A Life of Deep Work Is a Good Life

Bill Gates is a focused man.

If you have seen Netflix’s documentary, Inside Bill’s Brain, you will know that Bill twice a year goes on into isolation in a forest cabin in which he is physically removed from the constant interruptions that come with being one of the earth’s richest people. He goes there to purely read and think without distraction. It was at one of these “Think Weeks” back in 1995 that Bill came up with the renowned memo titled The Internet Tidal Wave.

He has always been like this. In the book, The Innovators, author Walter Isaacson described Bill’s unique proclivity to deep work as the one trait that differentiated Gates from Allen. Walter writes that Allen’s mind would fit between many ideas and passions, but Gates was a serial obsessor. When he was designing software through the BASIC language for the Altair through the course of eight weeks, Bill would often collapse into sleep on his keyboard in the middle of writing code only to pick up where he left up when waking up.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the convincing argument that being able to do deep work on a regular basis such as Bill Gates will work like a superpower in the 21st century.

The book had a profound effect on me. It is not like any of Cal’s arguments is non-intuitive. Most of us already know that being deliberate about what we do is important when the task requires a certain cognitive workload.

But the thing I previously got all wrong was the implementation of it—how to actually think about how my energy levels flow throughout the day and how to take advantage of it in generating high-quality work. And how important it really is in today’s age. One of Cal Newport’s points I liked somewhere at the beginning of the book is that high performers always think about optimizing high performance.

Why Deep Work Is Important

The majority of the economy is not slamming widgets anymore. A lot of that work is being replaced by machines—which is a good thing. In such a knowledge economy, the ability to go deep with no distractions can bring a big competitive advantage.

Cal argues that in the new economy, three groups in particular will gain an advantage:

  1. Those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines.
  2. Those who are the best at what they can do.
  3. Those with access to capital.

As machines increasingly automate more and more tasks, the winners of the day are those who are able to learn new, complex skills quickly and perform consistently at a high level.

Meanwhile, technology and the internet have made the pool of talent universally accessible. A high-skilled worker in fields where technology makes productive remote work possible—such as consulting, marketing, design, and so forth—can work from anywhere.

Putting those things together, we have a sort of power law as to who will become superstars and derive the vast majority of advantages of navigating the modern world.

As Cal writes:

In a seminal 1981 paper, the economist Sherwin Rosen worked out the mathematics behind these “winner-take-all” markets. One of his key insights was to explicitly model talent—labeled, innocuously, with the variable q in his formulas—as a factor with “imperfect substitution,” which Rosen explains as follows: “Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” In other words, talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best. Therefore, if you’re in a marketplace where the consumer has access to all performers, and everyone’s q value is clear, the consumer will choose the very best. Even if the talent advantage of the best is small compared to the next rung down on the skill ladder, the superstars still win the bulk of the market.

Cal argues that you can only master the first two points to competitive advantage if you master deep work. And the thing about deep work is that the deliberate practice of a skill or idea you are trying to master cannot coexist alongside distraction. It requires uninterrupted attention which is difficult in a distracted, interconnected world that advocates the “open office” bandwagon.

Cal advocates the opposite and argues that businesses that allow knowledge workers to get into a state of deep work can gain a valuable economic moat. I very much agree. I also touched on this idea in my article on the knowledge moat.

Cal writes:

Just how much time were employees of Atlantic Media spending moving around information instead of focusing on the specialized tasks they were hired to perform? Determined to answer this question, [Tom] Cochran gathered company-wide statistics on e-mails sent per day and the average number of words per e-mail. He then combined these numbers with the employees’ average typing speed, reading speed, and salary. The result: He discovered that Atlantic Media was spending well over a million dollars a year to pay people to process e-mails, with every message sent or received tapping the company for around ninety-five cents of labor costs. “A ‘free and frictionless’ method of communication,” Cochran summarized, “had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet.”

In another story, Cal writes how the previous CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, banned employees from working at home after checking the server logs for the virtual private network that the employees use to log in to company servers.

Mayer was upset because the employees working from home didn’t sign in enough throughout the day. She was, in some sense, punishing her employees for not spending more time checking e-mail (one of the primary reasons to log in to the servers). If you’re not visibly busy, she signaled, I’ll assume you’re not productive.

Cal describes this issue as a metric black hole because it’s very difficult for organizations to figure this stuff out. It’s a hidden opportunity cost. And as French economist Thomas Piketty has said, it is objectively difficult to measure individual contribution to a firm’s output. But the stuff that cannot be measured is sometimes the most vital.

How to Practice Deep Work

Here are my key takeaways from the book on how to go deeper in your work.

Recognize that your energy level ebbs and flows.

This is the prominent rule about deep work that made me rearrange my daily schedule totally. You can only go deep for a fixed amount of hours per day.

