute extent of their personal abilities. – Disciple of depth in a shallow world. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  • The monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling – example “persons who wish to interfere with my concentration are politely requested not to do so, and warned that I don’t answer email…lest key message get lost in the verbiage, I will put it here succinctly: all of my time and attention are spoken for – several times over. Please do not ask for them.
  • The bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling – divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.
  • The rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling – the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.
  • The journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling – you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. This is not for the deep work novice.
  • Ritualize – to make the most out of your deep work sessions, build ritual s of the same level of strictness and idiosyncrasy.
  • Make grand gestures –  by leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.
  • Theory of serendipitous creativity – “stay out in the open because we believe in serendipity – and people walking by each other teaching new things.” Alternative: hub and spoke architecture of office place.
  • “whiteboard effect” – working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone. The presence of the other party waiting for you next insight – be it someone physically in the same room or collaborating with you virtually – can short-circuit the natural instinct to go shallow.
  • Be lazy: idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as 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.
    • Reason #1: downtime aids insights – UTT (unconscious thought theory)
    • Reason #2: downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply – ART (attention restoration theory)
    • Reason #3: the work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important

Rule #2. Embrace boredom

  • The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that  must be trained. Constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain.  – Professor Clifford Nass. Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. If every moment of potential boredom in your life (e.g. wait 5 min in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives) is relieved with a quick glance at your smart phone, then you r brain has likely been rewired to a point where it’s not ready for deep work, even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.
  • An alternative to the Internet Sabbath: instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction. I.e. schedule in advance when you use Internet.
    • This strategy works even If your job requires lots of Internet use and/or prompt email replies.
    • Regardless of how you schedule your Internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use.
    • Scheduling Internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training
  • Productive meditation training:
    • Be wary of distractions and looping
    • Structure your deep thinking
  • Attention control

Rule #3. Quit social media

  • The Any-Benefit approach to network tool selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.
  • Craftsman Approach to tool selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impact.
  • The law of the vital few (80/20 rule) in many settings, 80% of a given effect is due to just 20% of the possible causes.
  • Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself

Rule #4. Drain the shallows

  • Productivity is gained with people working in long stretch of uninterrupted time.
  • Shallow work: non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
  • Evaluate shallowness by asking a simple 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?
  • Tasks that leverage your expertise tend to be deep tasks and they can therefore provide a double benefit: they return more value per time spent, and they stretch your abilities, leading to improvement. On the other hand, a task that our hypothetical college graduate can pick up quickly is one that does not leverage expertise, and therefore it can be understood as shallow.
  • Some activities (e.g. PowerPoint creation, regular meetings) should be minimized – they might feel productive, but their return on (time) investment is measly
  • Ask your boss for a shallow work budget. Negative response to this request should be seen as indicating that this isn’t a job that supports deep work. Warning: a job that doesn’t support deep work is not a job that can help you succeed in our current information economy. You should start planning to transition into a new position that values depth.
  • Fixed-schedule productivity – finish your work by 5:30pm. Trips can generate urgent shallow obligation. Reduction in shallow frees up more energy for the deep alternative
  • Become hard to reach – “with the rise of  this technology eroding our ability to explain in a careful, complex way.” – the tyranny of e-mail by John Freeman. Use “sender filter” to break the default social convention  that unless you’re famous, if someone sends you something, you owe him or her a response. For most, an inbox full of messages generates a major sense of obligation. Just let small bad things happen.
    • Make people who send you e-mail do more work
    • Do more work when you send or reply to emails. Only send process-centric response.