Book Discussion: Deep Work, Part 2 – The Structure

Welcome to episode 142 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 discuss part of the first rule of deep work, delving into tips for supporting the structure and execution of deep work.

Original Recording Date: 10-02-2021

Topics – Book Discussion Format and Some Reminders, Deciding on Your Depth Philosophy, Creating a Ritual, Grand Gestures and Collaboration

00:59 – Book Discussion Format and Some Reminders

  • This is part 2 of our review of Deep Work by Cal Newport. If you missed part 1 where we discussed what deep work is and its importance, check out Episode 141.
  • This book came to our attention in two ways:
    • Josh Duffney spoke about his use of deep work in Episode 123.
    • We did a book goals episode earlier in the year that mentioned Deep Work as one of Nick’s goals for the year – Episode 108. He had read it some time close to the Josh Duffney episode but decided to read it again when John suggested we do a review of the book and its concepts.
  • Here’s a reminder of Cal Newport’s definitions:
    • 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"
  • An update on the format of this show
    • We originally thought we would cover all of part 2 of the book in this episode, but since there are many practical tips to discuss, there will be a few more episodes in addition to this one.
    • We’ll summarize a part of the book and then answer the following questions:
      • Do I believe this?
      • Does this apply to me?
      • Does this make me want to change behavior?
      • What will I change as a result?
    • We’re trying to model how we want to read books from this point on which are impactful to our careers and will likely do this from time to time.
  • Part 2 of the book starts with rule # 1 – work deeply.

5:50 – Deciding on Your Depth Philosophy

  • Rule # 1 is work deeply, and that’s extremely general.

  • Ideally we would all have workspaces that enable us to do deep work, but that isn’t the case. With so many distractions, it is quite the opposite.

    Decide on Your Depth Philosophy

    • The monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling involves radically removing or minimizing the distractions that would take one away from deep work.
      • Examples in the book are of people who went to a dedicated space away from the rest of the world (which probably is not that realistic for us).
    • The practitioners of the bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling divide their time between a period of monastic-like deeply focused work and a period of engagement without a priority on that focus. The time periods are generally up to the individual but don’t divide below the length of a single day.
      • This might work for college professors, for example.
    • The practitioners of the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling employ ritual to spend a certain time (or certain amount of time) of every day engaged in deep work. They try to remove the friction of engaging in deep work by deciding ahead of time that a time block is dedicated to deep work.
      • This is probably where most of us are going to fall (knowledge work type jobs). We have to engage with the outside world for a lot of our day. Maybe you schedule a couple of hours for deep work.
    • The journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling is named after the journalists who practice it. They are oftentimes called on to shift into a deeply concentrated writing mode without warning. This is not an easy philosophy to engage in. It requires training to shift from shallow to deep very quickly.
      • People probably think they can easily do this (not the case).

    12:07 – Ritualize

    • There is a romanticized notion of how artists work, based around sudden sparks of inspiration. However, real artists work constantly and consistently. Build strict rituals to steer yourself into deep work. We do this to reduce the energy that it takes to transition to deep work and stay in that state longer.
      “[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.” - David Brooks
      “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightening to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.” ― Chuck Close
    • Effective rituals should answer 3 questions:
      • When and for how long you should work
      • How you will work (rules and processes)
      • How you will support the work (removal of distractions, exercise, nourishment, etc.)
  • Reactions

    • John

      • The taxonomy made sense, and it’s a nice mental model. The rhythmic philosophy probably makes the most sense.
        • We can’t be totally distracted the rest of the time, but leveraging the bimodal philosophy here and there can be helpful.
      • John says it was an easy yes to changing behavior. Nick’s suggestion to schedule time away from work might come in handy for non-work activities but not for primary job responsibilities.
      • John mentioned it makes sense to avoid distraction and doomscrolling during
      • John plans to schedule time for deep work and keeping it a ritual instead of waiting for inspiration to strike. Do the work, and edit later. Being strict with the ritual of the time.
        • The Google Calendar app allows you to create goals and allocate time to it as well as a frequency. The app will automatically find holes in your calendar and add time for the goals. Having this automatically schedule an hour block in the morning and an hour block in the afternoon has been helpful. If John schedules over this hour, the deep work gets rescheduled.
      • John likes the idea of deciding what you will work on during a deep work session ahead of time, which reminds him of Your Brain at Work by David Rock
    • Nick

