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Deep Work - Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (Book Review)

In the early winter of 2007, celebrated author J.K. Rowling was struggling to complete ‘The Deathly Hallows’, the final book in her world famous ‘Harry Potter’ series. The pressure was intense, as she needed to satisfy millions of fans. But Rowling was finding difficulty to concentrate on writing at her home due to various forms of distractions.

So, she decided to do something extreme to shift her mindset. One fine morning, J.K Rowling checked into a suite in a five-star hotel. Not to stay, but to write. The first day went so well that she kept going back. And that’s how the book got finished, connecting all the dots from the previous storyline, and eventually became the best series of all time!

In his book ‘DEEP WORK’, Cal Newport, a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University, with a Ph.D. from MIT, and author of six self-improvement books, explained the rules for focused success in this highly distracted world. The above anecdote is an example of how deep work has helped numerous individuals to achieve peak performance and become ultra successful.

Soon after getting published, ‘Deep Work’ becomes an instant Wall Street Journal bestseller, received praise in the New York Times Book Review, The Economist and The Guardian. Amazon named it the best business book of January 2016 and put it on its list of the best business books of the year.

I came across the book in early 2017 while browsing Amazon business books section. The title immediately caught my attention (who doesn’t want to avoid distraction?). So I collected the Kindle version and started reading. Several pages in, I got hooked. If you are interested in continuous self-improvement, getting rid of the distractions and maximizing your productivity, then I highly recommend the book ‘Deep Work’ for you.

Many successful people in the world have mentioned time to time how they use deep work to perform at an Elite level. Mark Twain wrote much of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ in a Farm, where he was spending the summer. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.

What is Deep Work?

Each task in your list can be divided into two categories: Deep Work and Shallow Work.

Cal Newport defines deep work as:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skills, and are hard to replicate.”

On the other spectrum, we have shallow work:

“Non Cognitively 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.”

Whether you’re an engineer, writer, marketer, academic, researcher, consultant, manager, business owner or entrepreneur, to succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.

How to become a Superstar in the 21st Century?

One of my favorite quotes from the book is when Cal describes the core abilities for success:

There are 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

The ability to learn hard things quickly plays a key role to become a superstar in any field. Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.

Now consider the second core ability - producing at an elite level. If you truly want to achieve craftsmanship, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You must then transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value.

The development of these two core abilities, described above, depends on your ability to perform deep work. It’s a skill that has great value today. If you haven’t mastered this foundational skill, you’ll struggle to learn hard things or produce at an elite level.

Deep Work Helps You Quickly Learn Hard Things

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll master the complex stuff and skills needed to thrive in your career.

Deep Work Helps You Produce at an Elite Level

To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.

According to Cal, the Law of productivity:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Many successful people in the world have mentioned time to time how they use deep work to perform at an Elite level. Mark Twain wrote much of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ in a Farm, where he was spending the summer. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.

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 to Perform Deep Work?

Cal not only describes WHY deep work is important but also offers in-depth illustrations and guidelines on HOW to perform deep work! Here are some of the strategies he mentioned that I liked most:

Decide on Your Depth Philosophy:

You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life. Cal mentioned the following four philosophies. Decide which one is best suited for you.

  1. Monastic: Maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. This is mostly applicable for writers or similar professionals, who need to isolate themselves for several weeks to get a book writing done.
  2. Bimodal: Divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. You work deeply at least one full day.
  3. Rhythmic: This philosophy suggests to transform deep work into a simple regular habit. For many of us, our jobs don’t allow us to disappear for days at a time. That’s why this philosophy is one of the most common among deep workers in standard office jobs. I personally adopt the Depth Philosophy since it suits the nature of my profession.
  4. Journalist: Fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. Journalists are trained to shift into a writing mode on a moment’s notice since their profession is deadline-driven.

Routines and rituals help to develop deep work habit. Here are some general questions to find which one fits you:

  • Where you’ll work and for how long
    Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work period. This location can simply be your office desk with headphones on to shut distraction. Set a specific time frame for work instead of making it open-ended.
  • How you’ll work once you start
    Cal suggested you may ban any Internet use to keep yourself completely focused. I often use a headphone, close all the tabs in the browser, silence my phone, close email and instant messaging clients during deep work.
  • How you’ll support your work
    The ritual might specify that you start with a cup of coffee. Make sure you have access to enough food and water to maintain energy during the work.

