What is Deep Work and how can you achieve it?

In Deep Work, Cal Newport introduces us to rules for distraction free focus.

Deep work involves a close focus on one task or set of tasks, and the exclusion of irrelevant stimuli. Think of a blacksmith hammering a sword, or a coder resolving a complex issue. The world barely exists. You do your best work, build skills that enhance your quality of life, and give yourself meaning. Sounds good, right?

Cal Newport has written the book here; this week I draw out the benefits of deep working that tend to get ignored in our contemporary high-tech, instant, connected age. And quickly mention three ways to help you start along that path.

Below, you will find this week’s video from my Youtube channel, some quotes and visuals you might like to share, and a transcript of the video. If you find any of this useful, sign up for my newsletter – I share weekly, across a range of topics that might help you become more intuitive, knowledgeable, and take control of your own life.

This weeks video:

Illustrations and Quotes



If you want to understand deep work. First, think of a craftsman like a blacksmith spending hours, honing a sword, knowing that one slip of the hammer and the sword is ruined.  The time is wasted and the product is back to nothing. And for Cal Newport deep work can be applied and should be applied to knowledge work as well.

What he does in the book is discusses how to apply the same principles of deep undivided concentration, to knowledge work and the benefits of doing so, both for the work that you produce and for your life. He’s more interested in the work. I’m more interested in the life.

(1-Benefits of deep work) 

Newport contrast this with an increasingly shallow approach to both work and life that many people have nowadays, and which has come about largely down to the collapsing of high tech into good. So if a new social media network comes out, people think of the affordances of the network. They think of what it allows them to do that it has, that has not been possible before.

What people don’t often reflect on is the disbenefits the downsides of engaging in more immediate forms of communication. And what Newport does based on both research and rhetoric is examine how amplifying the amount of deep work you do in your week can improve your productivity and improve your attitude to work and life as a whole. 

In terms of productivity, The examples that Newport draws from are fairly diverse. We’re looking at people like Adam Grant, like Nate silver, like David Hanson and John dirt   and Cal Newport, I guess, ,at least he presents himself in that way. 

People   like those are enabled to thrive without overworking, compared to their peers, by their habits of deep work. So because they can immerse themselves deeply in what they’re doing and what they’re producing, whether it’s coding or analyzing finances whatever you’re doing. If you can throw yourself into it for those hours that you’re working, then when it comes to six o’clock in Cal Newport’s case, you can switch off. 

And your day is done. You can concentrate on your family. You can concentrate on your hobbies  and you can do other things that deep work allows you to produce it a rate that most people can’t while working less hours than most people do in your field. It’s reasonably well, evidenced this, and it’s a persuasive case that maybe we should be thinking about how to make concentrated time, the default and distracted time, the aberration, which is a change he suggests making that I’d like you to play with as well.

It’s a fantastic way of reframing things. So instead of programming in your two hours of focus time program in your two hours of distracted time, And see what happens . 

The second benefit of deep working is that it builds an ability to focus your attention, where you want your attention to go, which enables you to have better attitude to life and a better life as a whole.

And it enables you to attain the semi mythical flow state  in which time and meaning collapse into what you’re doing in the present basically. And you can flow through your work, produce the best work of your life and have a wonderful time in the process.

This is based on, on a raft of, of different angles of research and all that. I’ll just mention a couple of them quickly. So one is by Gallagher , which examines how our attention can be used to control our worldview and ensure that we can maintain a positive outlook on life, which has a variety of benefits, both medical and otherwise throughout whatever life throws at us.

So the book came about because Gallagher was diagnosed with cancer and she held a positive attitude throughout the kind of travails of cancer which encouraged her to look at attention in a new way and to rethink how our experience of the world can be divorced from what’s physically going on as far as other people are concerned.

The second angle of research is by neuroscientists, who views things like fMRI scanning to demonstrate that elderly subjects in particular don’t encode negative stimuli in the way that most younger people do in the Western world today.

You  might be familiar with negativity bias, the idea that we respond more strongly and more emotionally, to negative stimuli than we do positive . And this is based on the idea that the amygdala fires and generate an emotional response to negative things in the, in a way that it doesn’t for positive. 

And that’s true for young people in the West today, it’s not true for elderly people who have been studied by neuroscientists. Their amygdala doesn’t fire at the same rate for negatives as it does for positive. Indeed, they have a positivity bias if you’re going to look at it that way. And that comes about through a variety of things, including what they choose to attend to.

