How to Work More Deeply in a Distracted World - Part 2: How

In part 1 of this blog post we learned why Deep Work is critical for knowledge workers to succeed in the new economy. Here, in Part 2, we learn from Cal Newport's book, Deep Work, how to work deeply when we are surrounded by desires and distractions.

In the late 1960's, psychologist Walter Mischel, led an experiment at Stanford's Bing Nursery School. A group of 4 year olds were led one at a time into a room with a chair and a tray of treats, marshmallows, pretzels, cookies, etc. They were asked to pick any treat they wanted and many would choose the marshmallow. Then the researcher would say they needed to step out for a few minutes and the child could either have one more treat now, or if they could wait until the researcher came back in, they could have two. The children also had a bell they could ring which would prompt the researcher to come back in early, but they could have the one marshmallow if they rung it and not the second. All the children would agree to wait. However, within 3 minutes almost 70% of the children would visibly struggle and begin eating the treats before the researcher would return, with most not even ringing the bell. Only 30% were able to successfully delay gratification.

The researchers continued to track the 653 children into their late 30's. They found there was a correlation between whether or not the children were able to delay gratification or not with school grades, standardized test scores, and behavior.  The children that had trouble delaying gratification had lower grades, lower SAT scores, were more prone to behavior problems at school and home, had trouble with friendships, difficulty paying attention, and struggled in stressful situations. This makes sense - watching TV over studying, spending now rather than saving for retirement are just the marshmallows we face as teens and adults. 

The difference between the children that delayed gratification and the ones that couldn't was not a distaste for marshmallows or that one group had more willpower. It turns out willpower is something almost all of us are in short supply, or at least have a finite supply. Mischel found that the 30% of children that delayed gratification found ways to focus their attention away from the treats. They would cover their eyes, pretend to play hide and seek or sing songs that they knew. They didn't have any less craving for the treats than any other child. They had the skill that Mischel labeled as the "strategic allocation of attention". It's a skill developed over time with daily practice that turns into habits - waiting to open presents on Christmas day, holding off from snacking before dinner, and saving your allowance.


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How to Work Deeply

Our desires have helped our species survive and thrive over millions of years. Even when those basic needs are satisfied, we still are ruled by our desires, whether that be marshmallows, cookies, or the many distractions we face in the modern office. These distractions, such as the internet, social media, chat, email, etc., are some of the desires that make it difficult to work deeply. Cal Newport, writes that good intentions are not enough to overcome them and spend more time working deeply rather than wading in the shallows. The book was developed through his actual success and failures to work deeply himself. He realizes his willpower is as weak as many of us. So he has come up with 4 rules that create rituals and routines that will helped him overcome distractions and desires and work similar to the "strategic allocation of attention" from the Stanford's Bing Nursery study. Rule 1 is detailed below.

 

Rule 1: Work Deeply

Low willpower is the norm, so Newport has strategies to help overcome this limitation by instilling routines and rituals to help us work deeply which I will briefly outline below.

Decide on Your Depth Philosophy

There is not a single approach to make working deeply a part of your daily life. Newport describes 4 different depth philosophies to select from based on his research and interviews with adherents of each one.  One that may work for one person can be a failure for another. 

1. The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

This approach involves maximizing deep work by minimizing or eliminating all shallow obligations. Newport uses the famous computer scientist, Donald Knuth and science fiction novelist, Neal Stephenson, as examples. They both have a very well defined and highly valuable professional goals. For Knuth, it's to understand areas of computer science exhaustingly and then convey that information to others through teaching or his standard textbook, The Art of Computer Programming. For Stephenson, it's to write good novels, that rely on extensive research, at a regular rate. Two quotes from the books of each clarify their reasoning:

"I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration." - Donald Knuth

"The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly." - Neal Stephenson

2. The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

The bimodal philosophy is for people that have roles where they cannot completely tune out everything other than singular pursuits but where their profession may require deep work commitments of a full day or more. Newport provides professor and best selling author, Adam Grant, as an example. He needed the deep work time to write his books but he also needed the interactive time with his students during his teaching semesters. So he would have most of his teaching classes in a single semester, and during the other semesters he would dedicate 2 to 4 days about once per month for deep work. During these times he would shut his door and focus exclusively on deep work. This routine has allowed him to become a well received author of numerous books and academic papers but also a favorite teacher at Wharton.

