Deep Work and Focus — With Special Guest, Cal Newport





In today’s episode of Shawn Today I have the honor of talking with Cal Newport.

Cal Newport is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, was one of the most impactful books I read in 2015. And his brand new book, Deep Work, is equally fantastic.

The hypothesis behind Deep Work is this:

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.

In our conversation, Cal and I talk about time management, how to develop a lifestyle where you are consistently able to spend time in your day on the things that matter most, how it’s a skill to be able to do deep work and focus and how to develop that skill, and more.

This podcast continues in the series on Margin that I’ve been writing about for the past month. Check out this page for the central repository with I’m keeping updated with links to each article and podcast.

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There are so many components to doing your best creative work, but the very foundational one is the creative work itself. If you’re not showing up every day and practicing, then you’ll never reach your potential — you’ll never do your absolute best.

Deep Work, Deliberate/Intentional Practice, The Craftsman Mindset, Finding Flow — all of these are synonyms for showing up every day.

But they go beyond just showing up. Showing up and working hard isn’t enough. You need to make sure that the time you spend in deep work is productive time.

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal writes that people will hit a performance plateau beyond which they fail to get any better. And his newest book, Deep Work is all about how to push through that plateau. Deep Work is about what to do when you do show up, and how to turn all of it into a part of your lifestyle.

In short, to do your best creative work, you need to hone the skill of being able to focus.

And that is exactly what we talk about on this podcast.

Key Takeaways, Etc.

  • Deep work and focus are skills; not personality types. To develop the “skill” of deep work you have to: (1) control and protect your time; (2) slowly spend time training yourself to focus without giving in to distractions; and (3) make lifestyle changes so that even in your down time you aren’t

  • To have an effective deep work session, you need to: (1) schedule the time; (2) have an expected outcome that you are aiming to accomplish during that time; (3) realize that you’re working the “focus muscle” and that it takes practice and time.

  • Deep work is not a natural activity. When it comes to doing important work and improving our skills, our mind and instincts can’t be trusted.

  • Schedule every minute of your day. This takes the guesswork out of where you should be focusing on, and all you have left to do is show up and do what you’ve planned to do.

  • If you work with your head, then rest with your hands. For the knowledge worker, a good down-time hobby could be woodworking, gardening, yard work, etc.

  • Reduce the amount of “novel stimuli” that you let in to your day-to-day life. When you have a strong baseline level of noise in all the little moments of your life, it makes it more difficult to focus on the task at hand when you’re doing deep work. Because you’re training your brain that boredom is bad.

    By reducing the baseline level of noise, it helps us to focus for extended periods of time. It also helps your mind to rest as it should during your down time.

  • Quote from Deep Work: “To succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.”

  • There are four styles of deep work:

    1. Monastic: “This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.” (Think seclusion somewhere)
    2. Bimodal: “This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.”
    3. Rhythmic: “This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.”
    4. Journalistic: “in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.”
  • Don’t let busyness be a proxy for productivity. For many of us, we put an emphasis on efficiency rather than effectiveness. We see time spent as being more valuable than the results themselves.

    We can change that mindset and change our paradigm about what it means to be effective. First we have to challenge the culture that values “crushing it” — that says only those who are super busy are the ones who are super hungry. Realize that you can work effectively, and you can be focused without overworking yourself. There is a division between being out-of-control busy and being a hard worker.

  • Doing deep work in our everyday lives is important for several reasons: It increases our happiness, it helps us to learn new skills, it gives us a focus on effectiveness, it’s where we do our best creative work, it’s how we make progress.

  • If you want to do more deep work, but you’re not sure where to start, do this: (1) look at your calendar and block out 5 hours on your schedule over the next two weeks; (2) put your phone away when you get home so that you don’t get distracted; (3) find a balanced ratio of shallow work and deep work.

  • Shallow work and deep work are both necessary. The former is doing the things that need to be done for the sake of today. The latter is doing the things that need to be done for the sake of the future. Put another way: Shallow work keeps you from getting fired; deep work gets you promoted.

Further Reading



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