Tag: Cal Newport

Cut the crap, you’re not busy!

Cut the crap, you’re not busy!

Take a walk in any office and ask how people feel. I bet that people claim to be busy more often than not. Especially in an environment where people are dealing with a constant flow of e-mail requests and an unending amount of meetings, it is hard not to be overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, there is always more to do. That’s not necessarily bad though. As Jacob Lund Fisker writes in Early Retirement Extreme:

“Busyness is seen as a virtue.”

Cal Newport explains in his book Deep Work: In an environment where productivity is hard to judge, for example in creative endeavours or in knowledge work, looking busy is the only proxy of being productive and valuable.

But also in personal life when trying to make plans, everybody seems to be in a rush. There is just so much to do and there isn’t enough time. Literally, consider all the options you have in a given moment to spend your time. By choosing to do one thing, you have to discard thousands of opportunity’s to spend your time. (That’s why I find it hard to believe that people can be bored, that’s another topic). But if you “mistake busyness for importance – which we do a lot – you’re not able to see what really is important.” – Michael Lewis.

Though it is not always a very pleasant thought, Marcus Aurelius insists you to remember that your total time is limited. This is not just a life and death matter, but you also can’t tell whether your mind is clear enough at an old age to enjoy all the things you want to do (book 3-1, Meditations). So it is not just good to have a sense of urgency in life, moreover, you should make a concious effort to critically examine whether what you are doing is really important to you.

If you are feeling busy, life is controlling you. You have to accept that some things can’t be changed, but how you spend your time isn’t one of them. Are you mindlessly browsing Facebook and YouTube? Are you catching up with people who aren’t actually your friends? Are you doing work that isn’t moving your company forward? It is time for you to cut the crap and take control of your life.

