Deep Work by Cal Newport is a book about increasing the amount of high-quality work you produce. In this post, we’ll look at six quotes from the book and discuss how you can apply them to produce more deep work.
Drain The Shallows
“I’m asking you to treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.” – Cal Newport
In Deep Work, there’s a chapter titled ‘Drain The Shallows’. What does Newport mean by this? Throughout the book, he preaches the importance of deep work. The above quote is a pithy summary of his views. He’s telling us that shallow work is bad and to remove as much as possible from our lives.
He gives us several examples of companies that have made an effort to do this, the most prominent being Google. They have a policy in place that allows employees to devote 20% of their work hours to personal projects. Avoiding shallow work and focusing on interesting deep work has led to some huge wins for Google; Gmail, Adsense, and Google News are great examples.
He claims that we’re able to produce about 4 hours of deep work per day. If you normally work an 8 hour day, you might be thinking this leaves plenty of time to tackle all your shallow work. Newport disagrees, he stresses how insidious shallow work is. In his view, it will steal your time and pull you out of a deep work state without you realizing it.
“I, too, am incredibly cautious about my use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: ‘yes.’ It takes a lot to convince me to agree to something that yields shallow work.” – Cal Newport
Instead, we can do as he suggests; treat it with suspicion and minimize the amount in our lives. How do we do this? Newport offers a handful of suggestions:
- Track your time – he advocates for very detailed time tracking so that all wasted time is identified.
- Ask your boss how he wants you to split your time between shallow and deep work – agreeing on this upfront will allow you to say no when presented with lots of shallow work.
- Have a set finish time – the time constraint will add some urgency to your work and help you prioritize.
- Become hard to reach – you’ll be disturbed less as only important communications will reach you.
“Sometimes to go deep, you must first go big.” – Cal Newport
What exactly are grand gestures? In short, it’s making a drastic change to your usual work environment with the specific goal of facilitating deep work.
This change is often supported by a “significant investment of effort or money.” The act of committing forces you to take the task seriously. It’s taking advantage of the sunk cost effect.
Our brains are hardwired to avoid loss. I’m sure everyone has experienced it at some time or another. Maybe you’ve purchased some food that you don’t enjoy, but rather than throw it away, you choose to eat it because you don’t want to waste your money.
The grand gesture is how to use this effect to increase our productivity. He gives several examples used by successful people; fancy hotels, island retreats, and log cabins, to name a few.
You could improve your productivity by committing to something of this magnitude. However, unless you’re already very successful, the above ideas are probably cost-prohibitive. Luckily, it’s possible to implement the contradictory idea of small grand gestures. One example that most people will be familiar with is a door shut, distraction-free, last-minute study session before an exam. This captures the spirit of the grand gesture; you’ve committed time and your exam result is on the line.
Work Hard, Play Hard
“Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow.” – Cal Newport
For a lot of productivity orientated folks, this is one of the most important lessons you can apply. We’ve all felt the pressure to work longer hours. You need to respect your finish time. Once you’ve stopped work for the day, that’s it, you’re done! You shouldn’t even be peeking at your emails as this nudges you back into work mode.
To deliver optimal performance, your brain needs a period of relaxation away from work-related topics. Newport backs these claims by discussing ART – attention restoration theory. This idea states that attention is a resource that we can use up. You can think of it as the fuel in a car; the car can only drive for so long before it needs a break to refuel. If you try and keep driving on an empty tank… you aren’t getting where you want to go!
Our brains are similar. Our attention depletes and needs to be given time to refuel. The studies he references discuss spending time in nature, but he’s quick to point out that any “inherently fascinating stimuli” will serve to refuel our attention tank. This captures most things you’ll think of as relaxing: exercising, drinks with friends, game nights, music, etc. Treating your downtime as important will increase your capacity for deep work.
“To summarize, if you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative.” – Cal Newport
Throughout the book, he lambasts social media and clickbait websites. They’re both designed to keep giving you little hits of dopamine and if you’re not careful you’ll end up wasting an evening on them. Long-term usage will negatively affect your ability to produce deep work.
“It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin.” – Cal Newport
To avoid wasting our free time on these sites, he suggests we plan our downtime in advance. He’s a strong proponent of filling this time with structured hobbies. The example he gives from his own life is working through a reading list. His hobby always has a clear next step and he’s less likely to procrastinate. Over the course of a year, this leads to a lot of books being read. By planning your downtime you can make a lot of progress in rewarding hobbies of your choice.
Hopefully, a couple of these Deep Work quotes will stick with you. Challenge yourself to identify the shallow work you can remove from your life! Choose a project to spend this saved time on and apply grand gestures to facilitate deep work. Work hard, but give yourself regular time to unwind.
Follow Cal Newport‘s advice and improve your ability to produce deep work.
Want more like this? Why not check out the full review of Deep Work by Cal Newport or our review on Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard.
By: Scott O’Neill