Bookshelf Think

How to Escape From the Shallows

Cal Newport’s Deep Work contains great tips on how to make our lives more productive and meaningful.

I am easily distracted. I am putting this out there in the first sentence of this review, so if your attention wanders and you stop reading, you will at least know we have something in common.

Last week I reviewed Adam Alter’s excellent book, Irresistible, and I have received many emails and tweets since from readers saying that they share the addiction to social media that the book describes. It’s not even necessary to call it an ‘addiction’. Do you keep looking at your smart phone? Even when your phone is not with you, does your mind wander every time you try to focus?

Cal Newport’s Deep Work is perhaps the important self-help book for these modern times. Newport’s thesis can be broken up thus: Because of the distractions around us, too many of us do what he calls ‘shallow work.’ This imposes enormous costs on us in terms of productivity and quality of work. But worry not, for there are methods by which we can discipline ourselves and do ‘deep work’.

First, let’s define the problem. Newport cites a 2012 McKinsey study that found that “the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.”

Mind you, this “average knowledge worker” is busy – but it is dangerous, Newport writes, to think of “busyness as [a] proxy for productivity.” Because this person is constantly distracted, she is not able to “accommodate deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking.”

Let’s define shallow work first, in Newport’s words.

Shallow work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

This includes reading and writing email, engaging with social media, taking part in meetings, even looking out of the window. (Think about all the things you have done since you woke up this morning.) Newport cites studies in his book to show that “people fight desires all day long” and “you have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.” But c’mon, you hardly need studies to tell you this.

Newport quotes the science writer Winifred Gallagher:

Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.

So my question to you is: What are you? Are you a collection of discrete fragments?

The Value of Deep Work

The question above, which I grapple with often, is an existential one. That is not Newport’s concern in Deep Work. His main concern is the practical one of how shallow work affects our productivity and skills—and of how deep work is necessary in our modern economy.

There are two reasons for this value. The first has to do with learning. We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. […] To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work.

The writer Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, once wrote: “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.” It isn’t the internet alone that chips away at us, and the focus required for “quickly learning complicated things” becomes almost impossible.

Newport continues:

The second reason that deep work is valuable is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (eg, employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward.

This is why the reward for superstars is often orders of magnitude higher than for those just a little less skilled. The economist Sherwin Rosen, in a paper about “winner-take-all” markets, wrote:

Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.

Shallow work keeps you mediocre. Deep work is necessary to develop your skills and gain excellence in any field.

“In this new economy,” Newport writes, “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.”

The last of those is largely luck, and deep work won’t get you there directly. (Indirectly it will, for those who achieve excellence will also end up increasing their access to capital in the long run.) The first two rely on deep work. Newport sums up the “two core abilities for thriving in the new economy”:

1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

You need deep work for both of these. But how does one achieve deep work in our shallow world?

Hacks to go Deep

The science fiction writer Neal Stephenson does not have an email or mailing address on his website. He famously refuses to reply to email, and he once explained his inaccessibility in an essay:

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organise 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.

Newport cites Stephenson as an exemplar of deep work, and Stephenson does tick many of the boxes. He offers four disciplines that help with deep work. The first of them is: “Focus on the Wildly Important.”

A quote from David Brooks, from an old column of his, illustrates this best:

Try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.

In Stephenson’s case, that is writing novels. He is absent on email and social media, but focusing on the “wildly important” has made him one of the most important novelists of his generation.

The second discipline that Newport suggests is, “Act on the lead measures.” Newport writes that there are two kinds of metrics a person can consider: ‘lag measures’ and ‘lead measures’. If I may sum it up in my own words, lag measures focus on outcomes while lead measures focus on process. Finishing a 100,000-word novel is an example of a lag measure; putting in a four-hour session of deep work every day where you just write is a lead measure. Process will take care of outcome in the long run; but fixating on outcome can hobble process.

Discipline No. 3 is, “Keep a compelling scoreboard.” To continue with the above example, if you do manage 4 hours of deep work as a writer every day, it would help to keep track of how many words you write in such a session every day. Newport followed a similar methodology to write research papers, and described its importance thus:

This served two purposes. First, it allowed me to connect, at a visceral level, accumulated deep work hours and tangible results. Second, it helped calibrate my expectations for how many hours of deep work were needed per result. This reality (which was larger than I first assumed) helped spur me to squeeze more such hours into each week.

The fourth discipline is to “create a cadence of accountability.” For an individual doing deep work, Newport suggests a weekly review “in which you make a plan for the week ahead.” He writes that he uses his weekly review “to look over my scoreboard to celebrate good weeks, help understand what led to bad weeks, and most important, figure out how to ensure a good score for the days ahead.”

These disciplines might seem dull and cumbersome, but Newport quotes from a column by David Brooks that hits the mark:

[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.

No, you don’t need Social Media

The most common distraction that people face – though maybe I am biased by my own experience here – is social media. There is a myth in many professions that social media is necessary, a feature and not a bug. For example, journalists are often told that they should maintain a ‘Twitter presence.’ Who can deny that it is useful for any journalist to engage with her readers? But there is a fallacy at the heart of this:

The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.

Anyone who knows any economics will understand what is wrong with this: it takes only benefits into account, not costs. There is an opportunity cost to being on social media. That cost is not only what you would have done with the time you spend on social media, but also how much your work suffers because of the constant distractions. Yes, all social media has benefits; but the cost of such distraction can be staggering, even “the deciding factor between an average career and one that will be remembered.”

The Four Philosophies of Deep Work

How can you incorporate deep work into your life? Newport outlines four different philosophies towards deep work. Which one you opt for depends on your specific circumstances.

The first approach is The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. This philosophy “attempts to maximise deep work efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.” Stephenson embodies the monastic approach, which involved cutting yourself off completely from distractions. As the term ‘monastic’ indicates, it’s like you build a cave of focus around your work, and stay within that cave.

Not everyone can be a deep-work monk, and the second philosophy outlined by Newport is 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.

Newport illustrates this with the example of Adam Grant, an author and Wharton Business School professor, who packs his courses into one semester so that he can do deep work, free of distractions, in the other. The bimodal approach is perfect for an academic—but now many of us can take off for days at a time?

The third approach is The Rhythmic Approach. “This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.” For example, you could set a block of time during the day – say 8am to 1pm every day – when you focus on deep work and keep your phone on flight mode. Once this becomes a routine, switching on and off before and after it can become an embedded habit.

The fourth approach is what Newport calls The Journalistic Philosophy. Newport illustrates this with the example of Walter Isaacson, the journalist and author, who can switch into deep work mode in block of time that suddenly frees up. If he has half-an-hour free, he can whip out his laptop and do deep work in that time.

This requires, however, an ability to switch between deep work and shallow work at the snap of a finger. I don’t have this ability. Nor can I, as the editor of an online magazine, afford either the Monastic Approach or the Bimodal Approach. So I try the Rhythmic Approach: parcel the day into chunks, and keep a substantial parcel for deep work cut away from distractions. It’s already working: I wrote this review during one such session of deep work.

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About the author

Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. A journalist for a decade-and-a-half, he won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007 and 2015. He writes the blog India Uncut, and hosts the podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. He is the editor of Pragati.