Book Discussion: Deep Work, Part 1 – The Why

Welcome to episode 141 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we begin a book discussion of Deep Work by Cal Newport. We’ll help listeners understand what deep work is, why we should do it (based on the book), and share our reactions.

Original Recording Date: 09-26-2021

Topics – Show Format, Overall Reactions to the Book, Introduction to the Deep Work Hypothesis, Chapter 1 – Deep Work is Valuable, Chapter 2 – Deep Work is Rare, Chapter 3 – Deep Work is Meaningful

0:55 – Today’s Show Format

  • This week we’re doing a book review episode on Deep Work by Cal Newport. This will be only part 1 and aligns with part 1 of the book.
  • The book was referenced in Episode 108, our 2021 book goals, and in Episode 124 with Josh Duffney.
    • For previous book reviews we’ve done see these episodes:
      • Episode 87 – Book Discussion: Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”
      • Episode 90 – Book Discussion: The Inner Game of Stress by Gallwey, Hanzelik, and Horton
  • Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown and has published several books including Digital Minimalism, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Deep Work (full list can be found here).
    • He has also started a podcast called Deep Questions that is quite good, often giving advice based on listener questions from his books.
    • At this point John has listed to about 40 of the episodes (in chronological order).
  • The format of this show will be as follows:
    • John and Nick will give reactions to the book overall.
    • Then we will go back and react to each chapter, answer questions like
      • Do I believe this?
      • Does this apply to me?
      • Does it make me want to change behavior?
      • What will I change to align myself with this idea?

5:39 – Overall Reactions to the Book

  • John
    • He found the book compelling, felt the hypothesis was valid. Once he started reading it was difficult to stop.
    • John says the book definitely applies to him. Unless you concentrate on removing distraction, it is so easy to let it creep into your professional life. John felt like every description of a behavior was talking about him.
    • It definitely makes John want to change. In fact, he wanted to make changes as soon as possible (very compelling).
    • John has already started reorganizing how he works, what can interrupt him, and how he scheduled his time.
    • Focusing your attention and not getting sidetracked is very difficult.
  • Nick
    • When Nick thinks about past guests, he believes they have done deep work in some form or another, even if they didn’t call it deep work.
    • Newport is attacking all the things Nick is doing wrong, and it is easy to see that he’s way too connected.
    • Nick wants to change his behavior as well.
    • Nick has turned off e-mail notifications on his desktop and all sounds for new e-mail received.
  • We chose this book because we both read it, both had strong positive reactions, and started to think about how the suggestions could change our professional careers for the better. We hope the suggestions can help you too!
  • The book is about digital transformation but not in the way we normally mean it in the tech industry.

10:36 – Introduction to the Deep Work Hypothesis

  • The book’s introduction formalizes the definition of deep work.
    • Deep Work: "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."
    • Shallow Work: "Non-cognitively demanding tasks that are often done while distracted which are easy to replicate and do not create a lot of value in the world"
    • The Deep Work Hypothesis: "The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive."
      • You can be more valuable as worker if you are able to perform deep work.
  • Reactions
    • John
      • John believes that work demanding high levels of cognitive function is most correlated with high value / what employers are willing to pay for. You can control how well you are able to perform really difficult tasks requiring extreme focus.
      • I’m sure there are exceptions. You can control how effectively you work.
      • John finds himself being asked to do work that seems more administrative than deep and cognitive. He finds it challenging to understand how the shallow work items contribute to the success of his job. This is across the board with jobs John has had over time, making him want to focus on the deep stuff.
        • There are unspoken expectations to reply to e-mail quickly, for example.
      • The crowding in of highly distracted administrative work over the work that correlates long term with success as an employee makes John want to change. He wants to be a high value worker.
      • John hasn’t kept up an active blog. He wonders what has kept him from doing that and feels it is in line with professional growth.
      • John plans to do what he can to maximize the deep work and concentrate the shallow work into an organized fashion. He’ll have to figure out how the deep work is measurably aligned with success in the work place and do more of it.
    • Nick
      • When you see people make breakthroughs / reaching high levels, they have done deep work in some form. They had periods where they needed to concentrate deeply and make a big enough impact, adding knowledge to their field.
      • Sometimes because of the number of e-mails / tasks on your plate the shallow things end up getting in the way of what we should really be doing (the deep work).
      • Nick thinks back to all the quality outcomes that happen for people doing the deep work, and he wants more of it.
      • You can’t do deep work 100% of the time. It is cognitively impossible. Nick feels he needs to take more time dedicated to focus, inserting more guardrails on protecting this time.

19:52 – Chapter 1 – Deep Work is Valuable

  • Technology is displacing human labor when that labor is used in a way that is easily automated (often called "The Great Restructuring").
  • Three groups to benefit from the restructuring
    • Highly skilled workers
    • Superstars (at tops of their fields)
    • Owners
      • These people have access to capital to fund the development. We cannot control this aspect of capital to invest, so the book focuses on the first two groups.
  • Core abilities to thrive in this new economy
    • "The ability to quickly master hard things"
    • "The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed"
  • Newport makes points that deep work both helps you quickly learn hard things and produce at an elite level.
    • John dives into what each of these mean, referencing Newport’s citing of Dan Coyle’s The Talent Code.
    • Do you have "attention residue" from changing tasks too often?
  • Are there counterexamples to this? Listen to John share Newport’s thoughts on high level executives and their ability / lack of ability to do deep work.
  • Reactions
    • John
      • John sees the distortions in the market and that the most highly compensated work is becoming knowledge work. Think about software engineers as top 1% earners.
      • John has already benefitted. He’s sold himself in the last few jobs as someone who can quickly learn difficult new skills and sees the deep work process as a way to accelerate this process.
      • John has not thought about the ability to concentrate as the key to learning difficult things. His work performance went dramatically upward after getting diagnosed and taking medication for ADD.
      • John probably needs to make deep work his top professional priority. It doesn’t matter what part of the business he works in, but the deep work will help him become successful.
    • Nick
      • He’s been wondering for a while now how the guests we’ve spoken to have been able to produce at elite levels. These folks found a way to focus on the biggest bang for the buck.
      • Many of us want to raise our game and produce quality output faster, which seems to be the expectation as you climb the individual contributor ladder.
      • Nick sometimes doesn’t set enough time aside for learning new things. Focusing more on this will help him adapt to our changing technology landscapes.
      • Nick wants to be less controlled by what is at the top of his Inbox. Sometimes he works from the hot list instead of the things that needed progress the most.

