Thoughts on Deep Work

Deep WorkAs a person who is constantly multi-tasking, I’m worried I’ve broken my brain. Well at least that’s my takeaway after reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work about the importance of deep, focused work at a time when it’s easier than ever to be in a constant state of distraction.

I’ve been listening to Newport’s podcast for a bit and reading his newsletter that often touches on similar topics, but Deep Work is where he first outlined many of his ideas on focus, distraction, and the huge opportunity for knowledge workers who turn the other direction to get ahead in their lives and careers:

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. (Page 14)

The book is structured around the following main ideas:

  1. The Value of Deep Work: Newport posits that deep work is crucial for mastering complicated information and producing better results in less time. This skill is becoming scarcer in our increasingly distracted world but is more valuable in the knowledge economy.
  2. Working Deeply: Newport offers strategies for cultivating a deep work habit. This includes working with greater intensity and creating rituals and routines that foster the ability to concentrate deeply. Key suggestions include minimizing distractions, scheduling deep work blocks, and adopting a work philosophy that accommodates deep work. (More on those philosophies in a bit.)
  3. Enhancing Focus: In the last several sections on the book, Newport outlines several strategies to cultivate deep work. He emphasizes the importance of embracing boredom to train the brain for focus, advises limiting social media to minimize distractions, and recommends reducing shallow tasks through delegation and careful scheduling. Together, these practices aim to create a productive environment where deep, concentrated work prevails, ensuring that valuable, skill-enhancing tasks receive the attention they deserve.

As a person already bought into the idea that deep work is valuable and that meetings and emails are the devil, I got the most value out of the book’s actionable advice and strategies that demonstrate how I can implement deep work principles to improve my productivity, satisfaction, and success.

Thinking of focus as a skill that needs to be practiced and that can atrophy if you don’t, is a real eye-opener and something I am already making core to my attitude and how I spend my time. I just finished the book yesterday but have already made some (hopefully) helpful changes:

  1. Get off my damn phone. I’ve been better here the last six months than I used to be (thanks Twitter for exploding) but need to be way better. Anything that can provide 15 second chunks of dopamine has to go. For me that means removing some apps completely from my phone and. just getting others off my main home screen so habit doesn’t have me in them in every brief moment of boredom.
  2. Time blocking. I’ve (re)started planning my day via time blocking and also practicing a shutdown routine at the end of the workday. This helps me make sure all work on my plate is accounted for while and just as importantly protects my ability to sit and focus for decent stretches of time. (Assuming this works for me, more on this topic in a future blog post.)
  3. Tracking focus time. At the end of the day, as part of my shutdown routine, I am recording in my Obsidian daily note the number of hours that day I was able to dedicate to true deep work. This will allow me to track this effort over time and also give me immediate feedback if I am slipping here and not getting at least three hours of focus every day.

The ultimate goal here and my main takeaway from Deep Work is that I must be intentional with both my time and my attention. The alternative is that I am no longer in control of either even in the moments when I most need to be. By bringing this “rarefied approach to your work,” as Newport puts it, I can achieve renewed meaning and success in my professional life at a particularly tumultuous time in our industry.

I guess I should stop listening to podcasts while playing video games and watching a Braves game at the same time too.

If you’re interested, I’ve also shared a selection of my key highlights from the book as well.