(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:
- To have a sense of being needed and feeling useful.
- Tribal wiring: The psychological pain associated with not answering emails, texts, calls from family and friends.
- 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.
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]
LISTEN:Download Episode MP3
Get Over Yourself Podcast
Here comes a breather show about Deep Work. That is the title of a fantastic book by a computer science professor named Cal Newport at Georgetown university. He’s the author of six self-improvement books in addition to his role as a professor of computer science. And he also writes a blog called study hacks focused on academic and career success. I found this book to be extremely valuable and is hitting home big time. As you may have heard me talk about in previous shows, my penchant for high distractability and the influence of hyperconnectivity upon all of us in today’s world makes this a problem like never before in the history of the planet.
If we can pick up an iPhone and engage with the world any time, any place, disengage whatever we’re supposed to be doing, highly productive at the time. So the title, as you might guess, gets into how you can be more productive, more focused when you’re pursuing your core talents, the highest expression of your talents and your contribution to the planet, your career, or your important work. Uh, so the premise, the basic premise of the book is that there’s a huge penalty to pay; a penalty in society at large and also a personal penalty to pay when we engage in constant distraction. I took extensive notes as I was going through this book. So this podcast is a combination of direct quotes from the book and my interpretations of it and of course my riffing as we go through the various memorable points. And we’re going to finish up with some practical tips to get this stuff rolling in your own life.
So the idea is that the information economy today, excellence is what’s going to pay off because so many things can get automated and outsourced now. So that’s really hopeful and inspiring to me. Uh, I’m trying to create fresh, unique content, write books, do podcasts, do something original creative. And it might be a direction where all of us can reflect on doing better or making a true contribution rather than just clicking buttons and pushing papers. Cause indeed this stuff is getting more and more automated. A witness, the physical, the prominent physical examples of going into an Amazon fulfillment warehouse. And the robots are taking over really quickly. So many other, uh, ways that things are getting automated. The assembly lines and the automobile factories used to be that you could make a really good living. Be in the union and put doors on Fords for 30 years straight and now we’re going to have to get more creative and more free-thinking and more focused to create things of value in the information economy.
So if you can transcend the constant penchant for busy-ness and distractability that we see in today’s workplace, you can gain a huge advantage in your career. How about that? What’s wrong with gaining a competitive advantage in the competitive workplace? Yeah, let’s keep listening. So Newport references many great performers that have systems in place where they are able to do deep non distracted work. They set them selves up for success. Seth Goden is one of the great examples of this with his wonderful blog. Go over there to a Seth godin.com and subscribe and he sends a pithy email newsletter every single day with a very short insight on all manner of the economy, productivity, marketing, and really fun stuff that takes only a few seconds to read and it slips in under the radar for your distractability discipline and boundaries. So I definitely read Seth Godin just about every day and my memorable quote from him during our podcast together where he was talking about his book, This is Marketing.
And I also got him talking about one of the great books that he wrote a long time ago called the Dip Persevering. Uh, when things get really difficult so that you can emerge on the other side. When you go through this funnel, uh, known as the dip, where the people that have less passion, less commitment, uh, will give up and you’ll keep going because you know, it’s your calling and your destiny. Great book. Anyway, I had a list of questions to ask the guy and one of them was, Hey, Seth, you know how we’re all hyper-connected and distracted these days? And my email inbox continues to bother me while I’m trying to focus on doing something, uh, of, of great importance and requiring, uh, deep cognitive powers like writing a book. Uh, what are some of your tips and suggestions for withstanding the pull of distraction?
And he said, turn that shit off man, and go get the work done. Boom. Drop the mic. Literally, that was always said, we didn’t engage on the and go blah, blah, blah, this, that or the other thing. Just turn that shit off, close that window, get the stuff done. Uh, profound insight, uh, very thankful and very memorable. So, uh, when I see that email inbox calling me, luring me over there with what the brain scientists call intermittent variable rewards, these are the most distractible, uh, stimulus we can imagine. And the classic example of intermittent variable rewards is the slot machine. So these are highly addictive because you’re getting fresh stimulus every time and you don’t know what it’s going to be. Can you think of any other examples of intermittent variable rewards? Yes. Checking your social media feed and seeing what all your peeps have been up to and the exciting new comments and photos that they post is nonstop, endless intermittent variable rewards to distract you and pull you away because it has a stronger draw.
