Do you ever have those moments during a project when you’re so focussed, the ideas are flowing and you seem to be making constant progress? Some people call this being in flow and while it’s probably the best feeling to have in your professional life, replicating the feeling and the focus can be one of the most difficult tasks. But some people who have identified the factors that lead to this state can and have made a habit out of this style of working. Cal Newport is one of those people and calls this state “Deep Work” and was kind enough to do research and outline some of the guidelines to developing this habit.
Over the past few weeks I’ve made my way through Newport’s Deep Work and it’s been one of the most eye-opening and impactful reads of my professional life. At first glance it - especially with the subtitle of “Rules for focused success…” - it can seem like your average “10 ways to make you smarter and more successful” self help book but its really actually anything but.
This is not a set of rules to achieve more productivity - this could get tiring, be too rigid and ultimately not something that has the potential for any long term hold or impact on you. It’s more an exploration of focus as a concept and a practice. By examining high achievers in different fields and their habits and lifestyles, Newport has synthesized common threads and strategies used to achieve a high level of focus and a habit of “deep work” resulting in output of true value. Which is I think what we all hope to produce in our professional lives.
With the framework and guide laid out in here, Newport manages to put forth a convincing argument as to why deep work is important while giving you a whole toolkit to start making changes to how you approach work.
Probably the most impressive aspect of his research, is that Newport acknowledges the fact that some of these techniques are specialized, and will only work for some people. Yet, to be relatable to audiences with different backgrounds and priorities he lays out choices resulting in not a doctrine, but a framework with only a four simple rules to adhere to.
I think for me to apply these techniques to my life it’s going to take time, practice and understanding of my mental capabilities. Luckily I kind of realized this early on in my reading and decided to take some notes summarizing aspects of the different chapters, extracting what resonated most with me and adding my thoughts. This started just as a way to keep up and refresh myself every time I thought to experiment with a technique, and it’s proved to be helpful. So I figured I’d clean my notes up a little and share them here.
If you haven’t read the book, I would highly suggest you do so. These notes, while in some places convey important points from each chapter, are in no way a substitute for the book. Newport really goes in with his stories and anecdotes and they are crucial to getting the most value out of this book. That being said, I do go over all of the concept outlined and so if you’ve read it, listened to the audiobook or are curious and have an interest in honing your mental capabilities to achieve depth in your professional life I hope this can help brief and remind you of some important concepts and techniques like it does for me.
As always, feel free to get in touch! While it may go against some of the principles outlined in this book, I think as I’m starting to change how I approach my work, I’d love to hear stories from others who have embraced the philosophy of Deep Work. Without further ado, here are my notes. I have them here, but also on a shared doc if you’d like to make comments or duplicate for your own needs.
Note: Just want to be clear that these my notes on the book. Because of how succinct and well written it is, some phrases and quotes may appear verbatim or with slight changes. I have no intention of passing any of it off as my own. I’ve done my best to highlight quotes wherever I’ve included them and if I have an opinion I preface it with “I think” or something of the sort.
Newport outlines certain behaviours and mindsets to adopt that give rise to deep work.
Decide on a Depth Philosophy
Four different philosophies of deep work scheduling, some with overlap, are given with examples of high performers who embrace each.
Maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations
Donald Knuth of Stanford CS famously has been email free since 1990, Neal Stephenson doesn’t attend speaking events or have an email either. This method aims to focus truly on what’s important and shut off from a lot of ‘trivial’ distractions in life.
Divide your time, dedicating clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.
Freud used to do this by retreating to his cabin outside Zurich to do work but regularly filled his time with patient work and frequenting coffee houses to talk with other philosophers, debate new ideas and understand more of what he needed to explore to challenge other philosophies of the age. Adam Grant as well, he spends one semester a year teaching, the other working one publishing. These are people who respect the monastic way of deep work but respect the value they receive from shallow behaviours.
Integrate depth into your life by transforming them into a simple regular habit.
