August 13th, 2020
Deep Work (Cal Newport, 2016)
The author describes Deep Work as an increasingly rare ability to focus intensely over a long period of time, in order to solve complicated problems. He says that by acquiring this skill you will not only make yourself sought after in today's economy, it also leads to a better quality of life in general. If you're more of a scatterbrain, don't despair - the ability to perform deep work is something that can be learned, it needs to be trained like a muscle.
In the first part, Cal explains why he thinks that Deep Work is
While the first two aspects are pretty much evident if you're familiar with the absurdly chaotic nature of even progressive workplaces, the third one resonated most with me. I think this is connected to my reservations about "success" - while the scarcity and value of Deep Work is something that can be monetized, meaningfulness is a different, more personal measure of "success". This is important, because it elevates Deep Work above the level of being just another self-optimization fad - it's a a genuine approach towards both realizing your potential and being yourself.
I was often reminded of the concept of mindfulness, because that too can help you finding meaning even in mundane tasks. The author described how a sword maker operates - he has to be alert over a long period of time, otherwise the sword might break, rendering the whole effort pointless. Forging the sword is more or less repeatedly banging on a piece of metal - but immersing yourself in the process and envisioning the finished product gives meaning to every beat of the hammer.
This aspect of Flow is something that I'm also seeking constantly, even in apparently simple tasks there is often so much to learn, things that spark my curiosity, things that just lie beneath the surface and beg to be discovered, things that keep me focused for a long time.
In the second part of the book Cal starts by describing routines and rituals for different philosophies of Deep Work
- monastic: radically minimize shallow obligations - only an option for a few
- bimodal: retreat to a quiet place for a longer time, as challenges arise
- rhythmic: do only short units of Deep Work, but scheduled, every day
- journalistic: do Deep Work whenever you have the opportunity - very hard
He mentions Carl Jung, the swiss psychologist, who employed the bimodal philosophy. He still worked regularly in Zurich in his practice, but built his own retreat himself (!) for when he felt he needed to focus - at the time he was intensely competing with Sigmund Freud academically. The retreat is Bollingen Tower near lake Zurich, where he would be undisturbed, could go for walks and work on the big questions. (Here is a wonderful travel report on a visit to the tower with beautiful photos)
Another great idea in this chapter is the Eudaimonia Machine, a concept of a workplace where deep work is a first-class citizen. It is a sequence of rooms that are suited for various levels of depth, culminating in chambers for deep focus, sparsely furnitured single rooms where Deep Work is done. In contrast, in today's workplaces the open-plan office is a monoculture, it only allows for a single mode of work, a mode dominated by shallowness and distraction. But there are offices that go in the right direction, as Joel Spolsky has proved with Fog Creek's office.
An idea that has really helped me by now is scheduling every minute of your day. The idea is not having to decide over and over again if it's time for Deep Work, but scheduling it in advance rigorously. Cal describes that this technique helped him to get lots of Deep Work done, without having to sacrifice evenings and weekends. He advises to not take breaks from distraction, but to take breaks from focus. Focus should be your default work mode, everything else should be minimized over time.
There are also many compelling reasons for quitting Social Media. I especially like what Cal calls the any-benefit mindset - using a tool that has minor benefits, without considering the disadvantages. Instead one should weigh pros and cons meticulously, and only adopt what is really essential. This is a reason why I no longer use Facebook - while it was nice to be in touch with classmates again, it was an overall shallow experience without any real benefit.
It somehow feels like Deep Work is something of a dying art form, which makes me sad. It is hardly ever encouraged to go deep. Even universities are like schools nowadays, where you hurry and learn just for the credit points.
Where will the solutions to the urgent problems come from? What about decelerating global warming, mending the fragile social peace and stopping the rise of fascism? We need people who think deep and solve the big questions, and design sustainable systems for the future that will replace the current status quo, which is no longer working.
On a smaller level, I will humbly try to re-learn the skills of Deep Work, by scheduling more dedicated Deep Work units. It may sound cynical, but the pandemic has helped me here - I was way more productive at home than in the office over the last few months.
In the future, I hope I will also have the energy to promote Deep Work and support efforts to do Deep Work in my professional environment. I think it's immensely beneficial - for both employers and employees.