On Deep work: Rules for focused success in distracted world by Cal Newport

March 12, 2016

Short summary of the book

Author presents concept of deep work (state of flow). Long stretches of highly consecrated, focused work on cognitively demanding task. Ability to deploy all of ones mental capacity fully. It is deep work that accounts for considerable portion of value in knowledge economy.

He then goes on to make excellent case for how contemporary workplace culture actively discourages deep work. Open plan offices, expectation of instant email replies, always on chat clients, social media, frequent meetings, constant noise and chatter. Our brains are conditioned to be distracted. Quick reply to email chain. Snarky tweet, post photo on Facebook, overhearing colleagues discussing a topic and joining in. We are addicted to consumption of small disruptive bites of information or to acting on small meaningless tasks and to the false sense of accomplishment that doing so provides. We end up with decision fatigue, cognitive overload, paying high price of context switching. Worse yet these behaviours became habits for most of us. It takes practice to be able to focus deeply for long stretches of time. Value is generated when we tackle complicated, cognitively demanding task.

Author reference studies and books demonstrate benefits of focus at neurological, psychological and philosophical level. Thesis here is very similar to mindfulness meditation and parts of Stoic philosophy. Focused, steadied mind provides immense benefits not only when it comes to productivity, but also to well being and happiness in general.

I have at this point spend as much time as I can afford on summering the book, but I feel I am doing it huge disservice. There is multitude of well though out concepts and arguments that would take much longer to describe here. There is no need to rewrite them all. I have I planted a seed of curiosity. Let wrap up the description with this final pitch. If you are at all interested in being more productive, if you feel you struggle to focus at times, you should absolutely read this book.Amazon link, iBooks link and more about author Cal Newport.

Habits and changes I implemented as a result of reading the book

Authors claims that average knowledge worker only spends about hour a day doing deep work. With deliberate practice you can get about four. Considering that this is that kind of work that generates value, every minute more is very valuable. I have certainly felt generally overloaded, busy and cognitively fatigued even though I was not producing more then average.

Let’s get to practical changes. I spoke to my CEO, gave him a copy of the book and explained that I wanted to run an experiment. I would only check and reply to email twice a day. Same with Skype (what people used for chatting before slack kids). I only check it and reply to messages at 11:45 and 16:45 now. He enthusiastically agreed.

Ruthlessly cut out all sources of distraction. When I work, I only run software needed to get the task at hand done. Which is programming most of the time. I run IDE, terminal windows and git client. If I need to check something online directly related to task Im working on, I do so and then close the browser. There is not need to run anything else and risk temptation of quick distraction.

Build habits and queues for your brain to know it’s time for deep work. In my case I bought Bose QuietComfort 25 best in class noise canceling headphones. I only put them on when I really want to focus. Plus active noise canceling is obviously great when it comes to eliminating distractions.

Quit social media. You will not loose out, trust me. Give it a try for a few days. I used to run Tweetbot pretty much whole day. Checking and reading it multiple times a day. I felt like I was getting real value out of it. Like it was important. I can confidently say, this is very much not the case. I missed out very little since I stopped checking it on daily bases. I now only check it few times a few, rather then day. I find myself mostly bored do.

Beyond the work place. New media, blogs, social, news constantly bombard us with “important” information and articles. I propose that most of the articles, news we watch we read are completely worthless and pointlessly add to our cognitive load. While generating no good for anyone (apart from people who own them). This point deserves blog post of its own. Check it our here For now just trust me on it. Try not to read / watch your favourite blogs, news sites for a week. See whether you feel any different. I most certainly do. Sense of business and mental fatigue whiles accomplishing nothing is gone.

Above all practice focus. I have been doing mindfulness meditation daily, learning how to memorise order of full deck of cards and trying out concept of deliberate practice in various domains. I plan to write posts on each of those individually. To find out more have a look at Year of improvements post.

commits per weekIn term of measurable results. I pulled a git log from November 2015 to March 2016. Graph on the right shows number of commits per week. It is not an objective measure, nevertheless trend is certainly there and moving in right direction. I also maintained average of reading 3.2 books a week as well, as build number of positive habits since January. I don’t, by any mean feel I have mastered art of deep work, but I have progressed enough to experience its benefits and intent to sick to its pursuit. I would hope that I have managed to convince you to give the book and few of these habits a try. I suspect you will not regret it. Thank you for reading.

#Blog posts, #Book club, #Improvements, #Productivity, #Science