Philippe's Reviews > Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep Work by Cal Newport
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Over the last years I have been on a quest to develop a more naturally flowing and productive way of life. The ability to focus, to prioritize and to rest is essential for someone who is engaged in an intellectually demanding job, has an unquenchable curiosity, and leans towards ambitious goal setting.

A first breakthrough came in the shape of the Personal Kanban approach. In contrast with a primitive and myopic to do-list driven routine, PK gave more context to time management decisions, provided me with more flexibility and offered a platform to retrospectively assess allocation patterns over longer periods of time.

Useful as it is, PK is not perfect. If one is not careful, it can be twisted into a to do list-like routine. And it’s not making one immune to multitasking. The latter is a particularly important point given the incessant pressures and temptations of email and internet consumption.

So while PK offers a compelling overall canvas for time allocation, it needs to be supported by strategies to reprogram deeply seated behavioral patterns. I have been experimenting with a mindfulness technique (‘Time Surfing’, developed by Dutch coach Paul Loomans) that fits hand in glove with Personal Kanban. Its reliance on intuition and quality of attention nicely complements PK’s panoptic approach.

Cal Newport’s Deep Work is another useful PK plug-in. The aim is strengthen our ability to perform high-quality intellectual work over long, uninterrupted stretches. There’s nothing particularly new about this idea. We all know from experience that demanding tasks require sustained focus. And given the prevailing ‘culture of connection’ we also appreciate that the ability to focus is becoming increasingly rare in today’s workplace. And, finally, intuitively we also sense that a life built around ‘deep work’ - whether intellectual, manual or emotional - is also likely to be a good and satisfying life. So it’s easy to go along with Cal Newport’s argument in the first part of his book.

But how to put this into practice? I found out that first I needed to be clear what qualifies as ‘deep work’. Newport provides a generic description: “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.” Reflecting on it, I realized that the distinction between shallow and deep is less obvious then it seems. Newport acknowledges this and suggests to assess the depth of a given activity by asking the following question: “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?” From this perspective, while a lot of email correspondence obviously qualifies as shallow, there are messages that require sustained attention to compose. This is deep work. Browsing a newspaper is likely a shallow task, but reading and digesting a difficult book is not. Some meetings will be shallow, but leading a workshop is deep. So starting from one’s own professional orientation and intellectual temperament, one needs to assess what belongs to one’s personal ‘deep work’ category.

Then comes the challenge of routinization. Research has shown that we have a finite amount of willpower at our disposal. When we use it, it becomes depleted. So rather than to rely on good intentions we need to build routines for our working life that minimize the amount of willpower to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

A routine is an overall deep work strategy. It hinges on the nature of our professional responsibilities (for instance, researcher vs sales person) and on our personal predilections. Newport proposes four deep work scheduling routines. They differ by the relative weight of deep work and the frequency with which users move from shallow to deep and back:

- The monastic philosophy radically minimizes shallow obligations;
- The bimodal philosophy modulates between deep and shallow activities but at a very low frequency; the minimum unit of time for deep work in this approach tends to be at least one full day;
- The rhythmic philosophy modulate between deep and shallow over shorter time intervals. Adherents of the Pomodoro Technique (not mentioned by Newport) will recognize this;
- The journalistic philosophy which pivots on individuals’ abilities to shift very rapidly between deep and shallow modes.

Next comes the tactical challenge of ritualization: elaborating and training ourselves in a distinctive protocol to weave deep work into our daily lives. The ritualization of deep work is hard to standardize. Where and how people like to focus tends to be a very idiosyncratic affair. I like to work in splendid isolation but my kids go and sit in a crowded library when they are studying for their exams. Similarly we might have very different predilections when it comes to working with or without background music, with or without internet, at an empty or cluttered desk, etc.