3. The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

Brian Chappell is a doctoral student, father and works full time. He believes deep work is his best way to finish his dissertation. Newport writes that for Chappell, having long periods of a day or more of deep work will not work for him. His obligations to work and family will not permit that type of monastic time away from everything. Most of us are probably similar to Chappell in that our daily jobs do not permit that kind of window to devote to deep work. The rhythmic philosophy involves creating a routine where you define a specific time period where you can devote to deep work. Chappell started by planning out 90 minute deep-work-windows that he used ad hoc, throughout the day, whenever he could. This was not working - during the first year he was only able to write one chapter for his dissertation. Then he decided to develop a routine of deep work from 4:45 am to 7:30 am before leaving for work. This time was devoted to his dissertation and he increased his output to a chapter every two to three weeks.

4. The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

Journalists, like Walter Isaacson, author of the best selling biography, Steve Jobs, are able to switch into deep work very quickly whenever they have the chance. This comes from having to meet absolute deadlines that magazines or newspapers require. It's not something that Newport believes a deep work novice can easily accomplish. For most of us, that switching in itself presents a productivity problem, as we have difficulty not thinking about the previous task when we switch over to deep work, which can sometimes last for 1/2 hour or more. 

 

Ritualize

It turns out that many creative minds do not get results with random accidental thoughts, but through repetitive and routines that are highly organized. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist,  wrote that these creative minds "think like artists but work like accountants".  In Deep Work, we read about Charles Darwin's routine; rise at seven to take a short walk, then eat breakfast alone and retire to his study from 8 to 9:30 for deep work, the next hour he would read his letters from the previous day, then spend another 90 minutes in his study for deep work. He would then walk a path on his property and think through the challenges he encountered during his deep work. He would walk until he was satisfied with his thinking then he would end his work day.

Newport presents three questions where the answers will help us ritualize our deep work routine:

1. Where you  will work and for how long - open offices may not be ideal for deep work. Having a cluttered desk or office may distract your deep work sessions. Having a specified time will help you focus rather than keeping it open ended.

2. How you will work once you start to work - these are the rules that will allow you to work intensely with full focus. Should you ban the internet during this time? Are there metrics like pages, words, etc. that you can use to measure some work productivity?

3. How you will support your work - your ritual needs to make sure your brain has what it needs to keep working deep at a high level. Coffee, food, drink at hand. Do you need to integrate light exercise or walking to help keep the mind clear. Are you organized to have all the items you need for the deep work activity so you don't have to stop and become distracted to gather the needed items. 

 

Don't Work Alone 

Deep work seems to imply working alone in isolation, but Newport believes collaboration can improve deep work. The open office trend had the intention of taking advantage of serendipitous creativity but brings with it constant noise and distraction. The better office layout may have been the one used for Bell Labs architected in the first half of the 20th century. The building was designed to have private offices belonging to scientists from various disciplines, each connected by a very long hall way. The hall ways were so long that a walk from one office to the end would ensure encountering a colleague with an idea or thought that would help shape some of the most important scientific and technological breakthroughs in the last century. As an example, one of those offices contained two physicists, one theoretical and one experimental, where their back and forth collaboration would result in the transistor. 

So deep work doesn't mean working alone. It's balancing the serendipitous creativity with the deep work, and separating them physically and mentally, which the modern open office plan does not. 

 

Execute Like a Business

Knowing what to do and how to do it are two very different things. As individuals and as companies we focus a lot of time and resources figuring out what to do, but then fail when it comes to how to do it. With this insight, Newport, looked to business advice via The 4 Disciplines of Execution

1. Focus On the Wildly Important - this can help in two different ways. Trying to do too much means less focus and most likely making it difficult to get anything done. Secondly, by focusing on a few very important items it may help crowd out the rest of the less important ones.

2. Act On Lead Measures - there are two different types of metrics to measure goal achievement. Lag measures are the ultimate goal you are trying to reach, such as the amount of papers published was for Newport. However, those are not measures you can act and adjust on a daily basis. Lead measures are tied to the lag measures. In Newport's case, the lead measure was deep work hours. He was able to prioritize the wildly important so the more successful deep hours he put into research and the writing of more published papers resulted. 

3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard - for companies these scoreboards help motivation and keeping people on a successful track. The same can be true for deep work at the individual level. Newport would use a simple calendar tracking deep work hours completed each day, and on certain days, he would circle and mark with certain tangible results such as solving a key problem. He was also, over time, able to determine how many deep work hours were needed for certain milestone or result.

4. Create a Cadence of Accountability - so you have isolated the wildly important goals, figured out the best lead measures, tracked the lead measures and intermediate results - now you review the scoreboard on a regular basis. In deep work it may not involve a team, but the same principles hold true. You have to review and see what you may have to change next week to improve or maintain success.

