Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
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Read between October 28 - November 16, 2019
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In a seminal 1981 paper, the economist Sherwin Rosen worked out the mathematics behind these “winner-take-all” markets. One of his key insights was to explicitly model talent—labeled, innocuously, with the variable q in his formulas—as a factor with “imperfect substitution,” which Rosen explains as follows: “Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” In other words, talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best. Therefore, if you’re in a marketplace where the consumer ...more
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Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity
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Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
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Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.
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When she instead scanned the elderly, the amygdala fired only for the positive images. Carstensen hypothesizes that the elderly subjects had trained the prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala in the presence of negative stimuli. These elderly subjects were not happier because their life circumstances were better than those of the young subjects; they were instead happier because they had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive. By skillfully managing their attention, they improved their world without changing anything concrete about it.
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Gallagher teaches us that this is a foolhardy way to go about your day, as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that’s dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.
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Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.
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This, ultimately, is the lesson to come away with from our brief foray into the world of experimental psychology: To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
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We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.”
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I earlier quoted Winifred Gallagher, the converted disciple of depth, saying, “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” This is perhaps the best way to sum up the argument of this chapter and of Part 1 more broadly: A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.
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A now voluminous line of inquiry, initiated in a series of pioneering papers also written by Roy Baumeister, has established the following important (and at the time, unexpected) truth about willpower: You have a finite
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(As Nietzsche said: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”)
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Decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point toward the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.
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put this more concretely: 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, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.
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One place where this strategy becomes particularly difficult outside work is when you’re forced to wait (for example, standing in line at a store). It’s crucial in these situations that if you’re in an offline block, you simply gird yourself for the temporary boredom, and fight through it with only the company of your thoughts. To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.
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As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.
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Fortunately, Arnold Bennett identified the solution to this problem a hundred years earlier: Put more thought into your leisure time. In other words, this strategy suggests that when it comes to your relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead dedicate some advance thinking to the question of how you want to spend your “day within a day.”
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The most adept deep thinker cannot spend more than four of these hours in a state of true depth. It follows that you can safely spend half the day wallowing in the shallows without adverse effect.
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As I emphasized in this book’s introduction, I have no interest in this debate. A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.
This idea has many different forms and names, including the 80/20 rule, Pareto’s principle, and, if you’re feeling particularly pretentious, the principle of factor sparsity.