30:32 – Chapter 2 – Deep Work is Rare

  • Being at the edge of your cognitive abilities is not something business are setup to support. They often times are in direct opposition to it.
    • Think open offices and easy interruptions and unstated expectations to be very responsive.
  • The "metric blackhole" speaks to the idea that it is difficult to measure what is gained by doing deep work / what is lost by not doing it (organizationally speaking).
  • “The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.”
  • Finishing a task gives a dopamine hit. Busyness does not mean productive.
    • Do highly visible administrative tasks take up our time?
    • “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.”
  • Newport speaks to "internet" to mean highly connected behavior. Businesses place a high value on connected behavior which can lead to shallow work.
    • A craftsperson would spend time disconnected and focused. Think about the blacksmith.
  • There’s an advantage to cultivating the skill of deep work.
  • Reactions
    • John
      • It’s difficult to read this and not immediately believe it. John sees how distracted behavior keeps him from solving difficult problems.
      • John has direct personal experience with this. Having the skills to learn quickly can get you selected for that next project or new job over others.
      • John is a recovering shallow worker. It’s very easy to respond to e-mails as they come in, respond to chats immediately, look at Twitter / LinkedIn constantly, etc. This does not lead to feeling like you accomplished important things.
      • We’re doing this because we want listeners to get exposed to the ideas.
      • The first thing to do is minimize the shallow and maximize the deep, becoming less connected during the day, concentrating social media into a time bound task with an agenda, etc.
    • Nick
      • Nick has felt busy all day before but wondered what he really accomplished at the end of it. This would have been a day spent firefighting. You must do firefighting, but maybe don’t let it take all day.
      • We’re looking to get to the next level, and we want to help our listeners get there too.
      • Nick plans to force the disconnected time to focus on the "right stuff" and can’t help but think back to Episode 140 and Eric Brooker’s method of disconnecting to focus. Nick wants to apply that same mantra to work items.

41:47 – Chapter 3 – Deep Work is Meaningful

  • Think about physical trades and high levels of craft. This does not seem to exist with knowledge work, but why couldn’t it be thought of like a craft?

  • Neurological argument for deep work being meaningful

    • "…to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.”
    • The ability to focus and learn can help you focus but also suppress negative things.
  • Psychological argument for depth

    • Aligns with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s research that doing work was more enjoyable to people than relaxation. It presented goals, feedback, and challenge (i.e. being in the Flow state).
  • Philosophical argument for depth

    • Newport revisits the idea of craft here. In physical trades you associate with high levels of skill, but the physical work isn’t something required to hone your craft. Knowledge workers can hone their craft as well (i.e. the high level of work brings the meaning and not the type of work).
  • Reactions

    • John
      • The section on suppressing / enhancing certain things rang true for John.
      • Just because an organization asks you to do something does not mean it is meaningful to them.
      • John says he thought initially that this section was less applicable, but as he does the meaningful work, he has enjoyed the positive feedback moreso than the philosophical dedication to craft. Maybe that comes over time.
      • Maybe we can explore a link between not doing deep work and burnout.
      • John is torn about changing behavior. He sees the meaning as a motivator after getting feedback through the process. It all seems in retrospect and isn’t necessarily motivating him to start doing deep work. It didn’t get him off the couch to start doing things as much as the pragmatic reasons for deep work (productivity, learning, etc.). It might help him stay motivated to continue but didn’t motivate him to start.
      • John wasn’t sure what he’d change to align with the ideas in this chapter, but the more that he thinks about it, high levels of craft are desirable. He thinks of the apprentice, journeyman, master process. There are some additional books John wants to read on this topic of craft.
    • Nick
      • We know from Three Signs of a Miserable Job by Patrick Lencioni if your work is not meaningful to the organization you work for (i.e. irrelevance), you will not enjoy your work.
        • Keep in mind your work may not always be meaningful to the organization but could still be meaningful to you and vice versa. Hopefully there is an intersection between the two.
      • There is something that makes you feel great about completing a task you weren’t sure you could complete. Overcoming obstacles can energize you.
      • Nick thinks back to Episode 127 and Tom Hollingsworth’s discussion of burnout. Tom mentioned the items on one’s to-do list that grind away at you. Perhaps we can move some of those forward through deep work.
      • Nick experienced this meaningfulness more deeply while John was away earlier in the year, and regardless of the amount of work he never burned out (because of the meaning in the work).
      • What Nick found interesting was the rarified approach to your work in craftsmanship (independence in delivering something based on success parameters), and the act of creating is extremely meaningful.
        • This goes back to Episode 19 and process over outcomes. Newport is talking about enjoying the process so much that it creates meaning by doing the deep work.
      • One of the books referenced is called Rapt by Winifred Gallagher about attention and losing focus
  • Join us next week for part 2 discussing the practical tips for doing deep work!

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