Book Discussion: Deep Work, Part 3 – The Execution

Welcome to episode 143 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 share part 3 of a book discussion series, providing more on practical tips for the execution of deep work focused on the remainder of rule # 1 from Cal Newport’s book.

Original Recording Date: 10-02-2021

Topics – 2nd Half of "Rule #1 – Work Deeply", Format Reminder, Execute Like a Business, Be Lazy, Shutdown Ritual

0:58 Part 3 of our discussion on Deep Work by Cal Newport

  • Check out Part 1, Episode 141, where we discussed the “Why?” of the book, and Part 2, Episode 142, where we talked through the first half of the first rule.
  • Format: We’ll do some summarization, then answer whether we believe the point, whether it applies to us, whether it makes us want to change, and what we anticipate changing, if anything.
  • One thing we realized is that we want to model how we’re going to try to read books that have a big impact on us from now on on by doing the following:
    • Summarize big points.
    • Take notes.
    • Record our reactions.
    • Record what we’re going to try to change.

Second Half of Rule #1 – Work Deeply

3:14 Execute Like a Business

Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important

Create a specific goal; Focus what you’re working on down to the minimum things that will lead to professional success. Instead of trying to accomplish many things, try to accomplish a very few key things very, very well.

Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures

Important goals involving deep work often have trailing metrics (measurements of the outcome) that come too late to make changes. Instead, make sure to measure lead metrics, the behaviors that should lead to the success measured by the trailing metrics. (Conflict with the idea of the metrics black hole?) For knowledge workers, the leading metric is clear: time spent doing deep work in pursuit of the identified goal.

Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

Measuring a behavior changes how you behave. Since the lead measure is hours spent in deep work in pursuit of the goal, the scoreboard should display that metric.

Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

Have a regular accountability meeting to review metrics and commit to specific adjustments in order to keep on track. A weekly review which lasts a few minutes can help to draw attention to sagging or rising work metrics and figure out what is causing the good or bad effect (in order to enhance or correct it).

6:12 Reactions

Do I believe this?

  • John: Yes. I’m wondering if I’m biased towards things that are asking me to make difficult choices and measure data.
  • Nick: Yes. It’s extremely hard to pick the things on which you will focus. You start to think to yourself, “What if I pick something and want to change it later?” Maybe it’s fear of limiting options more than anything. Saying yes to the thing that “Arises terrifying longing” was an intriguing way to put it. This goes back to personal brand / what you will be known for in a way.
  • John: I want to focus on doing Deep Work as a primary ability and the specific part of the business is secondary, since that will change over time. What I will be working on will change from year to year. Any specific direction will change periodically because of our industry. I don’t want to limit what I am known for or what my options are. Picking deep work keeps you from limiting options.

Does this apply to me?

  • John: Yes, measurement seems difficult, but it isn’t really. Measuring time spent is simple, especially if you decide ahead of time and put it on your calendar.
  • Nick: Yes. I’ve done a less than stellar job of measurement to this point. Sometimes we think about an estimate of how long something will take (long project), but maybe we don’t think enough about whether it took as long as we thought or longer and why.
  • John: This reminded me of intensity of focus, perhaps recording that level as well as the time spent. Recording lead measures has been something I haven’t really done.

Does it make me want to change behavior?

  • John: Definitely. Recognizing fear of something makes me want to face it.
  • Nick: Certainly. This reminded me of Chasing Excellence by Ben Bergeron and the 1% improvement across the board (aggregation of marginal games) for a cycling team.

What will I change to align myself with this idea?

  • John: Yes, I ordered a timeflip, as recommended by Don Jones (see Episode 138 for how Don uses it). I am going to start recording a daily work diary recording hours spent in deep work. Use a timer, not my calendar, to keep me honest. I need to add in the end-of-week cadence, almost like a weekly shutdown cadence. Measure time in deep work and start making adjustments based on what I see.
  • Nick: I feel like I’ve been tracking the high level goals but not how long I have spent working toward them. What if I’ve spent zero time on a project? Is it actually something I am focused on doing?
  • John: Cal Newport mentions in his podcast, Deep Questions, that sometimes procrastination is a subconscious way of the brain telling us it’s not important or doesn’t have concrete enough next steps. I started listening to the podcast from the beginning and am making my way through the episode library.

18:12 Be Lazy

"Laziness" is really an emphasis on the division between work and relaxation. In order to fully commit to work, one needs to also fully commit to stopping work and relaxing.

Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights

Work that involves synthesizing lots of ambiguous and even conflicting information with many potential solutions is aided by the additional neuronal bandwidth which the unconscious mind has to bring to bear on a task. Thus, giving oneself a habit or ritual of ending the work day and allowing the unconscious mind time to go over one’s work can be very helpful.

Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply

Attention Restoration Theory claims that spending time in nature can help improve one’s ability to concentrate later. Psychologists studying it call concentration "directed attention" and say that it’s a finite resource. If it’s used up, it can lead to "attention fatigue." This is similar to the idea of limited willpower to do deep work or inhibiting attention on distractions. Restoring attention heavily depends on not revisiting work at all (full attention on spending time in nature, for example). Knowledge workers can at least start this process by fully putting down work when they finish for the day.

Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important

In “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” Anders Ericsson writes that novices can’t perform "cognitively demanding work" for more than an hour a day, while experts can only rarely do more than four. Recognizing this leads us to protect the time that we do spend on deep work but also that just adding hours to the end of the day is rarely productive.

21:44 Shutdown Ritual

Ensure you have a plan to act on every incomplete project that you have, in a place you’ll find it. This removes the cognitive overhead of wondering if you’re forgetting anything. Saying the shutdown phrase, “Shutdown complete” was an interesting tactic. This might seem silly, but is a minor point compared to actually recording your state on all your projects. It’s probably a way of using the auditory part of your brain to also understand that the work day is over.

24:06 Reactions

Do I believe this?

  • John: Yes, ever since I read Getting Things Done, by David Allen. Don’t keep all the tasks in your head because you will forget. See also David Rock’s reference to only being able to remember 7 things. There is cognitive overhead in trying to remember things. Being able to walk away seems to important.
  • Nick: I know I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns where I thought “I could work on this longer, but it’s doing me no good and isn’t my best work. I need some kind of break.” Doing deep work toward the end of your day is possible, but you have to assess whether you have the energy.
  • John: This reminds me of Pat Gelsinger’s idea of putting everything away to get home, realizing he might need to work between 9 PM and bedtime, and reserving time exclusively for relaxation and family.

Does this apply to me?

  • John: Yes. I’m trying to work on things but am still striving for improvement. I also like Attention Restoration Theory and going into nature.
  • Nick: Yes. I struggle to put things down at the end of the day pretty often. What I have been doing to help is keeping a log of the things that should be worked on the next day / ideas for solutions to problems. Sometimes these aha moments come in the evening after I’ve stopped working for a little while.

Does it make me want to change behavior? / What will I change to align myself with this idea?

  • John: Yes. Have a way to deal with ideas that pop into our heads from the unconscious mind. That was the whole goal. Capture for future work periods. Make sure I’m actually walking away from work and recording my state in every project in order to truly put it down. I’ll start scheduling a block at the end of each day to do that. Keep a place to record random thoughts to follow up on if something comes to mind outside of working hours.
  • Nick: This frees you up to be present with your family. It’s one thing to free the mind / get the work out so you can rest, but I think I could do a better job organizing those things in general once I’ve let them go for the day. I like the idea of turning work off and not allowing yourself to dig back into it if you’ve shut down. Even not checking e-mail from the time I get up until I start work could help.
  • John: It’s fair to take a moment to record thoughts that we have during relaxation time so that we don’t spend any energy trying to remember it. How about checking work e-mail? I turned off alert (all push notifications). I haven’t done it with chats on my phone. I need to investigate how to make chat notifications only show up during work hours. And that’s different from suppressing the urge to check work emails and chats.

Summary Thoughts on Rule #1: Work Deeply

  • John: Practical? Yes. Thought provoking. Actionable.
  • Nick: There are many things here to consider, and each will take some practice to master. Take the example of checking email at the start of the work day, not first thing in the morning. Checking might make me try to remember the reactions I have to that email instead of being fully present. I need to remember to try to make small, incremental changes, not big ones. There’s a boundary setting discipline here too.
  • John: Great point. Even 2 hours a day of calendared deep work has been tough to be 100% on. This underlined the idea that you have to train your brain to be in that state and only allow thinking about a single thing.
  • Nick: This is like a hard core diet for your mental game.

Contact us if you’ve read Deep Work and have reactions you think we missed. We’d like to hear from you. Or if you have other books you’d recommend. Or if you need help on the journey.

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