Book report: Deep Work by Cal Newport

(link to book) I read this a while ago as part of a reading group at work. Quite a bit of the content resonated with me – I’ve always found concentration on my task to be both important and rewarding, but it’s getting harder and harder to achieve these days.

Things that I thought worthy enough to bookmark:

  • The Monastic Philosophy: Schedule long periods of time time for your deep work, and isolate yourself during that time. Go physically far away from all people and distractions.
  • The Bimodal Philosophy: Alternate between deep work (in periods of at least one full day) and interaction with distractions. The distractions can give you ideas and check your thinking.
  • The Rhythmic Philosophy: This is Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” thing. Keep a calendar on your wall, and check off every day you achieve a period of deep work, and try not to break the chain. This helps develop a habit and helps you remember to set aside time for deep work every day.
  • The Journalistic Philosophy: Fit in short periods of deep work whenever you get the chance. Just sit down and do it – it doesn’t matter if you’re going to be interrupted in 20 minutes. You’ll still make some progress, and that’s better than none.
  • The Grand Gesture: If you’re finding it difficult to concentrate in your normal surroundings, make a change of scene specifically for working on something you need to do. Take a mini working vacation, with luxuries, in another city and work there.
  • Some useful disciplines:
    • Focus only on the most important thing.
    • Focus on the “lead measures”. Lag measures are your progress on the task so far. Lead measures are your new behaviors that will help you progress better.
    • Keep a compelling scorecard. Competition, even if it’s just with yourself, is motivating.
  • Idleness is important. You need downtime, relaxation and entertainment to be energized and creative. Learn to decide when you’re crossing into laziness without berating yourself for it. Sometimes you even need to do nothing at all (not even entertainment) for a while too – it leads naturally to meditation.
  • Change your perspective – instead of taking focus breaks from distraction, take breaks from focus for distraction. (This is really hard if your workplace is full of work-related distraction, as mine is.)
  • Schedule your internet use both at home and at work.
  • Meditate productively – occupy yourself physically and let your mind wander around your tasks. For example, I like to take a 30-minute walk after lunch every day, and I tend to think about work-related things during this time. It really helps organize my thoughts and make decisions.
  • Be aware of looping. If you keep going over the same thoughts over and over, When you detect a loop, concentrate on the next step.
  • Structure your deep thinking time. Identify variables and tasks, and know what your next step is.
  • Consider the means by which you select your work tools (this mainly means online and software tools):
    • The Any-Benefit approach. We tend to default to using a tool if it benefits us at all, but lately this is being exploited in ways that distract us – notably by social media and web advertising.
    • The Craftsman approach. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts substantially outweigh the negatives.
    • Identify the main high-level goals in your personal and professional lives, then list the two or three most important activities that will help you achieve those goals. Evaluate your current tools on how well they help you with these activities, and look for replacements if any are found wanting.
  • Spring cleaning: Pack everything up, uninstall all your software and log off from all your online accounts. Then unpack, reinstall or log back in the things you actually need during your work week. Get rid of everything still packed away after that.
  • Don’t use the Internet for entertainment. One click leads to another and eats up all your personal time.
  • “Drain the Shallows”: If you can clear your schedule of meetings, brainless work and other interruptions, you’ll be able to concentrate more and get more done.
    • Schedule every minute of your day. This means block off time for deep work, and block off time for petty things like email.
    • Answer this question: “What is the project represented by this email/interruption, and what is the most interruption-free way of successfully completing it?”
    • Make it your default policy to not respond to email, and write your emails in such a way that the default action of the recipient is to not respond.

If you struggle with productivity at work or at home, have distraction and concentration problems, or just want to get stuff done, it’s worth your time to read this book.

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