Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
By Cal Newport
Find it on Bookshop
The ability to concentrate and work on a single idea, a skill dubbed “deep work”, is increasingly rare in the age of distraction and social media. It is also becoming more valuable in modern society, especially for knowledge workers. In order to thrive, a person needs to be able to quickly master hard things and produce high quality content, both of which require periods of intensely focused work. With so many people lost in endless distraction and disrupted by divided attention, those who can work deeply will stand out.
Fair warning: this was one of those self-help books that goes on and on about a single idea, albeit a good one.
Why Deep Work?
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.
The idea of deep work aligns well with the concept of flow (the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced flow; read the amazing book here). Deep work is likely to induce a flow state, which involves challenging yourself in such a way that is hard but achievable in such a way that you can become happily lost in an activity.
Cal Newport provides many examples of well-known productive knowledge workers who owe their success to their ability to work deeply. Each purposely ignores the outside world in order to get something done. Bill Gates takes Think Weeks twice a year, in which he isolates himself to read and think. Adam Grant, who has spent a lot of time thinking about productivity, batches his work into long, uninterrupted stretches. He does this at multiple levels: within a day, a month, a university semester, and a year. Walter Isaacson writes in any and every period of free time he can find, quickly entering and exiting a deep work state.
Clean Up Your Attention Residue
The concept of attention residue was originally introduced in a peer-reviewed paper by Sophie Leroy in 2009. Basically, when you are switching from one task to another, part of your attention sticks to the original task, preventing you from effectively working on the next. I actually had noticed this in my own work: I often needed to take breaks between tasks to help the transition. Until reading this book, I didn’t have any scientific evidence behind it or language to describe it properly. Reading about it showed me that I do need to pay attention to task switching and do a wind-down routine for each task. This involves recording the progress I made, any problems I ran into, and what needs to happen next. Such a routine helps my brain to let go of a task before moving on to the next one.
The Modern Office
Don’t be too hasty to label your job as necessarily non-deep. Just because your current habits make deep work difficult doesn’t mean that this lack of depth is fundamental to doing your job well.
It is very common for people to work in a distracted state, which negatively affects work performance. If your phone is constantly buzzing with notifications, even if you don’t immediately pick it up and look at it, your divided brain will switch its attention to the buzzing rather than focusing on your work. When really trying to work deeply, put your phone in another room or put it on Do Not Disturb mode.
One issue with modern productivity is that any difficult work may cause anxiety, such that a person is tempted to do something easier and more satisfying, such as checking social media. You can read more about avoiding this type of procrastination in Unwinding Anxiety.
Busyness has become a “proxy for productivity”. Any visible action gives the appearance of a high volume of work, even if the action does not help the larger goal of the work. This stems from the industrial type of progress, where productivity is very visual and obvious, such as the number of products coming off an assembly line. This does not apply to knowledge work, however, and often prevents actual valuable work.
Stop Distracting Yourself
One of the common big distractions at work is email. Many people feel obligated to always have their email open and respond to any messages immediately, but this is harmful for many reasons. Firstly, it harms your ability to do deep work. It requires you to keep switching tasks, which ruins your brain’s ability to concentrate. And secondly, it makes you seem more available, which will cause people to email you more frequently, and take even more demands on your time. Email responses should be completed in batches at specified times of day, as a conscious action rather than a reactionary response.
Another common distraction is constant meetings. Frequent interruptions in work for real time communication make sustained focus impossible. They happen because they are easier— they are a simple way to track progress and force everyone involved to take some visible action on a project, even if it is not actually a helpful action. The alternative is for everyone to manage their time and responsibilities themselves, which is difficult for many, especially if there is a lack of trust within a working group.
How to Work Deeply
So if deep work is so important, but so difficult to achieve, how do we do it?
Before You Work
- Deep work sessions are difficult to start— the easiest way to start them is to make them a habit. This way you don’t need to invest energy in deciding if and when you will do so. Read more about making good habits and breaking bad ones in Atomic Habits.
- Schedule deep work sessions within a specific time frame—the end is important— so that it isn’t a nebulous, never-ending grind.
- Maintain boundaries between work time and personal time. Don’t let work interfere with your relationship with your family and friends. Schedule time for each.
- Expose yourself to ideas on a regular basis by connecting with other people through reading and discussions, but protect your ability to isolate and work deeply on the ideas you connect with.
While You Work
- Take breaks, and use them to truly rest. While not feeling productive, these rest periods are crucial to your creativity. This is when your brain can make connections and process your experiences.
- Keep your email closed and notifications off. Plan your email time, and read and respond then. When you send an email, spend a little extra time and thought on composing it, which will save you time in the long run. Clearly describe where the project stands, and include all the details that will get you to a desired outcome without needing further discussion.
- Restrict your meetings. Only take meetings that are absolutely necessary, and set an agenda with time limits.
When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.
After You Work
- Use a shutdown ritual. In it, review every incomplete task, goal, or project and come up with a plan for its completion or record its status properly in a way that it can be revisited later.
- Embrace boredom. Don’t go running to social media whenever your brain feels empty. Practicing boredom will improve your ability to work deeply by improving your attention skills and reducing your dependence on distraction.
- Plan activities for your free time. Choose quality activities, like being active outdoors or reading. Don’t let yourself slip into a social media doomscroll.
We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work, and then adopt the habit of pausing before action and asking, “What makes the most sense right now?”
If you are a knowledge worker (and even if you aren’t), honing your ability to work deeply will help you succeed. Remember that to work deeply:
- Be like Adam Grant and batch your work at multiple levels
- Make deep work a scheduled habit
- When working, turn on Do Not Disturb and close your email
- To clean up attention residue, give yourself time between tasks and use wind-down routines
- Embrace physical activity as well as boredom to give your mind some space to roam
To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience.
Want to read more? Find Deep Work here: Bookshop
The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂
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You might also like my notes on:
Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman