Here are my musings on how we can focus our concentration and attention to get deep work done and have more time and energy to live a fulfilling life. With extracts from ‘Deep Work’.
“The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming
increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in
our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it
the core of their working life, will thrive.
DEEP WORK VS. SHALLOW WORK
“Deep Work: 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.
Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.
We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of
mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.”
Deep work. Distraction-free concentration. Stretches your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
Creates new value. Improves your skill. And the products of this type of work are hard to
replicate. Let’s compare it to its opposite:
“Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while
distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to
In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work
with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human
network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.”
How much time are you spending as a human network router—constantly sending emails and
otherwise distracting yourself with every new little push notification and text message and
attention-paper-cutting distraction imaginable? 🙂
DEEP WORK = A WORKOUT FOR YOUR NEURONS
“To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual
or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues
that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing
the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to
be well myelinated.
This understanding is important because it provides a neurological foundation for why
deliberate practice works. By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific
relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit
triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in
the circuits—effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus
intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate
the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.”
“To be great at something is to be well myelinated.”
This is the secret sauce to greatness you can learn about in Dan Coyle’s Talent Code.
He recalls a story about LeBron James and how he deliberately practised
developing his inside game with Hakeem Olajuwon. He slowed everything down, intensely
focused on certain moves like he was a 7th grader picking something up for the first time.
It’s IMPOSSIBLE to imagine LeBron kinda sorta showing up, munching on an Oreo while
dribbling with the other hand, stopping to respond to his latest text then going back to passively
dribbling the ball. He’s INTENSELY FOCUSED.
Likewise, of course, WE are not going to create anything of value when our attention is
fragmented by the latest push notification or email or whatever. We. Must. FOCUS!!!
Remember: Deep work = distraction-free concentration that stretches your cognitive capabilities
to their limit while improving your skill and creating new value that is hard to replicate.
“The problem this research identifies with this work strategy is that when you switch from some
Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention
remains stuck thinking about the original task. … ‘People experiencing attention residue after
switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task,’ and the more
intense the residue, the worse the performance.
The concept of attention residue helps explain why the intensity formula is true and therefore
explains Grant’s productivity. By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching,
Grant minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from his obligations, allowing him to
maximize performance on this one task.”
Attention residue. This is a really cool and Big Idea.
So, at this stage, most of us are pretty aware that multi-tasking is simply not possible. Although
we can rapidly shift from one thing to another (diminishing our performance in both tasks!), we
can’t do two things at once.
Let’s assume we get that and strive to focus on one thing at a time. Research shows that we
STILL run into sub-optimal attention issues as we move from one meeting/project to another.
A part of our attention is still focused on the last project. There’s a “residue” from it that
diminishes our capacity to fully focus.
As Cal Newport’s book advises: “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full
concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that
optimizes performance is deep work.”
Here’s to cleaning up the residue on our attention! (One key way? Create time blocks!!)
THE FOUR RULES OF DEEP WORK
“Rule #1: Work Deeply
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows”
After establishing the *why* Deep Work is important, it’s important we move into the all-important
practical HOW. Here are the four rules.
Rule #1: Work Deeply. It’s not enough to have the intention to work more deeply. We need to
systematically install new routines and rituals to create new habits that will lead to more and
more deep work. This is a hallmark of great humans.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom. For some reason these days, the MOMENT we have a lull in
our lives—whether that’s a few minutes before a friend arrives for lunch or in line at the grocery
store or whatever—most of us immediately grab our smartphone and compulsively check out
whatever we think we need to see right.this.second. We have about a hundredth of a second of
tolerance for boredom.
If we want to create the capacity for more deep work, then feeding that beast is NOT a good idea.
It is important that rather than immediately flail around in the shallow end of the distraction pool,
we need to EMBRACE BOREDOM. Use those moments to think or breathe deeply. Anything
other than our habitual, addictive, impulsive, attention paper-cutting behaviors.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media. If there’s a poster child for shallow living, it’s social media. A logical
analysis is the fact that just because there’s a little benefit to things
like social media (e.g., staying connected to old friends, etc.), doesn’t mean it’s actually worth the
time we give it.
If we REALLY want to live deeply—working and loving—we can do better than fritter away our
time on social media. The bold among us shall quit it! I’ve never really engaged on the personal
side of Facebook and, via the exercises in the book, got even more clarity that, if I’m committed
to my deep work, it’s time for my social media time to be nearly eliminated. FUN! (You?!)
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows. The Shallows is the name of a book written capturing the
essence of superficial living. (Written by a guy in retreat doing deep work, btw.) As we cultivate
deep work, we need to systematically drain the shallow from our lives.
One of my big tips here? SCHEDULE EVERY MINUTE OF EVERY DAY. Not to drive yourself
crazy, but to bring more mindfulness to your day.
We want to create big old time blocks (remember: The ONE Thing guys call this the #1 power
tool of time management). Then, of course, be flexible as things evolve during the day but bring
yourself back to your commitment to using your time consciously as you drain the shallows!
