Deep work | Cal Newport

Published in: 2016

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Cal Newport is a 38-year-old [2020] Georgetown professor who has written five bestsellers, a dozen academic articles while having two children and running a popular blog. He calls the secret behind his productivity “Deep Work”. Newport believes that it takes two basic skills to succeed in today’s knowledge economy: (1) to be able to quickly learn to master advanced things and (2) to be able to perform at a high level, both in terms of quality and time.

DEEP WORK IS RARE. With the uninterrupted noise of today, the ability to engage in deep work is a scarce commodity – which gives an advantage to those who master it. In addition to deep work increasing our productivity, it also increases our learning ability.

AVOID THE FRAGMENTED LIFE. To achieve deep work, we must avoid wasting time surfing or constantly checking the status on Twitter. Newport has basically stopped using social media and does not believe that ordinary users get more value than what the use ultimately cost them (both in terms of time and well-being). To end up and stay in deep work, we should set measurable goals that closely followed. The use of “scoreboards” can create “games” that make it easier for us to achieve our goals.

THE SEINFELD METHOD. Jerry Seinfeld has during his career used a successful method to become a better comedian. For each day he practiced writing jokes, he made a cross in the almanac. After a few weeks, there was an unbroken chain of crosses in the almanac. Then he set the goal that his only job was to ensure that the chain with crosses remained unbroken. By having only one simple task to perform, he minimized the risk of losing focus on the long-term goal.

DEEP WORK = FLOW. “Deep Work” is the distraction-free and concentrating execution of a professional activity where we make full use of our skills. To succeed in this, we must end up in “Flow” – a feeling of total absorption in the task. That is when we are the happiest and most productive.

“I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. 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.”

CONCENTRATION BATTERY & SWITCHING COSTS. Our ability to concentrate is limited and every time we change tasks, energy is used for the change. A notice from Twitter may feel harmless, but a day of repeated notices from various apps affects our ability to maintain focus on what is important. Professor Sophie Leroy calls this phenomenon “attention residue” – every time we change focus, we leave part of our focus in the previous task (residual). Frequent changes of focus mean that we cannot use our full capacity.

SCHEDULED BATCHING. One of the secrets behind successful deep work is a well-planned schedule. When we stick to a pre-planned task, we carry it out more efficiently while minimizing the “attention residual”. Important work should be done in “batches” – long uninterrupted and focused time periods. We should also minimize low-quality tasks and those that still need to be done should be batched. Even distractions can be batched by giving aside some time of day for social media.

EMBRACE BOREDEOM. The habit of picking up the phone and checking social media as soon as we are bored makes us dependent on avoiding the feeling of boredom. But boredom can be good – in addition to rest, it gives time for insights. By being constantly distracted, we also find it difficult to decide where our focus really should be. Newport suggests introducing “internet blocks” – times during the day when we are not allowed to use the internet. A person who is used to constant distractions will find it difficult to immediately embrace deep work. A longer adjustment period is required.

EMPTY THE RAM MEMORY. Newport believes that a good way to “check out” in the evening is to take out a notepad and write down today’s half-finished tasks and tomorrow’s action plan to complete them. In this way, we empty our mental frame memory before the night’s sleep, while at the same time we get into deep work more quickly the next day.

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