Classic Reread: Deep Work by Cal Newport

I am an avid rereader of my favorite books, and even though there is a staggering amount of self-help books every year that I still want to read, sometimes it’s nice to go back to a classic.

For this category I am going to go back to some books I’ve already read, starting with Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Drew and I talked about this book in an episode of our podcast, and I wasn’t the biggest fan back then, but I was in a different headspace at the time. I was still healing from a lot of the stuff that happened in my life, and the deep work I was focusing on at that stage was Soul Deep Work, not Work Deep Work.

Nowadays, I’m in a great space and I have a lot to do, and I find out every single time I have to work on projects, articles or writing just how important it is to do this ‘deep work’ Cal is referring to. I’m a lot more interested in it now and can really appreciate Cal’s book.

You can get the book in paperback here* for 17.99 or as an ebook for 10$ here*.

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Quick flash summary

In this book Newport hypothesises that we are less and less able to perform deep work (because today’s world has flickering lights, buzzes and notification bells at every turn) while that is also becoming more important if you want to do something of value. The book consists of two parts: Him explaining why the hypothesis is true, using studies and other smart people, and him explaining how to keep doing deep work in our distracting, bus world.

The Highlights

Deep work: Deep Work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early twentieth-century philosophers. It is instead a skill that has great value. (…) To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing – a task that requires depth.

How to Thrive.

  1. Have the ability to quickly master hard things (which you can do by -you guessed it- being able to deeply focus periods of time on the important aspects of something)
  2. Have the ability to produce at an elite level, in both quality and space (which you can also do by -righto again- doing deep work)

“Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.”

David Brooks, New York Times

Different philosophies on Deep Work Scheduling

Cal Newport sets out the different options when it comes to how we schedule and execute deep work in our professional and personal lives.

The Monastic approach: Maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimising shallow obligations.

Example: A professor who has no e-mailadress but instead corresponds via an actual address: Physical mail. An assistant sorts it for him and he uses all his time for his research.

Totally unrealistic for most of us in the real word.

The Bimodal approach: Deep work believes that deep work can produce extreme productivity, but only if you dedicate enough time to such endeavours to reach maximum cognitive intensity (the intensity where breakthroughs can occur)

Example: Jung, who had to pay the bills in his clinical practice, but he got away to a cabin in the woods to focus and write.

Better, but still: Not all of us can just rush away to a secluded place for a few days every week.

The Rhythmic approach: The easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal is a rhythm, a habit.

Cal Newport himself argues that although maybe it’s not the most intense deep work, it is the most suitable for the reality of human nature and our lives. I agree, if you can steadily log a couple of hours on a Sunday morning or a free afternoon? You can do a lot of good things.

The Journalist Philosophy: Basically this is fitting deep work in your schedule wherever there happens to be room. It’s called the Journalist approach because a journalist often has to shift into writing mode quickly and at unexpected times, because of stories breaking and deadlines.

I find this method very useful to apply to daily life: just do it wherever you get a chance. Especially for the multi-hyphenates among us (waddup), who have different gigs, projects, side jobs and hustles, it’s good to train yourself in this skill: Get it done where there is time, and get used to shifting into a certain mode.

Chain method: James Clear also refers to this in his blog and his book Atomic Habits, but Cal attributes the chain method to Jerry Seinfeld giving advice to a younger comic. “The way to be a better comic was to create better jokes, ad the way to create better jokes is to write every day. Seinfeld continued by describing a specific technique he use to help maintain this discipline. He keeps a calendar on his wall. Every day that h writes jokes he crosses out the date on the calendar with a big red X. “After a few days you’ll have a chain,” Seinfeld said. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain”

I would argue that not all routines an not all lives are suitable for the Chain Method, but it is a very tangible and attractive method to build a routine that’s important to you.

Grande Gesture: In order to commit to a big project that requires deep work, sometimes we need a ‘grande gesture’. The best examples of these would be J.K. Rowling and Peter Shankman, two writers. The first couldn’t focus at home, and so she checked into a suite of a five-star hotel where she wrote. She finished the last Harry Potter book there. Shankman already spent a lot of time flying and realised it was the perfect place for him to focus on his deep work in the air. When he signed a book contract that gave him only two weeks to finish the entire thing, he booked a round-trip business-class ticket to Tokyo. He wrote during the whole flight to Japan and from Japan.

Now the Grande Gesture doesn’t have to be this grande (read: expensive) , but there is something about the commitment happening when you make such a move. Another move could be driving to a secluded cabin or even just your parents’ place when they’re out of town, sitting down at one of those co-working spaces where you can book a few hours and not being allowed to leave your seat until you finished a certain percentage of your project.

Making a grand gesture like that puts your HEART into it, you know? I think that’s why it works.

Try the Rooseveltian Intensity Technique: “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 the time.”

The idea is that you have to work with such an intensity that you a) have NO time to do anything else, hence slipping into a flow/deep work state and b) set a challenge for yourself that motivates you or teaches you something new about yourself! Even if you’re not able to do it completely, you’ll surely do it more quickly than you anticipated!

Always schedule downtime: Continuous business is not a sign you’re doing your best or deepest work. In fact, you need the downtime in order to do your best and deepest work!

Two things that Cal recommends on this topic is to give yourself a deadline to stop working (let’s say 17:00 or 17:30) and when you’re finished at the end of the day, have a shutdown ritual. This can be a quick review of the tasks you’ve done or will have to do the next day, and I like that Cal ends his with the words “Shutdown complete.” The mind needs cues, and this is a perfect cue that says: We’re done. Time for food, Netflix and fun.

And there you have it! I hope you read something you thought useful and that you have a wonderful Sunday.

Remember: If you want to support me, buy me a coffee here! It is in by no means necessary but nevertheless much appreciated when you do!

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