In order to succeed in today’s economy, Cal Newport believes people must do “deep work“: important, focused work. In his book, Newport lays out a few big rules for deep work and then draws out their implications.
Rule #1: Work Deeply
People have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it (100). So you need to smart about your habits. You must move beyond good intentions. You need routines and rituals to minimize the amount of your limited power necessary to transition into image of state of unbroken concentration. You need to develop rituals to sharpen your concentration before starting each “deep work” session. So how can you work deeply? Newport provides a few ways in the chapter:
By Choosing Your Depth Philosophy
First, you must align yourself with a particular “philosophy” about depth. Your context, job, and personality preferences will all play a role in the type of “deep work” that you do. There are a few different philosophies about deep work:
- Monastic Retreat: Monastic retreat is the most intense kind of deep work. In essence, you attempt to cut out all the “shallow work.” You spend most of your time “away” in a sanctuary to think and concentrate. Such a philosophy will give you the most time for deep work. For many people, however, their context or job will not allow them to remove themselves from “real life.”
- Bi-Modal (Extended Sabbatical): Another view is called bimodal, or what I would see as an extended sabbatical. This philosophy alternates between extended times away and engagement in “normal” life. Such a method will give you a great deal of time for “deep work” while still engaging you in life. Again, many people may find it difficult to get away a month, or week, or even a weekend.
- Rhythmic Scheduling: Another view of philosophy for deep work is the rhythmic method. You schedule in daily or weekly rhythm of deep work. People who use this method make it a habit. The rhythm of setting a particular time helps remove the ambiguity and will power draining decision that must be made (111). By supporting deep work with rock-solid routines, you make sure little bit gets done on a regular basis. Oftentimes, those who use rhythmic scheduling will find that they log a larger total number of deep hours per year than any other method (113). Such a method, however, requires self-control and very good habits.
- Journalistic Scheduling: Journalistic scheduling is an advanced method. Once your brain has been trained to concentrate deeply, you can usually slip into “deep work” mode at will. As time arises, then, you do “deep work.” Such a method is powerful for taking advantages of the pockets and holes in your schedule. It should not attempted by a novice, however, since it requires a brain trained to focus at a moment’s notice.
Rituals help provide us with the structure we need for deep work. You must answer the following questions to help you form rituals.
- Where will I work, and for how long? It’s important to find a place for deep work. Will it be your normal office, or someplace special? How many deep work hours will I attempt to do?
- How will I work once I start? You must structure your time. Otherwise, you can begin “spinning your wheels.” Will you allow internet use or not? Will you measure you writing output?
- How will I support this work? What food and water do I need? When will I use the bathroom?
By Making Grand Gestures
Sometimes it is helpful to “go big”: Rent a cabin for a week or build a room for deep work.
By Not Working Alone
Working deeply does not mean that you have to be totally isolated. You can also do deep work with others. But you need a “hub-and-spoke” mentality. You must be able to retreat into your spoke of the wheel to work by yourself and then come back into the hub to share your results and collaborate (131).
By Executing Like a Business
Let’s imagine for a moment that you have a plan for deep work. How do you begin to execute this plan? It is at this juncture when thinking like a business can help you execute. If a business thrives, what practices does it do to be effective? Newport mentions four:
- Focus on the Wildly Important: Focus on the most important things that you want to accomplish. You should try to figure out a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours (137).
- Act on Lead Measures: You need to differentiate the term between lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures are what you’re trying to improve. For example, having your customers satisfied with your product (137). The problem with lag measures is that you won’t get the results for a while. Lead measures, on the other hand, focus on the beginning of the process for success. For someone focusing on working deeply, a lead measure is the question, “How much time am I spending in deep work?” (138).
- Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: You need to know how well you’re doing your deep work. Newport suggests to keep a physical artifact in the workplace that displays the current number of deep work hours. He writes, “I settled on a simple but effective solution for implementing the scoreboard. I took a piece of cardstock and divided into rows: one for each week of the current semester. I then labeled each row with the dates of the week and taped it to the wall next to my computer monitor (where it couldn’t be ignored). As each week progressed, I kept track of the hours spent in deep work that week with a simply tally of tick marks in that week’s row. To maximize the motivation generated by this scoreboard, whenever I reached an important milestone in an academic paper…I would circle the tally mark corresponding to the hour where I finished the result” (139-40).
- Create a Cadence of Accountability: You must hold yourself accountable for doing deep work. It is helpful to have regular “accountability meetings” with someone. If you can’t schedule a meeting, then accountability must come in the form of “self-accountability.” This may mean checking the scoreboard at the end of the week or some other form of accountability.
By Being Lazy
You need to take time off from your job. When you end your day, “shut down your consideration of work until the next morning: no after dinner email check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge semicolon shut down the work completely” (144). When you’re off, you’re off. But just why is downtime so important? Newport explains:
- Downtime aids insights: When you have down time, you’re unconscious brain is working. Often, when your mind “goes off,” you get insights in that time. Furthermore, it helps replenish your willpower, which you will need to accomplish deep work.
- Downtime helps replenish willpower: Your directed attention, or ability to concentrate, is also a finite resource. When it is exhausted, you will struggle to concentrate. Downtime helps recharge it. When you are off, try to do some things which don’t need directed attention. However, you will need things which will modestly grab your attention. In other words, you need to be engaged in activities which are stimulating enough to “take your mind off of things” but not too stimulating as to use up your willpower.
- Evening work isn’t that important: What you do at night, isn’t that important. Your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited (150). So the work you’re doing at night will not contribute significantly to your success. What you need is a shutdown ritual and a rough plan for the next day. A shutdown ritual is the steps you take to “close out” your work day. When you complete your shutdown ritual, you now know to keep work at work.