Execute Like a Business with 4DX

We often see companies struggle to execute the strategy they devised. The authors of the book “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” describes four “disciplines”, 4DX, for helping companies successfully implement high-level strategies. (If you are in management or strategic decision making, I would highly recommend reading this book, along with other books on OKR). The 4DX is also relevant to deep work in the following way:

Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important:

Execution should be aimed at a small number of ‘Wildly Important Goals.’ You should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours.

Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures:

Measure your success with two types of metrics: Lag and Lead measures. Lag measures are the ultimate goal you are trying to reach. Lead measures measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures. For Deep Work, the relevant lead measure is time spent in a state of Deep Work dedicated to your goal.

Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard:

People play differently when they’re keeping score. Newport uses a simple calendar tracking Deep Work hours completed each day and circles the days that produce tangible results.

Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability:

You need regular accountability towards your wildly important goal. Get into the habit of a weekly review in which you plan for the work week ahead.

Remove Distraction of Social Media and Emails

Cal suggests identifying the core factors that determine success and happiness in your life is of critical importance. Use social media if it really has substantial positive impacts on these factors. Otherwise, he argued to quit social media completely. In fact, I have read Cal mentioning proudly in his blog that he doesn’t have a social media account.

On a personal note, I partially disagree with Cal regarding completely quitting social media. There are several values in staying connected in social media, controlling the usage, which he missed.

Email is necessary, but at the same time can be a source of distraction. Cal advised to Become Hard to Reach via email. This means people who send you email should do more work, take more preparation. And you need to do more work before sending an important email.

Eliminate Shallow Work

Cal Newport describes an interesting heuristics to figure out which responsibilities are “deep work.” He asks us to think about the number of months required to train an intelligent graduate to do our work. If anyone can be easily trained to do it, that work does not have a high value. Therefore it is not a “deep work.”

Treat shallow work with suspicion. Its damage is often underestimated and its importance overestimated. The following strategies from the book would help you act accordingly:

Schedule Every Minute of Your Day
When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. If your schedule is disrupted, take a few minutes to create a revised schedule for the remaining day. (Here I must recommend David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’, one of the most influential business books of its era, for time management and personal organization)

Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
Determine how much time you’re actually spending in shallow activities. Once you know where your activities fall on the deep-to-shallow scale, spend more of your time in deep work.

Use Downtime to Enhance Deep Work Efforts
Research shows that we can be fully focused for only about 4 hours a day. After that, our ability to focus intensely decreases. Cal suggested that, at the end of the workday, shut down your work thinking completely. No after-dinner email check, no mental replays of conversations, and no planning for an upcoming work-related challenge. Ensuring proper rest is the secret sauce to increased productivity.

Final Thoughts

If you’re already practicing deep work, I sincerely hope this review will reinforce your belief in its value. Deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive twenty-first-century economy. If you are new to the concept, I believe it can add tremendous value by optimizing and enhancing the performance. Adopting deep work and following the actionable steps mentioned can bring a transformational change in our lives.

Are you interested in achieving focused success?

Go ahead, get the book. Read it.

Implement deep work in your life and see the change!

I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is. - Winifred Gallagher

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About the author: Mark Anupom Mollick is an experienced Software Engineer, Digital Marketer and Business Consultant for tech and internet companies. He is a strong believer of maximizing output, achieving geometric growth and continuously improving performance. Feel free to reach him at markanupommollick@gmail.com or contact via LinkedIn.

Mark Anupom Mollick is an experienced Software Engineer, MarTech & Business Strategy Consultant. Currently, he is also a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) Candidate in IBA (DU), where his research areas are Startups and Growth Hacking. Anupom is a strong believer of maximizing output, achieving geometric growth and continuously improving performance. Feel free to reach him at markanupommollick@gmail.com or contact via LinkedIn.

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