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Deep Work: How to Develop the Most Valuable Skill of the 21st Century

deep work

Some books you read, and then forget. Others change a small part of your life. Then there are the rare gems that fundamentally change the way you think, live, and work.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport is one of the later (my Deep Work summary here).

As the world advances, three kinds of people will survive and prosper:

Deep Work focuses on the third type. To become one, you need to develop two skills: the ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Deep Work is the concept that interlinks these two skills.

Hard things are complex and you need to give them all of your attention and focus.

The batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches is key to high productivity.

The new law of productivity is:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

So why aren’t we all performing Deep Work?

“Deep work is hard and shallow work is easier and in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving.”

Our goal is to systematically develop your personal ability to go deep — and by doing so, reap great rewards.

What Is Deep Work?

Each task on your list can be divided into two main categories: deep work and shallow work.

Cal Newport defines deep work as:

“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.”

On the other spectrum, we have shallow work:

“Noncognitively 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.”

These are the rituals of the modern workplace, such as meetings, emails, and reports. While they are hard to escape, you should make a conscious effort to diminish the time spent on them in order to maximize the time you have for deep work activities.

The world is a distracting place and we are more distracted than ever.

We constantly engage most of our time on shallow work activities, thus reducing our capacity to perform deep work. As a result, this ability is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly valuable in our economy.

Only the few who cultivate this skill and make it the core of their working life will thrive.

Deep Work is about working smarter, not harder.

It is the superpower of the 21st century.

How to Develop the Ability to Do Deep Work

In order to make this guide easier to follow, I broke it down into 5 simple steps:

  1. Choose Your Deep Work Philosophy: there are four strategies — monastic, bimodal, rhythmic or journalist — to integrate Deep Work into your life on a sustained basis. Decide on your philosophy and start designing your work accordingly
  2. Make Deep Work a Habit: commit to scheduling Deep Work blocks into your calendar and sticking to them. Build rituals and routines to minimize friction in your transition to depth, such as choosing your Deep Work location, timeframe and execution method
  3. Execute Like a Business: knowing what to do and how to do it are two very different things. To successfully implement high-level strategies, focus on the wildly important, act on the lead measures, keep a compelling scoreboard, and create a cadence of accountability
  4. Remove Distractions: constant task switching lessens our capacity to focus. I’ll provide a few tips on how you can remove distractions in order to improve your focus
  5. Use Downtime to Enhance Deep Work Efforts: we can be fully focused for only about 4 hours a dayLong stretches of intense concentration should be balanced with quality rest. Rest is something that everyone does. But mastering the skill of rest can transform your life and make you more productive

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Choose Your Deep Work Philosophy

In an environment and culture that makes Deep Work difficult, we have to add smart routines and rituals to our working life. Design them to minimize the amount of our limited willpower necessary in transitions and maintain unbroken concentration.

There are four philosophies to integrate Deep Work into your life on a sustained basis:

Decide on your philosophy and start designing your work accordingly.

Only you know what works best for you. A strategy that may work for one person can be a failure for another.

Still unsure about the right deep work philosophy for you? In this video, I cover all 4 philosophies in detail.

Step 2: Make Deep Work a Habit

After choosing your work philosophy, you must ruthlessly commit to scheduling Deep Work blocks into your calendar and sticking to them. Scheduling in advance takes away the need to use willpower.

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

To make the most out of each session, build rituals and routines to minimize friction in your transition to depth:

  1. Where: identify a location used only for depth, such as a conference room or a quiet library
  2. How Long: set a specific time frame for each Deep Work session. Always have an end time rather than keeping it open-ended
  3. How: your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. Should you ban internet during Deep Work sessions? Are there metrics like pages, words, etc. that you can use to measure your work productivity?
  4. Support: to maximize success, you need systematized support — so you deplete willpower — your efforts to go deep. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy

Step 3: Execute Like a Business With 4DX

Knowing what to do and how to do it are two very different things.

Individuals and companies focus a lot of time and resources figuring out the what but fail to figure out how to execute the identified strategy. Execution is more difficult than strategizing.

The book The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) describes 4 “disciplines” to successfully implement high-level strategies:

Step 4: Remove Distractions

We live in a world of distraction.

Long uninterrupted stretches of time at work are all but impossible. And we are distracted on our personal lives, by television or social media.

As a result, our attention span has decreased. Our brain expects and requests distraction.

“Interruption, even if short, delays the total time required to complete a task by a significant fraction”

Constant task switching lessens our capacity to focus. Deliberate focused work, on the other hand, leads to the reinforcement of neural pathways.

Here’s how to remove distractions and improve focus:

Step 5: Use Downtime to Enhance Deep Work Efforts

Long stretches of intense concentration should be balanced with quality rest.

Research shows that we can be fully focused for only about 4 hours a day. After that, our ability to focus intensely decreases.

Rest is very important to enhance your Deep Work efforts.

“At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning — no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.”

You must be equality ruthless in protecting your rest as you are with your Deep Work.

Here’s why downtime is so important:

  1. New Insights: as your conscious mind rests, the unconscious mind takes over and provides valuable insights or creative ideas and consolidates memories
  2. Recharge: rest fills up the energy needed to work deeply. You restore your ability to direct your attention by giving this activity a rest
  3. Evening Work Is Usually Not Important: work that you fit in your downtime isn’t normally high-value activities that really advance your career but rather low-value shallow tasks (executed at a slow, low-energy pace)

Quality downtime is not mindless web browsing or watching Netflix. Be more intentional with tech by adopting digital minimalism and doing a digital detox.

Rest is something that everyone does.

But mastering the skill of rest can transform your life and make you more productive.

How to Get Better at Deep Work

Improving your Deep Work ability is a process and as such you need to practice it constantly.

Here’s how to get better at Deep Work:

As with any new practice, adjust it to your own life.

There’s no one-size-fits-all model of Deep Work. There’s only the way that works for you.

And once you find it, you’ll become unstoppable.

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