Seinfeld and his ‘chain’ method. Write a joke every day, and mark a big red X on the calendar every time you do. “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.” So make it a habit, set a schedule for your deep work sessions. Similar to bimodal but not at so much of a mutually exclusive level. It may not be as deep but works well with human nature. Those who incorporate deep work with a regular rhythm and rock-solid routine can often log a larger number of Deep work hours per year.
Fit deep work wherever you can in your schedule.
Often this is the type of work employed by high output journalists operating under deadlines and so on. Difficult to do as getting into flow takes time. Often this method is for those who are well versed in the concepts and practices of Deep work.
The next important step is to create rituals. Take the quote - “great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants”
An effective ritual needs to address the general questions:
Where will you work and for how long?
Specify a location and time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not open-ended.
How will you work once you start to work?
Set rules and processes such as internet/phone ban, or maintain a metric such as words/lines of code written in the session. Without this structure you’ll have to decide what and why are you working on this or are you working sufficiently hard. This diminishes willpower reserves.
How will you support your work?
Ensure your brain gets the support it needs to operate at a high level of depth. Start with a fresh cup of coffee/bottle of water or integrate light exercise like walking or stretching to keep everything going.
Make Grand Gestures
While finishing the Deathly Hallows, J.K Rowling was finding it distracting at home so spent $1000 a night at Balmoral hotel to finish. Leverage a radical change to your normal environment, coupled with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated to supporting a deep work task. Doing this increases the perceived importance of the task. Think also Bill Gates “Think Weeks”
Don’t work alone
Collaboration, even in passing conversation with others outside your field, helps to stimulate new and fresh ideas. Try to cultivate “the whiteboard effect”. For certain problems, when working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard, you can push yourself deeper than work alone. Just by the presence of another party waiting for your next insight and “short circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth”
Execute like a business
Adapted from “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” or 4DX
#1 Focus on the wildly important
The more you try to do, the less you will accomplish. “Don’t try to say no to the trivial distractions but say yes to the subject that arouses a terrible longing and let that longing crowd out everything else.”
#2 Act on Lead measures
Lag measures are those in retrospect - how happy are your customers? You generally find this out after a survey whereby action has no more effect. Lead indicators are initiatives that can improve immediate happiness - e.g. free samples at a bakery - that will have an effect on lag as well.
#3 Keep a compelling scoreboard
Keep a record of the work. How many deep work hours a day and circle hours where a breakthrough or particularly useful insight occurred. This way you can measure how many hours between breakthroughs, achievements per day etc. Helps calibrate expectations of deep work to output.
#4 Create Cadence of accountability
Review each week t regular intervals where you are, what was good, what was bad and plan for the next week. Looking at scoreboard can help understand the factors of what leads to a good week.
Lastly, take rest.
Reason #1 Downtime aids insights
Rely on the subconscious mind to understand difficult problems and mull them over. Deliberate thinking leads to overthinking and as such hinders your cognitive ability to make sense of a particularly difficult issue.
Reason #2 Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply.
To concentrate requires direct attention and attention is finite. So by limiting the attention you give, you can restore the ability to direct your attention. So try to shut down. Work in the evening or after work hinders the ability for you to do good work the next day.
Reason #3 The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important.
Generally, people have between 1 - 4 hours of deep work in them a day (novice to expert). By the time the evening comes, the work you fit in won’t be the high-value activity that really advances your careers but shallow tasks executed at a slow, low energy pace. By deferring work you’re not missing out on much importance.
Implement a shutdown ritual
The reason shutdown is hard is because there are always incomplete tasks and work to be done. But its a case of good high value/quality work that’s important, and that requires a shutdown.
This doesn’t work by simply stating at 5 pm “I’m done with work until tomorrow” though. A ritual needs to be in place. By taking inventory of completed tasks and incomplete tasks and committing to a specific plan for a goal not only facilitates the attainment of the goal but frees cognitive resources for other pursuits.
“When you work, work hard. When you’re done, you’re done.”
The ability to concentrate is less a habit but more a muscle that needs to be worked out and developed. Take for example the Jewish practice of studying and deciphering a page of the Talmud every morning. This intensity of thought every day helps those who study in more ways than just adding knowledge to their lives. The mental exercises help with creativity and so on so forth. The “consistent strain has built my mental muscle over years and years. This was not the goal when I started, but it is the effect.”
