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Deep Work: Distinguish your brain in the 21st century Rules for focused success in a distracted world

March 12, 2019 at 4:08 am

Summary, review and the most important cheats from this book


Deep Work is a book by Cal Newport, a computer scientist I first encountered in this Youtube clip,  Quit Social Media. The video provided guidance in my own search for the effective and pleasant (not) use of technology. The two key points that stayed with me from the clip were that you can see a Smartphone as a slot machine in pocket format, a reason that I only have one with me in my work environment. He also refers to Social Media as a non-fundamental technology. In other words, a technology that, unlike e-mail, a mobile phone or access to the internet, you can leave behind perfectly well without getting to “behind”. In the book he will work this out further and some key points will be added. The book is a really read, it is powerful, yet easy to read.

Deep Work has a lot of value

The book starts with an introduction about Carl Jung who combines a hectic lifestyle with high productivity through the use of a special “retreat”. room. Jung says about this:  In my retreat room “I am with myself”. Here he is able to “Deep Work” To perform: Deep Work are professional activities that are performed in a state of distraction-free concentration where you use your cognitive abilities up to its limits. These efforts create new value and improve your skills and are scarce and & difficult to copy . In this state we look for our cognitive boundaries and this is the only way to really improve skills, we stretch our skills, like muscles at the gym, where they sometimes break, but after recovery grow stronger again. To get into this state we have to isolate ourselves from distractions something that successful people seem to do consistently, for example Bill Gates who twice has “Think Weeks” twice a year. The counterpart of Deep Work is Shallow Work: Cognitive low-level logistical style tasks, often performed in distracting circumstances. These skills add little value and are easy to copy. In this time there is more and more electronic distraction that makes it more difficult “Deep Work” to implement, but the paradox is that it is increasingly necessary to come along. Technological innovation and AI mean “shallow work” job are increasingly under pressure, salaries are falling or jobs are being taken over by devices and technology. In addition, every decade changes so much that we need the Deep Work to be able to keep up with our cognitive skills. For most people, it is much better to spend time on Deep Work. There are exceptions, for example, a CEO of a large corporation, Cal sees a CEO as a well-trained walking decision machine who must necessarily constantly switch his attention.

Deep Work is scarce

While only Deep Work really has a lot of added value, it is a scarce phenomenon. For example, many office environments are created with open structures, creating an excess of distractions on the work floor, just think of the office of an editorial staff. In addition, we are often paid for “shallow” parameters, the number of words we have typed (not the quality), the number of mails we have sent etc. We are rewarded for shallow work. We also live in a culture of connectivity, everywhere we have the habit and expectation of being “online”, and respond to each app or mail. This makes it tempting to follow the path of least resistance during work . Namely the constant response to this stream of tweets, mails, apps and text messages. This gives us the feeling of being busy, which is also rewarded by this culture. For colleagues too, we seem very productive due to our online presence. Interestingly, Professor Neil Postman warned in the early ’90s’ at the lack of a discussion about the pros and cons of technology. We were steaming towards an “age or internet” where everything that had something to do with internet was thoughtlessly embraced, because everything with internet was inherently considered to be agood thing. Cal Newport also sees a chance here, by focusing on Deep Work you can easily hack your carrier in a society where many people linger in Shallow Work.