ROUTINES TO RITUALIZE DEEP WORK
“That brings me to the motivating idea behind the strategies that follow: The key to developing a
deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working
life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into
and maintain a state of unbroken concentration. If you suddenly decide, for example, in the
middle of a distracted afternoon spent Web browsing, to switch your attention to a cognitively
demanding task, you’ll draw heavily from your finite willpower to wrest your attention away
from the online shininess. Such attempts will therefore frequently fail. On the other hand, if you
deployed smart routines and rituals—perhaps a set time and quiet location used for your deep
tasks each afternoon—you’d require much less willpower to start and keep going. In the long
run, you’d, therefore, succeed with these deep efforts far more often.”
This is Rule #1 of how: We need to create routines and rituals to consistently rock it.
Cal presents four different “depth philosophies” and gives examples of each—encouraging us to
figure out which approach is optimal for us and go out and rock it. Super quick look:
Monastic Philosophy: Think of a monk in a monastery—removed from the little distractions of
normal life. You’re essentially unplugged from the matrix and focused. It’s (obviously) not for
everybody but an extraordinarily productive approach if you can pull it off. (This is basically me
in my hermit-mode.)
Bimodal Philosophy: In this mode, you alternate between a monastic approach and a normally
engaged mode. Cal shares the story of Carl Jung who alternated between a very engaged therapy
practice/social life in Zurich and a totally removed monk-mode in his retreat house for writing.
Rhythmic Philosophy: The basic idea here is captured in Jerry Seinfeld’s “chain method” habit
of writing a joke every day. In this mode, we’re less attached to a particular schedule and
committed to having a “rhythm” of consistently creating—were, like, Seinfeld, we don’t want to
break the chain of successful showing up and completing our daily deep work.
Journalistic Philosophy: In this mode, like a journalist who’s ready to write on deadline
whenever the situation arises, you fit deep work into your schedule whenever you can. This is
Cal’s main approach.
Obviously, check out the book for more. For now, know that we need to find our own philosophy.
Monastic/Bimodal/Rhythmic/Journalistic: Which one of those resonates the most for you?
DISCIPLINE #1: FOCUS ON THE WILDLY IMPORTANT
“As the authors of The 4 Disciplines of Execution explain, ‘The more you try to do, the less you
actually accomplish.’ They elaborate that execution should be aimed at a small number of ‘wildly
important goals.’ This simplicity will help focus an organization’s energy to a sufficient intensity
to ignite real results.
For an individual focused on deep work, the implication is that you should identify a small
number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours. The general exhortation
to ‘spend more time working deeply’ doesn’t spark a lot of enthusiasm. In a 2014 column titled,
‘The Art of Focus,’ David Brooks endorsed this approach of letting ambitious goals drive focused
behaviour, explaining: ‘If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial
distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses
a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.’”
Remember: It’s a HECK of a lot easier to say “No!” to shallow distractions when you have a
REALLY BIG YES!
So, what WILDLY important thing fires you up?
Seriously. Let’s slow down and capture this.
What’s the #1 (challenging but feasible!) thing you’d most like to achieve over the next 6-12
months that would have a wildly awesome positive impact on your life?
My #1 WILDLY IMPORTANT goal = Write it down!
Fantastic. Here’s to going deep and prioritizing our lives around that #1—crowding out the
distractions in the process.
“At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning
—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how
you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. If you need more
time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free. …
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. Your average e-mail response time might suffer
some, but you’ll more than make up for this with the sheer volume of truly important work
produced during the day by your refreshed ability to dive deeper than your exhausted peers.”
“When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.”
As Steven Kotler has said, although being in flow is incredibly rewarding in terms of
creativity, productivity, learning and pure enjoyment, it’s also REALLY EXPENSIVE.
Dan Coyle echoed this as well. He retold a story about how he once wrote a piece on
the world’s fastest men. He said when these guys weren’t racing they barely moved—they were
It takes a ton of energy to perform at a high level. And that demands a deep level of recovery.
One GREAT way to do that is to have a hard stop at the end of every day. Cal makes a strong case
for why this is so important and walks us through his personal end of the day ritual in which he
basically does one final check of email to make sure he’s handled anything that’s urgent, looks
over what was left undone and plans some time the next day to complete it then, as he turns off
his computer for the night, he says to himself, “Shut-down complete!”
LOVE that. I do something similar. With my digital sunset, I turn off the computer and return it
to its not-gonna-see-you-till-tomorrow home, appreciate all that’s been done, look ahead to the
next day, clean up my desk so it’s in a ready-state for tomorrow morning and #done. Time to
recover. I may need to add: “Houston. We’re shutting down. 3. 2. 1. Shut-down, complete.” 🙂
How about you?
Ready to start shutting down completely and giving that big, awesome brain of yours a chance to
rest and recover?
THE DEEP LIFE
“The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your
habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social
media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also
an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re possible of producing,
as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to
comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into
The deep life.
Are you ready to take the plunge?
Here’s to diving into the deep end as we optimise, actualise and give our greatest gifts in greatest
service to the world!
Feeling enlightened? Download my ebook for free, for a limited time only at: 80 Ways To Find Your Purpose