 There were many arguments around the causation there, whether it’s a difference in generational upbringing, the incur in Caucasian negativity today, when there was positivity in generations past, or whether it’s a difference in attitude that comes about as you realize life is nearing its end and you want to grab the good in what’s left and embrace the positivity.

But the message that I want to pull out of it here. And the, and that Newport pulls out of it is that what you attend to and how you focus on things, rewires your brain, completely. You can change huge amounts, based on where you choose to focus your conscious attention and building the skill of deep work improves your ability to control your attention, which in turn allows you to do a huge range of things with yourself that would have been impossible beforehand, and it’s a phenomenal life skill, control of attention. 

 (2- Deep work and Meaning) 

There’s  a philosophical argument for meaning in deep work. So craftsman find meaning in their work, whether they’re building, whether they’re creating a sword, like I mentioned at the beginning, or whether they’re coding, you hear really good coders who have just solved a particularly intractable problem talk about the beauty of a solution or the opposite of the kind of ugly hack that they’ve put together and that meaning and that sense of subtle virtues and individuality, um, is a much more human way of looking at the world than a right or wrong solution to a problem.

It enables you to think about discovered meaning. So the coder is discovering beauty in their solution. The blacksmith is, is discovering how his sword can be shaped given the properties of the particular properties of metal that he’s just put together. Not certainty in which you’ve got a preset outcome, but then, you know, what’s going to happen, there is a sense of ambiguity there, which is deeply human and which is vitally important to living a meaningful life. 

 (3- How do you get to a state of deep work?) 

The first key thing I’ve already mentioned is to schedule your distracted time . Schedule the hours you will allow yourself to be interrupted by notifications, or in which you will be interrupted by emails by Twitter or the social medias or whatever you’re doing. So that shallow distracted time is the period that you can browse freely. You can use social media you can do whatever you want, really. Outside of that time, just don’t. 

And what you’re doing by inverting, what most people do, is your practicing, your attention, muscle, your training, your skill of attention, your ability to attend to what’s in front of you by ignoring the impulses you’ll have at first, because you will most likely addicted to all of these various communication platforms out there almost everybody is now. 

The other vitally important thing to kind of take away from, from that idea is that constant tasks switching inhibits deep focus . So if the only moments of the day that you’re focused on your scheduled focus time, you’re going to be switching to tasks that the rest of through the rest of the day, and each one takes anything from 15 to 30 minutes for you to reset and get back into what you’re doing.

You might not believe that, but. Every single study that has been done on the topic demonstrated conclusively. There are no exceptions. There is nobody who is special and there are special jobs which require task switching as a skillset. And some people are better at shallow concentration than others but if you want to get into your deep work focus, then task switching stops that from happening. 

Secondly, think of social media and other platforms that you use, whether they’re news platforms or the things in a more nuanced way. Don’t just think of the benefits. Think also of the disbenefits. Think of the time that you spend on anything that could be spent elsewhere. Think of the way that distraction, particularly of anything involving notifications or instant connectivity inhibits deep work.

And for those of you who are thinking that your work requires very quick connectivity, just switch off 15   minutes at a time. Even having that kind of clear segregated thing will start to build your ability to, to concentrate. And you’ll realize that actually the definition of instant conductivity that’s required is very different from the one that you’ve been biped in nearly every case.

An analogy Newport uses that’s really nice here is to think of a farmer who is investing their money in a hay baler. It’s a very nuanced decision thinking about things like nutritional balances and crop yields and what else can be done with land and how much time will be taken to do different things. 

And yet when most of you sign up for a new social media platform, all you’re thinking about is the good side of it. That’s basically the approach he’s suggesting that knowledge workers should take to their tools and their time is a more nuanced one on where they think through the consequences of how they’re spending their time, not just in the immediate kind of that’s 10 minutes of my time that’s been taken on that, but also in the last focus for the next half an hour, and also in the distracted mind of unresolved open loops across the course of the rest of the day, if you haven’t responded and you’ve managed to pull yourself away from something that you really wanted to.

Thirdly on how to get there is to make more deliberate use of your time away from work. 

So instead of being entertained constantly, engage, use your attention muscle. And this for Newport is an amoral thing. It’s not about being a better person. It’s about being a different person, being one who can concentrate and who does concentrate and who chooses to relax in a deep way, in the same way that they work in a deep way.

And as you can imagine, deep relaxation, age or recovery, mental, or physical better than shallow relaxation. And then sitting there watching Netflix or browsing the news does, so fill your time with quality hobbies, whatever they are for you, something that you can engage yourself in and quality time with other people as well.

Don’t just be entertained, especially by distracting or attention grabbing media.