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Key insights from

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

By Cal Newport

What you’ll learn

Cal Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” According to Newport, deep work is the kind of work that’s meaningful to us and to others. In other words, the kind of work that only you can do adds tremendous value to you as an individual and the company you are advancing. Our work has our stamp on it, making it unrepeatable and irreplicable. We draw out our fullest potential when we immerse ourselves in deep work experiences, but how do we get to that state of deep work? And how do we stay there? For all our potential, much of it remains latent because we habitually siphon off our limited energies to support irrelevancies. Newport tells us why deep work matters and gives us some practical tools for achieving deep work in our own lives. His basic rules are: work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media, and drain the shallows.


Read on for key insights from Deep Work.

1. Developing a philosophy of deep work that works for you is an important place to start.

You only have so much willpower. It doesn’t make you weak—just human. A flagging will is not a character issue so much as it is a strategy issue. During the day there are so many decisions before us that sap vital internal resources. Getting into deep work means designing rhythms and environments that maximize the will and drive you can dedicate to what you care about most, not the hundreds of distractions waiting in the wings.

Deep work arrangements look different for everyone. In 1922, Carl Jung built a tower near the coast of Lake Zurich in Switzerland after coming back from India where he observed homes with a room devoted to the practice of meditation. It was a haven devoted to exploring his internal landscape away from people and noise. This radical seclusion allowed him to think deep, uninterrupted thoughts and continue building a robust theory of psychoanalysis that could rival Sigmund Freud’s. Jung split his time between theory building in intense, monastic-like solitude in the tower, and his clinical practice with clients in town.

Jung’s bimodal approach won’t be as helpful for everyone. It’s probably not feasible for most of us. If you are, for example, a young husband and father working on a PhD, you’ll need an approach that can accommodate a life full of unexpected happenings. A rhythmic philosophy of deep work will help you more. Your life is going to be full of interruptions, necessitating times and spaces that will be completely distraction free. Writing from 5:00–7:30 every morning before heading to work might be the only way to ensure you have a window for uninterrupted deep work.

The rhythmic approach makes the most sense for most people. Still others adopt a journalistic philosophy of deep work, where they use any spare moment to work. This approach to deep work is not for the deep work novice. The journalistic approach requires a burning passion and the self-assurance that what you are doing really, really matters. It also requires an ability to pivot instantly into a deep work writing mode. Journalists are trained to do that, but most of us are not.

The overall effect of implementing your philosophy is a sense of ritual. Ritual might feel strange or confining, but experts on creativity urge us not to get pulled around by every little spasm of inspiration. Some even advise us to ignore those spasms and open up consistent windows to work deeply. In other words: Implement ritual if you want to be truly creative.

2. Building your ritual will strengthen your deep work.

Whatever deep work philosophy you develop, you will have to knead out a  few questions. One is the location where you’ll be working and for how long. Creating the space you need could be as simple as closing the office door and working on a clean desk, or letting people know those periods of time when you can’t be reached. If you can find a location dedicated to quiet, like a library, then all the better. Come to the time with a deep challenge in mind.

Another question that you’ll need to settle is how you will work when you do start working. Do your deep work windows allow for the internet, or is the internet banned? How many words will you type every 20 minutes, or every hour? What will you do with the to-do items that want to invade your deep work headspace? Settle these questions for yourself and commit to them or you will find yourself endlessly policing your urges. This depletes your limited reservoir of willpower needed for deep work.

Yet another question you will need to settle is what practices will help enhance your deep work rituals? Will you kick off your ritual with a delicious cup of coffee? Or keep your fridge stocked with healthy foods that won’t make you crash? Perhaps making some time to exercise in the middle of the session would keep you sharp. Create a system for these supports so they become ingrained rather than constantly feeling like extra last-minute things on the to-do list.

These questions will help shape the contours of your ritual.

3. Grand gestures take your work deeper because you want to make the most of the special arrangements you’ve made for yourself to accomplish tasks.

