One of the most relevant titles that I have read so far about productivity is Cal Newport’s “Deep Work.” I resonate with this book because programming, which is the bulk of work I’m doing now, is a highly intensive and problem-focused activity that requires deep concentration. What is deep work? Cal defines the term as:
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive 21st-century economy.”
Sounds easy, isn’t it? Once you accept that deep work is valuable, isn’t it enough to just start doing more of it? Unfortunately, when it comes to replacing distraction with focus, matters are not so simple. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Cal states that “the key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”
The 6 strategies from the book that follow can be understood as an arsenal of routines and rituals designed with the science of limited willpower in mind to maximize the amount of deep work you consistently accomplish in your schedule. Among other things, they’ll ask you to commit to a particular pattern for scheduling this work and develop rituals to sharpen your concentration before starting each session. Some of these strategies will deploy simple heuristics to hijack your brain’s motivation center while others are designed to recharge your willpower reserves at the fastest possible rate.
Strategy I — Decide on Your Depth Philosophy
You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life. You must be careful to choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances, as a mismatch here can derail your deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify.
1 — The Monastic Philosophy:
This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. Practitioners of the monastic philosophy tend to have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that they’re pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well. It’s this clarity that helps them eliminate the thicket of shallow concerns that tend to trip up those whose value proposition in the working world is more varied.
The pool of individuals to whom the monastic philosophy applies is limited. If you’re outside this pool, its radical simplicity shouldn’t evince too much envy. On the other hand, if you’re inside this pool — someone whose contribution to the world is discrete, clear, and individualized — then you should give this philosophy serious consideration, as it might be the deciding factor between an average career and one that will be remembered.
2 — The Bimodal Philosophy:
This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. During the deep time, the bimodal worker will act monastically — seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration. During the shallow time, such focus is not prioritized. This division of time between deep and open can happen on multiple scales. For example, on the scale of a week, you might dedicate a 4-day weekend to depth and the rest to open time. Similarly, on the scale of a year, you might dedicate one season to contain most of your deep stretches.
The bimodal philosophy believes that deep work can produce extreme productivity, but only if the subject dedicates enough time to such endeavors to reach maximum cognitive intensity — the state in which real breakthrough occurs. This is why the minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy tends to be at least one full day. To put aside a few hours in the morning, for example, is too short to count as a deep work stretch for an adherent of this approach.
At the same time, the bimodal philosophy is typically deployed by people who cannot succeed in the absence of substantial commitments to non-deep pursuits. Those who deploy the bimodal philosophy of deep work admire the productivity of the monastics but also respect the value they receive from the shallow behaviors in their working lives. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to implementing this philosophy is that even short periods of deep work require a flexibility that many fear they lack in their current positions. If even an hour away from your inbox makes you uncomfortable, then certainly the idea of disappearing for a day or more at a time will seem impossible.
3 — The Rhythmic Philosophy:
This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep. A common way to implement this is to use visual indicators of your work progress to reduce the barrier to entry for going deep.
The rhythmic philosophy provides an interesting contrast to the bimodal philosophy. It perhaps fails to achieve the most intense levels of deep thinking sought in the day-long concentration sessions favored by the bimodalist. The trade-off, however, is that this approach works better with the reality of human nature. By supporting deep work with rock-solid routines that make sure a little bit gets done on a regular basis, the rhythmic scheduler will often log a larger total number of deep hours per year.
4 — The Journalistic Philosophy:
In this approach, you can fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. Journalists are trained to shift into a writing mode on a moment’s notice, as is required by the deadline-driven nature of their profession, hence the name.
This approach is not for the deep work novice. The ability to rapidly switch your mind from shallow to deep mode doesn’t come naturally. Without practice, such switches can seriously deplete your finite willpower reserves. This habit also requires a sense of confidence in your abilities — a conviction that what you’re doing is important and will succeed. This type of conviction is typically built on a foundation of existing professional accomplishment.
Strategy II — Ritualize
To make the most out of your deep work sessions, build rituals with high level of strictness and idiosyncrasy. There’s no one correct deep work ritual — the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued. But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address:
- Where you’ll work and for how long — Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door shut and desk cleaned off. If it’s possible to identify a location used only for depth, the positive effect can be even greater. Regardless of where you work, be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.
