Deep work (secrets of the most productive people series – installment 1)

IMG_0123Note: For the next few days I will be doing posts on “secrets of the most productive people.” These are some of my favorite tips, with stories and explanations.

Many productivity books focus on the evils of distraction. In his new book, Deep Work, Cal Newport takes a different approach. Rather than re-argue that point, he instead advances the idea that the ability to focus for extended periods of time on important work is a valuable skill. Few people develop this skill. Therefore, people who can master doing “deep work” will have a competitive advantage. It is not necessary for every job, and we do not have to be fundamentalist about it, but if you want to build a thriving career without working around the clock, it is probably a good idea.

To illustrate this point, he calls upon examples from Carl Jung (who took days off from his busy psychiatry practice to muse upon countering Freud), to Adam Grant (who puts an Out-of-office email on sometimes when he is clearly in the office). Then there is Newport himself, who has managed to publish a wide variety of papers in his field (computer science), while maintaining a blog, writing several popular books, exercising, and raising two small children with his wife.

I enjoyed this book for a few reasons. First, Newport refuses to adopt the structure of either/or arguments. In order to believe that deep work is good, one need not believe that the internet, or email, is bad. Newport blogs. Many of his readers find him via the internet. His point is not that you should not be online. It is just that you are better off limiting time spent on these things, and confining that time to lower-productivity moments.

I also love his rubric on whether to use social media. The question is not whether there is any benefit to any given tool. Of course there are upsides to being on Facebook. There are downsides too. He would argue that for many people, the downsides outweigh the upsides. I find social media is effective for reaching my readers, but I also have help on the marketing side of things so it minimizes the time I personally spend in “the shallows” as Newport calls it.

He also argues that we should embrace boredom. Having a phone handy means we always have something to do. That is not necessarily a good thing. The intelligent brain can come up with amazing insights when it is not constantly mollified with cat videos. I know I have personally been trying to turn my phone off for certain chunks of time so I can let my mind wander.

Of course, any insight does not work for everyone. Newport argues against the “split shift.” Shut down at 5:30 or so, and be done for the night. In theory, there should be enough time to work during the day. However, Newport does at least one split shift (he works on his blog one night a week). And also, I think the need for a split shift may depend on how many during-the-day family responsibilities you have. My need to work at night largely arises because my day gets chopped up by things like a pediatrician appointment (for the 1-year-old today) or volunteering for the drama club for the 8-year-old (tomorrow – all families have to do it once). Even if I am diligent about beating back online distractions, when I have 40 hours of childcare a week, and that often encompasses some school event or the like, and most of the running I need to do, I need to work at night to make up the time.

After reading this book, I have been pondering how to increase the deep work in my life. Last week I was quite good about scheduling writing during the morning and early afternoon, and confining phone calls and email to the space when my brain was less focused (late morning, mid-afternoon). Ideally I should be able to get 3.5-4 hours of deep work per work day. Then again, I only get 4 work days per week right now, so I am a bit short.

When do you do deep work? What does deep work look like in your field?

20 thoughts on “Deep work (secrets of the most productive people series – installment 1)

  1. I like Newport’s point about deep work, and have at various times in my recent history tried to block off more time for it. Right now, deep work can take a lot of different forms for me, but the one I’m trying to add more time for is reading and really absorbing research articles about management, which I think will help me take my management work to the next level. I’m not sure if I’ll read this book, though. I got some valuable ideas from his book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” so perhaps I would find some ideas in this book, too. But I got annoyed by the fact that he failed to consider big, structural ways that other people’s lives don’t look like his. I guess that’s a weakness we all have to watch out for, though, so if I just go in with the mindset that the book will not apply completely, I’d probably find it valuable.

    1. @Cloud- very true that no book will completely apply to one’s own situation, unless you write it yourself. Or apply to everyone’s situation. I get that comment a lot about I Know How She Does It. But my general thought with business books is that if I get a few tips that are worthwhile it’s a win. Then again, I’m generally getting most books for free (though not this one! They offered to send me a copy after I already bought it!)

  2. I am a big Cal Newport fan. I am also an academic scientist (though not computer science) so a lot of his advice is applicable to me.

