Insights from the book Deep Work by Cal Newport: Part 1 (Breather Episode with Brad)

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By Brad Kearns. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

(Breather) Deep Work is about building the mindset and habits to eliminate distraction and focus on producing high quality, meaningful work. This book was written by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University who has authored six self-improvement books. He also writes the Study Hacks blog, which is focused on academic and career success.

I obtained tons of helpful insights, motivation, and practical tips from this book that have helped me minimize distractions and improve my workday habits, so I consolidated them into two Breather shows providing highlights and tips from the book.

Let’s start with the premise of the book, which is pretty simple: There is a huge penalty to pay when we engage in constant distraction. In today’s information economy, excellence is what’s going to pay off, because so many things can get outsourced now.

But, if you are able to transcend the constant penchant for busyness and distractibility, you can gain a huge advantage in your career. So many great performers have systems in place where they can do deep, non-distracted work. My past guest Seth Godin said, “Turn that shit off.” Even Mark Twain had to go to a cottage to get some peace and quiet and get to work! He was so isolated that they had to sound the horn to call him back! JK Rowling rented a hotel suite to finish the final Harry Potter book, and Carl Jung went to a stone castle. Remember, Dr. Seuss wrote his books on a yellow legal pad. And then got on a plane from La Jolla to New York to hand-deliver them ― these were the only, original copies of his work!

Great ones have the drive to cut themselves off from busyness. They have a greater level of satisfaction with their work when they get to focus on the peak performance task. But, unfortunately, the modern workplace is highly focused on busyness ― to our detriment. People who think they are multitasking are constantly distracted, and their performance capability drops significantly. Other research shows we switch tasks every 3 minutes, and interact with an average of 37 windows per hour. Brief interruptions, such as checking text and email have a massive negative impact, due to something called Attention Residue. This is where each time you lose a bit of productivity/cognitive power when you return to the original tasks you were doing. Think of it this way: “If your brain is how you make a living, you have to be cognizant of brain fitness!”

I spent some early days in a large corporate environment, and my opinion is that the only fool who should be up and about, with a constant open-door policy, is the CEO. Because that is why they are there ― to help make others better, to supervise, and support. This is the kind of leadership I saw Martin Brauns embody at Interwoven ― he always had his door open, and always had time for anyone and everyone, no matter how busy his already packed schedule was. And I never forgot what my boss at Interwoven, Kevin Hayden said: “Remember: I work for you, not the other way around.” He felt his role was to act as a resource for others, in order to make everyone else better and to be someone people could see for guidance and direction. Think of it like this: the manager works for the team, not the other way around.

So, knowing how distracting and damaging hyperconnectivity is, and knowing how utterly useless multitasking is, why do we even engage in this bullshit? Newport offers a few reasons:

  1. To have a sense of being needed and feeling useful.
  2. Tribal wiring: The psychological pain associated with not answering emails, texts, calls from family and friends.
  3. Busyness is used as a proxy for productivity: Unlike assembly line days, it’s much more difficult to measure productivity these days. Newport calls it the “metric black hole,” meaning that we have no good way to measure the lost productivity created by busyness and distractibility.

The truth is, “busyness” really just means that you’re doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. It means you are sending and/or replying to cc group emails, and constantly available on chat or on the phone, constantly attending meetings and conference calls. But why? Because in the modern workplace, without clear feedback and guidance, people gravitate toward the “principle of least resistance,” which is the stuff that is easiest to accomplish in the moment. That’s why we foster a culture of connectivity, when studies show that it is ruining productivity.

Imagine if answering emails were to move to the periphery of your workday ― you’d be required to apply a more thoughtful approach to what you should really be working on. And sometimes it really is as simple as changing the conditions of your environment so you can adapt to that environment. If you’re distracted by the need to answer all your incoming emails in the morning, then just don’t let yourself even look at your inbox until later in the day, when you’ve already ticked off enough boxes on your to-do list. Newport tells an inspiring story of an accomplished physics professor in the book, a man who was measured by the frequency of publishing important papers. This professor created an image of irresponsibility and proudly, and continues to reinforce that to his colleagues. He doesn’t answer emails, turns down meetings and opportunities to serve on the committee or boards, he’s entirely focused on publishing research. And that’s all anyone can do: live and work in a way that ensures you will not get in your own way! Stay tuned for part two where I’ll discuss more of the amazing insights I learned from reading this great book, Deep Work.

TIMESTAMPS:

There is a huge penalty to pay in society at large when we engage in constant distraction. [03:42]

If you can transcend the constant penchant for busy-ness and distractibility that we see in today’s workplace, you can gain a huge advantage. [06:44]

When your inbox pops up with new things while you are working, it is an example of intermittent variable reward. [08:46]

The bump of dopamine that you get with new “dings” on your screen, is similar to the addiction to sugar. [11:02]

Just turn it off or go away in order to get work done! [12:22]

Hand-writing pen to paper has more significance than typing because of the interaction with the brain. [14:12]

Unfortunately, the modern workplace is highly focused on busy-ness rather than focus. [16:53]

Attention residue is where each time you pull yourself away, and get distracted, you lose a tiny bit of productivity and cognitive power. [20:17]

The manager works for the team rather than the other way around. [21:11]

When you feel busy, you feel satisfaction that you are needed. You feel you have been pulling your weight. [22:31]

Busy-ness is used as a proxy for productivity. [24:02]

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