These are my “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” notes. Author Cal Newport says one of the most valuable skills in our economy is becoming increasingly rare, and if you master it, you’ll achieve extraordinary results. I had to see for myself.
Carl Jung, psychology and focus
To disagree with Freud in the 1920s was a bold move.
Jung retreated to Bollingen, not to escape his professional life, but instead to advance it.
Deep Work: 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.
“Although he had many patients who relied on him, Jung was not shy about taking time off.” Deep work, though a burden to prioritize, was crucial for his goal of changing the world.
Deep work aficionados
Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention for meals.
Rowling’s staff finally started a Twitter account in her name in the fall of 2009, as she was working on The Casual Vacancy, and for the first year and a half her only tweet read: “This is the real me, but you won’t be hearing from me often I am afraid, as pen and paper is my priority at the moment.”
Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.
Neal Stephenson, the acclaimed cyberpunk author who helped form our popular conception of the Internet age, is near impossible to reach electronically—his website offers no e-mail address and features an essay about why he is purposefully bad at using social media. Here’s how he once explained the omission: “If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.”
“I locked myself in a room with no computer: just textbooks, notecards, and a highlighter.”
Over time, however, he got better at concentrating, eventually getting to a point where he was regularly clocking five or more disconnected hours per day in the room, focused without distraction on learning this hard new skill.
How to publish sixteen papers
…a group of visiting scholars arrayed around him, also sitting quietly and staring. This could go on for hours. I’d go to lunch; I’d come back—still staring. This particular professor is hard to reach. He’s not on Twitter and if he doesn’t know you, he’s unlikely to respond to your e-mail. Last year he published sixteen papers. This type of fierce concentration permeated the atmosphere during my student years. Not surprisingly, I soon developed a similar commitment to depth.
Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.
Chapter 1: Deep Work Is Valuable
“Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” In other words, talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best.
Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy
- The ability to quickly master hard things.
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.
This provides another general observation for joining the ranks of winners in our economy: If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.
…began to systematically explore what separates experts (in many different fields) from everyone else. In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, pulled together these strands into a single coherent answer, consistent with the growing research literature, that he gave a punchy name: deliberate practice.
This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.
These business professors do not live the cliché of the absent minded academic lost in books and occasionally stumbling on a big idea. They see productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve—
…he’ll often put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response. “It sometimes confuses my colleagues,” he told me. “They say, ‘You’re not out of office, I see you in your office right now!’” But to Grant, it’s important to enforce strict isolation until he completes the task at hand.
To ask a CEO to spend four hours thinking deeply about a single problem is a waste of what makes him or her valuable.
they found, to their surprise, that this connectivity didn’t matter nearly as much as they had assumed. The clients didn’t really need to reach them at all times and their performance as consultants improved once their attention became less fractured.
Chapter 2: Deep Work Is Rare
In the last chapter, I argued that deep work is more valuable than ever before in our shifting economy. If this is true, however, you would expect to see this skill promoted not just by ambitious individuals but also by organizations hoping to get the most out of their employees. As the examples provided emphasize, this is not happening. Many other ideas are being prioritized as more important than deep work in the business world, including, as we just encountered, serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and an active presence on social media.
“Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.” Tellingly, when he wrote that essay, Packer was busy writing his book The Unwinding, which came out soon after and promptly won the National Book Award—despite (or, perhaps, aided by) his lack of social media use.
Also consider the frustratingly common practice of forwarding an e-mail to one or more colleagues, labeled with a short open-ended interrogative, such as: “Thoughts?” These e-mails take the sender only a handful of seconds to write but can command many minutes (if not hours, in some cases) of time and attention from their recipients to work toward a coherent response.
So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, “no,” I tell them: I’m irresponsible. Feynman was adamant in avoiding administrative duties because he knew they would only decrease his ability to do the one thing that mattered most in his professional life: “to do real good physics work.”
Feynman, we can assume, was probably bad at responding to e-mails and would likely switch universities if you had tried to move him into an open office or demand that he tweet.
If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter—all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.