In Ericsson’s seminal 1993 paper, titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” he dedicates a section to reviewing what the research literature reveals about an individual’s capacity for cognitively demanding work. Ericsson notes that for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours-but rarely more.

And like muscles, high cognitive workload requires restoration.

If you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration.

Work less.

For years, I used to work late into the night thinking the hustling would get me to where I wanted faster.

But it’s not about working harder. Working harder and hustling is the most misunderstood key to success in life. The most important thing is understanding opportunity costs and working smarter.

As Richard Feynman has said:

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 on a committee for admissions, no, I tell them: I’m irresponsible.

It’s when a bunch of little tedious tasks gets added mindlessly to a to-do list that we lose track of what actually creates value without bringing any cumulative effect in what we put our energy into.

Rapid e-mails, instant messaging, meetings upon meetings, and social media posturing all give you a comfortable feeling of being busy. But, that is only because it entertains you from putting in any effort to produce the very best things you are capable of doing, which, by Cal’s words, forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. Being artificially busy seems like the easy way out. But what it really does is making you work harder and longer.

As Warren Buffett has said, you’ve got to keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.

Cal tells a great story about Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp. Jason found that shortening the company’s workweek from five to four—Monday through Thursday—made no difference in the amount of work the employees accomplished during the week. So they made the change permanent.

As Jason explains:

Very few people work even 8 hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday.

Fewer official working hours help squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek. Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that’s a good thing. They don’t waste it on things that just don’t matter. When you have fewer hours you usually spend them more wisely.

Stop multi-tasking.

The key is to get yourself into a state where you are forced to make hard choices all the time. If your mind is all over the place, you can’t get into deep work.

So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand… they’re pretty much mental wrecks.

Two things are important to avoid getting into multi-tasking mode: scheduling your time and cutting out distractions.

When you schedule your time, you are forced to deal with the fact that your working hours and high-performance window are fixed. And you become wary that no minutiae will interfere with your schedule.

Flip your mindset.

I propose an alternative to the Internet Sabbath. Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.

This sounds exhausting, but as Cal argues, there are great benefits to one’s well-being by thinking this way.

The idle mind is the devil’s workshop’… When you lose focus, your mind tends to focus on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.

The non-intuitive fact is that jobs are easier to enjoy than free time—provided that you love what you do. Jobs have goals, feedback rules, and challenges that free time does not. All of this stuff encourages you to become involved, concentrated, and lose yourself. In The Inner Game, author Timothy Gallwey refers to this as your state of flow—the state where you are free of inhibitions. Because free time is unstructured, it requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.

The matter of fact is that people fight desires all day long. And it is only when the mind is kept busy that such desires are put to rest. This means embracing boredom, disallowing your mind to give into shallow desires when you are off work.

Cal’s main argument is that deep work is not just something you embrace the two to three hours a day when you are concentrating. Training the mind into going deep at the right time takes practice and requires thinking about downtime not as a waste of time but as a productivity tool.

If every moment of potential boredom in your life-say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives-is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in [Clifford] Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work-even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.

What I Have Done

After I read Deep Work, I decided that I needed to make some changes to my life in order to produce better work, work fewer hours, and think more clearly. Here are some of the things I have done.

  • I did not ditch my to-do list, but I put a specific time slot into my daily schedule for when I’m allowed to be working on shallow to-dos. That time slot is cut down to one hour.
  • Having used Notion for planning my life, business, and learning process for a while, I now use it to keep a tight grip on my daily schedule and track the number of hours I go into deep work, either by reading intensely or writing. I did use to follow a vague daily schedule, but now I intentionally place my deep work hours with uninterrupted focus from 8 am to 12 pm and again from 2 pm to 6 pm. This allows me to finish my most important readings and work for when I have the most energy to do so.
  • I ditched social media altogether other than for work purposes. Every social app is deleted on my phone and iPad. They are only accessible when I’m at my computer—working. Instagram is all gone.
  • I have created a “sender filter” for my email inbox and sent out this email to all Junto subscribers basically saying that I have stopped replying to emails unless it is a really good match for my schedule and interests.

I am aware of the fact that my work at Junto requires a different kind of focus than other types of work. I deliberately put myself in that position. Investing, when done intelligently, is a very focused endeavor that requires deliberate practice, every single day, through extensive, uninterruptible reading and thinking in large time-chunks. If any of these chunks get separated and fragmented, the productivity drops spectacularly.

Some activities require cutting out distractions and doing deeper work more than others. Cal ends his book by stating that the deep life is not for everybody and I agree with that. But, I do think the deep life is likely to be your surest ticket of most productively and most fulfilingly getting ahead in this world.

Oliver Sung

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