A few months ago, a reader had written asking how to integrate my own writings with those of Cal Newport’s. I’d read Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You when I was originally introduced by Mikes Schechter and Vardy. That book was and is excellent, describing how passion is not found so much as it is developed in time.
More recently, Newport had been writing on his blog in the vein of his new book, Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World. Here, Newport focuses on inspiration and methods of developing and maintaining “deep” sessions of work.
While our approaches of getting to the same place might be slightly different, Newport’s ideas are very much in tune with my own, and I’m happy to share a few thoughts. The following isn’t a review per se, but more just a few ideas I’ve jotted down as I read.
The first half of the book is Newport attempting to convince the reader of the importance of deep work and how it can help to separate one from the pack. The second half is about techniques one can use to achieve deep work.
TL;DR: Newport’s Deep Work is refreshing and enjoyable, and I can readily recommend it.
Defining “Deep Work”
Throughout the book, Newport is very good about defining his terms, having a structured way of presenting material, and bringing the reader along. Newport defines deep work as …
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.
My own thinking is that Deep Work involves some aspect of Play:
Play is the essence of creativity. It is a flow between thought, emotion, question, intention, and action, between world and self, conscious and unconscious, often in a relaxed state of heightened attention. It is a connection and movement between intuition, logic, and reality.
While these concepts do not, at first, seem to relate, we can recognize the parallels when we see how and where play thrives, namely in a Trusted environment. This is the same concept that is championed by David Allen in Getting Things Done, by DW Winnicott and Erik Erikson in psychoanalytic writings. Cal Newport similarly describes methods to protect one’s thoughts, to not be intruded upon, internally or externally, and to use one’s environment and guide habits in order to develop those trusted systems.
Newport says that deep work cannot truly be measured. I would agree. He describes such things as falling into a “metric black hole”. I am particularly partial to this idea, being of the psychoanalytic persuasion. In fact, I would say that most things of importance cannot be measured by anything external to our personal experience. Ultimately, it is personal experience which does the measuring of anything, including looking at and interpreting the calibrations of whatever ruler we’ve lined up in perception. But, I digress.
He does offer a suggestion later in the book, not of measuring deep work’s products, but of how to consider the investment of personal depth in a session of work:
Ask: “How long would it take to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”
The Session is a better unit of measure for work than the Task. Deep Work rightly makes this assumption throughout. If we only view work as a series of tasks without considering a depth of work we are capable of achieving, we rob ourselves. Depth via repetition and uninterrupted sessions of length can make a huge difference in our experiences and creations.
Deep Work Philosophy
I appreciate Newport’s view that there is no singular way in which to find depth in work. You do not necessarily need to stop talking to everyone, miss lifetime moments, and seclude yourself on a mountain top.
You could. But you don’t have to.
He describes several different types of “philosophies” including what he labels as Monastic, Bimodal, Rhythmic, and Journalistic. Each one is a variation of how one schedules and uses time away from others.
My own method is probably an amalgam of the latter 3. Each session with a client is a type of deep session, in which I disconnect phones, do not use the Internet, and engage deeply in a discussion of emotion and meaning. To write, I schedule stretches during the day dedicated to creative thought. I write and practice music every morning without interruption. When there are free moments, on better days, I am able to dive into more depth, perhaps choosing something I have already been working on to delve further, or finding a leisure activity to relish.
Newport describes a practice he calls “Productive Meditation”.
We can define meditation as:
a process developed by a regularly practiced focus upon a pre-defined object.
To make it “Productive”, we simply choose a problem or project and a period of time as the pre-defined object. Newport describes using various walks to and from his place of work or learning as prime times for these periods of reflection. Newport’s idea of specifically assigning at least some walks for considering various issues to work on can be useful.
I may do similarly during my mile walks to and from work, especially while I have an ongoing creative project, though I don’t schedule them. As I have ideas related to my work, I add them to the Inbox, where they patiently wait for me at the office or at home. Lately, I haven’t deliberately used these walks for problem solving moments, though I do use them occasionally for study or A Song of Ice and Fire themed podcasts.
I particularly enjoyed Newport’s thoughts on structuring your sessions of deep work. In fact, I hope he visits these ideas in the future to expand upon them.
Specifically, he likes to consider of the work, a reflection on its:
- Next questions
- Consolidation of answers
I hope to address similar concepts of the Session in my own next project …
Scheduling the Day and Week
Newport schedules both the day and week. He very deliberately assigns each minute to a session of work. It is a very useful method of planning that we can compare to budgeting finances, for example. Importantly, though, he points out that while he does not necessarily stick to the plan, it is that he creates it that makes a significant impact.
The process of planning formats the mind in such a way that is powerful to functioning in the moment. It is like improvising at the piano. You could just hit a bunch of notes and call it improvising, but I don’t think it goes nearly as well as when you work various phrasings and patterns into your fingers and then enter the session with those skills embedded in intrinsic memory.
