Everyone is pushed for time, running against deadlines, and three steps behind with the nagging guilt that if you “just try harder” you’ll catch up.
Cal Newport offers us a better fix in his book Deep Work. No hustling all night. No productivity hacks. Rather, a working life that is filled with meaningful concentrated work that propels you forward.
His book changed how I live my life. Here are the thirteen quotes and lessons that did it.
13. “I Don’t Work after Five Thirty P.M”
How can a tenured professor, podcast host, and seven-time author only work till five thirty? Surely he’s grinding day and night? Nope.
Cal Newport flipped the script. He defines the time he has for work and does as much work as he can in that time. For instance, his podcasting is squeezed into one-half day a week. This allows him maximum focus and effort with minimal wasted time.
A few weeks back I worked the weekend so I could take a few days off the following week. It backfired on me like a 30-year-old car.
Knowing I was working the weekend made me less inclined to fill my days productively. Then when the weekend came, I was resentful of myself for working it so I didn’t try as hard. I ended up doing less across those 7 days than I did in the previous 5-day work week!
Define your work time, and stick to it.
12. “When You Work, Work Hard. When You’re Done, Be Done”
I’m a chronic stat checker. I would spend my nights stuck in this wishy-washy limbo where the laptop is open and I’m “checking up on things”. In other words, I’d be kinda working but not really.
The result would always be the same. I’d start work the next day needlessly tired because I didn’t rest. And because I was tired I wouldn’t be able to work as hard. Then I’d feel guilty and the cycle would repeat.
Instead, I now follow Cal Newport’s three rules for shutting down your work day:
- Finish outstanding tasks or make a note to come back to them
- No browsing work-related websites at night
- No after-dinner email check
If there are open tasks I write them down so I can come back to them tomorrow and then finish work. I’ve taken all work-related apps off my phone so I can’t stat check (a friend I knew used to check his Google Analytics app on dates. Yeesht!) And my work email inbox isn’t on my phone either.
Now my work days are actually productive. They don’t just feel productive because I’ve spent more hours in front of my laptop.
11. “For a Novice, Somewhere Around an Hour a Day of Intense Concentration Seems to Be a Limit, While for Experts This Number Can Expand to as Many as Four Hours — But Rarely More”
The best in the business have four good hours of work a day. Four.
This is why hustling is counterproductive. After four hours you don’t produce your best work, and if you aren’t producing your best work, then you should stop.
One hour of intense concentration is better than 8 hours of half-hearted bullsh*t. Plus, it gives you 7 extra hours in your day to do as you see fit.
I used to feel guilty as all hell over this. After about 3 hours of important work, I’d be drained and finished for the day. The guilt would creep in and I’d sometimes find myself back at my desk looking busy. But the more often I spent these extra hours looking busy the less I’d get done over a week!
Commit to the few hours of deep work you get. Make them count.
10. “Like Roosevelt at Harvard, Attack the Task with Every Free Neuron until It Gives Way under Your Unwavering Barrage of Concentration.”
Former US President, Theodore Roosevelt, was a man of many interests. So of course at university his days were jam-packed: attending classes, going to the gym, listening to poetry recitals, writing a book on birds, and, of course, having his lunch break. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for studying.
Yet, despite never studying past 4.30 pm, he finished near the top of most of his classes.
How? Well, the few hours a day he had for studying he spent studying with blistering intensity. Can you say you’ve worked with focus you’d describe as “blistering intensity”? I couldn’t. But I’m slowly learning to.
Forty-five minutes can feel too short to get stuck into anything. But forty-five minutes spent focussed with blistering intensity can change the trajectory of your whole project.
Quality over quantity.
9. Willpower Is Limited, Ritual and Habit Will Get You into Deep Work
Good intentions won’t get you as far as good habits. Instead, decide in advance what time you’re working, how long you’re working for, and what you’ll be working on. That’s how you find your flow.
For a while, I tried writing as and when I found the time. Can you guess how many articles I wrote across the seven months I tried this? One.
Now I’ve committed that every morning by 9 am I am at my desk, headphones on, writing till 11 am.
8. “The More You Try to Do, the Less You Actually Accomplish”
At my worst, I was trying to work on five projects at once. Dividing my attention between all of them left me stressed out, burnt out, and stalled out. Progress just wasn’t happening. Not in any meaningful way at least.
Now, I’m down to three projects and slowly closing out another so I can streamline down to two. I can focus on long stretches of work instead of squeezing in an hour here for one project, an hour there for a different project, and guess what? Progress has resumed.
Focus on the ‘wildly important’. Decide what goals are wildly more important than the rest and devote yourself to them. The rest you can let go.