 

Be Lazy

Ludwig van Beethoven,  the great composer, would rise by day break and begin working at his desk. By 2 or 3 in the afternoon he would have already been on several small walks in between working at his desk. After this he would take his midday meal and then go for a very long walk, taking some paper and pen in case some new musical thought would come to him. By early evening he would then retire to a cafe to read, debate and discuss the news and politics of the day. He would then spend his evenings at home with serious reading but in his later years never composing music. After this he would go to sleep by 10. 

Newport titles this strategy as "be lazy", but he really means, using downtime to help with deep work. We are only capable of a certain number or hours of focused, deep work. Trying to extend that may actually lessen productivity then improve it for several reasons he provides.

1. Downtime Aids Insight - many studies have been done on the impact of the unconscious mind on creativity. Your conscious mind needs to rest, and during that time the unconscious mind can take over to provide valuable insights or creative ideas. 

2. Downtime Recharges the Energy Needed for Deep Work - Newport writes about Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which claims spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. To prove out this theory, researchers conducted a study where participants were split up into groups where each would either walk a wooded path through an arboretum or through a bustling city center. After the walk all the groups were given a heavy concentration task. The participants that took the nature walk would achieve 20% better performance on the task than the city walkers.  The science behind this is that our concentration requires directed attention, which is a finite resource. The city walkers required more directed attention so as to focus on signs, traffic, other pedestrians, etc., whereas the nature walker required very little directed attention along their path, allowing concentration resources to restore.

For most professionals, taking many walks or long walks like Beethoven is not possible, so Newport provides the best way for us to use our downtime to work for us during deep work. He shuts down by 5:30 pm each day and does not get back online for work until the next morning. 

3. The Work that Evening Downtime Replaces is Usually not that Important - Anders Erricson has been studying the science of expertise for many years. He created the term, "deliberate practice", which parallels deep work as the primary method that peak performers such as master violinists, dancers and athletes use to separate from the crowd. He found that even peak performers usually are not able to spend more than 4 hours a day of highly concentrated practice. More than that rarely adds to improving performance.  Similarly, the work that may be completed during the evening hours, like checking and replying to email or other shallow work, may not have any real return. The goal is to utilize up to 4 hours of very effective deep work so the evening can be used for downtime, family time, social time, and recharging.

Newport emphasizes that just stopping work at a certain time is not enough. You have to have a shutdown procedure that helps you keep your mind from continuing on work after you've stopped. He goes through a very defined series of shutdown steps about 30 minutes before his defined stop time. He reviews his email to see if there are any urgent replies he needs to take care of. He then make sure he adds any tasks he may have noted into his central task list (i.e. Google task list in his case). He then reviews what he has on the task list for the next few days and then plans his next work day. Then he says Shutdown Complete and leaves, not looking back until the following morning.

 

Rules 2, 3 and 4

If you have read down to this point in this blog then you may thank me for this. The remaining rules are Embrace Boredom, Quit Social Media, and Drain the Shallows. Each provide some additional strategies to help you you spend more time on deep work and less on shallow work. I'm going to let you read the book to find out more, and Thank You for reading down to this point.


 

Deep Work - My Own Story (Struggle)

After reading Deep Work I was a believer. The reasons for spending more time in deep work, Deep Work Cover.jpgand the value that I would get out of it, were very clear to me. So I decided to try out the How part by implementing it in my work day. I tried to use it to complete both part 1 and part 2 of this blog. It's been difficult. Checking and replying to email on a regular basis has become ingrained in my psyche. When I had email turned off on my desktop, I would cheat and take a peak at my cell phone. During the pre-election days, I would take a quick peak at fivethirtyeight.com to see what was going on. Another flaw was that I wouldn't always have my day planned to the hour. This is an important strategy. Not so much to force you to stick to it, but by having it planned means you have thought through your workload and prioritize what's most important. Knowing where you need to spend your deep work time as well as the list of shallow tasks that need to be done is key to any successful productivity strategy.

On the positive side, even a less than stellar implementation had real benefits. That's when you know something is a gold mine - where even a haphazard and slightly ineffective attempt at something new improves your way of doing things. When I did have a very focused 90 minutes of deep work, I could easily see that I had achieved more than if I had just completed it during a fragmented day where, in total, I may still have applied 90 minutes to the effort, but divided across 5 or so smaller increments. Secondly, I grouped my tasks (shallow work) into 1 hour batches. All these tasks were captured in a central task list and prioritized. During these task windows I would complete the tasks based on my list. Thirdly, on the days that I had an effective shutdown, I was able to remove my self (and thoughts) from work for the evening, and the day I had planned out for the following, turned out to be more effective. I just have to get better at delaying the gratification of those darn marshmallows.

Bottom line - it works and I just have to get better at applying the deep work principles.

 

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