Would you ever buy a nonstop business class flight and work while you’re airborne? What about checking into a luxury hotel where you could work in beauty and calm. You can’t do these all the time, but by investing the time and money to make a grand gesture happen, you communicate to yourself the importance of the work you’re doing, and that the work is far too important to continue kicking the can down the road.

J.K. Rowling made a grand gesture when she checked into an upscale hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, to finish The Deathly Hallows. Rowling was trying to bring her series to a conclusion that would excite and satisfy her millions of fans. The change in scenery helped her writing so substantially that she extended her stay in the Victorian style hotel—in some ways reminiscent of the imaginary world she was putting finishing touches on. Sometimes investing the money makes it easier to work and slog through demanding tasks without your inner reserves getting depleted by distractions in your normal workplace.

If you study the titans of any industry, you will discover that many of them occasionally use the grand gesture strategy. Cyber wizard and entrepreneur Bill Gates, award-winning journalists Michael Pollan and Dan Pink, and many others invest their time in silence and solitude to think and work deeply. Some build writing cabins in their backyards. Others retreat to a cabin in some remote location. One MIT physicist spends the summer on an island off the coast of Maine without phone service or internet. Duration, location, and kind of work all depend on the individual and resources available, but if you can save up for a grand gesture, you will work in a way you normally don’t to honor the gesture.

4. Open office floor plans are trendy but usually breed more distraction than creativity.

The idea of stimulating creativity through an open office structure is bunk. Common sense and a burgeoning body of research tell us open offices are a breeding ground for distraction and unfocused work. They became popular in pockets of the Silicon Valley and other hubs of innovation like MIT, and CEOs touted the benefit of stimulating creative flow and collaboration. Jack Dorsey hailed the open floor plan as a way to hold the door open for moments of serendipitous creativity. Zuckerberg appears to have had the same idea in mind when Facebook made its headquarters the largest open office space in the world: big enough to host 2,800 worker bees.

This “theory of serendipitous creativity,” as we could call it, is the hunch that everyone working in the same open space will catalyze deep thinking. One of the sources of inspiration can be traced back to the famous Building 20 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a rickety building constructed during World World II on the outskirts of MIT. Building 20 was basically a storage unit for some of the most brilliant thinkers in the world, all pushing at the frontiers of diverse fields—-everything from linguistics to rocket science. The shabby building was constantly being tweaked and restructured to fit the experiments and quirks of professors. According to local legends, the building’s ever-shifting walls and floors and unexpected cross-pollinations of ideas between professors produced revolutionary results. But was it actually helpful?

In 1998, MIT razed Building 20 and erected the Stata Building in its place. Stata had the open office hallmarks of Building 20, along with individual offices. The professors who occupied them insisted on sound-proofing technology for their individual spaces. The new building that replaced Building 20 did, however, have long mega hallways. These became the default hubs for conversation and exchange as MIT faculty traveled down the lengthy corridors together. This building layout facilitated the best parts of the “theory of serendipitous creativity” without the distractions endemic to open office plans. It allowed the best of individual and collaborative environments.

Making space for the meeting of the minds matters, but if there’s nothing more than stimulation and excitement, you’re just socializing. Intentional socialization is fine, but collaboration is best harnessed for deep work in an environment that allows retreat for further investigation of those hallway eureka moments.

5. What you do with your off time will improve or impede your ability to do deep work.

When you have downtime, are you willing to let yourself be bored?

What you’re doing with your off-time matters just as much as what you do with your deep work time. If you spend non-deep work hours consumed by distractions and eradicating any trace of boredom, you won’t get as much out of your deep work.

Some of us would like to think that we are the exception, that we, unlike the masses, are perfectly capable of buckling down and concentrating when we need to. But statistics show you’re likely to be part of the statistical majority that cannot resist distraction. To complicate matters further, once you are hooked on distraction, it is difficult to extricate yourself from its clutches. It becomes a drug. What we need is a dramatic rewiring of the brain to allow our powers of concentration to be honed. That means embracing boredom.