Book Notes – Deep Work – Cal Newport

Book Notes – Deep Work – Cal Newport


  • 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.
  • CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.
  • The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools.
  • Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
  • Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.
  • Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow (whether you think it’s philosophically good or bad) is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.
  • Evidence you are invaluable in todays economy: the vast majority of your work responsibilities could be automated by a “kludged together” Excel script.
  • Show up early in the morning before anyone else arrives and work without distraction. “On good days, I can get in four hours of focus before the first meeting.”
  • To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.
  • If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.
  • The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
  • Cal maintained voluminous production while rarely working past five or six p.m. during the workweek. This compressed schedule is possible because Cal has invested significant effort to minimize the shallow in his life while making sure to get the most out of the time this frees up.
  • Cal builds his days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities he absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.
  • Our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind.
  • Three specific groups will fall on the lucrative side of this divide and reap a disproportionate amount of the benefits of the Intelligent Machine Age:
    • The High-Skilled Workers: The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?
    • The Superstars: who are doing productive work remotely. 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.
    • The Owners: because when else in history could such a small amount of labor be involved in such a large amount of value?
  • Two core abilities to thrive in the new economy:
    • The ability to quickly master hard things.
    • The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
  • To learn requires intense concentration –> deliberate practice: a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.
  • Core components of deliberate practice are usually identified as follows:
    • Your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master;
    • you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
  • New science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons.
  • Low concentration: you’re firing too many circuits simultaneously.
  • To allow deep work: batch hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.
  • High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
  • When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.
  • But even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.
  • People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task,” and the more intense the residue, the worse the performance.
  • To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.
  • Deep work is not the only skill valuable in our economy, and it’s possible to do well without fostering this ability.
  • Open offices might create more opportunities for collaboration, but they do so at the cost of massive distraction.
  • An interruption, even if short, delays the total time required to complete a task by a significant fraction.
  • Big trends in business today actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level)
  • Think about it: 160 e-mails processed at 30 seconds per e-mail still adds up to an hour and a half per day dedicated to moving information around.
  • In the current offices one is expected to read and respond to e-mails (and related communication) quickly.
  • In a test each member of the team was forced to take one day out of the workweek completely off, which led to more enjoyment in their work, better communication among themselves, more learning (as we might have predicted, given the connection between depth and skill development highlighted in the last chapter), and perhaps most important, “a better product delivered to the client.”
  • The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
  • If you couldn’t count on this quick response time you’d instead have to do more advance planning for your work, be more organized, and be prepared to put things aside for a while and turn your attention elsewhere while waiting for what you requested feeling satisfyingly productive.
  • Some e-mails take the sender only a handful of seconds to write but can command many minutes (if not hours, in some cases) of time and attention from their recipients to work toward a coherent response.
  • Knowledge workers have no rack of repaired motorcycles to point to as evidence of their worth. Therefore, busyness is seen as a proxy for productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
  • If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter—all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner.
  • We were, he noted, no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiencies against the new problems introduced. If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed.
  • Deep work struggles to compete against the shiny thrum of tweets, likes, tagged photos, walls, posts, and all the other behaviors that we’re now taught are necessary for no other reason than that they exist.
  • The skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.
  • The idle mind is the devil’s workshop’… when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.
  • The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. This leads to a status of flow.
  • 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.
  • In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism.
  • Our obsession with the advice to “follow your passion” (the subject of my last book), for example, is motivated by the (flawed) idea that what matters most for your career satisfaction is the specifics of the job you choose.
  • People fight desires all day long. The five most common desires fought include, not surprisingly, eating, sleeping, and sex. But the top five list also included desires for “taking a break from [hard] work… checking e-mail and social networking sites, surfing the web, listening to music, or watching television.
  • You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Distractions drains your finite pool of willpower.
  • The trick is creating habits: add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower.
  • The monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling: This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. The pool of individuals to whom the monastic philosophy applies is limited.
  • If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.
  • The bimodal philosophy of deep work: This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. The biggest obstacle to implementing this philosophy is that even short periods of deep work require a flexibility that many fear they lack in their current positions.
  • The minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy tends to be at least one full day. A few hours in the morning, for example, is too short to count as a deep work stretch for an adherent of this approach.
  • People will usually respect your right to become inaccessible if these periods are well defined and well advertised.
  • The chain method: Every day that he writes jokes he crosses out the date on the calendar with a big red X. When you miss a day, you break the chain.
  • Brian Chappell made a rule that he would wake up and start working by five thirty every morning. He would then work until seven thirty, make breakfast, and go to work already done with his dissertation obligations for the day. Pleased by early progress, he soon pushed his wake-up time to four forty-five to squeeze out even more morning depth.
  • You have to start doing something. Waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan.
  • The four disciplines of execution:
    • The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish. Execution should be aimed at a small number of wildly important goals.
    • Act on the Lead Measures: Lead measures measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.
    • Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: It’s important that they have a public place to record and track their lead measures.
    • Create a Cadence of Accountability: recommend the habit of a weekly review in which you make a plan for the workweek ahead.
  • Execution is more difficult than strategizing.
  • 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.
  • At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.
  • Shutdown is profitable because:
    • Downtime Aids Insights: Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, set out to prove that some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. Your conscious mind, according to this theory, is like a home computer on which you can run carefully written programs that return correct answers to limited problems, whereas your unconscious mind is like Google’s vast data centers, in which statistical algorithms sift through terabytes of unstructured information.
    • Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply: trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day.
    • The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important.
  • When walking through nature, you’re freed from having to direct your attention, as there are few challenges to navigate.
  • 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.
  • The Zeigarnik Effect: Incomplete tasks dominate our attention.
  • When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.
  • The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.
  • Constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain.
  • The key here is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.
  • Identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. Attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.
  • The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.
  • Be Wary of Distractions and Looping.
  • Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it.
  • Facebook offers benefits to your social life, but none are important enough to what really matters to you in this area to justify giving it access to your time and attention.
  • If you service low-impact activities, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game.
  • Stuff accumulates in people’s lives, in part, because when faced with a specific act of elimination it’s easy to worry, “What if I need this one day?”
  • Put more thought into your leisure time. Figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends.
  • The mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change.
  • 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 helps 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 make sure the important stuff continues to get done.
  • For most businesses, if you eliminated significant amounts of this shallowness, their bottom line would likely remain unaffected, but a nontrivial amount of shallow work is needed to maintain most knowledge work jobs.
  • The most adept deep thinker cannot spend more than four of these hours in a state of true depth.
  • We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time.
  • Become Hard to Reach.
  • The technologies underlying e-mail are transformative, but the current social conventions guiding how we apply this technology are underdeveloped.
  • For proper e-mails answer: what is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
  • Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies:
    • It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
    • It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
    • Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.

There is a reason these notes turned out so elaborate. The book is full of useful insights! If you liked these notes, you can support my blog by purchasing the full book on either:
Bol.com: Deep Work on Bol.com
Amazon: Deep Work on Amazon
Check out this book on Goodreads. I rated it 5 out of 5.