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Deep Work Summary (6/10)

Deep Work Summary (6/10) 1Deep Work is a book about prioritization. It’s about structuring your day more thoughtfully and getting the most out of the finite attention you have.

Things like social media and the many internet tools and distractions that exist today are a media junkie’s dream. And if you’re someone who uses those tools for work, you might just be fooling yourself. Spending time on twitter skimming through hundreds of random posts every day, and trying to engage people on the platform one to one gives you the illusion that you’re getting quality work done, but that’s why you should be careful.

Shallow Work vs Deep Work

Newport differentiates between two types of work, Shallow work and Deep work. Shallow work is effortless, can be accomplished in short periods of time, and doesn’t require much brain power, while deep work is difficult, immersive, and requires you to commit for longer periods of time. Shallow work is what you can do when you are in a waiting line for fifteen minutes with your smartphone, while Deep work is something you can only do when you are in an environment that is devoid of distractions.

Another way to discern between the two is to imagine hiring an intern to work for you. Assuming they are bright, you should try to estimate how much time it would take you to teach them to accomplish the different tasks you do every day. The things you can train them to do easily, within days or weeks are considered Shallow work. The tasks that require a steeper learning curve and months and even years to master are considered Deep work. An example of Shallow work might be to manage a social media account, while learning to review an academic paper would be a form of Deep work.

Attention switching

Attention residue is what happens when you constantly switch between tasks. The myth that some people have a unique ability to multi-task has little evidence supporting it. Switching from one task to another will scatter your attention and will lead to poorer quality work on all the different tasks that you attempt.

The reason you tend to switch attention often is boredom. The key is to embrace the boredom, because that’s the only way you can push your attention threshold further. Once you can resist the temptation to task switch, you simultaneously increase your ability to engage in deep work.

The Advantage of Deep Work

Deep work is great – in fact, according to Newport, it’s necessary. And it’s becoming even more valuable. In a world where people’s attention spans are getting shorter, the ability to produce high quality work is at a premium.

Think about it this way: Most people are distracted by social media and other forms of internet crack, so the minority of people that aren’t have a big advantage. They can spend their time developing their skills for accomplishing more difficult tasks. By pushing their attention spans to the limit, their cognitive abilities increase with time, making them more productive and competent.

Best-selling authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis avoid the madness of social media for exactly that reason. But they can afford to do that. They don’t need to engage in futile (almost) exercises in self-promotion, because they’ve built reputations that will guarantee them sales for their next book. Entrepreneurs and authors who haven’t built that kind of reputation don’t have the ability to do that. But Newport argues that there is a way to work around that.

A Realistic Compromise

Instead of spending all your time in Deep work (The Monastic method), you can choose from a number of more realistic alternatives. You can do what Jung did, and follow the Bimodal system where you alternative between long hours of Deep work and Shallow work, or you can use a Rhythmic system where you allocate a fixed amount of time in your schedule that you dedicate to Deep work. Finally, you can use the Journalistic method where you immerse yourself in Deep work whenever your schedule allows for it.

The idea is that not everyone is Michael Lewis, most people need to reply to emails, go to meetings, and be very responsive. But Newport isn’t telling you to necessarily make major changes to your work schedule. He’s simply telling you to re-prioritize your tasks. Figure out what’s Shallow work and what’s Deep work. Do the minimum amount of Shallow work possible – while doing the maximum amount of Deep work you can.

Ultimately, Deep work is hard, and it is not for everyone. It requires you to put yourself through a lot of stress and to do consistently. Many people would prefer to live with the illusion that they are being productive than really be productive. But if you are serious about pushing yourself to new limits and creating valuable work, then you have to do Deep work. To be creative and insightful requires you to do work that is immersive and effortful. There is no shortcut.

Work Outside of Work

A lot of people fall for the trap of thinking of their work days as revolving completely around their work. If your job requires you to work for 8 hours, then you have 16 hours that you can use to do whatever you want. Assuming you will use 6-8 hours to sleep, you are still left with a significant amount of time to do things. But instead of organizing your free time, it’s tempting to revert to a passive mode of TV binge watching. We assume that relaxing requires us to put in less cognitive effort. That planning our free time is too much work, and it would instead be better for our productivity to take our foot off the gas and be more spontaneous.

Being in passive mode is never optimal. It’s not that we relax when our time isn’t structured, and we are less engaged – it’s boring and exhausting. This point is counter-intuitive but important. It’s possible to relax for around thirty minutes or an hour by meditating, for example. But the idea that all of our free time should be unstructured will make us susceptible to distractions, especially of the lowest common denominator form.

When you have nothing to do, you will probably do whatever is most convenient. You will do things that are addictive, but not substantive, fulfilling, or rewarding. You will end your day on a low, instead of on a high. And you will start your work day less energetic than more. Our bodies need rest, and our brains need sleep, but while we’re awake, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be immersed in what we’re doing, work or otherwise.

Deep work accomplishes two important goals. One, it makes a solid case for why Deep work is necessary to produce quality work, and why resisting the urge to binge on the many forms of infotainment and social media is an important precursor. Two, it gives you a realistic road-map to find ways of doing Deep work without sacrificing much (or any) of the value you get from doing shallow work.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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