    I do try to block off times of the day for deep work. I’m not as good as Cal is though and cannot do a stretch as long as he can. Working up to it. Also I clearly do not avoid the internet as much as he does. 🙂

    I’m another one who thinks no book matches up with your own life perfectly. I always read with the idea to take what applies or could better my life and leave the rest.

    1. Same here—“take what applies…leave the rest”. Not sure why others get so hung up on criticizing the parts that don’t apply.
      I am also an academic scientist and its always a struggle for me to do the deep work that is so satisfying. A day full of bits & pieces, even if they do move ahead projects, just doesn’t FEEL great to me.

      1. @Ana – it is frustrating – the bits and pieces do move stuff forward. I’m just trying to be better about clumping those in times where I can’t do other work, but preserve the big work for the best times. Always easier said than done. I check email constantly. Constantly!

    2. @beth – I clearly do not avoid the internet either! I love the internet. I love how it brings me together with people. I love how easy it makes finding sources and connecting with them. Of course, it’s just like any tool. You have to be its master, not its servant, and a lot of people lose that distinction.

    3. I generally can take what is relevant to me and skip the rest.. but what bothered me in So Good They Can’t Ignore You is that he built entire narratives about why one person failed and another person succeeded without even considering the possibility that the first person (a woman) was hindered by sexism that the second person (a man) never experienced. Basically, I wanted him to acknowledge that there might be more going on in his “case studies” than just the stuff that supported his thesis. I didn’t dismiss his points because of this, but it bothered me and made the book weaker, in my opinion.

      1. Oh, and one more clarifying thing: to me this sort of blind spot is different than what Laura did in I Know How She Does It. Laura was completely upfront about the limits of her data set, and then provided some arguments about there might be more general lessons to learn from the data. Cal Newport, on the other hand, never said he was writing a book that only applied to white men- he just wrote a book in which he never acknowledged that people who aren’t white men might face extra challenges in getting to be “so good they can’t ignore you.” Like I said, though, I still found some useful ideas in the book. I’ll stop going on about his other book, though! (I actually liked it: here was my review at the time:

      2. @Cloud – case studies are always…well, tough to do well. Life is incredibly complicated, which means that it is hard to reduce real people to case studies. Of course, people love stories so that’s why people use case studies!
        I do appreciate if the people are named. I was recently reading a book in which a woman I know was used as a negative, cautionary case study. I thought her life wasn’t so bad!

        1. Cloud’s comment really resonated with me. I liked Deep Work, I’ve extracted useful tips from it, and I have been combining it with 128 hours to try and really get the most out of my last year of grad school. BUT I was unexpectedly distracted throughout by how ‘male’ it was. To be fair, I think it was just the contrast with Laura’s work, given I’d just re-read IKHSDI but I found myself constantly looking for more acknowledgement how ‘home’ can interrupt our work and more advice on how to deal with interruptions resulting from sick kids, or a burst pipe, or just the endless paperwork minutiae that seems to be required to keep a household running (sure – some of that can be done once you sign off at 530 due to fixed schedule productivity but not all of it) I haven’t counted how many case studies/cited authors were men vs women but it felt skewed. Anyway, a useful and worthy book, but I wondered if anyone else out there finished it thinking ‘written by a man, for men’ (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but as Cloud said, Laura is explicit when justifying why she focuses on women). Perhaps I’ll re-read in a few months and feel differently.

          1. @Lily- I did at one point think, hmm, do women do deep work? after a number of male examples. But there were a few female ones. Perhaps most famously, J.K. Rowling checking herself into a hotel to finish one of the HP books. I remember reading about this elsewhere, she was distracted by her numerous children, and people working on the house (oh, do I sympathize!) and she realized, hello, she’s J.K. Rowling. She can throw money at these problems and focus on what only she could do.