My own process of scheduling is that of the Land & Sea project. (Check out the video made for Learn OmniFocus at about 1:06:00 or Chapter 20 of Creating Flow with OmniFocus: Mastering Productivity for full details.) I schedule clear times during the week. When those times arrive, I have a small number of choices as to which project I will pursue. The project automatically reduces my work load to a manageable and understandable level of prioritization and depth. In addition, I dedicate at least 1 full session to filing and another to communications on a daily basis.
Neither my way nor his way are correct. There is no correct. The important matter is to have some form of both:
- Regular planning and
- Regular reflection/review
as part of the day and week.
The Importance of Acknowledgement
In one section, Newport describes how he ends the day, using a template of tasks. I think this can be quite valuable.
What also caught my eye in the section was where he says to himself “Shutdown complete”. He uses the phrase to address the “Zeigarnik effect” in which incomplete tasks often battle for our attention.
Much, if not all, of our lives contain meaningful development that is incomplete. The work of GTD or any worthy task system is about trying to address everything we can so that we have a genuine sense that things are on paths of development. We hope that each component awaits our attention where necessary, is acknowledged as on hold, or is discarded.
Thoughts continually come to mind. It is how we handle them that allows for some degree of a settled mind.
Saying the words “Shutdown complete” is not necessarily the important point. It is the acknowledgment of a process that is crucial. In fact, I view acknowledgement as the most fundamental unit of the workflow, even more so than the Session. Defining it:
Acknowledgement is the consideration of an experience to the degree that it is accessible to conscious awareness.
Acknowledgement is the stage of mind reached when we have allowed a process of thought and emotion time to settle. We allow thoughts and associations to form around some experience. We then watch them as they either disappear or repeat with nothing else coming to mind.
We do this by both pausing and consciously watching the process or objects of thought still. Whether at the end of a session of work or the work day itself, it is very useful to pause to allow the mind time to settle as it helps in surveying and consolidating the work as well as moving on and minimizing interruptions to future work.
Using a phrase such as “Shutdown complete” can be a nice practice to announce the moment that Consideration becomes Acknowledgement.
The Importance Of Being Able To Be Bored
There are quite a number of times where I will find myself trying to fill the void of even a few moments. For example, when the computer is processing a piece of music, it can take a minute or two. But that minute or two is … so … long …
Reddit is only a click away. But, if I go there, then my mind has left the dedicated playground of the session. When the computer processing is complete, I need to disconnect from the superficial Internet browsing and reconnect to the music work.
Had I allowed myself to simply sit and be bored, I would not need to retool. Retooling in turn, is quite damaging to depth of attention. Also, sitting with the feelings of boredom often opens doors to ideas about the project I would not have considered. I might think about alternate settings or different ways of playing a piece.
The practice of being bored is worthwhile.
Acknowledge The Use Of The Internet When Used As Entertainment
While the titles of his social media chapters are markedly more strict than the content, the overall message is that social media is a bad thing. He concedes that some people may find benefit, but it sometimes feels like he’s making a conciliation. I don’t entirely disagree, but my own take here is slightly different.
Newport is none too thrilled about social media including Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and others. I love his use of the phrase “simulacrum of importance”.
I’ve always been a curmudgeon about Facebook. Likely, its more that I just never “got it” more so than my being disciplined in any way. Still, had it not been for Facebook, I would have missed major life events, so I cannot be too negative about it.
But, at the same time, I do visit sites like Reddit. I do occasionally visit Twitter. I don’t plan on changing either practice. I do get some entertainment from them.
The question is not whether or not they are used. The question is whether or not you acknowledge that a site is being used as a source of entertainment, and how it might be affecting you. More importantly, are you using it as a primary source of entertainment? If so, is that acceptable to you? The rapid shifts of attention between topics may, indeed, be damaging to attention. To use Newport’s analogy, it is like an athlete snacking poorly in the evenings.
I like his comment:
”… accepting that these tools are not inherently evil, and that some of them might be quite vital to your success and happiness, but at the same time also accepting that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention (not to mention personal data) should be much more stringent, and that most people should therefore be using many fewer such tools."
Particularly nice is the phrase “allowing access”. His wording stresses where the point of agency rests: within ourselves.
Comments on Tools – Any Benefit vs Craftsman Approaches
All tools require care and caution. Further, the more powerful, the more care and caution they require.
Newport does get to the heart of the matter when it comes to social media with his distinction of the Any Benefit vs Craftsman approaches. Either definition encourages the reader to recognize an important principle of organization-that you organize around meaningful experiences. Without that center, organization is hollow.
It is not the tool that is the focus, so much as what you are developing. So long as you can consciously reflect on and refine the focus, then your tools and their utility will become more apparent. Organization involves an iterative approach to considering what is meaningful about an experience and developing the appropriate paths.
Newport’s definition of:
The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection:
”You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.”
nicely highlights the organizational principle—that organization is a process of clearing and supporting paths for the development of things you find meaningful. We can recognize with social media that what is meaningful is certain information, and that the path there is not at all clear with the Any-Benefit Approach. It is poor organization to use this system, or the system itself is poorly organized.
This leads to:
The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection:
”Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if it’s positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.”