Deep Work has meaning

Craftsmanship is a beautiful concept, nothing is more beautiful than seeing your own work accomplished. In knowledge workers, however, craftsmanship is more difficult to identify compared to, for example, a swordsmith, but at a more abstract level there is also a difference between Deep and Shallow work in knowledge work. Neurologically, Deep Work is good because our brain is being wired to the state of our focus. If we focus a lot on positivity and quality, the brain strengthens certain circuits associated with this. It also appears that only with Deep Work, only during long-term concentration on a task that requires a certain skill, the nerve cells involved are myelinated. Myelin is a protein that wraps around nerve cells and thus improves nerve conduction. Distraction can in fact be seen when the enemy of myelin and a healthy brain is standing. In the book  The organized mind I have read from Daniel Levetin that distraction, or rather the constant switching of attention, excessively activates an area in the vicinity of the insula. The insula is interesting enough involved in pain experience. The typical horrible and dizzy feeling after a day too much electronic distraction therefore has a neurological basis. An important psychological argument from Deep Work comes from the famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who has published a lot about flow . He has structurally monitored their well-being of a large group of volunteers. It turned out that the best moments in someone’s life occurred when someone had to stretch his physical or mental skills to the ultimate level. Interestingly, the conditions for this occur more often at work than in free time. To get this effect at Shallow Work, there are also initiatives to make this kind of work more challenging with game elements, the so-called gamification of work. Flow is an interesting state I want to write more about in future. Philosophically there are also arguments for Deep Work, after the enlightenment we have started to see our own human experience as the highest good. Something that can quickly lead to nihilism. Deep Work is a flight from this, we can see craftmanship as a piece of sacredness in ourselves, something I think is best expressed in musicians, how beautiful it must be to in full control of an instrument. Cal Newport advocates a new future human being, the Homo sapiens deepensis, and here he has established a number of rules.

Deep Work

The rules

Regel #1: Work Deeply

Very interesting; Cal cites David Dewane with a so-called Eudaimonia Machine (eu = good). This is in fact not a machine, but a template for a favorable working environment. To get to your workplace you have to walk through all parts of the building. It starts with an inspiring gallery, a large room or hall with inspiring examples of work results. After the gallery you will get the salon with quality coffee and WIFI, discussions can take place here and you breed on new ideas. After this gallery you will get to the library, this is the “hard drive” of the machine, where all products and inventions are stored. Than you enter the office space, the place for Shallow Work, hereis also some copy and print equipment. Last but not least, you go to the “deep work chambers”, here the Deep Work is carried out, I see the signs on the doors already in front of me, Greek sages with their heads in the palm with the text below: Deep work in progress. The idea is that people do work in isolation, but for the desired “serendipity” collide with each other on the way to the toilet or coffee machine.

Choose your depth of philosophy

There are some variants possible to get to your Deep Work. The cold turkey method is the monastic philosophy, this means that you really go off-grid and are only accessible by letter or carrier pigeon. However, this is not possible or desirable for everyone. For most people it is therefore better to adhere to a bimodal philosophy. This means that you will make a structured distinction between Deep and Shallow work. It is important to note that a few hours of free plans are generally not sufficient for real Deep Work. In order to prepare your brain well, it is good to get a grip by means of rituals. Because of this you do not have to constantly make the decision to do Deep Work, but it becomes part of your life rhythm. What I have done myself when typing this piece is that I have taken place in a separate Thinkpod, a protected workplace away from my normal office, I am also logged in with a different email address, so that I do not automatically see my daily mails or other services that I log on by default. I started at 10 o’clock in the morning and have to get my son from school at 3 o’clock. So I have to go through this book in the main lines in about 5 hours time, I read the book several months ago. The time pressure ensures that I ignore distractions and enter a certain flow. In the future I also want to use a Freewrite, an e-ink based typewriter. For your ritual you can plan where you will work (in Thinkpad), how you will work (without access to distractions), how you support your work (good coffee).

4 Disciplines of Execution

These disciplines are from the work of Harvard professor Clayton Christensen.

Discipline # 1: Focus on the most important things

This gives you intensity of focus.

Discipline #2: Act on Lead measures

He makes a distinction between lag measures , these are the ultimate goals of you and your company (for example selling more biscuits), and lead measures, these are the intermediate goals you must achieve to achieve the lag measure. This concretises your goals and makes it easy to keep the focus.

Discipline # 3: Use a convincing scoreboard.

Make it clear to your brain what you have achieved and what you need to achieve.

Discipline # 4: Make regular accountability

Share your results and justify any mistakes, so keep your attention for the whole and do not slacken your attention.

Be lazy

Be lazy at times, you do not always have to be busy, it’s even better to let everything go on occasion:

Reason # 1:Downtime is good for insights

The best insights have been done in the bath or in bed, if you are constantly focused, your unconscious mind can’t freely associate. Less obvious and therefore creative solutions often come about through free association of your subconscious. Do not underestimate this power.