It hits those dopamine receptors, right, for pleasure and instant gratification. As I talked about on an entire show, uh, honoring the work of Dr Robert Lustig in his book, the Hacking of the American Mind, where we have this constant pension for distractability instant gratification, the potential for distractability and instant gratification. And we go for it because we’re human and dopamine makes us feel good. And this overpowers our potential for tipping, hitting the serotonin pathways for happiness, contentment, a life well lived and life of meaning and deep satisfaction. And how do you get these things? How do you light up the serotonin pathways you do? So from persevering through difficult challenges, sticking it out, all those wonderful anecdotes that we receive from generations past that have been forgotten today because we can pick up a phone and entertain ourselves. And if the kids are whining cause they’re bored, they don’t have to create their own entertainment or learn how to socialize and get along in groups, they can just grab a screen.
So we got to get away from, or we can consider, don’t gotta do nothing these days. Right? We can consider the pros and cons of constantly succumbing to intermittent variable rewards such as your email inbox, their social media feed, or in Dr Lustig’s. Uh, more dour discussion of the, uh, prominent dopamine triggers in today’s life. He’s mentioning sugar. Of course, his life’s work has been devoted to exposing the dangers of sugar, uh, from the medical side. But he also mentions digital technology hyper-connectivity especially social media, caffeine, marijuana and street drugs, antidepressant and painkiller, prescription drugs. Uh, the pursuit of sex, I guess to excess in this example, uh, the chronic or the extreme exercise highs that we chase. And of course the, uh, the insidious combination of video games and internet porn, uh, which John Gray also references as a really destructive element in society because it engages the young male in a way that hits those dopamine pathways so hard that they lose their motivation to pursue a real life goals and engage in real life relationships that might come with a little more complexity and necessity for perseverance and deep human interaction.
Okay. So, uh, get away from those dopamine pathways. Turn that shit off. Like Seth Godin says. Uh, the, the book back to deep work, uh, mentions how Mark Twain used to go to a cottage, a distance from his main home, his main property where others were hanging around and they had to actually sound a horn to call him back for mealtimes. So he was off in isolation. Even in family life when he was doing his good work, JK Rowling rented a hotel suite to get out of a her normal environment and put the stakes, the high stakes into the game. You know, renting a suite for an expensive nightly rate means you’re hopefully going to get some work done. Whereas if you’re home and you have an off day or you get distracted, you just shrug your shoulders. Maybe you’ll do better tomorrow. But I love that idea of renting an expensive hotel suite.
Carl Young went to a stone castle to do his great work. Dr Seuss would write all of his books in hand on a yellow legal pad and then get on an airplane from his home in LA Jolla, San Diego, California, and would fly to New York with the one and only original copy of his books to hand deliver them to the publisher. Pretty trippy, but having that legal pad as his go-to as interesting retro example, and I can relate to that because I find it really valuable to have a just pen and paper as an integral component of writing books. But of course a lot of the writing gets done digitally where you can cut and paste paragraphs and you can jump onto the internet, get a quote, throw it right in, shuffle the deck, all that wonderful technology stuff. But there’s something about, uh, putting pen to paper and being disengaged from technology, disengaged from the internet and organizing your own thoughts.
That’s really valuable and research about gratitude journaling and regular journaling that we reference in our new book. Mark and I are coming out with a book called Two Meals a Day, coming out in late 2020. It’s going to be the diet book to end all diet books. But anyway, we referenced research in that book that the physical act of a hand writing in a journal has more significance than typing in a journal because of the interaction that the brain’s hemispheres to uh, organize the words yourself and have the hand, uh, shape the letters, all kinds of good stuff like that. And also just kind of a additional meaning that you’re creating something yourself rather than typing. So there’s a plug for old fat getting work done the old fashioned way instead of relying on this app and that program. Yeah. So Newport says the great ones have a drive to cut themselves off from the routine busy-ness that represents so many of us represent the workday for so many of us.
They have also a greater level of satisfaction with their work when they are able to focus on a peak performance task. What do you think? Oh my gosh, I know it’s so much more rewarding to, let’s say, complete a book than it is to empty out my inbox every single day. If you ask me to keep score after a six month time period. But again, the deep work can in many ways be more difficult or require more discipline. And I think that’s the beauty of it. Just like if you, uh, draw some analogies to the fitness world, if you can persevere through a challenging workout and know that you achieve a fitness breakthrough accordingly, you get such a great sense of satisfaction that outweighs the temporary pain or discomfort of strapping those mini bands around your ankles and shuffling down the hall until your glutes are burning.
But now I do this every single morning because I know it’s going to do make a great, uh, contribution to preventing injuries. And ah, injuries are so annoying. And I’ve had recurring injuries, uh, glute hamstring strains likely due to, uh, underactive, uh, weekend glutes. Obviously from modern life where we’re sitting a lot are not engaging the glutes properly when we’re doing workouts. So when you can isolate those with a very painful exercise, I can smile all the way through it because I know the payoff is there and my injuries are in check. Thanks to my commitment, right? So back to deep work and getting that high degree of satisfaction, it really does seem worth it to be able to shut out the outside world and do what you got to do.
Unfortunately, the modern workplace is highly focused on busy-ness to our detriment. It’s organized for busy-ness rather than focus, right? People who think they are multitasking are actually being constantly distracted because the human brain is literally incapable of multitasking. What’s happening with the illusion of multitasking is that you are rapidly switching your attention from one task to another. Now, when the stakes are low, for example, when you’re chatting on the phone with a friend, while you’re raking leaves in your front yard, you can be quite competent with both because they are low cognitive demand tasks. Uh, in contrast, when you have high cognitive demand tasks such as navigating, uh, with your GPS in a strange city, while you are negotiating an important business deal on the phone, you still have the phone call and you’re still doing something else. But the danger factor, the potential for distraction, Oh my gosh, the research about a distractability while you’re driving, everyone knows you shouldn’t text and drive. You’re 23 times more likely to have an accident when you’re texting than when you’re not.
But there’s also some interesting research showing that, uh, merely engaging in a phone conversation while driving has a high degree of distractability and increased risk of accident because you have to do things like formulate responses, which takes your attention, takes your undivided attention off the road. Uh, so they rank, uh, things like, uh, completely passive things like listening to music or even listening to a podcast, uh, as less distractible than having a phone conversation in the car. Hey, Hey, you can listen to the get over yourself podcast during your commute instead of calling your friends and be a safer driver. Yeah. Unless you’re shouting at me with a response. If you really don’t like what I have to say in the podcast, but that doesn’t happen too often, does it? Okay. So the workplace is set up for busy-ness and distraction. The workplace is oftentimes demanding multitasking.
You see this on resumes as an attribute, as a skill. I am skilled at multitasking. Oh, mercy. So what happens is we have a Workday characterized by rapid fire, a distractability, a huge destruction of our potential for deep work and focus. Uh, there’s research showing that we switch tasks, uh, when we’re working on computer knowledge worker switch tasks every three minutes and with a email heavy job, especially email is off the charts and non emails like half of these, half of these stats. But uh, an email centric position in the workplace, uh, interacts with an average of 37 different windows per hour, 37 different screen windows. Whew. Okay, so brief interruptions, even brief interruptions such as checking a text message, grabbing one email and firing off a quick response, add up to having a massive negative impact due to something that Newport calls or identifies as attention residue.
Attention residue is where each time you pull yourself away, each time you get distracted, you lose a tiny bit of productivity and cognitive power when you return to the original task, it’s like grabbing one M&M and going back to work, you didn’t really make a dent on the jar of a hundred. Uh, but when you do it a hundred times, right, if your brain, uh, this is a quote, if your brain is how you make a living, then you have to be cognizant of brain fitness. Uh, my personal opinion from my, what I observed in large corporate environment is the only person that should be up and about and constantly, uh, available for distraction is the leader, the CEO, right? Because the, the higher levels of management are there to serve the larger teams that they, uh, supervise. Okay. And oftentimes it’s the opposite, right?
The CEO, his door is closed. He’s really, he or she is really hard to reach. Uh, it doesn’t like to be bothered with your little things. Uh, but I saw Martin Brauns at work, at interwoven. He always had an open door. He always had time for anybody who walked in there. You knew his schedule was very important. Jam packed, busy. But his role as a leader was to have that open door policy and hopefully all the people that are tasked to do a specific, uh, work contribution, right, to create some content and deliver it. They’re the ones that should be highly focused and very difficult to interrupt. But oftentimes you saw that to be the opposite with people lingering around the water cooler or what have you. Uh, my boss had Interwoven, Kevin Hayden had a great line, never forgot it. He was, uh, finishing up a meeting with his small team, probably six people there in the room on the marketing team that he oversees. And he said his parting shot was, uh, remember everybody, I work for you, not the other way around because his job in management was to make us all better and to be a resource and someone we could go to to get guidance focused direction. Right? So the manager working for the team rather than the other way around and always thinking in those terms. So twisting the corporate hierarchy, uh, to all of our benefit.
