Deep Work: What I Learned

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University who performed his doctoral training in theoretical computer science at MIT. A few years ago, a college friend several years senior to me and who had helped me in my math studies recommended that I read Newport's book Deep Work. I bought a copy last year through a "personal development" fund offered to employees at my previous job, and I recently sat down to read it.

I tend to stay away from self-help books because most are useless. But Newport's book cannot be lumped in with the others. He develops many solid strategies for enhancing productivity and solidifies his arguments with historical accounts, personal anecdotes, and scientific studies.

The following is neither a summary nor a review of the book, but a collection of Newport's points that stuck with me along with my own reflections.

What is deep work?

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.

Great work that significantly improves society almost always comes from deep work. There is a myth that has pervaded the fabric of American society that comes from movies like Good Will Hunting. The myth claims that brilliance is either acquired genetically or through laborious grinding all day, every day. To the contrary, brilliance is achieved most of the time by working isolatedly on singular problems. Mathematicians of the caliber of Gauss or Newton developed their theories by working on their problems this way in a state of monomania. They would not have been able to do so had they spent their days in meetings or on small errands, or grinding.

But how can people with multiple responsibilities devote themselves completely to one aspect of their work and ignore the more banal but equally necessary tasks? Newport returns many times to the example of Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychoanalyst. Jung had to balance the development of his important psychological theories with the less interesting tasks of a generally sought-after person. To explicitly discriminate these two aspects of his professional work, Jung built a stone tower in the woods where he would retreat for extended periods of time to develop his theories. Even though this took Jung away from the patients in his clinical practice, prioritizing deep work allowed Jung to form the theories that would change the world.

A lot of modern work is fundamentally in opposition to deep work. Jobs requiring constant attention to email, large meetings one after the other, and a packed schedule fall under shallow work, which Newport defines as:

Noncognitively 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.

Many people work "bullshit jobs". Their day-to-day involves scheduling meetings and pushing around emails "like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction." Before the coronavirus lockdown, frequent meetings and a fun social office environment could have hidden the BS. I wouldn't be surprised if many people are now noticing the shallowness of their work.

My own half-baked theory is that there is systemic incentivization to do shallow work, and this has lead to a societal-level dearth in great innovation—as Marc Andreesen said, a lack of building. Newport writes about how challenging it is for journalists to do great journalism when they are encouraged by employers such as the New York Times to be active on Twitter. I suspect that being active on Twitter degrades the sense of professional ethics among journalists who become pressured to succumb to the online mob that wields the power to cancel someone who is not on the right side of an issue.

It's certainly possible to succeed professionally without deep work. Many important jobs do require shallow work, and deep work isn't the only valuable skill. But even if you don't use deep work every single day, Newport provides two reasons why it's still an important skill to cultivate in case you do need it:

To remain valuable in our economy … you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don't cultivate this ability, you're likely to fall behind as technology advances.
If what you're producing is mediocre, then you're in trouble, as it's easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.

So, deep work is important to keep up with new technology and to make sure that new technology doesn't make you replaceable. The twin effect of deep work becoming increasingly rare and valued is what Newport calls the Deep Work Hypothesis:

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

How does one cultivate deep work?

Neurologically, deep work is cultivated by developing myelin, the fatty tissue surrounding axons that "allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner." The 2009 book The Talent Code talks about a branch of science arguing that you develop skills as you develop more myelin, which happens as you force a specific brain circuit to fire again and again in isolation. Another book that talks about the concept of training brain circuits in isolation is Charles Duhigg's 2012 book The Power of Habit, which I highly recommend. Essentially, according to Newport:

Why it's important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger myelination. By contrast, if you're trying to learn a complex new skill … in a state of low concentration … you're firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually want to strengthen.

Newport poses the example that students who perform the best academically spend far less time studying than do their peers, arguing that these high-performing students "understood the role intensity plays in productivity, and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration." Here is my selection of the practices that Newport suggests to cultivate this skill:

  1. Cut out social media.
    I've scrubbed all social media apps from my phone and deleted the ones I didn't have a practical use for (Facebook the prime example). We mistakenly tend to think that any benefit social media might offer far outweighs its costs. To cut out social media, try to first remove it from one aspect of your day-to-day; for example, first stop checking social media during your lunch, and then move on to other parts of your day.

  2. Do your work inside a strictly set time interval.
    Set a strict schedule for your work. We tend to underestimate the cost of "task switching". It's actually highly unproductive to work for a few hours, then come home, and then work again, because we are inefficient during those transitional periods.

  3. Keep a scoreboard.
    Don't just keep your tasks in your head. I tend to write all my daily tasks on a piece of paper (NOT digitally) either right at the start of the day or at the end of the previous day. This allows me to differentiate my shallow and deep tasks, and allot the appropriate time to each. It also keeps me honest.

  4. Know which tasks are shallow and which are deep.
    If you know which tasks are shallow, you can tell how much work you're really doing everyday. To know which tasks are shallow, Newport uses the metric of how long would it take to train a college graduate with an unrelated major to perform the task.

  5. Be bimodal.
    All of the above practices build up to being bimodal. Refer to Jung's tower in the woods. Within your work, separate the deep from the shallow. Holistically, separate work from play.

  6. Busyness is not a virtue.
    You cannot be on all the time, so allow yourself to be off when it's necessary.

The Maker's Schedule

Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator and Hacker News, has an essay differentiating between the "maker's schedule" and the "manager's schedule."

Most powerful people are on the manager's schedule. It's the schedule of command. But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.

People on the manager's schedule always have something going on the next hour. Another meeting, another 1-to-1 over coffee, another phone call. For someone on the maker's schedule, a meeting can be absolutely disastrous: "A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in."

Conflicts can arise when the manager and the maker coincide. Since powerful people tend to operate on the manager's schedule, the decisions they make can hurt those on the maker's schedule. I've previously worked a complex, skill-intensive job where I had to be in a different meeting or work on a different task every hour or even every half-hour. For someone who needs to operate on the maker's schedule, deep work is not possible on the manager's schedule. It's important to be aware of these different modes of operating to harness maximum productivity.

Adopting Newport's techniques has already had positive effects on my work, and I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to improve their ability to focus on important work.