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What’s deep work?
Deep Work is:
- work at highest levels of focused attention
- work that requires our high expertise, not something we could easily delegate
- work that’s generally creative, not repetitive or logistical or communication
- work that hits and stretches the limits of our minds
e.g. writing, designing, programming, studying (Deliberate Practice), performed in flow.
Why deep work
3 groups of people will do very well in the future:
- People who can work with advanced technology tools.
- Superstars — people who are really good at what they do
- People who have capital to invest
The former two require deep work to get an edge over other people.
Why people don’t do deep work
- Shallow work is easier
- Busyness — we feel good and our bosses feel good when we’re always busy with things, even if they’re inconsequential
- Technopoly — our culture assumes that technology (and Internet in particular) is always good and of value. We don’t question whether or not, say, Twitter has actually positive impact on our lives
What about Jack Dorsey? CEOs live famously distracted work lives, filled with shallow, not deep work. So what? CEOs have a unique job. They’re pattern-matching, decision-making machines. It makes sense for them not to focus on deep work, but don’t be so quick to assume this also applies to you.
Why deep work is worth it
Craftsman mindset: deep work = good life.
Myelination. Focusing attention changes the brain. When we stretch our limits and keep using those same crucial pathways over and over, those neurons develop a layer of myelin insulation, which makes them faster and more reliable. Attention on the shallow makes you only capable of the shallow. (See: Your Brain at Work)
Flow (Csikszentmihalyi). We’re the happiest in the state of flow.
Finding time for deep work
Monastery. You cut yourself out of shallow distractions nearly completely. Only makes sense for individuals whose job it is to think big thoughts alone.
Bimodal. Regularly, you find a large chunk of time, maybe a day in a week, or a week once a month, to engage completely in deep work.
Rhythmic. Say, two hours every single morning.
Journalistic. You fit deep work whenever you find a bit of time to do deep work.
Grand gesture. A rare opportunity where you change your environment completely and the grandness of the gesture puts you in the right state of mind for deep work. Examples: Bill Gates’ twice-a-year Think Weeks, JK Rowling renting a hotel to finish her book.
Whatever you do:
- Ritualize. If it’s a ritual, it’s easier to find time for deep work
- Try to find a large chunk of time if possible. Takes time to get into highest levels of attention.
4 Disciplines of execution
Focus on the wildly important, concrete, ambitious goal.
Lag measures — the stuff you actually care about but only shows up in numbers after a long time (say, revenue, or number of published papers)
Lead measures — a proxy for a lag measure that you can quantify now. (say: amount of time you spend working on X)
Have a score card to keep track of your lead measures, then review it regularly and make decisions based on that.
Idleness is good for the brain.
Some decisions are better left to the unconscious. But you need idleness to do that.
Attention fatigue is real. The more we focus on something, the harder it is to focus.
Directed attention replenishment. When we relax, and have something to lightly occupy our attention (a walk in the nature is a good example), our attention recharges.
Ergo: shut down after the workday is complete. Commit to the shutdown, and don’t do anything work-related before the next morning. Otherwise, it will just slowly eat away at your attention reserves.
Shutdown ritual. At the end of the workday, pre-decide on what you’ll be working on tomorrow, make a plan, and then reaffirm in your mind that this is the end of the day.
Regaining attention autonomy
In our world, being distracted is the natural state, and deep work is a break from distraction.
Change your mindset from „Break from distraction” to „break from focus”. Rewire your brain so that focused deep work is the default, and it’s the distractions that are breaks. Schedule online blocks. Be disconnected by default and only go online when scheduled. When you urgently need something now, reschedule the online block but put it at least 5 minutes away. (Important from behavioralist perspective)
More deep work strategies & ideas
Productive meditation. Go for a walk, on a run, thinking and working through an important problem. (This is similar to me listening to books during this time).
Quantify shallowness of work. “How many months would it take to train a bright graduate to do this?” — it’s easier to say no to shallow tasks if you can quantify just how shallow they are.
Decide on shallow work budget. Decide what % of the time you are willing to spend on shallow work. (general answer: 30~50%). Again, it’s easier to reject shallow work this way because you have to reach your quota.
Schedule every minute of your day. People are really bad at estimating how much time they spend on things. It’s okay to re-schedule during the day, but having structure helps. Actually knowing how much time you spend on different things helps too. (If you have a major insight or really get into the flow, it’s fine to blow the rest of the schedule for the day.)
Consider having a separate, special place just for your deep work. (cf: Udamonium, CGP Grey, the allotment)
Attention residue. When we switch between tasks, there’s a “residue” of attention still on the previous task. So it’s important to maintain focus and not switch back and forth often.
~4h limit to deliberate practice. We can’t really do more than a few hours of focused deep work in a day. Try to use up the daily deep work budget, and you’ll still have plenty time for shallow obligations.
Quit social media
Do you really need social media?
Any benefit theory — if there’s benefit to using a thing, then you should use it. (We seem to apply this approach to our use of social media)
But our time in the day is fixed. So competition for this time is a zero-sum game!
Craftsman approach — you weigh pros and cons, duh. You don’t use a tool unless benefits really outweigh the costs.
The law of vital few. There are benefits, sure, but if 80% of benefit is in 20% of activities, it’s better to reinvest time on highest-impact activities. (Like, instead of doing social media, spend more in-person time with close friends and family)
Packing party. Pack Twitter, Facebook, etc. away for 30 days. Maybe you don’t need them after all.
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