Deep Work – 5 Steps to Thriving in The New Economy

January 17, 2022

To remain valuable in our economy you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. Talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels.

Two Core Abilities for Thriving 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.

There’s a premium to being the best.

In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive. To learn requires intense concentration. Its core components 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 keeping your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

The intensity of focus, i.e deep work, optimises your performance. By ‘working deeply’ you will create more high-quality output in less time.

Part 1. How To Choose What To Work On

Deep work is important only if you know what to focus on. Choosing the right things to work on is the most important part. Here are a few rules of thumb:

Focus on the wildly important – execution should be aimed at a small number of wildly important goals.  Simplicity will help focus your energy to a sufficient intensity to ignite real results.

Act on the lead measures – there are two types of metrics – lag measures and lead measures. Lagging measures are typically output oriented, easy to measure but hard to improve or influence. Leading measures are typically input oriented, hard to measure and easy to influence.

Let me illustrate this with a simple example: for many of us, a personal goal is weight loss. Weight is a lagging indicator that is easy to measure. But how do you actually reach your goal? By influencing 2 leading indicators – calories consumed and calories burned.

Keep a compelling scoreboard – people play differently when they’re keeping score. Your motivation will increase if you see progress and improvement.

Create a cadence of accountability – fundamental premise that execution is more difficult than strategizing. Create deadlines and stick to them.

Avoid Busy Work

We tend to be busy, however, busy work does not equal high-quality work. More often than not it means low quality work.

This can be explained by the Principle of Least Resistance: we tend toward behaviours that are easiest at the moment unless we consciously prioritise.

We often opt out for busy work when we don’t know what to focus our attention on. In other words, we don’t know how to create value.

Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.

Switching Cost – Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work

Deep concentration requires focus. Multitasking, by definition, requires you to split your attention amongst objects.

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 and vice versa. This is switching cost.

With your attention constantly scattered between different tasks, it becomes nearly impossible to reach the right level of focus to produce high quality of work.

Part 2. How To Schedule Your Deep Work

There are four main philosophies on how to best schedule your deep work. Depending on your personality, vacation and personal circumstances some will work better than the others.

The Monastic Philosophy

This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.

Practitioners of the monastic philosophy tend to have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that they’re pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well, such as writers working on a book.

It’s this clarity that helps them eliminate the majority of shallow concerns that tend to trip up those whose value proposition in the working world is more varied.

The Bimodal Philosophy

This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.

During the deep time, the bimodal worker will act monastically—seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration. During the shallow time, such focus is not prioritized.

This division of time between deep and open can happen on multiple scales. For example, on the scale of a week, you might dedicate a four-day weekend to depth and the rest to open time. Similarly, on the scale of a year, you might dedicate one season to contain most of your deep stretches.

The Rhythmic Philosophy

This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.

The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.

The Journalistic Philosophy

Journalistic philosophy requires you to switch into a deep work mode any time you could find some free time.

This approach is not for the deep work novice. The ability to rapidly switch your mind from shallow to deep mode doesn’t come naturally. Without practice, such switches can seriously deplete your finite willpower reserves.

This habit also requires a sense of confidence in your abilities—a conviction that what you’re doing is important and will succeed.

Part 3. Building Your Deep Work Ritual

Deep work is a habit. And, like any habit, we need to create the right environment to trigger it effectively.

Where you’ll work and for how long

Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door shut and desk cleaned off. If it’s possible to identify a location used only for depth—for instance, a conference room or quiet library—the positive effect can be even greater.

How you’ll work once you start to work

Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any Internet use, or maintain a metric such as words produced per twenty-minute interval to keep your concentration honed. Without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.

How you’ll support your work

Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear.

This support might also include environmental factors, such as organizing the raw materials of your work to minimize energy-draining friction. To maximize your success, you need to support your efforts to go deep.

[Extra Tip] Make Grand Gestures

These gestures push your deep goal to a level of mental priority that helps unlock the needed mental resources. For example, renting a cabin outside of town for a weekend to finish off your project. The mental and financial commitment will force you to focus on the work at hand to justify it.

Part 4. Less Is More – Establish Quality Downtime

Working less can produce more and better results. Sounds too good to be true?

Downtime Aids Insights – Subconscious Decision Making

The scientific literature has emphasized the benefits of conscious deliberation in decision making for hundreds of years. In other words, to actively try to work through these decisions will lead to a worse outcome than loading up the relevant information and then moving on to something else while letting the subconscious layers of your mind mull things over.

Regions of the brain associated with unconscious mind have more neuronal bandwidth available, allowing them to move around more information and sift through more potential solutions than your conscious centres of thinking.

Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply

Our ability to focus is similar to a muscle. But like any muscle, it can also get overworked and fatigued. Attention restoration theory (ART), claims that spending time in nature improves your ability to concentrate and, therefore, produce deep work.

Focus On Not Focusing

Much like we require uninterrupted focus to produce work, we need uninterrupted downtime to let our focus ‘muscle’ recover.

Trying to squeeze extra 30 minutes after dinner breaks our downtime and reduces our ability to focus the following day. Normally, the work we do in those 30 minutes tends to be ‘busy’, low quality work.

Now you have an excuse to ignore those emails after you left the office.

Part 5. Productive Meditation

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.

By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration.

Be Wary of Distractions and Looping

As a novice, when you begin a productive meditation session, your mind’s first act of rebellion will be to offer unrelated but seemingly more interesting thoughts.

When you notice your attention slipping away from the problem at hand, gently remind yourself that you can return to that thought later, then redirect your attention back.

Another subtler, but an equally effective adversary, is looping. When faced with a hard problem, your mind, as it was evolved to do, will attempt to avoid the excess expenditure of energy when possible.

One way it might attempt to sidestep this expenditure is by avoiding diving deeper into the problem by instead looping over and over again on what you already know about it.

When you notice it, remark to yourself that you seem to be in a loop, then redirect your attention toward the next step.

Structure Your Deep Thinking

“Thinking deeply” about a problem seems like a self-evident activity, but in reality, it’s not. When faced with a distraction-free mental landscape, a hard problem, and time to think, the next steps can become surprisingly non-obvious.

In my experience, it helps to have some structure for this deep thinking process. I suggest starting with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem and then storing these values in your working memory.
Once the relevant variables are identified, define the specific next-step question you need to answer using these variables.

With the relevant variables stored and the next-step question identified, you now have a specific target for your attention.

Assuming you’re able to solve your next-step question, the final step of this structured approach to deep thinking is to consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified. At this point, you can push yourself to the next level of depth by starting the process over.

This post is based on a Cal Newport’s Deep Work. If you enjoyed this, consider reading the full book.

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