I am experimenting with a new way of podcasting. Rather than create single topic episodes such as a book review, I will structure it in a way that will make it resemble more like a blog, but in audio format. Whatever I am reading and researching will be discussed. This will allow me to deliver content in a more timely manner, reducing the possibility of missing an upload.

The latest book I am reading:
Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World by Cal Newport
I’m more than half way through the book.

Deep work is defined by the author as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively-demanding task. The more time spent and the more intense you can make your focus, the more productive your deep work will be. The author describes attention residue as the trailing off of your thoughts relating to a previous task. Imagine deep work analogous to athletic work. Your brain is like a muscle in the way that it needs to warm up and cool down after rigorous work. Envision an athlete, like a major league baseball pitcher. He can’t simply walk out onto the pitchers mound cold. He needs to warm up in the bullpen getting his muscles and joints limber and loose. The warm-up can take several minutes or more. The same goes for the cool-down. Mild exercise and other activities like wearing a jacket or icing the elbow happen after pitching in the game. This is why we need to do deep work in blocks as lengthy as possible – maximize our deep work time because the beginning and end are consumed with warm-up and cool-down. If both warm-up and cool-down take 30 minutes, and we have only an hour to perform deep work, then we get hardly any deep work done.

Shallow vs Deep work. Shallow work is filled with interruptions, non-cognitively demanding tasks which are usually of logistical nature. The interruptions can come from external sources such as email, calls, visitors asking for help. They can also come from internal sources such as an impulse to surf the web, check social media, and other undisciplined and useless activities. The external distractions can be mitigated with out of office auto-responses or escaping from your office to a secret location. Tell everyone you know that you have a do not disturb time-frame from 1-3pm every day. Internal interruptions can be eliminated with practicing discipline and integrating habits and schedules into your day.

 IMHO deep work takes on different forms:
Creation – Creating a great work of art like a novel or painting
Problem solving – Developing a cure for cancer or inventing the next computer
Consumption – Learning a new skill like piano or tennis, or reading/studying to become a doctor

It can be physical (muscle memory) or mental (philosophy or document)

 Deep work is diminishing due to more distractions being present in our lives mostly caused by modernity such as computers and smart phones. The authors mentions this and declares deep work in the modern day as “rare”. Back in the day craftsmen and artists frequently engaged in deep work. There was a lack of sources for distractions. However today’s modern world is full of tempting distractions and time wasters. Some examples are TV, video games, surfing the web and click bait, notifications specifically, social media in general, and email.
I want to briefly address email – most of us perform a lot of our work via email. Email should not be vilified, but it is often a source of distraction and time wasting. I believe this is the case because among the work-related important emails we have many other spam and non-work related messages. Carefully filter out the important emails and prioritize them. Also email is a slow form of communication. A much faster way to communicate is to call the person or talk in-person. Email is perfect if you need a written record or the answer is a simple copy and paste away. However if you are typing for more than a minute, consider calling the person. Emails can also escalate a simple transaction into a complex email chain and engulf others unnecessarily. I believe this is caused by misinterpretation since email is not good at communicating context and other subtle body language-like data.
The author vilifies social media to an extent. He feels that most of us can live without it, and that we are not getting a justified return on our investment (mostly time) by using it. I agree for the most mart. Also the author recommends to think critically and evaluate the use of social media like any other tool or business decision you make. This resonates with me and makes sense. I feel we over value the benefits of social media. At least define it for what it really is. Do you actually generate business from social media? Or is it simply a way to stay in touch with friends and long distance family? Just put it in the proper context.

The author talks about a “great restructuring” because of competition and the modernity of high tech jobs. Easily automated jobs are replacing employees with robots and computers. As the sophistication of the automation increases, more jobs are eliminated. The remaining jobs require more skills and are in higher demand due to competition due to the displaced workers.

Three groups of people are poised to succeed in this new world:
  • Those who are good at working with intelligent and complex machines, STEM
  • Superstar performers in their field
  • Owners of capital, or those with access to it
To become a member of one of the first two groups, you need core abilities:
  • The ability to quickly master complex and difficult things
  • The ability to perform at an elite level in terms of quality and speed

This list is of no surprise to me and I feel this is actually the way it’s been throughout history. The only difference is that as our age becomes more modern, the complexity and depth of the skills required of these performers will continually increase, further differentiating those who adopt the tech from those who don’t. Superstars will always be successful, but becoming a superstar IMHO relies on access to resources based on birth or circumstance, or the path of hard work, grit, and determination – and deep work.

Get stuff done that matters. The author touches on the same theme as The One Thing by Gary Keller – to eliminate all tasks that are not keystone to achieving your top goals.

In the book Bounce by Matthew Syed, the author mentions the best table tennis player, Desmond Douglas, has trained his brain to react to when the ball flies towards him. Because he’s seen so many balls fly towards him in so many different ways, his brain can easily estimate even the most complex trajectories and give him more time to react than other players with less practice. However, that doesn’t make him a better driver. In an everyday car crash, he wouldn’t hit the brakes any faster than you or me.This is similar to a recent finding that brain exercises like Luminosity does not necessarily enhance your brain the way it was advertised as having the capability to do. This is because when one practices an activity via deliberate practice, they are growing mylin and making very specific neurological connections. In other words practicing crossword puzzles will not make you better at doing math equations, but it will make you better at doing crossword puzzles.

