I blogged about Deep Work last year (almost a year ago to the day) when I read it for the first time, and I really credit it with being the book that got me thinking more deeply (haha) about this whole topic of focus in the world of distraction we face everyday. It was my ticket into exploring this whole issue on a number of levels.
So this summer, with all my reading on what the internet, smartphones, social media, etc. are doing to our lives and brains, I decided it was time for a reread of the book that started me down this path. This time, instead of racing through it like I do when I first read a book, I reread at a leisurely pace and took handwritten notes throughout. I'm not typically a re-reader but I really felt like I got even more out of this one the second time because I've been on the journey of working on my focus for a year. So things I may have missed last time landed on this read through. I also have seen some results.
Of all the books I've recommended this week, I think this is the most "user-friendly" one because there are practical tips on what to do. Not to say the information and science of it isn't dry at times--that's the nature of this type of book and something I don't mind because I love science/research type books, but it's not a heavy or dense read like some of the others. (Like below I mention The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, which was awesome but very dense with history and detailed science and not something I'd recommend to a reader who isn't used to reading that kind of thing or is looking for a general overview.)
So, if you haven't seen my previous post on Deep Work, check that out here, but today I thought I'd share some quotes and thoughts like I've been doing for the other books this week.
First, the back cover summary:
One of the most valuable skills in our economy is becoming increasingly rare. If you master this skill, you'll achieve extraordinary results.
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 twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there's a better way.
In DEEP WORK, author and professor Cal Newport flips the narrative on impact in a connected age. Instead of arguing distraction is bad, he instead celebrates the power of its opposite. Dividing this book into two parts, he first makes the case that in almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. He then presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four "rules," for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.
A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, DEEP WORK takes the reader on a journey through memorable stories-from Carl Jung building a stone tower in the woods to focus his mind, to a social media pioneer buying a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo to write a book free from distraction in the air-and no-nonsense advice, such as the claim that most serious professionals should quit social media and that you should practice being bored. DEEP WORK is an indispensable guide to anyone seeking focused success in a distracted world.
Quotes - Thoughts - Observations
On our current state...
"There's increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow [thinking] is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work."
I can absolutely tell you that over the last year and particularly this summer when I've greatly dialed back my smartphone, social media, and internet time that I can feel the physical difference in my thinking. Last year, I was afraid that something was wrong with my memory because I couldn't hold onto so many things anymore. I was afraid that I was developing ADD (despite having no history of it). But it wasn't some illness overtaking me, it was this fast-moving world of distractibility.
I was teaching my brain to always be stimulated and jumping from task to task. But now, I can feel the quieting of my thoughts, feel the ability to focus and get into "flow" with projects coming back. I'm calmer. I'm more creative. In some ways, I feel like I've stepped out of the matrix and am seeing everything with new eyes--which sounds cheesy but is the best description of what the experience has felt like. It helps you get perspective, asking, wait, why was I doing this again? Why did I find it necessary to pick up my phone every 5 minutes or check social media every bored moment I had? Why did I feel the need to document and post so many things out to the world? Honestly, it's jarring at first to dial it all back. And then you start reaping the benefits...
On the nervous hum...
"the lack of distraction in my life tones down that background hum of nervous mental energy that seems to increasingly pervade people's daily lives. I'm comfortable being bored, and this can be a surprisingly rewarding skill..."
Which is exactly what my experience has been. I can concentrate. I can read a book without worrying if an email has come in. I can work on writing my book and not care what's happening on twitter. I can exist in quiet with nothing to do but think and be cool with that. In fact, I've come to crave the quiet, disconnected moments like I used to when I was a daydreaming kid.
"People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand...they're pretty much mental wrecks."
I am now a devotee to unitasking. Science tells us that we can't multitask anyway. When we think we are, we're just cycling from one task to the next at a rapid pace but still only doing one thing at a time. But if I've learned anything from all these books I've been reading, it's that unitasking with purpose is where the magic lies. It's like a superpower to be able to dedicate all of your focus to whatever it is you're working on. Like right now I am writing this post. No email or social media notifications will interrupt me (because I've turned them all off permanently both on my desktop and phone.) I will not check anything until I'm done writing this and have to go grab the links to add to this post. And I will finish this post in far less time than it used to take me to write something shorter.
On the importance of boredom...
"If every moment of potential boredom in your life--say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives--is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where...it's not ready for deep work--even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration."
So here's the thing. This does take some time for your brain to retrain. I can say that from my own experience and also from watching my son do the device-free summer. There's almost a detox process involved. For one, shutting down a lot of the distractions may make you feel mentally tired and even a little down. Our brains are used to the constant entertainment and stimulation. Pulling back from that and replacing it with quiet time and focused concentration is a big shift. But that state passes. For kidlet, it took about a week from what I could tell. For me, a little less, maybe because despite how distracted I was, I have been writing books for years which had trained my brain for some level of deep focus. But then that tiredness/low mood lifts and the quieter, focused pace becomes fulfilling. Creative ideas start to pop up. An internal calmness develops. Plus, you're more productive on the things that count which is reinforcing. You don't want to go back to how things were. Like kidlet has taken to saying, "I think the video games and Ipad were tricking my brain."
On social media...
Don't take the 'any benefit' approach to a social media tool. Take the craftsman approach, meaning adopt a tool only if its positive impact on your success/happiness/professional/personal life "substantially outweighs its negative impacts."
The key there is that last portion--substantially outweighs. We can find positive aspects of any social media. But just because a positive aspect exists doesn't mean it's worth the costs of the negatives a tool may have. Most of us do social media for a combination of fun/socializing and work purposes, but as we know, social media can suck up all of our time and attention because it's meant to be addictive. Companies don't want you to leave their sites. So take a hard look at all your social media outlets and determine which ones offer you more positives than negatives and pare back or get rid of the ones that are more negatives than positives. He gives a great example in the book, using a writer as the test case, on weighing the pros and cons of Twitter. I can't post it all here but it's eye-opening. And then he gives you tools on how to tame your social media beast.
On Shallow vs. Deep Work...
And finally, how do you even know what constitutes deep work vs. shallow work? How do you know if you're spending time where you should?
Ask of a task: "How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?"
If the answer is not very long, it's shallow work. Deep work is whatever your specialized skills are. For me, deep work is writing and editing. Deep work is not crafting a clever FB contest. It doesn't mean that the shallow work is not still part of my job, but it helps determine where I should be spending most of my time and effort. I have a career because I know how to write a book. That's my specialized skill. If I spend 80% of my day doing email, Facebook, Twitter, and skimming the internet, I'm just like anyone else who knows how to use a computer. So invest the lion's share of your work time in your deep work tasks and then take breaks from focused work to do the other stuff, instead of the other way around (taking breaks from distractions to do a little deep work in between.)
There are a lot more great points in the book and I don't necessarily agree with every single tactic he suggests, but overall, it was a world-shaking book for me in a good way. It's changed how I approach things completely. I highly recommend it.
And if you want to nerd out on the topic like me, here is a further reading list: