Cal Newport was recently on Pat Flynn’s podcast talking about Deep Work. If I could pick one book from last year to read it would probably be Deep Work. I still don’t have a book notes post on it because I was planning to write some kind of epic post then, of course, that fell through the cracks.
Instead, I’ll start with some podcast notes.
Deep work is a skill, not a habit . When you’re seven years old, flossing is something you practice for like three days. After that it’s a habit you need to maintain. There isn’t a ton of room for improvement, though dentists disagree. Playing the guitar, on the other hand, takes practice. I don’t think anyone expects to be proficient after a few days practicing it.
You should approach deep work like a guitar, not a yard of floss. When you start doing it, you’ll concentrate for part of your blocked off time. At this point you might just say it’s not for you. It’s important to push through that and continue trying and improving at it. Over time, the sessions will improve.
It’s similar to meditation. Cal has his own version of that.
Active training and passive training. Athletes go to the gym to train. They lift weights and will do drills or skill work. This is active training, isolated to a few hours a day. For deep work, Cal says that one form of active training is productive meditation.
Here’s the description in Deep Work:
“The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy.”
If your mind wanders, you bring your attention back.
Athletes make decisions outside of the gym that affect their performance. Tom Brady sleeps for 12 hours some nights. This is passive training. For deep work, it’s important to practice de-wiring your brain from stimulation throughout the day.
The example I practiced immediately after reading Deep Work was being conscious when I’m standing in a line at the grocery store. The default here was to check my phone. Look around the next time you’re in line somewhere, at this point it’s weirder if you’re not doing this. So be the weirdo.
It’s not for the sake of being present at that specific moment. You don’t need to take in the surroundings and appreciate the colors of Whole Foods. You just need to tell your brain that it’s okay that there’s nothing to do right at this moment.
Because when you’re in a deep work session, there’s going to be an urge to check your phone. Don’t.
Could you train a recent college graduate to do this in a couple weeks? If your answer is yes, then you probably have something more valuable to work on. Identify your skills that can’t be taught in a few weeks. Then make time practice deep work using those skills.
Deep work isn’t easy—you’ll be pushing your brain to focus without distraction for long periods of time. It’s important to apply that effort to the right work. You don’t want to spend hours, weeks, and months honing deep work skills and find out it was to become the best tooth flosser in the world.
Active recall. At the beginning of the podcast, Pat asks about Cal’s earlier work writing books about studying. If there was only one tip, what would it be?
Cal says it’s active recall. Re-reading book sections, re-reading your notes? Nope, it pales in comparison to trying to explain what you just learned out loud.
This post started as a voice note recording where I tried summarizing different topics that Cal and Pat discussed. I wanted to try active recall to see if it would help in writing a podcast notes post.
(But mostly I wanted to try drawing Arnold Schwarzenegger again.)