 I have heard the saying used in tactical fighting: operate the way you train. The object is to commit movements to “muscle memory” making them almost automatic. Under stress people will not rise to the occasion, rather they will fall back to the level of training that they have mastered.

Previous episodes discussing Dr. John Medina’s book Brain Rules:

  • http://www.supersmartguy.com/brain-rules-book-review-part-1-episode-24/
  • http://www.supersmartguy.com/brain-rules-book-review-part-1-episode-26/

The brain is comprised of billions of nerve cells, called neurons. These cells communicate with each other, mostly using electro-chemical signals. Axons are long connections from one nerve cell to another and act like data cables. They are wrapped with an insulation called a myelin sheath that allows signals to travel faster and stronger as they are built up. As new skills are learned, new nerve cell connections are made and the amount of myelin insulating an axon increases.

The author proposes 4 approaches for creating your deep work time:

Monastic – lock yourself away like a monk and don’t come out of seclusion until your work is done. Throw yourself 100% into your work. Zero tolerance for distraction. Ideal for creators who need to produce a great work like a novel, album, painting, scientific discovery.

Bimodal – Carve out significant segments of continuous time when possible (3-6 hrs), but on a routine basis. Distractions are allowed only outside the segments of deep work. Professors and professionals who have to balance great works with social interaction benefit from this strategy.

Rhythmic – Time blocking can be used for deep work. For example, you can allocate 90-120 minute blocks of deep work into your daily routine – one in the AM and one in the PM. Professionals and entrepreneurs can make good use of this strategy as they have a variety of requirements levied against their time.

Journalistic – You make time whenever you can for deep work. This is an ad-hoc type of strategy. You do the best you can given a very chaotic schedule or extremely high demands on your time. If possible, plan ahead when and for how long you can perform these blocks of deep work.

These strategies are on  sliding scale from dedicating your life to deep work all the way to your life is out of control and full of chaos so you do what you can. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing or your fault – an example of the 4th strategy being necessary is if you just had a baby and work a day job (applies to both mother and father). Or you’re a sales person in the busy season. Make hay when the sun shines. And fit in deep work when possible. But never forget about it because it has major benefits. There are some jobs that prohibit the practice of deep work, fast paced and high decision making scenarios. CEO’s are an example of this. During the day perform you duties as necessary – IMHO it is important for professional and personal growth to do deep work in your off-work hours. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and other CEO’s and great business leaders make time to do intense reading and other deep work type of activity.

The author mentions that in order to perform deep work and in general be productive one must not think about work outside of work time. Likewise do not think of non-work related activities (distractions) during work. This clear and unambiguous separation of work and non-work is important for the brain to refresh and operate optimally in the appropriate mode for the right time.

An analogy would be doing work on your vacation and surfing the web during work-time. It’s ok that your subconscious works on problems in the background. You will get the eureka moments in the shower, a solution to that hard work problem. That’s fine, write it down and save the answer for your next work-time.

The sub-conscious is a powerful parallel processor that needs time to switch modes. If we constantly dabble with work all day, and play during our work-time, then we don’t give the brain the contrast it needs. This is similar to how we need to cleanse our palette with a cracker between wine samples during a wine tasting. If we were to take sip after sip without a break or contrast, all the wines blur and merge together to one ambiguous experience.

Analogy of the hard disk. As a hard drive, the old school mechanical type, gets fragmented (files are written then some delete, then more written) the files become split up into smaller pieces and must be put back together when the file needs to be read. Over a long time, the files become fragmented that performance of the computer slows significantly. The same goes for your brain. If you are constantly distracted, your brain doesn’t have sufficient time to think of one thing because it is constantly context-switching from one thought to the next. This is why many distractions detracts from deep work.

Humans are terrible at multitasking. A perfect example is texting while driving. That problem has become so bad that laws are now being passed to make it punishable. Almost as many accidents now are caused by texting while driving as there are drinking and driving. Context switching has fixed overhead. It takes time to stop thinking about one thing and start thinking about another, like the hard drive and baseball pitcher example. Hopping all around the hard disk and warm-up & cool-down activities are required overhead that does not contribute to productivity. The key is to minimize all non-productive activity/requirements. Time blocking a large segment of time will maximize productivity because it allows one to maximize time in deep thinking and reduces the number of context switches one needs to make.

Make the most of unproductive time with productive meditation. Use your “unproductive” time to do deep thinking. Are you a captive audience on the train or waiting in the airport. Don’t miss your flight! But during this time you can perform deep work, or a form of meditation that facilitates deep work. The meditation includes focusing your thoughts on one thing – hopefully the most important problem you have to solve. Fight letting your mind wander, daydreaming, or external distractions.

For next time:
How to perform deep work
Deep work vs. K Anders Ericsson deliberate practice vs. Mihail Csikzentmihalyi flow
4DX The 4 Disciplines of Execution