My argument is that how you use a tool is most important, while yes, the choice of tool can also be of benefit. So for example, I use Tweetdeck to have certain search terms highlighted in Twitter so that I can quickly see the conversations based on anything that is directly related to my interests.
As another example, one person may use OmniFocus as a means of procrastination, constantly avoiding work by fiddling with the system in a way that does not acknowledge anxiety. Another person, however, may use it quite well and be able to harness a number of worries and desires into a small selection of readily made decisions, all with minimal upkeep.
Comments on Getting Things Done (GTD)
On his blog, Newport criticizes GTD for not recognizing that work is a depth process. He further goes on to say that GTD is wrong in that it treats work as if each piece of work is a unit or “widget”. All this is true. I agree in that the unit of work is the Session. I define the Session as the time, space, and attention used in developing an intention.
Particularly for creative work, the amount required of any of these resources are not clear, and are instead developed in time. We discover what we are making in the act of making it. Much of our work is accommodating this through scheduling, habits, and other preparations.
However, the principles behind GTD are quite sound – we design a system that we can trust to support ourselves in our focus. The ideas rest on very sound psychoanalytic principles of play and trust. We are able to find a playful mind, the very fuel of creativity, in environments that we trust. This is true for the infant and for the heavily responsible CEO.
In this way, I would characterize the lack of focus on the session as a blind spot of GTD more than an indictment of the process. One can easily learn and utilize GTD in very solid ways that support the creative session. Each of the works I have invested myself in are about that process of developing and guiding play and agency.
Newport, too, does not view GTD entirely negatively either as he mentions his own integrated use of its techniques throughout his days. For example, in Deep Work, he describes how he stores his work as tasks in a system he trusts. But, it is important to consider that GTD or any set system, for that matter, is not everything. We can, instead, study systems and adapt them to our individual circumstances.
Depth work is an excellent mode or even tool. All tools, in turn, exist to be handled by our own sense of agency. I believe it is important that with even deep work, more is not necessarily better, but it can be quite useful. We can practice choosing one style of work over the other.
I would not necessarily blame the Internet as the the thief of good work. I was recently re-reading George Leonard’s Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment which appeared in the early 90’s. There, too, was the idea of our present society being toxic to retaining continuity of experience. Newport himself points out authors of the early 1900’s who described how to work well and with depth. Obviously, they were responding to a sense of that depth being either unintuitive or threatened. Heck, if we view the practice of meditation itself as a means of reconnecting with a continuous sense of experience and heightening of agency, important components to any depth work, we can see that the issue of distraction has been going on for millennia.
Then again, I’m not sure the Internet has made it any easier.
Important is viewing focus and depth work as a practiced skill. Newport rightly returns again and again to emphasize this point. It is a skill. It must be exercised and nurtured.
There is a lot more that can be said about Deep Work, but all in all, I have to say I enjoyed it quite a bit. He clearly thinks about his own thought processes, seeks to optimize them, and share his thoughts with others.
One last thought: After reading the book, I’ve noticed myself emulating Newport’s practice of reading more books in the evenings.
Thanks for the excellent article comparing Cal’s thoughts on Deep Work with your own writings. As I read Deep Work last month, I was reminded of many of the concepts you discuss in Workflow Mastery and in Creating Flow with Omnifocus, so I was surprised and delighted to see you’d read Deep Work, too, and had written up your thoughts here.
I haven’t been able to give up my Twitter stream yet (it’s actually how I learned you had written this post), though I am trying to improve its signal to noise ratio. I have, however, been using Newport’s daily planning approach, and blocking out every chunk of time during my workday. I can verify it has made me more productive. I always resisted such an approach based on David Allen’s admonition about how often such plans change, and therefore it was a waste to create them. They do change, sometimes multiple times a day for me. But devoting some conscious thought to what I intend to work on has allowed me to be less reactionary, and to actually get time in on the deeper, more important items on my plate.
Thanks again for the great post!
Thank you for the thoughts. I find Twitter to be find and is how I find some things. It’s all about how we use our tools rather than blanket-label them with “good” or “bad”. I assign my Twitter time during my Communication sessions. That way, I visit twice a day (though I may reduce them to once daily). In addition, I use the specific search term methods to quickly see what I want. It has worked well, and in this way, I do not find it to be disruptive at all.
Thanks for this, Kourosh. This one of your a typically thoughtful, nuanced, and generous contributions. Your emphasis on the session strikes me as providing a better way of addressing issues of time & attention than either Cal Newport’s or David Allen’s (with all due respect to the significant contributions of both). This is because setting aside the time for a session creates a comfort zone not just for focussed cognitive firepower (Newport’s emphasis) but also for the trust that allows us to unclench creatively. In addition, the challenge of working with circumscribed sessions is the challenge of facing our finitude: sessions, by definition, have to end.
Glad to see you actively blogging again!
Thanks for your thoughts! I’m glad that the idea of the session resonates with you. That is the centerpiece of the next project, so I’m hoping it will be a useful contribution to the workflow discussions.