Okay. So we know how damaging distractability hyperconnectivity is. We know how useless a multitasking is, how much better it would be to just focus and get things done sequentially and preferentially in order of priority. So why do we do this stuff? Newport offers a few reasons. Number one, a sense of being needed and useful, right? When you’re busy, you’re busy, how’s your day go? Oh, busy, busy. So you get a sense of satisfaction that you indeed were busy.
Number two is this tribal wiring that humans have and their psychological pain associated with not pulling your weight with not answering those texts and those emails. And this could be even beneath the surface, uh, maybe half conscious and half subconscious in my opinion, where you’re looking at that email inbox and you haven’t answered. It’s your dear cousin across the country who sent you a thoughtful email and it’s been sitting there for four days and you have a sense of guilt and frustration and finally overwhelmed when you can’t keep up with the massive pace that people setting. Oh my gosh. Social media is the best example of this where you know, you miss one day and you fall behind. And all of a sudden you’re, you’re off the back and you’re not in the, um, you’re not in the elite realm of, uh, maximum likes and maximum, uh, content posting.
Oh, finally, here’s one that’s a little darker. Busy-ness is used as a proxy for productivity. Unlike in the old days, the industrial revolution, the days of the assembly line, productivity is much more difficult to measure today. Back in the old days. And of course, many people with the work structure, uh, even today can have a direct and visible graphic measurement of how much they accomplished. I love, uh, the scene of a building construction. You know, you’re building a house, doing a remodel, you get there in the morning and uh, there’s no drywall. It’s just a bunch of studs standing up. And the foreman says, Hey, we’re going to do a drywall today. And then we’re going to mount the, uh, pull the electrical wires and mount the plugs and you walk away from that job site at 5:00 PM, and you have a tremendous sense of satisfaction.
You tore the roof off today. You did this, you put in four windows. And so very quantifiable, very straightforward, and much less penchant for distractability and wasting idle time. So in the knowledge environment, the knowledge, workplace productivity being harder to measure, Newport calls this the metric black hole, meaning that we have no good way to measure lost productivity created by busy-ness and distractability. So instead, what do we do? We go to the proxy and see who’s busiest has a really crappy way to measure productivity. So how many emails did you reply to? How clean is your inbox? How many people did you CC? So you can cover your butt and bring other people into the mix so they can offer their opinion. You can go around in a circle who, so busy-ness is equated with doing a lot of stuff in a visible manner, right?
You see that person, uh, uh, over in the corner with their fingers running through their hair. They’re frustrated, they’re stressed, they’re moving quickly because they’re so dang busy and they must be so important and getting so much done rather than the person who’s wearing some Dr Dre headphones and sitting back, uh, tipping back in their chair, looking out the window, but perhaps engaging in deep cognitive thought that’s going to represent tremendous breakthroughs and increase improvements in productivity. Yeah. So, uh, you’re doing a lots of stuff in a visible manner. You’re sending in, replying to a bunch of emails, you’re constantly available on chat. You’re in conference calls, you’re in meetings. And why? Because without that clear feedback and guidance, people gravitate toward, quote the principle of least resistance, the stuff that’s easiest to accomplish in the moment. That’s why we foster a culture of connectivity.
When studies show that it’s ruining productivity. So we love to be in those meetings. We love those conference calls. We love those group emails. It’s the culture of connectivity, but it’s also the path of least resistance. It’s the easiest way. I think you guys all know, uh, how the brain sort of, uh, sags a little bit at 2:00 PM or 3:00 PM and you drift over into the least difficult cognitive tasks but still feel like you’re getting a lot of work done. Uh, there’s a story of an accomplished physics professor who in the academic professions you’re measured by the frequency of publishing important papers. And so this physics professor deliberately created an image, a rep of irresponsibility and proudly and continually reinforces that to his colleagues. He doesn’t answer emails, he turns down opportunities to attend meetings or serve on committees or boards. He’s an entirely focused on publishing, respected scientific research to advance his career and also honor the highest expression of his talents rather than scatter them in a hundred different directions. Like the blue light wavelength scatters on the blue sky or the blue Lake.
Okay. We have hit a lot in a short time. So I’m going to leave you with these first reflections about the path of least resistance that you follow in the workplace, the culture of connectivity using busy-ness as a proxy for productivity. And then we’ll get into a part two of Cal Newport’s insights from the great book Deep Work a next time. Thank you for listening with your undivided attention or a partially divided attention. If you’re driving or jogging or something. Yeah, that’s so bad.
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