Remember, for example, Adam Grant, the academic from our last chapter who became the youngest full professor at Wharton by repeatedly shutting himself off from the outside world to concentrate on writing. Such behavior is the opposite of being publicly busy.
Rubin’s Twitter profile reveals a steady and somewhat desultory string of missives, one every two to four days, as if Rubin receives a regular notice from the Times’ social media desk (a real thing) reminding her to appease her followers. With few exceptions, the tweets simply mention an article she recently read and liked.
It’s the Alissa Rubins of the world who provide the Times with its reputation, and it’s this reputation that provides the foundation for the paper’s commercial success in an age of ubiquitous and addictive click-bait. So why is Alissa Rubin urged to regularly interrupt this necessarily deep work to provide, for free, shallow content to a service run by an unrelated media company based out of Silicon Valley?
If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good.
It riled people not because they’re well versed in book marketing and disagreed with Franzen’s conclusion, but because it surprised them that anyone serious would suggest the irrelevance of social media.
Bad for Business. Good for You.
Among them are the realities that deep work is hard and shallow work is easier, that in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving, and that our culture has developed a belief that if a behavior relates to “the Internet,” then it’s good—regardless of its impact on our ability to produce valuable things.
Chapter 3: Deep Work Is Meaningful
“What may take me 100 blows by hand can be accomplished in one by a large swaging machine. This is the antithesis of my goal and to that end all my work shows evidence of the two hands that made it.”
As elaborated in the last chapter, we live in an era where anything Internet related is understood by default to be innovative and necessary.
No one would fault Ric Furrer for not using Facebook, but if a knowledge worker makes this same decision, then he’s labeled an eccentric (as I’ve learned from personal experience).
“This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.”
…but Gallagher couldn’t help noticing, in that corner of her brain honed by a career in nonfiction writing, that her commitment to focus on what was good in her life—“movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini”—worked surprisingly well.
According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant—even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same.
“Rather than continuing to focus on your partner’s selfishness and sloth,” she suggests, “you might focus on the fact that at least a festering conflict has been aired, which is the first step toward a solution to the problem, and to your improved mood.”
When she instead scanned the 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 their life circumstances were better than those of the young subjects; they were instead happier 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 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.”
Beautiful code is short and concise, so if you were to give that code to another programmer they would say, “oh, that’s well written code.” It’s much like as if you were writing a poem.
Rule #1: Work Deeply
Jung’s life in Zurich, in other words, is similar in many ways to the modern archetype of the hyperconnected digital-age knowledge worker: Replace “Zurich” with “San Francisco” and “letter” with “tweet” and we could be discussing some hotshot tech CEO.
“the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes,” and then explaining that the way to create better jokes was to write every day. Seinfeld continued by describing a specific technique he used to help maintain this discipline. He keeps a calendar on his wall. Every day that he writes jokes he crosses out the date on the calendar with a big red X. “After a few days you’ll have a chain,” Seinfeld said. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where… but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.
It was sometime after this realization that Shankman signed a book contract that gave him only two weeks to finish the entire manuscript. Meeting this deadline would require incredible concentration. To achieve this state, Shankman did something unconventional. He booked a round-trip business-class ticket to Tokyo. He wrote during the whole flight to Japan, drank an espresso in the business class lounge once he arrived in Japan, then turned around and flew back, once again writing the whole way—arriving back in the States only thirty hours after he first left with a completed manuscript now in hand.
I noted that the company’s goal to create the world’s largest open office space—a giant room that will reportedly hold twenty-eight hundred workers—represents an absurd attack on concentration.
“You are such a naïve academic. I asked you how to do it, and you told me what I should do. I know what I need to do. I just don’t know how to do it.” As Christensen later explained, this division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world.
Here’s his description of the period: “I’ve insidiously started, because of professional obligations, to become busy… every morning my in-box was full of e-mails asking me to do things I did not want to do or presenting me with problems that I now had to solve.”
Decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point toward the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.
For the other rules, you’ll have to get the book. Or listen to Dua Lipa’s song. Or make your own. I absolutely loved this book and I believe it’s a must-read for anyone in the creative world.