Deep work: the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.

Our world increasingly puts cognitive pressure on our jobs. Gone are the days of manual, repetitive drudgery, the hazardous physical work that we implicitly associate with the very word work. In entering the information era, we enter a market of possibilities, but most of them are information work. It is the office job, the sales job, the service job, even the student. What these have in common is the focus on cognition. All this is obvious. What is less obvious is that merely performing a cognitive task is not what brings success. According to Newport, there are two types of cognitive tasks: shallow and deep, and only deep work is what propels us forward.

Deep work cannot be multitasked and cannot be performed distractedly. What’s worse, the whole world is changing in a way that makes deep work harder than ever before. The rise of the internet, instant messaging, and smartphones all contribute to a decreased attention span, with a distraction machine available a swipe away. Therefore, to succeed today we must hone our ability to do deep work and do it well, at the same time when it is getting ever harder to do so.

The book is broadly separated into two parts. First, it defines deep work and convinces you why it is important. Then it identifies all type of shallow work that keeps us and makes us busy, but is not worth the time: email, social media, etc. Finally, it helps you achieve this with a comprehensive guide on the implementation of a deep work oriented life. It offers a multitude of practical tips, as well as broad narratives according to which we should structure our life if we want to maximize deep work, e.g. reducing social media time.

First, you must focus on the wildly important work: What is it that you must do? What will lead you to your desired goal? Know yourself. In addition to realizing what this work is, you must quantify how you are doing using lag and lead measures. Not just your goals, but the work you are doing. For example, if your goal is to write a book (lag measure), measure the number of paragraphs or pages you write every day. (lead measure). The lag measure is the important one, but is an inconsistent estimator of your work output. Therefore, to gauge your actual day-to-day productivity, you can count the number of deep work hours (generally), or pages written in this case.

Lastly, there are a plethora of short but useful techniques by Newport. Here are some of his tips:

  1. Schedule your deep work: if this is truly the most important thing you should do, then it is absolutely imperative that you find the time for it.
  2. Schedule your downtime: forces you to put more thought into your leisure time, which means more quality time spent.
  3. Set and endtime: lets you (and your subconscious) truly relax after a good day's work.
  4. Practice saying no: gives you more time to do what is truly important (deep work)
  5. Meditation: trains your mind to be focused and attentive.
  6. Digital minimalism: resets your brain back to when it wasn't a distraction machine.
  7. Keep a scoreboard: no need to rely on your faulty remembering machine. It has the added benefit of motivating you to "not break the chain"
  8. Minimize email chains: use process focused language (e.g. schedule specific meeting dates instead of endless back-and-forth emails)
  9. Extra:
    • Use headphones: removes noise-related distractions
    • In the mornings work remotely from home
    • Email twice per day late morning/late afternoon
    • Disable phone notifications
    • "Clear to neutral": at the end of the day close all tabs, programs, downloads, desktop, trash

This book is a must-read for anyone who needs to use their brain every day, which is (I hope) everyone.