The idea and practice of being able to concentrate on one thing fully is important to develop the skills required for deep work. The main problem lies in our need to switch attention at all times. Check our email, our social media etc. But this constant switching is weakening our abilities to stay concentrated.
People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory ... They are chronically distracted … they’re pretty much mental wrecks ... The people who we talk with continually said “look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused.” and unfortunately they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.”
To practice, need to embrace boredom like not looking at your phone while waiting in line or at a restaurant. The following roadmap helps.
Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead, take breaks from focus.
Schedule internet or network time. and make sure that your network/smartphone etc time comes only during those blocks.
Consider 3 points.
Point #1: This strategy works even if your job requires lots of Internet use and/or prompt email replies.
If your work requires a lot, schedule more blocks, but the act of resisting the need to check strengthens your resolve over time.
Point #2: Regardless of how you schedule your internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use
If you are caught in a task that absolutely requires internet knowledge such as from an email, message etc. - either move from said task to something else to fill the time or take a break. If you absolutely need that information, schedule a new time, but not immediately - say in 5 mins. Even the act of resisting then is powerful.
Point #3: Scheduling Internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training.
If you find you spend a lot of time evenings on smartphone/internet, consider scheduling the time to help build concentration.
To succeed with deep work you need to rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. No need to eliminate distracting behaviours, but eliminate the ability of such behaviours to hijack your attention.
Work like Teddy Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt had so many eclectic interests during his time at Harvard that he spent a lot of time on. However, he knew he needed school so he spent a quarter of the day studying but knowing that was his only time to study, he did nothing else. Incorporate “Roosevelt dashes”. Take a task, and if you know the time it will take you to complete it, drastically reduce the time and put an artificial deadline on it. This way you leave no time for distractions and have to strengthen your mind to perform a task at hand.
Activities such as running/walking/cycling/commuting provide time for productive meditation. Take a period where you are occupied physically but not mentally and use that to think hard about challenges you are facing at work etc. Some suggestions:
Suggestion #1: Be wary of distractions and Looping
Some thoughts that are normally mundane such as drafting an email to someone can take on huge importance. Remind yourself that you can return to that thought. And don’t get caught in a loop of going over what you know to procrastinate thinking further.
Suggestion #2: Structure your Deep Thinking
Think of frameworks and what you want to achieve. Much like how you structure the framework for a deep working session, carefully review what are the relevant variables for solving the task and specify next-step questions,
Memorize a deck of cards
Mental athletes employ different techniques to strengthen their memory. By doing so they improve the overall mental muscle through the act of putting strain on the brain. There is a passage on how to memorize a deck of cards but this activity can be substituted with something else that requires similar levels of focus and association - the best example being, learning a song by ear
In 2013 Baratunde Thurston went off the grid for 25 day - a complete shutdown of social media. Fast Company wrote an article about it called #Unplug. Of course for the purposes of running businesses and marketing a book, he had to return but he made two important points about our relationship with social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and infotainment sites (Buzzfeed, Business Insider). These two categories of online distractions are known as “network tools”.
We increasingly recognize that these tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate. Making an effort on the strategies in the previous chapter will be significantly more difficult if you behave like Thurston pre-experiment. To master Deep Work, need to take back control of time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.
The impotence with which knowledge workers currently discuss this problem of network tools and attention. Overwhelmed by this sometimes the only option is an “internet sabbatical”.
However this binary view is not entirely helpful, maybe there needs to be a middle ground. Accept that these tools can be vital to success and happiness but at the same time accept that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention should be much more stringent.
How to find the middle ground?
First, try to acknowledge what camp your tool selection falls under.
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.
There are issues to this approach as it ignores all the negatives that come along with the tools in question. If you don’t attempt to weigh the harms against the benefits, then any small benefit will be justified. We’re comfortable with this approach but if we zoom out and view it in the same way we would any other tool kit we possess, it seems bizarre to take this approach. We use tools, and if the tool only has a slight benefit, why would we use it? Skilled labourers apply sophistication and skepticism to encounters with new tools and their decisions about whether to adopt them. Consider doing the same for your choice of Social Media.