Reason # 2: Downtime allows you to restore energy

Focus, but also willpower can be seen as a muscle that has to recharge once in a while. I found this statement for the benefit of nature beautiful: “Nature has intrinsically fascinating stimuli.” If you walk in nature you do not have to plan every action. The reason that parenting is sometimes (or often: D) heavy is because you can never completely abandon your attention with children around.

Reason # 3: We often waste time on non-urgent matters

In this digital age there are always things that remain on the shelf. By resting and relaxing we get better insight into which tasks are really important and contribute. Do not let your brain get accustomed to distraction, remember, your smartphone is a pocket-sized slot machine!

Rule # 2 embraces boredom

This rule builds on the lazy principle. Don’t let your brain get tired of constant addictive distraction, each app gives a small shot of dopamine (new) and serotonin (attention), these are small addictions. Interestingly, people who do the most multi-tasking perform the worst on it, their filter and focus power is reduced by continuous distraction, so they seek further distraction and thus come to a downward spiral, try to relax here instead. Do not take breaks of distraction, but turn it around, take breaks of focus. Plan your moments that you have to do varying tasks on the internet and stick to this, so do not go online five minutes earlier than scheduled, this ruins your discipline and in this way your brain stays in the dependent / addicted state (just like with sugar cravings). If it is necessary that you go on the internet always plan a delay of five minutes. This way you keep time between your wish (going online) and the reward. You can also do this at home. I use Youtube and Netflix at home via a smartwatch. This way I keep my brain clean, and I must say that I feel much better because of this.

Cal recommends meditating productively, for example walking and actively training Deep Work. I myself would also like to recommend meditation in general. I myself do TM, transcendental meditation, because of the powerful and simple method, but you can choose from a broad spectrum of methods. What Cal really recommends is structuring your Deep Work, for example when trying to solve a problem, try to think out the main lines first and then systematically check which steps have to be taken to solve the problem completely.

Rule #3 Quit Social Media

Something I found very powerful in the book and I really remembered is the Anny benefit argument, or better fallacy. We assess a tool whether it has a benefit and if so, we apply it without looking at any negative aspects. The benefits of Social Media are obvious, but do they weigh against the disadvantages? Cal suggests that for most people is not important, he does not take a hard stand, for example a student on a new campus can have some benefir from it. The method for evaluating the tool should preferabbly be “The Crafstsman Approach to Tool Selection“. Identify the key points that encompass a happy and successful professional and personal life for you. Only use the tool if the positive points significantly outweigh the negative points. This also reminds me of Kevin Kelly who has studied the Amish extensively in their adoption of new technology. The Amish often test new technology in a small setting and carefully check whether the new technology does not disrupt the core values ​​of their strongly conservative community. We may all need to find the Amish in ourselves :D.

The Law of the Vital few

Also called Pareto’s law, often means that 80% or more of an effect comes through 20% of the underlying causes. This applies to many domains. It also means that there is a zero-sum game of time and attention. Attention that you give to relatively few profitable things is at the expense of paying attention to the really important issues. Because of our addictive sensitivity and tendency to choose the path of least resistance, we are often busy with unimportant things.

Rule # 4 Ignore the superficial things

The company 37signals launched an experiment in 2007. Their work week was shortened to 4 days by 1 day and employees were given a few months to work on their own projects. This proved to be a success, the performance even improved. Due to the cutted working hours the employees automatically gave less time to Shallow Work. In addition, they had to plan far better to complete everything within the given time, a double-up effect that could explain that performance not only remained the same, but even improved. I think the Law of Parkinson also applies here, this means that a given resource always smears across the given time or money supply. Plan writing a paper in 3 months and you will also do 3 months, plan it in 2 weeks and it will be done. Somewhere, of course, there is a limit here. The way to limit the Shallows is to systematically plan your day, in which you plan the content of your day in blocks. You can see this as a mosquito net that protects you from the mosquitoes (distraction), but you can adjust your schedule during the day, but always do this in a consciously way and change your schedule gradually so that you do not lose this routine. You may also want to stray from a moment of inspiration for something new. Work on this until the pulse has been processed or dropped and resume your schedule.

Quantify the depth of your work

Go through all your tasks and quantify them on a scale from 0 to 100 in depth. At the average knowledge job, approximately 50% of your tasks are considered Deep Work and the other is Shallow Work. Knowledge workers and scientists with privileges sometimes reach up to 80%. I found it an interesting suggestion to ask your boss (if you have one) for a budget of Shallow Work, for example 50% of the time. This creates a guideline for yourself and your boss that makes it easier for you to refuse work.

Finish your work before 5 pm

Ignore mails and apps after finishing work, you will usually notice that nothing happened. You have to be difficult to reach, for example, when you view your e-mail address add directives on how and when to e-mail, what information you need and which e-mails you respond to. In addition, and this I also remember Tim Ferriss in the 4-hour working week, write a thoughtful mail back, for example give various alternatives in terms of time and place for an appointment and what matters will be discussed, how the other should prepare for it etc.. In this way you prevent endless back and forth mailing. Finally he indicates the possibility not to mail.

It is now 10 to 15, I still have to write a conclusion. So I did not succeed completely in writing this summary, but it might be a good thing if I sleep it over for a night. I am now going to finish, and write the conclusion tomorrow.

Conclusion and the most important cheats from Deep Work

Writing this summary turned out to be an experiment in Deep Work, my phone and other traffic were in a different room. It turned out that I had missed three calls, all about trivial matters, about the delivery of a chair, an advert that did not work and Hellofresh. Then there were several mails, none with high urgency and some things that were urgent I could’t  resolve quickly anyway. If I had answered these calls and mails I would have disrupted my flow and the things that required some action had felt the whole day as such a pebble in your shoe. In 5 hours I have re-read 250 pages’ pages on a large scale and also typed more than 3,000 words, in my student days this could have taken about 3 months :D, so I’m really happy with this result. I also felt coherent and clear in the head for the rest of the day. I almost felt the myelin growing as a result. Today I began with a considerable amount of information, but until now the coherence remains and myelin keeps growing. Now I have neatly completed and/or scheduled the Shallow Work and have taken the time to finish this article.

“The Dizziness”

I know from fellow entrepreneurs that some of them recognize themselves in the so-called “Dizziness”, a state of over-excitement in which you can no longer get away from the computer, I have experienced this myself in the past but luckily this stopped. This state feels really bad and 20 years ago you would go to the doctor for this or think that you had a unnoticed blow to your head. The book Deep Work offers especially for those who experience “The Dizziness” regularly a good guide. These are the multitaskers who paradoxically perform the worst on multitasking (or rather fast task switchers). Information overload is not the problem here, your brain can process large amounts of information. Recording a lot of information can also be exhausting, but this gives a satisfied pleasant fatigue. The greatest exhaustion is getting your brain to constantly switch and this gives a rickety and dizzy feeling. 

The seven most important cheats

Many things, such as Pareto’s law, planning your day, etc., are also mentioned in other management and life hacks books, and are therefore not completely new, but they have been worked out extra well in this book. The most important seven points from the Calport strategy that will stay with me and provide guidance are:

  1. 1. A smartphone is a slot machine in pocket format, I will keep repeating this.
  2. 2. Deep Work is a legit cheat. By familiarizing yourself with the skills of Deep Work you quickly get a head start on others who stick to Shallow Work and use communication according to the path of least resistance (constantly apping etc.)
  3. 3. Train yourself to do nothing, to get bored, preventing you from getting a junk brain that is constantly looking for new impulses and satisfies them with Shallow Work.
  4. 4. Related to this, you may deviate from a schedule, but always keep a gap of at least 5 minutes until you make the decision (searching for something on the internet) and actually executing it.
  5. 5. Try to plan your day, see this as a mosquito net that protects you against the constantly distracting information mosquitoes from our digital society. (I personally find this the most difficult to maintain consistently).
  6. 6. Do not try to schedule your focus moments, but plan your moments of much distraction, for example internet browsing. Your normal state of being is at best in focused, Deep Work state, or in a lazy, recharging state.
  7. 7. A smartphone is a slot machine in pocket format.More about Cal Newport can be found on his blog about Study Hacks .
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