Deep Work by Cal Newport

Kate Strachnyi is one of LinkedIn top voices within data science. She has an online book club that I’m part of. Deep Work by Cal Newport was the book of February 2019.

Deep work:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

Cal Newport

Deep Work is an evocative book. At least to me who is a knowledge worker in an open office floor plan. Some of Newports findings are actually quite depressing. Still, I feel that it is important to address these findings and have an awareness about it.

On the bright side, Newport gives a lot of examples on how to approach deep work, also relevant for us knowledge workers. His examples include both minor, simple tips such as turning off your email alerts, and more large-scale challenges such as disconnecting from your online life for a period of time.

Newport has structured his book into two parts; the idea and the rules.

The idea

The value of deep work

The value of deep work is that it can enable you to learn to do complicated things quicker and to produce higher quality. But working deeply is like a muscle. It needs training to improve.

Pretty appealing and extremely relevant. One example that is mentioned is to learn how to memorize a deck of cards in only a few minutes. This is one type of training of the deep work muscle, and I am going to have a go at it!

The rarity of deep work

Two major trends in the world of knowledge workers is open floor plans and instant messaging. These trends encourage shallow work and the constant interruptions are not compatible with deep work. I can personally attest to this, as both of these trends are the reality in my workplace.

The metric black hole

Emails — shallow work. Do you have any idea how much time you spend on reading and writing emails? All knowledge workers know that emails take up an unreasonable amount of time. If you spend some time on the analytics, you will be able to put a cost on each email sent and received on average.

But — it is unrealistic to find a metric that tells you the average value each email has on Black holeyour bottom line. Therefor this metric falls into a category Newport calls “the metric black hole”. No one knows. It is difficult to convince management to make changes when you don’t have metrics to cover both the cost and the value.

The principle of least resistance

Typical human behaviour is to make the choice that is easiest in the moment, but not necessarily in the long run. This answers the question of our need to be constantly connected — it is easier to let your inbox and messenger requests run your day, than to stop and work through priorities and tasks on your own.

Business as a proxy for productivity

Is it really the case that business can be used as a proxy for productivity?

Anyone recognize this? I know you have seen it among co-workers. I know I have!

Deep work is meaningful

Newport encourages us to cultivate our craft, regardless of which type of work we do. Refinement of ones craft is a deep task. It will give more meaning than trivial tasks such as answering emails.

The rules

Work deeply

One way of allocating more time to deep work is to create habits and routines so you don’t have to use your willpower on minor tasks. You need your willpower for the harder stuff. One of many examples is to do your deep work at a fixed time in a fixed place. If you manage to incorporate this into a routine, it will not take that much willpower to just do it.

Part of my transportation route to work is a 20 minute walk through the city. Since reading this book, I try to make it a habit to use these 20 minutes to work mentally on a challenge or task that I have. It sounds trivial, but it’s not. The mind wonders. I have to pull my self together again and again to maintain my focus.

Embrace boredom

Here’s where Newport talks about taking an Internet sabbath, but he also suggest a more practical alternative with blocks of Internet use and blocks of offline time. During offline blocks you should embrace boredom and train yourself to not seek out stimuli.

I can relate! I have a tendency to pull out my phone whenever I am forced to wait. Internet has a strong pull — no doubt about that!

Quit social media

Be aware of your internet habits and make conscious choices on how you spend your time online. Prioritize, based on your personal and professional goals.

Drain the shallows

As a way of lessening your shallow work, Newport suggest scheduling every minute of every day. The purpose is not to fix your schedule (feel free to change it as your day progress) but to make solid priorities on what you want to spend your time on. This way you go back to your list once a task is done, to maintain your focus. If you for a moment are not sure what do to next, there’s a good change of doing something shallow (work or leisure). It is a pretty strict suggestion, but the schedule is an aid if you are trying to be more effective in how you spend your time. It will certainly be an excellent tool if you were ever trying to go from a 5-day work week to a 4-day work week, with only draining shallow work.

Would I recommend reading it?

Yes — go for it!

There is something here for everyone. I feel that Newports most important message is to be aware of the current trends, and to make your own choices and priorities that fits into your life.

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