The 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 impacts.
This story was really insightful to me so I included it in some detail. This part of the summary may be a bit long, but hope it resonates with you like it does with me.
Consider Forrest Pritchard who runs Smith Meadows farm. When he took over, the farm made its own hay to use as animal feed during the cold winter months. This also required the use and upkeep of a hay baler. The idea was why spend money to buy from another farm when you have perfectly good grass that you could use yourself? If you applied the any-benefit rule then it’s easy to see how compelling this argument is. However, Pritchard looked at it from a different perspective.
He looked at the costs of making hay. Monetarily you have to take into account the cost of the machine, fuel, repairs, and the shed to keep the baler. Not to mention taxes on the baler. These costs can be directly measured. However, there are costs that are harder to measure. Such as the time it takes to spend a summer making hay, as well as the constant driving over the land that compacts the soil.
These are all opportunity costs because by simply removing hay production from the equation Pritchard could raise chickens instead during the summer that he could sell to provide for the farm as well as use the manure for fertilizer. He then realized that by buying hay his money was actually being used two-fold; it would provide food for the animals and when the food passed through the animal it would provide manure and fertilizer for the farm. So he concluded that buying hay results in healthier fields and “soil fertility is my baseline”. By calculating this, he realized the hay baler had to go.
So with that, look at your network tools and give them a measured & nuanced look at that tools in all other trades are subjected to. Identify what matters most in your life and then you’ll realize that just going on “it’s useful, keep it” starts being an ineffective way of introducing and using tools in your life. Once you have control over this, you’ve taken back time and attention that you can use to help with the rest of the strategies in this book. By this reasoning, don’t go after shiny new things without weighing the pros and cons.
Strategies to abandon the Any-Benefit approach for a more nuanced Craftsman Approach
Apply the law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits
Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis and George Packer - all accomplished writers, don’t use Twitter. While Some writers such as David Carr take a pro-Twitter stance making statements such as “I get a sense of the day’s news and how people are reacting to it in the time that it takes to wait for a coffee at Starbucks” Gladwell, Lewis, and Packer don’t feel like Twitter offers them nearly enough advantages to offset negatives. Lewis says it saps his energy and “it’s amazing how overly accessible people are. There’s a lot of communication in my life that’s not enriching, it’s impoverishing.”
While the success of the three authors speaks for itself in their choices to remove Twitter from their lives, for knowledge workers this becomes a little harder to pick apart.
Step 1 - Identify high level goals in your life, both professional and personal.
This could be very different. If you’re a parent, time with kids or keeping an orderly home may be crucial. Or as a teacher, writer or developer, having a steady stream of quality output and be effective in your workplace. Set your goals but keep them fairly high level. If you’re too specific you can overcrowd your mind with goals.
Once you’ve identified these goals, list 2 or 3 important activities that can help you satisfy this goal. Now is the time to get specific, identify what to do that is repeatable and measurable. “Do better research” is too broad, “finish paper for the seminar” is too specific. “Regularly read and understand cutting edge technology in my field” is best.
Step 2 - Consider the tools you currently use
Ask yourself whether the use of a tool has a “substantially positive impact”, “little impact” or a “substantially negative impact” on your regular and successful participation in the activity. Keep using the tool only if you conclude that the substantial impacts outweigh the negative.
Examples of goals and key activities
Professional goal: To craft well-written, narrative-driven stories that change the way people understand the world.
Key activities that support this goal:
Research patiently and deeply
Write carefully and with purpose.
Now, does using Twitter help this? Does it allow time for patient and deep research or does it serve as a distraction. Same for writing. Is tweeting careful and purposeful? Weigh the pros and cons and determine for yourself whether the benefits are directly in line with your goals.
