Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Favourite Bits of Deep Work by Cal Newport

I'm so excited about this book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World  by Cal Newport. I've already made a lot of changes in my practices inspired by it, and it's solved problems that have plagued me for years. I think that his view of the work that's core to my kind of job is essentially the right one:
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.
1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
 Why should you listen to him?
In the ten-year period following my college graduation, I published four books, earned a PhD, wrote peer-reviewed academic papers at a high rate, and was hired as a tenure-track professor at Georgetown University. I maintained this voluminous production while rarely working past five or six p.m. during the workweek.
Why you shouldn't check your email inbox every 10 minutes (he says that the practice of leaving it open in the background was "a straw man", which was sure sobering!):
the habit of frequently checking inboxes ensures that these issues remain at the forefront of their attention. Gallagher teaches us that this is a foolhardy way to go about your day, as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that’s dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.
Why you should schedule your "free time" too:
Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.
How to get into deep focus:
 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. ... the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. ... Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear. 
Using positivity to help you prioritize deep work:
identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours. ...  have a specific goal that would return tangible and substantial professional benefits will generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm. ... “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.” ... [L]ead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals.
Planning idleness is super important:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. .... you should follow Kreider’s lead by injecting regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day, providing you with the idleness paradoxically required to get (deep) work done. .... the idea that you can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this activity a rest.
Walking in nature seems to have a special status as a restoring activity:
attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. ...Walking through nature, by contrast, exposes you to what lead author Marc Berman calls “inherently fascinating stimuli,” using sunsets as an example. These stimuli “invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish.”
But other things work for restoring focus too:
Having a casual conversation with a friend, listening to music while making dinner, playing a game with your kids, going for a run—the types of activities that will fill your time in the evening if you enforce a work shutdown—play the same attention-restoring role as walking in nature.
An end-of-day shutdown ritual can help:
this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another.....I quickly skim every task in every list, and then look at the next few days on my calendar. These two actions ensure that there’s nothing urgent I’m forgetting or any important deadlines or appointments sneaking up on me. I have, at this point, reviewed everything that’s on my professional plate. To end the ritual, I use this information to make a rough plan for the next day. Once the plan is created, I say, “Shutdown complete,” and my work thoughts are done for the day. 
 Don't give up if this is hard at first:
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. ... Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. ... if you’ve scheduled your next Internet block thirty minutes from the current moment, and you’re beginning to feel bored and crave distraction, the next thirty minutes of resistance become a session of concentration calisthenics.  ....give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.
What is your goal for your relationships, and how well does Facebook (which he describes as only useful for "keeping in frequent lightweight touch") support that? For him his personal goal is:
To maintain close and rewarding friendships with a group of people who are important to me. Key Activities Supporting This Goal: 1. Regularly take the time for meaningful connection with those who are most important to me (e.g., a long talk, a meal, joint activity). 2. Give of myself to those who are most important to me (e.g., making nontrivial sacrifices that improve their lives).
(based on this I have started a practice of more frequent, shorter duration Skype calls with my favourite people overseas, which I think does a much better job of helping with loneliness and homesickness. There's a nice exercise he suggests of going off social media for a month and seeing if anyone notices - I'm not going to actually do it, but just thinking about that was a wakeup call!)

A few more specific recommendations I have taken up:
  • Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.  ... keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet. 
  • Plan something to do in each half hour block of the day: "When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block."
  • And keep refreshing it. "On some days, you might rewrite your schedule half a dozen times. Don’t despair if this happens." "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." "Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward"
All this has turned out to work extremely well with my brain.

The book has many other great ideas and inspiration, plus a lot of context about how real creators have set up their lives for deep work. You can get exposed to a lot of his ideas in this Business Insider blog post - although of course like all websites it's full of intentional fracturing distractions, so I would recommend just buying the book!

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