At the end of last year, I struggled to be effective at work. I often felt like my day got ruled by ad-hoc meetings, patching small errands and talking instead of actually making things happen. A good friend of mine then gave me a spare copy of what came to be my favourite read of 2018, ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport. To describe the book in one sentence, I'd say it's outlining how to do better work by finding focus throughout your day. That might sound a bit vague at this point, so I’ll try to summarise the main points in the book below.
Deep Work is divided into two parts. In the first part of the book, Cal holds up a mirror to the tech industry: to thrive as a business, you have to create something of value which hard to replicate for your competitors. The best way to get there, you need to gather experts from different fields—and because these are generally hard to come by—companies focus their efforts on retaining and growing talent through 401k’s, personal development budgets and whatnot.
On the flip side, individual contributors are expected to adapt more quickly to the high paced changes in the industry than ever before. Research has shown, however, that this demands anyone to be in a state of focus for a long period of time. While in this state of flow, you tend to learn skills more quickly and often create high value, which is often hard to reproduce by competitors. Cal dubbed this deep work.
Yet, there are many hurdles that can stand in the way while at work. Endless threads in Slack fragment our time and focus, we spend half of the morning clearing our email inboxes and we frequently find ourselves in meetings where no significant decisions are reached. We don’t just indulge ourselves in distractions, we seem to cultivate them as the modern approach to work. While working in a distracted state, you tend to shift to less demanding, more logistical-style tasks which are easier to replicate for competitors and add less value, called shallow work.
So to reiterate, one would expect that—if the best way to put out meaningful work is to allow IC’s to work for long stretches of time— companies would’ve learned to cultivate this; which is where the main contradiction of the book comes to the surface:
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy”
Cal uses the rest of the first part in the book to reinforce the scarcity and value of deep work through by describing people and companies that successfully developed a culture of deep work. I won’t spill the beans about this part because it's a nice read with some unexpected angles, I think it’s best to just read it for yourself. Luckily, deep work is a skill which can be practised and perfected over time with rituals and habits. In the second part of the book, Cal describes four ‘rules’ to find your focus:
- Work Deeply. To commit to deep work effectively, you have to accept that your output is limited by your time, job title, environment and willpower. While these factors might differ per individual, they roughly set the playing field for improvement. This is where the fun starts because there are a lot of things to try out in order to improve productivity at work. This chapter covers ideas around ritualising your workday, finding the right environment to work and setting personal goals.
- Embrace Boredom. Adopting rigorous routines and planning principles will only bring you so far. To be effective for longer periods of time, you’ll have to learn to deal with the distractions around you. One suggestion from the book is to try flipping the problem on its head by scheduling blocks in which you allow yourself time on social media while limiting internet access and distractions during work. Other ideas mentioned in this chapter revolve around setting deadlines and using downtime to subconsciously solve problems.
- Quit Social Media. Perhaps the biggest offender to shallow work is social media. Because these platforms are here to stay, Cal suggests building a more sustainable relationship with social media rather than (contrary to the title of this rule) abolishing everything at once. The main principle in this chapter is to choose your platforms carefully instead before adopting it. Social media has a lot of potential to improve your work—and perhaps your career—if you learn how to use it well, yet this is often negated by the distractions that often come with it. If you’re interested in this topic, Cal just wrote an entire book about this specific topic, called Digital Minimalism.
- Drain the Shallows. Nobody likes spending time answering emails or a day full of meetings. Even with all of the rules above at play, you’re bound to still spend some time on these mundane activities. This chapter covers a variety of tips to minimise the time spent on these tasks in order to create long deep work stretches. Topics in this chapter include making daily plannings, tips on how to bring up communicative overhead with your manager and optimising your email responses (ignoring certain emails is an option too).
Some of the techniques described in the book helped me change my own habits at work, get my priorities straight and eventually improve the work I deliver. While I found some tips more useful than others, I’ll share my favourite ones in an upcoming post. For now, please check out this book if this was interesting to you; and with that, I’ll just leave you with my favourite quote from the book:
“If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.”