Personal goal: To maintain close and rewarding friendships with a group of people who are important to me
Key activities that support this goal:
Regularly take the time for meaningful connection with those who are most important to me (e.g. a long talk, a meal, joint activity)
Give of myself to those who are most important to me (e.g. make nontrivial sacrifices that improve their lives)
Does Facebook help you with any of this? How meaningful are the connections you make via Facebook? Is there room to give and help a friend in need? Newport says no and is his reason for leaving Facebook. Personally, I have close friends all over the world and keeping in touch is important to achieve my goal of maintaining close friendships. However, Facebook doesn’t help with this but having the Messenger app helps me keep in touch despite changing numbers and locations and im able to maintain a connection that facilitates meeting up and making time for each other. So I choose to remove half the Facebook equation from my life.
The Law of the Vital Few: In many settings, 80% of a given effect is due to just 20% of the possible causes.
All activities, regardless of their importance, consume the same limited store of time and attention. If you service low-impact activities, you are taking time away from high-impact activities that offer substantially more rewards per unit of time. Therefore, invest in higher activity and increase the benefit.
Quit Social Media
Stuff accumulates in people’s lives because of the worry of “What if I need this one day”. Ryan Nicodemus had a system for identifying and getting rid of the things in his life that he didn’t need. He packed up all his things in boxes and for the next 30 days, if he needed something, he went to the box, got it out and whatever was left in the box at the end of those 30 days, he realized wasn’t adding much value to his life.
Apply this to your social media choices. Take a hiatus from all social media for 30 days. Don’t deactivate and don’t announce (important), just stop using. After 30 days of this ask yourself two questions about each of the services you quit.
Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
Did people care that I wasn’t using the service?
If the answer is “no” to each of the questions, drop it. Otherwise, examine your time and decide for yourself.
The key is to free yourself from the convincing marketing at the center of all these platforms which is if you don’t use them you might miss out. Once you go through, you can determine for yourself if you really did miss out.
Lastly, just an interesting note on the interactions on social media. If you have 200 followers on a platform, it can be easy to believe that your activities on these services are important because people volunteered to hear what you have to say. But think of how you get new followers. You follow someone and they in turn follow you. You trade likes to keep engagement up.
“I’ll pay attention to what you say if you pay attention to what I say - regardless of its value”
By dropping off these services, you can test the reality of your status as a content producer.
So by taking a hiatus, this experiment should give a more grounded view of the role social media plays in your daily existence. Maybe you find they’re derailing you from important things, maybe they are at the core of your existence. Either way, you won’t know until you try life without them.
Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself
Arnold Bennett - an Early twentieth century English writer - wrote about the new class of the “White collar worker”. It was at this time when it became possible to have a job where you spent a set amount of time in an office and received a steady salary in return - the now typical 8 hour work day.
Bennett noted that beyond the 8 hours people were working, they had about 16 hours left in the day. However, he saw that many people didn’t recognize it’s potential. He said in his 1910 self help classic, “How to live on 24 hours a day” that
“The great and profound mistake which my typical man makes in regard to his day is even though he doesn’t enjoy his work and see it as something to get through, he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as ‘the day’ to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue. This is an attitude that is utterly illogical and unhealthy”
He suggests looking at those sixteen hours as a “day within a day” and spend it as an aristocrat would - performing rigorous self-improvement - a task primarily involving reading great literature and poetry.
This is a little antiquated but the idea of doing something structured and productive like reading, or a sport or class, or even spending time with a friend is better and more productive for the mind and soul than spending your leisure time on clicking and surfing through least common denominator digital entertainment. You’d likely fall into despair at the lack of progress in this area of human development.
So try to set some time, no internet, read a book, have an activity, I’d say play a video game - Newport may disagree - but as long as it’s deliberate and with determination, it’s better than giving your attention to social media designed to grab your attention and keep you on. Also, remember to embrace boredom. If you’re in the line at the store or on the bus etc. don’t fall back to social media to give yourself something to do.
“One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity: they do not tire like an arm or leg. All they want is change-not rest, except in sleep”
Just one note before I continue summarizing this chapter. It seems that the ideas strategies here pertain to people who are advanced in their careers. While the techniques earlier on may apply to entry level workers, some of the advice here - especially later in the chapter - I think would resonate more strongly with those who have experienced a decent amount of success and are fighting off distractions.