7. If You Don’t Define Productivity You’ll Default to Busyness
If you’re producing something of value you are being productive. If you aren’t, you are being busy. You need to decide what productive work looks like for you and then spend as much time doing it as possible.
Of course, there are other tasks that will come up: emails need to be sent, meetings need to be attended, and staying up-to-date has to be done. But most of your time needs to be spent producing your work. Writers gotta write, designers gotta design, business management consultants gotta… Business management consult?
6. “Great Creative Minds Think like Artists but Work like Accountants”
People love the idea of the eccentric artist living the bohemian life in Paris. Partying, socialising, and taking spontaneous trips to Italy. Then one day, poof! The muse hits and they sit down at the typewriter and produce their novel. The reality couldn’t be more different.
Every artist is quietly showing up to work. Day in and day out. They could still be living the high life in Paris. However, I guarantee not a day goes by where they don’t sit down alone and do the work.
Vincent Van Gogh painted some of the world’s most famous paintings. But in total, he produced more than 900 paintings in the ten years he was an artist before his death. That’s 2 paintings a week. Every week. For 10 straight years.
Creativity is waiting for you. But if you aren’t showing up, it won’t either.
5. Act on the “Lead Measures” — Measure the Behaviours That Will Drive Success
Most goals get measured after the fact:
- Money earned
- Books sold
- Views received
These are lag measures. The problem is, if your lag measure comes out lower than you wanted it’s often too late to do anything about it. Instead, Cal Newport wants you to measure the behaviours that are happening now. These are the lead measures and are what is driving your success.
For instance, say you want more views on your content. One way to attack it would be to create more/better content. To do that, you might measure the time spent creating. More time spent creating = more content produced = more views.
It’s far more powerful putting your attention on what you can control now rather than waiting to see what happens later.
4. “You’ll Struggle to Achieve the Deepest Levels of Concentration If You Spend the Rest of Your Time Fleeing the Slightest Hint of Boredom”
If you’ve got a phone then boredom can be a thing of the past. The problem is, boredom isn’t a bad thing.
If you’ve sat down to do concentrated work for several hours then there’s a good chance you will get bored at some point. If you give in to that boredom and open up a new tab to check your emails, you get instantly pulled out of the zone. And finding your way back to deep focus is not a quick and easy task.
That’s why it’s worth learning to be comfortable with boredom. Let it pass. Stand for the bus. Go to the bathroom. Wait for your friend. These short time periods don’t always have to be filled with entertainment.
3. “Jobs Are Actually Easier to Enjoy than Free Time”
This one hit home. At my lowest point, while I was starting my business, I gave up all my hobbies so I could work more. When my business got established and I could ease off the gas, I found I didn’t know what to do at night. I’d finish work and be left anxiously watching TV. I’d be craving going back to work.
Cal Newport explains that it’s because work is organised, you’ve got clear goals, you can experience deep states of flow, there might even be enjoyable social interactions. If I compare that to sitting at home at night idle — no deep flow to engage me, no goal I was working towards — then it’s no wonder I was craving work.
The answer is simple. Think about how you want your free time to look. Free time doesn’t have to be passive to be enjoyed. It can be structured without being stressful and the more thought you put into it the easier and more rewarding it gets.
Loads of people think about a morning routine to optimise themselves for work. Few people think of an evening routine to optimise themselves for play.
2. “Sometimes to Go Deep, You Must First Go Big”
Cal Newport argues that a grand gesture can accelerate you into a deep state. He tells an awesome story about Bill Gates retiring to a remote cabin away from everything and everyone for his “Think Weeks’’.
He also tells us about Peter Shankman who bought a roundtrip business class flight to Tokyo from New York. Mr Shankman wrote the whole flight there, had an espresso, and wrote all the way home. 30 hours after his first take off, he returned with a finished manuscript.
I’ve always wanted to try this, so my wife and I booked a remote cottage for a writers’ retreat in a few weeks. I’m going to spend 5 solid days working on an ebook. I’ll let you know how it goes!
1. “To Build Your Working Life Around the Experience of Flow Produced by Deep Work Is a Proven Path to Deep Satisfaction”
That’s what I love about this whole book. Not once does Cal Newport talk about money, or how deep work can help you earn more. Instead, Deep Work teaches you how to create a life that’s abundant with meaning, purpose, and happiness.
Isn’t that what we all really want?
Deep work isn’t about capitalism, earning more, or hustling. Deep work is about creating a deeply meaningful life.
Learn to get lost in the task in front of you and learn the joy of a job well done.
Email me your thoughts comments and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org