One of the interesting concepts discussed by Newport is the ‘grand gesture’: introducing a radical change to our normal working environment to support a deep work task. I have long known that long-distance travel by plane or train is, for me, a particularly effective setting for deep work. The cocoon effect of an airliner seat or a train compartment combined with a sense of being in motion and the absence of internet and other distractions never fails to produce a state of deep concentration. So I was in total sympathy with Newport’s story about a guy who booked a return ticket from the US to Tokyo to get a piece of writing done. The key is, of course, to be able to recreate this setting in a less onerous and costly way.

I have now gravitated towards the following approach to routinize and ritualize deep work:

First I feel like the bimodal strategy is the one that fits best with my work and my natural rhythm. However, I have settled on a minimum stretch of four hours, as opposed to the full day proposed by Newport.

I have taken to keeping a Deep Work Savings Account. This allows me to keep track of the number of units collected, and hence of the total amount of time spent on deep work over a longer period of time. Just as I’m challenging myself to cycle 8000 km per year, I have now formulated a realistic mid-term goal of collecting 100 deep work units of four hours over a 12 month period. That amounts to 400 hours, or 50 full days of deep work. It’s not overly ambitious, but then it’s also much more than what I would accomplish without a dedicated deep work strategy.

A key part of the deep work ritual is to block access to the internet. I am resorting to full spectrum blocking, including email, rather than selective blocking. On two days a week I grant myself full day access to internet (usually Tuesdays and Fridays). On the other days the time window is restricted to one hour. I use this for a quick sweep of the inbox, to reply to urgent messages and perform internet searches I kept track of during the day.

Finally, I practice the mindfulness-oriented Time Surfing rituals (no multitasking, clear start and end of tasks, include ‘white spaces’, etc.) to enhance my experience of both deep and shallow work.

So my working rhythm is governed by three layers of practice, ranked from the strategic to the tactical:

- Visualization mainly based on the Personal Kanban approach;
- Routinization mainly based on the Deep Work approach;
- Ritualization mainly based on the principles of Time Surfing.

Finally, the whole flow is embedded in a ’monitoring and control’ set of activities based on PK and my Deep Work Savings Account.

To sum up, Cal Newport’s book has been very useful to help me develop a more effective work routine. I have come a long way from the dreary tunnel vision induced by to do-lists. Having said that, there is one point where I deviate from Newport’s advice and that is where he suggests to be very rigorous in scheduling every minute of a work day (in half hour blocks). This, I am sure, does not work for me. When a deep time block starts I want to have the liberty to zoom in on what at that point feels I’d like to work on. At regular intervals I resort to the PK canvas to assess what next steps could be. Strict a priori scheduling is also at odds with Time Surfing, which aims to enhance our capacity to ‘surf’, i.e. to navigate intuitively and guided by what gives energy at a particular moment in time.

To conclude, I’d like to recommend ‘Deep Work’ to anyone seeking to develop a more productive work routine. The book does not offer revolutionary insights. Most of what it offers will be known from elsewhere. Also it is a little bit too long. Newport could have shaved off 25% of the page count without compromising the scope of his argument. Finally, as can be deduced from the above, in my opinion Deep Work is not a stand alone approach but needs to be practiced in synergy with other techniques.

Nevertheless, this is a valuable contribution. I particularly like the book’s earnest and no-frills dedication to developing an increasingly scarce and increasingly valuable skill of performing deep intellectual work.
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Started Reading
July 26, 2016 – Finished Reading
November 21, 2016 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Marc (new)

Marc Impressive review, Philippe, and impressive how you meticulously search for the most efficient and most rewarding work routine. I'm afraid I'm still stuck in the frantic to do-list routine, but as you write that is myopic and frustrating. Your review has shown me the way to different approaches to remediate!


message 2: by Bertrand (new)

Bertrand I really struggle with organising and prioritising my pursuits and I had never thought to look for books or methods on the subject (something I'd however happily do with fitness or languages) on the puerile assumption they would have to fall in the 'self-help' category. Your review showed me otherwise and I am very grateful.


Philippe Marc, Bertrand, you're very welcome. Thanks for expressing your appreciation.


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