Deep work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
“We live in a world controlled by nerds.” Quite contrary to the timid, undersized, book-carrying, girlfriend-less teenager of our now outdated pop culture, a nerd nowadays is often revered as a person that has the qualities that are valued in our current “knowledge economy.” Today, nerds are the ones who are getting paid. But why?
In Deep Work, the author does a tremendous job of explaining what qualities and outputs our new knowledge economy truly value. Most important for a reader of this article: how to obtain those qualities and outputs so that you can bring to the market something that you will be highly-compensated for.
The author agrees, as I do, that our new economy is only interested in rewarding those financially who are (1) capable of creating things that actually matter, (2) provide undeniable value and (3) who have the capacity for repetition and mastery in their given fields. Make no doubt, these people can be entrepreneurs, business owners or employees, and this book is an incredible resource for all of them.
Value will always be discovered. But how does one build that kind of undeniable value? The answer in the book, supported by its irrefutable sources, is one’s ability to engage in what we call “deep work.”
What is deep work?
Deep work is defined as professional activity performed over long, uninterrupted periods in a distraction-free environment that push cognitive capabilities to their limit. The focus of getting into this deep work state is on unbroken concentration. Deep work requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking and focus. This is your Malcolm Gladwell, deliberate practice time.
What kind of tasks require deep work?
Is the work activity that you are about to take on something that you could easily assign to a reasonably intelligent person after some training? Or is the task before you instead something that requires, frankly, you and your unique gifts and abilities?
Just as important as defining what tasks require deep work, is to understand which tasks do not require your deep work efforts. Shallow work, such as checking emails, monitoring social media, distracted meetings and conference calls, are of low value and easily replicable and thus outside the list of tasks requiring your deep work attention. Save those for non-deep work hours.
How do I engage in deep work?
Strategies abound. The book highlights examples of how people who have unquestionably made deep work contributions to our world engage in these periods of undistracted focus. The range of experiences can be from the extreme of weeks of solitude or round trip flights to Japan where one flies there, works while traveling, and immediately turns around and finishes their deep work project on the return flight because they do their best work in the air, as entertainingly recounted in the book.
For many of us, that complete ability to disconnect that I mentioned in the previous examples is not realistically feasible. Since this article is focused towards entrepreneurs who need time for deep work but who also must handle all the matters that come with managing a business on a day-to-day basis (some of those tasks best being described as shallow), the most likely way in which deep work will find itself into your daily schedule is through blocked periods of time that you set aside for deep work.
For me, and many other entrepreneurs, this often means working early mornings before others have really started their days. It is worth reiterating, that there is no science behind prioritizing deep work in your schedule (although the book makes the point that we are generally at our best mentally between 2:30 to 4:00 hours after waking up). Rather, it is just about making sure you have those distraction-free blocks where you can take on tasks of incredible value in a hyper-focused manner.
In the book, the author dives into the ideal quantity of time for those who are trained in this type of deliberate focus. The recommendation is 90-minute sessions of deep work, followed by 90-minutes of rest, repeated one or two more times during a given day. After that amount of ultra-high intensity focus, tests prove that returns begin to diminish. Once you have gotten your deep work periods in, then you can turn to your shallow, less important tasks, while also hitting the refresh button on your deep work capacities for the following day.
The Entrepreneur’s Deep Work Schedule
My deep work schedule looks like this, and is limited to Monday-Friday with the weekends primarily limited to “big thinking” and recharge periods. This is a system of rituals and routines. I do all that I can to protect these periods. No calls, no texts, no emails, no distractions. Through repetition, my mind now knows that when the clock hits that these are periods of time that I must maximize.
- Deep Work: 6:30 – 8:30 am: writing, business brainstorming
- Shallow/Break: 8:30 – 9:00 am: calendar scheduling; cleaning out unnecessary email; market check-in
- Deep Work: 9:00 am – 11 am: legal and other tasks requiring depth and no distractions
- Shallow: 11 am – 3 pm: I reserve this period for meetings, calls, responding to emails, Whatsapp and other colleague questions, making appointments; all the things that we as entrepreneurs need to get done but that are undoubtedly “shallow work”
- After 3 pm: Recharge: This is my recharge period. To the best extent that I can, I reserve this time for exercise, family, cooking, reading, relaxing, hobbies and, most importantly, letting my subconscious mind passively think through the items that will be the subject of tomorrow´s deep work sessions. I give my mind time to passively ponder the targeted questions the day has presented.
Other Big Takeaways
The Culture of Connectivity
Deep work and connectivity are capable of coexisting in our current work cultures. The choice is yours whether you will give yourself the time to do the things that really matter. This requires finding periods where you are effectively off the grid. Segregate your time between constant connectivity and depth. Read the book for great ideas on how to politely let other people know about these new changes to your availability.
Give Your Team Permission to Go Deep
More and more businesses are realizing the value of deep work and encouraging it among their staff. Find a way to give your employees and team members the opportunity to engage in deep work and you will benefit. This often means just letting them know that they will not be punished if they do not immediately respond to every email that hits their inbox (a constant form of stress for many workers)!
Deep Work´s Link to Happiness
Completing tasks that require deep work leads to business satisfaction and thus greater overall happiness. Knowledge workers such as computer programmers, lawyers and those in other fields whose primary currency is their power of thought, can still get the satisfaction that you see in a craftsman who builds an object of great beauty when they are allowed to work deeply. Nobody gets much pleasure out of being in a constant state of reactive email responses. On the other hand, many do derive that sense of craftsmanship out of work that was only possible due to deep and committed focus that pushed their prior abilities to new limits.
The science of downtime. For us as entrepreneurs, downtime often creates anxiety and a “what else could I be doing?” response. This book will give you, as it did me, permission to relax. Not because it preaches laziness, but because science continues to reveal that these periods of time where we turn over big questions and ideas to our subconscious minds is when our greatest thinking occurs. Our minds are no different than our bodies, requiring periods of intense, focused work followed by opportunities for recovery for growth to happen.
Convinced that deep work is something that you need to incorporate into your life? If you add deep work to your likely already-existing incredible abilities to produce work that people value, the heights that you will reach are unlimited. Want to have more value and thus get paid more than ever before in our new knowledge economy? This book and its principles of deep work will get you to that goal!