Anant Jain

Deep Work

Book Review

I liked Deep Work by Cal Newport better than his other book, So Good That They Cannot Ignore You, that I reviewed last week. Part of the reason is that I’m a huge productivity nerd who’s never happy with the systems I come up with. This book is broken down into two parts: The Idea and The Rules.I liked the first part a whole lot better since it drives home the importance of focussed work. After reading this book, it’ll take months before you slump back to your distracted world, at which point, you can re-read this review :)

The Idea

Deep Work is valuable, rare and meaningful.

Here’s how Cal describes it:

Deep Work: 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.

Cal argues that the ability to perform this type of Deep Work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. The few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

To convince us of the importance of Deep Work, Cal looks at the work systems of High-Skilled workers like Nate Silver (founder of FiveThirtyEight), Superstars like David Heinemeier Hansson (creator of the web framework Rails) and Owners like John Doerr (venture capitalist who was early in Google, Twitter, Amazon, etc.) He distills down their life arcs into two core abilities for thriving in the new economy:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Deep Work is requisite in developing either of these abilities, making it a very valuable skill to have.

Deep Work is rare because we tend towards behaviors that are easiest in the moment. Also, far too many of us fall into the trap of using busyness as a proxy for productivity. We have to watch out for both.

Lastly, Cal makes a psychological argument for depth: Deep Work puts you in a state of flow¹ — the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Deep Work lets you derive meaning and professional satisfaction from what you do.²

The Rules

The rules of Deep Work are seemingly simple, but ever hard to actually follow through. For the sake of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I’ll only skim through this part here:

  1. Work Deeply: You have to find your own system for Deep Work — be it monastic (go to a retreat and fully immerse yourself), bimodal (reserve 4–6 hour block each day), rhythmic (reserve multiple blocks of 90-minute slots, similar to the Pomodoro Technique) or journalistic (dedicate any unexpected time to Deep Work, good for executives and journalists). Other topics covered here: how to execute your personal life like a business and the importance of downtime.
  2. Embrace Boredom: The key ideas here are to schedule internet blocks and to use your downtime to “meditate productively”. Use a commute to try solving a complex problem in your mind.
  3. Quit Social Media: Identify the main goals in your personal and professional lives and list the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy each goal. For each social media tool you are on, identify whether its impact on these activities is significantly positive, significantly negative, or minimal. Delete your account unless the impact is significantly positive. Okay, admittedly, this step is extremely hard to follow through, so here’s more practical advice from me while we get ready to take the leap: uninstall all the social media apps from your phone. If that’s too much as well, at the very least, turn off all the notifications (including Apple Watch mirroring!) and leave your phone in the next room while you work. Also, don’t forget to install the Cold Turkey extension (or something similar) for blocking social media on desktop.
  4. Drain the Shallows: Quantify the depth of your work activities, and do away with the shallow, noncoginitively demanding, logistical-style tasks that are often performed while distracted. Delegate these as much as possible: to others, or to software tools. One final tip: become hard to reach: by making people who send you e-mail do more work, and doing more work when you send or reply to e-mails. If it gets to it, it’s okay to not respond to emails that are not pointed in their asks.

Be done with your work by 5:30, or whatever cutoff works for you. Very rarely do people do more than 4 to 6 hours of meaningful work in a day. Just make sure that when you work, it’s deep, focussed and meaningful. Good luck!

Footnotes and links

  • ¹It seems impossible to read a non-fiction book without running into the concept of the state of flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This one’s very high on to-read list now. (link).
  • ²This circles right back to the concept of finding meaningful work in Cal’s other So Good They Cannot Ignore You book.
  • While we are on this topic, Paul Graham’s essay called “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” deserves a revisit every once in a while.
  • Marc Andreessen’s Guide to Personal Productivity remains my favorite resource on this topic. It may be because it was one of the first things I read on personal productivity about 10 years ago, and have been using some of the advice in there since!
  • Sam Altman also wrote his own Guide to Personal Productivity recently. I guess it could be a rite of passage to become a successful Silicon Valley VC.
  • I’m very much looking forward to reading Make Time — a book on this topic by two of my favorite authors, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, who also wrote The Sprint Book. It comes out in September, but it’s available for pre-order now: Amazon Smile link

This is #17 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.

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