- work performed in a distraction-free state
- pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit
- these efforts create new value, improve your skills and are hard to replicate
From Top Performer
Why deep work is important for new skills
Cal explains why Deep Work is essential for acquiring new skills and mentions 2 aspects:
When focusing intensely on a task without distraction, the related neuronal circuit in the brain is repeatedly activated in a clean, focused manner, with minimal noise or distractions. This repeated firing of the same neural circuit in isolation prompts certain cells to build myelin sheaths around the neurons, acting as insulators. This process allows neurons to fire more easily and quickly, enhancing the brain’s efficiency. This mechanism is crucial for cementing new skills, whether cognitive or physical, into our neural processes
Newport describes the phenomenon of “attention residue,” where shifting focus from one target to another leaves a residue of the first target in the mind, lasting up to 30 minutes. This residue reduces cognitive performance, as measured by a drop in IQ points when people frequently check distractions like emails or social media. This constant state of attention residue results in working at reduced capacity. Deep work counters this by leveraging the principles of cognitive science and neuroscience to maximize brain efficiency during focused work session
SCOTT: You and I have done a lot of deep work, but I think you have done all the research behind it, so I’m interested, what is the reason why doing this kind of concentrated work is just so much more effective, particularly for these deliberate practice projects that the people who are watching this are going to be caring about?
CAL: It’s a good question. If you dive into the research, there are really two reasons why we know that deep work produces a lot of work and helps you learn complicated things in a short amount of time.
The first reason has to do with the neurons in your head. When you’re focusing intensely on a task without distraction, what’s happening in your head is that the neuronal circuit related to that activity is firing again and again very cleanly. There is not a lot of noise that is getting your attention. The way that the neural system works, is that if you fire the same circuit again and again in isolation, some cells come along and begin to build sheaths of a substance called myelin around the cell bodies. This acts like an insulator. Now the neurons can fire easier, and they can fire quicker than they could before.
Doing deep work when you’re trying to learn a hard new task, be it cognitive or even physical, is exactly what is required for the neural process of cementing a new skill in the neurons. The second reason why we know deep work is so effective is exactly how you experienced. There’s an effect called “attention residue” that causes real issues, and I think it’s being overlooked. Essentially the effect is as follows: If you have your attention on one target and then you shift your attention to another target, that original target leaves a residue in your head that can last 10, 20, up to 30 minutes. As long as that residue is there, you’re at a reduced cognitive performance. They can measure the number of IQ points you drop if you have just checked Facebook or if you just checked your email, and it’s a lot. If, like a lot of people, the way you work is you’re mainly focusing on one thing but every 10 or 15 minutes, you check your email or check a browser tab, you’re keeping yourself in a constant state of attention residue, which means you’re keeping yourself working at a reduced capacity.
Deep work really leverages both of those truths from cognitive science and neuroscience to make sure you’re getting the most out of your brain for the time you have to spend on the task at hand.
Deep Work Tally
Cal suggests using a deep work tally (in your notebook or digitally). Some benefits:
The strategy involves keeping a tally on a piece of paper or cardstock of how many hours of deep work you accomplish each week.
This method provides a brutally honest snapshot of your deep work output. It helps to see the actual amount of deep work done, as the tally is empty if no deep work is accomplished.
The tally offers immediate feedback. Seeing a small number of tick marks can be embarrassing and motivating, pushing you to set aside time for more in-depth work.
The method reflects the reality of your work pattern, revealing whether you have been truly productive or just busy with shallow tasks.
The effectiveness of the deep work tally can vary depending on different times of the year or stages in your professional setting. It may not always be useful or necessary.
Applicability and Motivation
The tally is more effective during periods when you have clear goals that require deep work. It helps maintain high deep work hours and can be very motivating.
Broadening the Definition of Deep Work
If you find yourself in a period where deep work opportunities seem limited, broadening your definition of what constitutes deep work can help maintain a reasonable tally.
For the specific project discussed in the course, the midpoint is an ideal time to apply the deep work tally, as goals should be clear and the tally can significantly aid progress.
Depth Work Rituals
Depth rituals help manage energy efficiently. Switching to deep work requires significant energy, and these rituals reduce the energy needed for this transition.
Automatic Behavior Initiation:
Rituals facilitate automatic initiation of specific behaviors, requiring less energy to start deep work.
Reduced Mental Effort:
Implementing depth rituals minimizes the mental effort required to shift into a deep work mindset, helping conserve mental energy.
Designated Locations for Deep Work:
Setting aside specific locations for deep work helps in associating certain places with focused work, making the transition smoother.
Deep Work Transformations:
Transforming a regular workspace into a deep work environment through physical changes can mentally prepare one for deep work.
Establishing a fixed routine for deep work ensures that all relevant decisions during a work session are predetermined, reducing decision fatigue.
Having a pre-deep work warm-up routine can help in mentally preparing and transitioning into the deep work mode.
Improved Focus and Productivity:
By reducing the mental load and creating conducive environments, depth rituals significantly enhance the ability to focus and increase productivity.
These rituals create positive associations with deep work, making the transition from shallow to deep work more automatic and less demanding.
Customization and Flexibility:
Depth rituals can be tailored to individual preferences and circumstances, making them adaptable and effective in a variety of settings.
Consistently using depth rituals can lead to more high-quality work produced over time, as they make deep work sessions more successful and efficient.