- How you’ll work once you start to work — Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any Internet use, or maintain a metric such as words produced per 20-minute interval to keep your concentration honed. Without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.
- How you’ll support your work — Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear. This support might also include environmental factors, such as organizing the raw materials of your work to minimize energy-dissipating friction. To maximize your success, you need to support your efforts to go deep. At the same time, this support needs to be systematized so that you don’t waste mental energy figuring out what you need in the moment.
Strategy III — Make Grand Gestures
The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.
The dominant force is the psychology of committing so seriously to the task at hand. To put yourself in an exotic location to focus on a writing project, or to take a week off from work just to think, or to lock yourself in a hotel room until you complete an important invention: These gestures push your deep goal to a level of mental priority that helps unlock the needed mental resources. Sometimes to go deep, you must first go big.
Personally, I frequently hop from coffee shops to coffee shops to work on my projects. I intentionally research the places beforehand and select the most beautiful, atmospheric, and laptop-warrior-friendly coffee shops to come. In retrospect, the location where I work significantly impact my work efficiency and focus.
Strategy IV — Don’t Work Alone
When it comes to deep work, consider the use of collaboration when appropriate, as it can push your results to a new level. At the same time, don’t lionize this quest for interaction and positive randomness to the point where it crowds out the unbroken concentration ultimately required to wring something useful out of the swirl of ideas all around us.
- The hub-and-spoke model: a setup that straddles a spectrum where on one extreme we find the solo thinker, isolated from inspiration but free from distraction, and on the other extreme, we find the fully collaborative thinker in an open office, flush with inspiration but struggling to support the deep thinking needed to build on it.
Distraction remains a destroyer of depth. Therefore, the hub-and-spoke model provides a crucial template. Separate your pursuit of serendipitous encounters from your efforts to think deeply and build on these inspirations. You should try to optimize each effort separately, as opposed to mixing them together into a sludge that impedes both goals.
- The whiteboard effect: For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone. The presence of the other party waiting for your next insight — be it someone physically in the same room or collaborating with you virtually — can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth.
Even when you retreat to a spoke to think deeply, when it’s reasonable to leverage the whiteboard effect, do so. By working side by side with someone on a problem, you can push each other toward deeper levels of depth, and therefore toward the generation of more and more valuable output as compared to working alone.
Strategy V — Execute Like a Business
It’s often straightforward to identify a strategy needed to achieve a goal, but what trips up companies is figuring out how to execute the strategy once identified. This division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world. Cal describes in his book The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX), which built on extensive consulting case studies to describe 4 “disciplines” for helping companies successfully implement high-level strategies:
- Discipline 1 — Focus on the Wildly Important: For an individual focused on deep work, the implication is that you should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours. The general exhortation to “spend more time working deeply” doesn’t spark a lot of enthusiasm. To instead have a specific goal that would return tangible and substantial professional benefits will generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm.
- Discipline 2 — Act on the Lead Measures: Once you’ve identified a wildly important goal, you need to measure your success. In 4DX, there are 2 types of metrics for this purpose: lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve. Lead measures, on the other hand, “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.” For an individual focused on deep work, it’s easy to identify the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.
- Discipline 3 — Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: People play differently when they’re keeping score. Therefore, the individual’s scoreboard should be a physical artifact in the workspace that displays the individual’s current deep work hour count.
- Discipline 4 — Create a Cadence of Accountability: You need to put in place a rhythm of regular accountability towards your wildly important goal. You should get into the habit of a weekly review in which you plan for the workweek ahead.
The 4DX framework is based on the fundamental premise that execution is more difficult than strategizing. After hundreds and hundreds of case studies, its inventors managed to isolate a few basic disciplines that seem to work particularly well in conquering this difficulty. It’s no surprise, therefore, that these same disciplines can have a similar effect on your personal goal of cultivating a deep work habit.
Strategy VI — Be Lazy
You need to inject regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day, providing you with the idleness paradoxically required to get (deep) work done. Cal suggests this heuristic: At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning — no after-dinner email check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.
A key commitment for succeeding with this strategy is to support your commitment to shutting down with a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you succeed. In more detail, this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another.
So there you have it, consider these different strategies to make deep work an integral part of your day-to-day professional activities and produce more outstanding knowledge to the world. Or else, I have a question for you:
“What strategies have you used to be more productive and create more value to your work?”
Let me know your thoughts and comments below.