Before we go any further, let’s rip the band-aid off: Internet Sabbaths and digital detoxes are the most popular solutions, but these fail to get to the heart of things. These mini-vacations from tech bring some benefit, but they do not rewire the brain the way we need. If you started eating the most nutritious foods in the world on Sunday, but binged pizza and sugary drinks the rest of the week, your health would not improve as dramatically as you might have hoped. In the same way, setting aside your phone and internet for one day a week or for a few hours a day is a noble impulse, but it won’t carry the day if we are looking to break free from our cycles of distraction that sabotage our deep work.

So if digital detoxes don’t work, what will? For simplicity’s sake, let’s conflate the internet with distraction more generally. What would happen if you saved all your internet time for a few hours a day and then refused to get stuck in the Web until the next designated window of opportunity? What if you made this a hard-and-fast rule, that you followed without exception—no matter how urgently you thought you needed it?

When we switch from under-stimulating but highly important tasks to overstimulating but trivial tasks at the tiniest trace of difficulty or boredom or mental resistance, we train our brains to depend on the newest-and-latest to sustain us. Research shows that multitaskers who impulsively toggle between tasks don’t acquire the skill of concentrating or the skill of separating what matters from what doesn’t.

By limiting and isolating the window of internet time, you allow your attention selection muscles to flex and grow, and you will become more adept at determining what needs your sustained attention and what does not. Ultimately, the problem is less with the distraction itself than with the mental toll required to switch between tasks.

6. Figure out your relationship to online tools and decide if they are central to your most cherished personal and professional goals.

Broadly speaking, people approach social media and other network tools in one of two ways: Let’s call them the “any-benefit approach” and the “craftsman approach.”

As the name suggests, the any-benefit approach looks at an online tool and asks, “Is there any conceivable benefit to this?” The answer is usually “yes”—even if the benefit is only slight or outweighed by the downsides. The craftsman approach, by contrast, asks, “Does this service help me accomplish my most important personal or professional goals?” and cuts out the services that do not move the needle on those goals.  

It probably won’t surprise you that the any-benefit approach is exceedingly popular. Any benefit, however marginal, is considered a win. The craftsman approach is more demanding because it asks us to take stock of what is most important to us and assess whether our go-to online tools augment or diminish that.

This is an invitation to abandon the shallower any-benefit mode and become a craftsman: aware of what you want, consciously selecting only the tools that help you strengthen the factors that bring your life meaning and satisfaction, and discarding the tools that deliver marginal benefit or worse, harm.

Try this out: Determine a goal that matters to you, and then list a few activities that would make that goal possible. You only need a few vital goals. Then go through the various network tools available to you (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Buzzfeed, Reddit, Business Insider, or whatever comes out in the coming years to replace them). Go through these one by one and determine whether they help or harm your most important goals, a lot or a little.

For a professor, a professional goal might be to communicate concepts to students in ways that stick. If you’re a writer, your goals could include researching meticulously and writing consistently and with an outcome in mind. Best-selling authors Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis both stay off Twitter because the platform hampers their goals of research and writing. Instead of trying to boost sales via Twitter to make their books bestsellers, they hunker and do their homework so that they can produce a book well-written enough to make it to the top.

Maybe those goals seem too niche and irrelevant. Try a personal goal like friendship. If a goal of yours is deep, meaningful friendships, what activities would go under that goal? Maybe a commitment to spending regular quality time (e.g., walks, cooking meals together) with your closest friends, or giving of yourself in sacrificial ways. You can ask, “How does Twitter help me accomplish this?” Given that these activities require offline, in-the-moment presence, Twitter would be a tool that fails to enhance those means and ends of nurturing deep friendship.

The goal here is less to get everyone off all their internet tools and more to get them thinking about whether the tools are aligned with their core values. If they are, then keep them! But whichever ones are distractions from those core values, cut them out.

Endnotes

These insights are just an introduction. If you're ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of Deep Work here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free.

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