I just read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. It sits well with a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading recently as a member of the commons at BVN. His main argument is that being able to do deep work gives you a huge competitive advantage.

By deep work he means something that will advance your agenda in life, but also needs your specific skills. So I can send a bunch of emails, or go to a load of meetings, but really I could delegate that. Deep work is the stuff that you are uniquely suited to, and that required your undivided attention.

Divided attention results in shallow work. If you are interrupted a lot then it’s impossible to get into the flow of what you are doing. (See Maker schedule, manager schedule)

This book would be a good bet for most people. I’m trying to implement some things from it as my attention is notoriously fleeting. The irony of reading a book about deep work and then flitting across to Facebook as I got bored didn’t escape me.

Things I did

The first thing was to take away my default attention sink. My attention span is somewhere between 2-5 minutes if I’m not into something. I’ll feel a strong urge to look at something mindless, to the point where sometimes I’ll get bored of looking at Facebook and try to open Facebook to alleviate the dullness! I took Facebook and Instagram off my phone1. I’ve been surprised by how fast I’ve acclimatised. I’ve left Messenger so that I’m still contactable, but I’ve found that the notifications are very distracting, which brings me to my next thing.

To get myself to commit to solid periods of deep work I’ve started using Clockwork Tomato. It’s a Pomodoro timer that sets me up to do 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break2. The nice feature that this particular timer has is Tasker integration. It’s like an IFTTT, but less friendly and more hackable. One of the things it can do is turn off the WiFi on my phone. I don’t have a SIM card in my phone3, so turning off the WiFi makes me uncontactable.

What this means is that I’m committing to 25 minutes of focussed work, without anyone to distract me. That’s not a super long time, but for someone with an attention span like mine it’s an eternity and is great deep work training.

One of the nice side effect is that it is a great reward when Tasker turns the wifi back on and I get a flood of notifications that I can faff with for 5 minutes before it cuts me off again4.

I’m considering a few more things like this, but I haven’t got around to them yet. I might do something that turns the WiFi off in the house when I should be sleeping, and that uses Rescuetime to block certain websites e.g. blocking work websites outside work times. If you’ve got any ideas, then let me know!

Quotes from the book

I highlight when I read a kindle book5. There is a handy website that collects them all up; here’s what I highlighted:

Here’s Cal’s method, in his own words:

I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

He makes a good point about how the mid-term future will most likely be a blended teams scenario. The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? His point is that deep work is rarely automatable, so safeguards your livelihood from the robots! E.g.:

when money is made through the combination of capital investment and labor, the rewards are returned, roughly speaking, proportional to the input. As digital technology reduces the need for labor in many industries, the proportion of the rewards returned to those who own the intelligent machines is growing.

This is his equation and I think it makes sense:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) × (Intensity of Focus)

I like how if you put a low value in for Intensity of Focus you’ll get a low amount of value!

Richard Feynman (total hero of virtually everyone I know) said this:

To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time … it needs a lot of concentration … if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, “no,” I tell them: I’m irresponsible.

Turns out that I’ve been cultivating an air of irresponsibility too!

Mr Flow himself:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi… explicitly identifies this advantage when he emphasizes the advantage of cultivating “concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.”)

This is about the difference between work and craft.

Beautiful code is short and concise, so if you were to give that code to another programmer they would say, “oh, that’s well written code.” It’s much like as if you were writing a poem.

Within the overall structure of a project there is always room for individuality and craftsmanship … One hundred years from now, our engineering may seem as archaic as the techniques used by medieval cathedral builders seem to today’s civil engineers, while our craftsmanship will still be honored.

This is a useful mantra:

When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.

This is something that I see afflicting so many people, including me. The quality of rest you get between periods of work directly influences the intensity that you are able to work when you are working. If you let the work bleed into the rest then the rest will bleed into the work and diminish the quality of both! In Cal’s words: attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.

Basecamp gives their people 4 day weeks in the summer, rather than doing 80% of the work they still did 100% (or more) of the work in 80% of the time:

the reduction in the 37signals work week disproportionately eliminated shallow as compared to deep work, and because the latter was left largely untouched, the important stuff continued to get done.

They liked this, so:

our theory is that we’ll see better results when people have a long stretch of uninterrupted time.” To test this theory, 37signals implemented something radical: The company gave its employees the entire month of June off to work deeply on their own projects.

Those projects have produced some of the features that generate a bunch of Basecamp’s income! Without them they’d be grinding along with their old feature set.

  1. Where I do most of my reading now that I have a massive screen 6p. 

  2. It’s slightly more complicated, but that’s the gist. Here’s a bit more detail

  3. I just don’t see the point, but that’s a different story. 

  4. This post, It’s time for notifications to get smart, from the Intercom blog has some good ideas about how to make this notification thing work for you rather than against. 

  5. which is pretty much the only way I read books at the moment.