Consider 37signals (now called Basecamp). They launched an experiment shortening their workweek to four days. Upon its success, they made it permanent between the months of May and October. While there was criticism calling into question the effectiveness of of cramming 40 hours into 4 days, co-founder Jason Fried responded and said that wasn't the point. The point was that by limiting the working hours, employees were still producing at the same output. How? Well as Fried put it
“Very few people work even 8 hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeates the typical workday.
Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of a typical workweek. Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that’s a good thing. They don’t waste it on things that just don’t matter. When you have fewer hours you usually spend them more wisely.”
37signals took this a step further, and every year give their employees one month to work on their own passion projects. No meetings, emails or anything, just work. So many great ideas come from it that Fried asks:
“How can we afford to put our business of hold for a month to ‘mess around’ with new ideas? How can we afford not to?”
This leads to the main point of the chapter. Eliminate the ‘shallow’ work from your day to day and see how much more you can get done in your limited time. Deep work takes cognitive capacity and the most effective deep workers can manage max about 4 hours. But with shallow work, that even may be hard to achieve with the other 4 hours broken up.
Shallow work is necessary in a lot of knowledge work but keeping it monitored and confined is key to taking full advantage of the hours in your day. Below are some strategies to help with that.
Schedule Every Minute of Your Day
Newport’s suggestion is at the beginning of the work day, turn to a new page of a lined notebook, mark an hour on every other line and make chunks of time to plan your work in min 30 min segments.
No need to be hyper specific. Have a task list of work that needs to get done - such as emails, reviews, planning etc. - and set up “task” chunks as well as “deep work” chunks. Block off rest, lunch and recreation as well, but just be mindful of what it is you’re going to be doing at all times.
So now, here’s where two things will go wrong. First, thing is your estimates will prove wrong. Second, you will be interrupted and new distractions will come up. This is fine, just note it, and update, move the blocks up or around if a shallow task has an urgency to it.
The goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs but instead maintain a thoughtful say in what you are going to do with your time.
What if schedule revisions become overwhelming?
Recognize that you will almost definitely underestimate the time required for most things
Just move forward and understand where you allocated less time or more time and be sure to understand yourself and push yourself as time goes on.
Use overflow conditional blocks
Allocate more time than needed for a task but do so in a block that can be repurposed for other tasks if not needed.
Be liberal with your task blocks
Deploy many during the day and make them longer than required to handle the tasks you plan to do.
Lastly, be mindful that this isn’t something to stick rigidly to. If a moment of inspiration or an interesting thought comes to you. Follow it through. It is a perfectly valid reason to ignore the schedule and you will be happier for it. Just remember that once that loses steam, go back to your schedule and rebuild it for the rest of the day and the tasks needed. Just be sure to mindful and treat your time with respect.
“You must overcome your your distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter”
Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
Consider your tasks and ask yourself a question - “How long would it take (in months) for a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in the field to complete this task?”
The point is not to train a student to do your work but understand what takes the years of knowledge, experience and expertise you have to do. When you determine this, you can understand what is it in your work that leverages expertise and leads to deep work with value. When you find that out, you can allocate time accordingly which leads to the next point.
Ask Your Boss For a Shallow Work Budget
So this here is answering the question “What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?”. Part of the reason shallow work persists in large quantities in work is we rarely see the impact of sch efforts on our schedules.
By measuring this, you can take this to your manager and say “This is how much time I spent on shallow work last week” and get an approval for that ratio. Faced with these numbers and the economic reality that it is wasteful to pay a highly trained professional to send e-mail messages, they will be forced to come to the conclusion that you just need to say no to somethings and streamline others. With this, you and your manager have an understanding of what you can afford to put aside for work that keeps the gears moving and what it takes to create something of value.
Finish Your Work by Five Thirty
Work by a commitment to your day called “fixed-schedule productivity”. Similar to the way Teddy Roosevelt worked in Chapter 2 - Limit your work week - say to 50 hours - and work backwards to determine what rules and constraints are needed to fulfill this.
