I'm not usually the type of person to pick up books with a title like this. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World 🙄 Bah. My instinct is to rebel at rules. Focus sounds like the opposite of collaboration, books on the topic of success is for people in pantsuits.

But I read it anyway! First time was 4 years ago, because I had previously massively enjoyed another book by Cal Newport. That one also sports a title that would not ordinarily intrigue me, but the sub heading was so good I couldn’t ignore it: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Before a solo trip from Paris via Munich and Vienna to Budapest, with plenty time on trains and in cafés, one of the books I downloaded was Deep Work. I remember finding it intense and kinda ”lol waaay too much for me”, but also getting something out of the read. It influenced a handful of new habits.

I re-read Deep Work in February and IT WAS LIKE READING A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT BOOK. 💥 It was the exact same copy on the same device, so the only thing that has changed is me.

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I’ve only got my random thoughts and personal notes here:

I’ve had a tendency to think about my ability to concentrate in ways that are all kinds of unhelpful. Getting distracted means I am lazy, loosing focus suggests I am probably not cut out for this difficult thing I am trying to direct my focus on. Cal Newport describes nicely that we fight desires all day long, and among others; the very natural desire to take a break from hard work.

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

I think the main reason it felt like a different read now, is that it flipped a switch for me. Turning off the unhelpful noise, to instead explain something important to me about some of my past struggles.

Don’t get stuck in the shallow

The opposite of deep work is not slacking off, it is what Cal Newport describes as shallow work. For all types of knowledge workers in organizations, there is plenty of this type of work that is required and important. Shallow work is not a bad thing — it’s just not the type of work where you dive into the depths, stretching the limits of your mental capacity. I’m really good at figuring out how to contribute a lot of value from shallow work, but also to get stuck doing that.

The book describes how some people have trained their brain to rapidly switch between deep and shallow work. “This habit requires a sense of confidence in your abilities. A conviction that what you are doing will succeed.” Sounds great! I also know that is not me.

Rewire my brain

I don’t have a degree in computer science, and I was 28 when I wrote any kind of code for the first time. I have always thought the major knowledge gap was lack of theory and programming basics, that my skillset was hands-on front-of-the-frontend stuff on top of a wobbly foundation. But a revelation creeping up on me the past year, is that what I missed out on is learning to thrive in a state of intellectual discomfort. That being my main disadvantage, first dawned on me when a friend explained how he thought of his bachelor’s degree. He talked about using very little from the student days in daily work as a software engineer today, but how those years forced him to figure out how his brain works. Reading Deep Work now hammered that point in — I have not done that in the same way. I need to give my brain a break, and more friendly support. I can’t expect it to learn hard stuff, if my habits makes it feel like shit.

Deploy rules for more freedom

It's taken my entire adult life to properly understand and appreciate that I actually respond great to boundaries and routines — as long as the rules are carefully and intentionally scripted by me for me. The book suggests to quit social media and schedule limited blocks of internet time. Yeah, that is not happening. But I have taken the intention behind those sections (which is how they are meant to be read anyway) and crafted awesome rules for me.

Execution is hard. Which is why I especially loved the section where a model originally written for businesses (4DX: The 4 Disciplines of Execution) is converted to a personal execution plan:

  • Focus on the wildly important (to limit my number of goals)
  • Act on the lead measures (track deep work hours)
  • Keep a compelling scoreboard (of those hours)
  • Create a cadence of accountability (with myself)

We typically plan outcomes and track lag measures. A shift to get motivation from planning and tracking “time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal” is super powerful. 🚀

Winifred Gallagher is the author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Her work is introduced in the chapter that argues deep work is meaningful, and among other quotes, there is this statement:

I‘ll live the focused life, because it‘s the best kind there is.