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Deep Work: How To Reclaim The Lost Art of Concentration

Distractions, distractions, distractions. Today's world is plagued with shallow instant gratification. Learn how you can use deep work to regain focus.

Jerry Zhang
Jerry Zhang
·

5 min read

Sometimes I’ll go through phases where I’ll read all books written by a particular author. One of these authors is Cal Newport, a Georgetown professor that publishes not only academic papers on the study of computer science, but also tips on how to succeed in life. I’ve read all his books, and they are really good. In Deep Work, Cal Newport emphasizes the importance of maintaining focus in order to produce excellent results in a shorter amount of time.

Deep Work vs 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. Deep work allows you to produce better results in less time.

Examples of deep work:

  • Writing original content, be it an article or a book
  • Researching and synthesizing information
  • Reading an academic paper or a similarly dense subject
  • Data analysis
  • Computer programming

On the flip side, Cal Newport defines “shallow work” as not cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Examples of shallow work:

  • Processing work emails
  • Scheduling meetings
  • Filling out a spreadsheet
  • Taking notes in meetings
  • Day-to-day routine tasks that can be easily replicated

Notice that deep work requires focus, whereas shallow work does not. In addition, the results of deep work are hard to replicate, but the results of shallow work are not. Because deep work is rare, it is increasingly more valuable in today’s economy.

Why Deep Work is Valuable

The tremendous impact of technology is rapidly shifting the state of the economy. Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are automating several low-skilled positions, such as manufacturing and call center positions. Even though technology continues to grow, it will take a good amount of time before it can perform deep work.

Cal Newport argues that two groups have the opportunity to thrive in the New Economy:

1. Highly skilled workers

Highly skilled workers who are able to work creatively with intelligent machines have the advantage. Professions such as engineers, computer programmers, and data scientists are contributing to the next technology revolution, and thus are in high demand.

2. Superstars in their field

If you are the top of your field, you are also positioned to thrive in the New Economy. The internet has made talent universally accessible. Quality is not something that you can simply add up–it takes going deeper to produce higher quality results. Take singing for example–it takes talent and years of training in order to become the best. In these winner-take-all markets, there is a premium to being the best.

Why Deep Work is Rare

We live in a Culture of Connectivity. The internet has made it too easy to stay connected constantly. We have become addicted to our devices and cannot live without them. How angsty did you get the last time WiFi became slow or you lost connection to your cellular data?

Instant gratification is now the norm. We expect results to be delivered to us instantaneously, and cry foul if we receive it even a few seconds late. People are having a harder time putting down their devices for fear of missing out (FOMO) on even the tiniest detail when in truth, these tiniest details have but the least significant impact on their lives.

In a business setting, there are two main reasons why Deep Work is rare:

  1. The Principle of Least Resistance: when no clear objective is defined, we will be as lazy as we can get away with.
  2. Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity: when no clear metrics are defined, we will measure our productivity based on how busy we appear.

How to Practice Deep Work

Cal Newport makes a pretty compelling case on the value of deep work and why having the ability to work deeply can be a significant advantage. Below are the lessons I learned on how to become better at practicing deep work.

1. Focus on the Wildly Important.

First, we need to start by reducing the number of things that we’re working on. It’s great that you may be ambitious, but let’s first start by toning it down a little. Less is more. If you try to do everything, you’ll end up accomplishing nothing. Think through your goals, and just pick 3 or less for now. Once you’ve accomplished one, you can always add another. Of course, it will help if you maintain a backlog of your goals so that you can get to them once you knock some of them out.

Now that you’ve narrowed your focus on a marco-level, it’s time to start honing in at a micro-level. Start ruthlessly cutting down on time-consuming commitments and trivial activities. Don’t get distracted by social media. Learn to say no to most things and yes only to the things that truly matter.

Set aside time dedicated to focusing on your task and literally nothing else. While you work deeply, make sure you are completely unreachable, because distractions will break your focus.

2. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

People play differently when they’re keeping score. In order to combat The Principle of Least Resistance and using Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity, define metrics that impact your bottom line. For example, on my blog, I use two metrics.

Metric 1: the number of hours spent on writing blog posts. This metric measures the quantity of deep work.

Metric 2: the days in which I publish blog posts. This metric measures the the results of my deep work.

3. Create a Cadence of Accountability

The goal here is to force people to confront their own scoreboard to celebrate their progress, but also learn how to improve and do better.

In team settings, this means getting into a rhythm of meeting up to discuss your progress and results. Ideally, the meeting should be short, sweet, and to the point so as to not take away time from doing deep work.

For an individual, this doesn’t mean that you are allowed to skip out on accountability. The individual will need to define a regular interval to look at their own scoreboard.

I’m currently in the process of setting up my own scoreboard right now, and will post it back here once I complete it.

4. Be Lazy

That’s right, you read that correctly! I just told you to be lazy. But wait, how will being lazy help me work deeply? Because you need downtime to rest and recharge.

Deep work is about using bursts of focus energy. Since we only have a limited amount of focus energy throughout our day, any work we do after exhausting our focus energy won’t be as productive. Therefore, we would be wise to simply rest up and recharge our focus energy for the next day.

Does that mean we are totally useless once we use up our focus energy? No. Even while not actively focusing, we may stumble upon the insight we’ve been desperately searching for. Not something to be expected, but in my personal experience, this has happened on multiple occasions. A nice bonus, if it does happen.

Conclusion

And there you have it! My summary on Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Overall, I agree with Cal Newport that the internet has really made our generation far more susceptible to distraction. The ability to work deeply is quite rare and therefore valuable–one who is able to harness this ability will reap the benefits in today’s economy.

However, Cal Newport takes it a step further and urges us to quit social media—something I don’t completely agree on. Sure, social media is one of the main causes of distraction, but I do think social media has benefits. For example, it allows us to stay broadly connected to our friends and acquaintances. It also allows for the quick spreading of news, which can be especially useful in political activism and journalism. Therefore, I advocate a balance—as long as you exert self-control and don’t let it be a distraction, you’ll be able to take advantage of the benefits of social media without being distracted by it.

Deep Work—Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World

deep work book cover

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Jerry Zhang

Programmer, YouTuber, and amateur musician. I like to write too!