Consider Radhika Nagpal of Harvard University who implemented this in her life. She made ‘sacrifices’ - limiting the amount of travel per year to 5 times (average for an academic is 12-24 times!) and placing a limit to the number of papers she would review. Taking that time back allowed her mind to refresh, give her time for deep work and produce more in less time while other professors were working evenings and weekends.
Be wary of ‘yes’ when giving your time. By doing this you become wary of engagements that are shallow and suddenly any obligation beyond your deepest efforts is suspect and seen as potentially disruptive.
Become Hard to Reach
Need to turn the attention to email since it’s so ubiquitous and one of the most shallow activities. It’s a necessary tool for much work and if you aren’t like Donald Knuth and can switch off email entirely, there are some ways to put some barriers up.
Tip #1: Make People Who Send You Email Do More Work
Set up a sender filter. Connecting with people should be something enriching and enlightening. Wherever you have your email out there, set up expectations such as Newport’s “I’ll respond to proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests”. This makes a difference in how correspondents think about their messages to him.
Similarly, Antonio Centeno - who runs Real Man Style blog - employs a two-step process. If you have a question, he diverts you to a public location as he believes it wasteful to answer the same questions again and again. Secondly, if you make it past this point, he makes you commit to checking 3 boxes
I am not asking a question that I could find searching on Google for 10 mins
I am not SPAMMING with a cut and paste generic request to promote my unrelated business
I will do a good deed for a stranger if responded to in 23 hours
This is just an example of how if you are able to do so, you can reclaim some control over your time and attention.
Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to Emails
Consider the common cookie cutter emails of work
“Do you want to grab coffee?”
“We should touch base, remind me where we’re at?”
“Wrote this, thoughts?”
How you respond to them will have a significant impact on how much time and attention the resulting conversation ultimately consumes. By firing off a quick email you save time in the moment but set yourself up for follow-ups that go nowhere.
So, before you respond take a moment to answer the following key prompt:
What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
Make your responses process centric. So for the common emails above try something like:
“Sure lets grab coffee, I’m available Tuesday and Thursday at these times, I’ll consider your reply a confirmation, if that time doesn’t work, give me a call”
“I agree, my suggestion, send me your notes, I’ll add what I remember in a shared doc, we’ll review and let’s meet in a month at this time”
“Thanks, I’ll read this, annotate it and send it back by Friday. You should have enough to go on, no need to reply or follow up unless there’s an issue”
Note these are highly condensed but I would argue, quick responses that are actionable and process driven.
Tip #3: Don’t Respond
If you don’t make a convincing case and sufficiently minimize the effort required by someone to email back, don’t expect a response. Same goes for your inbox.
Since Newport is a professor, this relates more to academics but, do not respond to an email if any of the following applies:
It’s ambiguous or makes it hard to generate a reasonable response
It’s not a question that interests you
Nothing really good or bad would happen if you did not respond
There are exceptions, but these are good guidelines for reclaiming your time. Some bad things will happen of course, but as Tim Ferris puts it
“Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.”
There’s more philosophy and examples of great focussed workers, but I think the last paragraph of the book sums it up better that I could (sic):
“If you’re willing to sidestep comforts and fears, and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning. Winifred Gallagher said “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is”. I agree. So does Bill Gates. And hopefully now that you’ve finished this book, you agree too.
So with that, I hope you find this useful. From my experience experimenting and applying some of these techniques to my life, I would offer the advice to take it slow. Much like with any muscle you’re trying to build, whether it’s trying to play a tough riff or solo on the guitar or training to run a marathon, take it step by step. Try out small chunks, figure out what is having a positive effect on your life and once it becomes a habit, keep layering and building on top of it. For me, I’ve found keeping a timer and quantifying how long I spend on tasks as well as Seinfeld’s chain method has really resonated with me. I was able to apply those techniques to study for an exam - something I haven’t done in four years - and be comfortable and confident in what I learned and get a grade I’m really happy with. See what works best for you.
Thanks for stopping by and always feel free to get in touch!