      • Nick has experienced the bimodal part in the past by visiting an AirBnB and taking his podcast work with him (felt way more productive than he would have by staying home). His wife went shopping, and he went into the zone working on podcast things. Something about changing your normal environment flips a switch in some ways.
      • Nick liked the choose your own philosophy and agrees rhythmic is probably the best option, but he definitely wants to be able to flex into the journalistic mode from time to time when there’s extra time given back to you (i.e. meeting ended early, etc.)
      • Nick needs to engage in the practice of deep work more often. The other day he put a list of items in the order they needed to be done during deep work time so there was no need to decide which to do first.
        • Ever since reading The Practice by Seth Godin, Nick has wanted to write more often and feels deep work may be the way to get there.
        • For a number of weeks Nick has ritualized writing a blog for his daughter’s blog of fatherly advice. This is now a habit.
      • Regarding the journalistic approach, Nick thinks back to Brianna Blacet’s experience as a journalist in Episode 121

23:13 – Grand Gestures and Collaboration

Make Grand Gestures

  • The grand gesture involves making a significant financial or physical investment in an environment to make deep work possible, obligating ourselves to the task.
    • John and Nick agree that the occasional weekend away is probably more of a grand gesture than a ritual. Sitting outside at a Starbucks, at a park, or even going to a library (if they are open and you feel comfortable there) to work for a bit would also go into this category.
    • John referenced Cal Newport’s Deep Questions Podcast. Cal decided to rent an office space away from home during the pandemic after losing his own home office because of home school for the kids.
      • We’re not discounting the fact that this takes a significant monetary investment that not everyone has.

Don’t Work Alone

  • Collaboration can be a good tactic, but it should still involve structure to protect concentration and minimize distraction. (Bell Labs and MIT examples)

    • Newport is getting at the fact that businesses have learned the wrong lesson from having people interact with each other. Bell Labs and MIT had areas where people could concentrate and then an area where people could congregate and eat meals together. Collaboration often sprang up from there (i.e. the collisions of people), but concentration was also important.
  • Reactions

    • John
      • John feels he understands the concepts. He found the Bell Labs and MIT examples extremely interesting (i.e. people collaborating with one another who normally would not). The details of how the collaborations happened were interesting.
      • John mentioned the example of someone taking a non-stop flight to Tokyo and back to finish an entire book. This person used the time to be unreachable and have no distractions. The book also cited an interesting grand gesture about J.K. Rowling.
      • The grand gesture part made John feel like it did not apply to him. He believes you can make a grand gesture and completely squander it.
        • John is coming at this from the perspective of someone with Attention Deficit Disorder. Many times he would rely on the fear motivator to help start working on something, which he feels is not the best motivator. Organization and structure help him the most.
      • John agrees with Nick’s take on the collaboration piece about the podcast but also cites the collaboration that he saw happen as a result of working in Google’s office before the pandemic.
      • John is highly motivated to change behavior around organizing collaboration in a structured way and to bring other people’s views into his work (getting feedback from others doing similar things).
    • Nick
      • Nick was a little more focused on the grand gestures section. Committing to a big goal you’re not sure you can achieve can often be quite the motivator.
      • Nick feels both concepts apply to him. As far as collaboration goes, having a podcast co-host gives him time to think and say something in the moment a lot better than trying to monologue. The collaboration itself that is structured into the show really helps the deep insights come out better than if one of us is doing it alone.
      • Nick has set some goals here and there but has not approached them from the deep work mindset. He plans to now that he’s re-read the book as part of this exercise.
      • Nick is taking away the importance of structure. He thinks back to Josh Duffney in Episode 122 and deciding not to decide. The correct episode reference is 122 even though Nick says 123 in the show. There are things you say yes to which help you learn when to say no to other things.
  • Because Rule 1 has so many sub-points, we will continue Rule # 1 items in the next episode.

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