An effective guidebook on productivity for those who desire to deliver more impact through their worksAn effective guidebook on productivity for those who desire to deliver more impact through their works
My favourite thing about reading good self-help books is that there is always something new to learn. I then experiment and apply these new learnings into my life and see how they help me do things better. Good practices replace bad ones over time, and you’ll start to see your life change for the better. Deep Work by Cal Newport is the latest of such reads, and it’s so good that I’m giving it 5/5 stars!
The Bible for personal productivity to optimise performance in your life
“A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement – it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable stuff done.”Cal Newport
For those of you looking to refine your focus and elevate your productivity, you HAVE to read this book; it helps you become aware of why you may find it a challenge to focus and do deep work. Learnings from other studies and the author’s research support these concepts, which makes it compelling and credible. Finally, every principle is accompanied by suggested actions which are easy to implement yet flexible enough to accommodate different circumstances.
In the book, Newport defines “deep work” as:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
The core message is this: deep work is absolutely necessary to produce top-quality work and achieve extraordinary results. This applies to both personal and professional settings. It requires us to refine our focus and eliminate or manage distractions in our surroundings and in our minds. All these help us get into a “flow state” that will unlock tremendous productivity and creativity during that period.
I don’t want to spoil too much of this great read for you, here’s a sneak preview with my top three takeaways below!
1. Make your working environment conducive for deep work 2. Leverage on routines to build a deep work habit 3. Embrace boredom
Takeaway #1 – Make your working environment conducive for deep work
“… [we must] take back control of [our] time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.”Cal Newport
The ability to concentrate intensely on a single task for extended periods of time is crucial for deep work. However, it’s common to see how the environments we inhabit might make it difficult to do so. Just sit by your desk silently for a minute and notice how your mind darts around. Trust me, you’ll be amazed at just how many things can distract you.
The biggest distraction for me is my smartphone, with apps that are designed to steal our attention breaking my focus with periodic notifications. It takes a lot of willpower to peel myself away from it; sometimes I don’t even realise I’m mindlessly scrolling away (damn you, infinite scroll!).
Fortunately, we can use this awareness to our advantage. We all have the power to change our environment to make it easier to perform deep work. Even the slightest tweak can bring marvellous results, especially when it forces you to change your habits over time.
For example, I noticed that I spend a lot of time on Instagram. This is because the app is on the first page of the screen, making it super easy to access it (sometimes even without me knowing). By applying the Four Laws of Behaviour Change highlighted in Atomic Habits by James Clear, I sought to make it less obvious and more difficult to access the app. This is done with the following changes:
- Moving the app into a folder on the second page so it requires more actions to get to it;
- Unfollowed accounts which I don’t really care much about, so there are lesser things to “pique my interest”;
- Turned off notifications for so that my concentration will not be fragmented by it.
All these helped to reduced my screen time dramatically; I now find it easier for me to focus on deep work for longer stretches of time.
Takeaway #2 – Leverage on routines to build a deep work habit
In the previous takeaway, I sought to make changes to my external environment to help me become more productive. This next takeaway complements that by working on our internal environment; I’m talking about the influence of willpower on our productivity.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes you make bad decisions, even if deep down you know better? If you ask the people around you, most of them will attribute this to a “lack of willpower”. What’s exactly going on here?
As it turns out, your willpower is like a muscle. Just like the muscles in your body, repeated use of willpower will cause fatigue. In the context of decision-making, every decision made flexes that muscle and adds to the fatigue. Over time, “the strength of your willpower fades as you make more decisions”. Researchers at Columbia University calls this phenomenon, “decision fatigue”.
When it comes to doing deep work, we often fight the urge to turn our attention towards other superficial matters. Therefore, we have to make countless decisions every day to resist these urges and focus on the work at hand. This drains our willpower, and makes it harder to concentrate as it gets weaker.
To overcome this, we can implement routines to automate decisions, thereby reducing the number of decisions we make every day. This conserves the strength of our willpower, which allows us to sustain longer periods of times in deep work.
Takeaway #3 – Embrace boredom
“Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”Cal Newport
Have you ever noticed what you do when you are bored? Think of the last time you were waiting in line at the supermarket, or waiting for your food to be served at a restaurant. How about during your commute riding the subway – what were you doing then?
If you’re crushing candies or scrolling through your social media feeds on your phones, you’re not alone. Back to my earlier point of attention-stealing apps, we have been subconsciously conditioned to seek instant gratification in response to boredom.
As our phones feed us an endless stream of notifications, we end up constantly switching our attention across many tasks. Research from Stanford University suggests that this has a negative impact on our ability to focus on cognitively-challenging events. Eventually, we end up developing a dependence on distraction as we increasingly crave for the feel-good factor from instant gratification.
To overcome this, we need to start becoming more mindful when our attention is drifting away. Many people take time off for “digital detox” vacations, staying away from technology and all the distractions that come with it. Others turn to meditation, which allows us to practice our focus on and awareness on our breath and thoughts. I particularly appreciate being able to notice when my mind wanders and bringing it back softly to the exercise.
Perhaps the best piece of advice offered by Newport was to take breaks from focus instead of trying to be less distracted. We can train our ability to focus, but just like a muscle, it will get fatigued. Taking breaks from long periods of focus allows that muscle to recover for another stretch, improving its endurance over time. As Newport elegantly puts it, “your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it”.
Noteworthy quotes from Deep Work
- “… the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate efforts to improve performance in a specific domain.” – K. Anders Ericsson, on deliberate practice
- “Knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from information is an activity that’s often at odds with busyness, not supported by it.”
- “… when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.”
- “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, on the “flow state”
- “If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions… try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” – David Brooks
- “… providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges.”
- “Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but also free cognitive resources for other pursuits.” – Psychologists Roy Baumeister and E. J. Masicampo, from “Consider It Done!”
- “Structured hobbies… generate specific actions with specific goals to fill your time.”
- “… the limits to our time necessitate more careful thinking about our organizational habits…”
Following The One Thing and Atomic Habits, Deep Work is the next best book on productivity that I’ve ever read. Even though the underlying principles are similar to the two aforementioned books, I find that Newport goes deeper into explaining the “why” behind these concepts. I found them to be immensely helpful, and it wonderfully reinforces the importance of minimizing distractions and focusing on deep work to achieve extraordinary results.
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