        2. I really like Cal’s approach (and I actually discovered Laura through his advertising of I know how she does it) but I had the exact same frustrating feeling as you about So good. More generally, I have always found difficult to really identify to his precepts because of the family time that keeps invading my work duties. That might be a reason why the “split shift” is more appealing to me. But then 1. I’m curious to know how he presents his recent life of pater familias within the strict schedule he defends; 2. Cal’s views are also a good reminder that flexibility is a double-edged sword. In managing you time by small blocks, you may be able to do more on several fronts but then it gets difficult to concentrate enough on one focused project and generate truly creative work. That I think is also quite a substantial difference between professions. I think you can have an amazing corporate career without having to deeply connect with your creative self, while I for instance need long stretches of introspective focus as a philosopher. I am constantly struggling between the two models as a mother and a creative worker.(Sorry for my English, I hope this makes sense).

          1. @Alex- I’m glad you found me through him! And yes, flexibility is a double-edged sword. Sometimes I’m excited about all I can do in my life. And others I just want to go in an office from 8-5 and not have anyone bother me about anything related to my family life.

  3. I’m curious why you moved to not having childcare on Fridays. We’ve gone totally in the other direction since child #4 was born: we actually got additional help for a few hours on Sundays.

  4. So far this week has been all deep work, as I am completing a fee review for a municipality. The first draft of my recommendations are due by EOD tomorrow. Yesterday I was so absorbed that nearly 4 hours went by without me looking at the clock.
    Today was similar – I had to remind myself, at 1:50, to eat lunch.
    I really enjoy the feeling of deep work, and I love being so interested in what I’m doing. However, I find it reaaaaally tiring after 8 hours, and I have no brain power left! For that reason, I bailed on seeing The Revenant tonight.
    For me, the perfect day would probably be 4-5 hours of deep work.

    1. @Maggie – I love when I feel I’m so into a project that I look up at 2pm to remember to eat lunch. I feel that way when I’m working on book projects, and one reason I think I’ve felt a little drifty lately is that I don’t have a book project I’m excited about. I need to come up with one!

      And yes, I’m not sure I’d be up for a good bear mauling after a long day of deep work…

  5. This “deep work” thing reminds me of a couple of articles that have popped up lately (one of which may have been posted by Laura on Facebook?) – the idea of the maker vs. manager’s schedule. Paul Graham has a good summary of this:

    My current consulting gig is nearly all “shallow” work as I was pretty much hired to offload that from my colleague so SHE could focus on more strategic work. Personally I love the kind of tactical work I’m doing (and can leave behind at the end of the day).

    However, what I am doing lately is really trying to set aside time for this “deep work” in my personal/crafty life. Time for goal-setting and contemplation, figuring out how to get my many pending projects done, working on improving my photography specifically and systematically this year. In some ways it’s nice that my job/career requires so little “deep work” now that I can spend that time on things I’m super excited about in my personal life 🙂

    The best times for me to do this are (unfortunately) at around 5:30am, before everyone else is awake, and during the kids’ nap times on the weekend.

  6. As I write this I have a 5 year old and a 7 year old girl screaming at each other in the background. It’s almost their bedtime, I have just returned from taking my 5 year old to her Karate lesson, and I’m just about to wash up the dishes after my wife has cooked the dinner. I plan to eat mine when they go to bed later, since they’re all finished already.

    I’ve read Deep Work and I’m trying. Really trying. I’m actually very good at using my out of office, scheduling blocks of time and I’ve even deleted Facebook and Twitter from my iPhone. During the day is managed pretty well. In the last 2 weeks since reading the book I’ve written a 6000 word technical blog, published a white paper for the company I work for, and have now begun studying for some more industry certifications. That is all on top of customer meeting, travel to California and two gym sessions a week.

    While I haven’t disconnected from social media completely, like Cal, I only use FB to catch up with relatives back home since I moved overseas. I do that once in the evening before I study. Overall Deep Work has worked well for me.

    But with children it is difficult. The time I put aside in the evenings for study can be just full of stress, I’m tired and just exhausted. I’m in the USA now and I must admit we are finding school days longer than we were used to in England. Before they would have been home by 3pm and dinner finished by 5pm. Now they’re not home from school until past 4pm, and that 1 hour difference has eaten into the time I am at my most productive with my study.

    I have considered doing a J.K. Rowling (on a budget) and using a local hotel lobby and bar to study, but that isn’t a long term solution.

    I sympathize with those that have children. They are not to blame. Stay calm. The fact I’m trying to do deep work is stressing me out. Maybe I’ll work it out, and when I do I’ll share my next tip!


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