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“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every week, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Okay, let’s get to this week’s book: Deep Work by Cal Newport, who’s an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of five bestselling books.
If you want to know how to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in your work and life in less time, then you need to read this book.
This is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year and one I will definitely be reviewing regularly.
In it, Cal defines deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” and he argues that it’s the skill that will most help you achieve excellence in everything that you do and enjoy the deep sense of fulfillment that comes from reaching a level of true craftsmanship.
In short, Cal believes that deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy, which is going to be radically transformed by smart and capable machines. Furthermore, this skill is becoming rarer and rarer as more and more people surrender more and more of their time to the frenetic whirlwind of email, social media, and on-demand entertainment, which means those that do master it will be in great demand and enjoy the lion’s share of success.
I particularly enjoyed this book because it’s part social commentary, part theory, and part practical. Cal articulates his personal philosophy for work and living, which really resonated with me, and makes a strong case for the importance of cultivating the ability to do deep work, and then provides a simple but powerful regimen for actually developing that ability.
I’ve implemented several of the strategies outlined in the book and enjoyed immediate results in terms of increased productivity and satisfaction, and I think you can, too.
My 5 Key Takeaways from Deep Work
In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.
Cal says that he believes the two most important abilities for thriving in the economy of the not-so-distant-future are:
- The ability to quickly master hard things.
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
And I think he’s absolutely right. If we don’t want to be replaced by machines in the next couple of decades, we’d better be able to do things they won’t be able to do, and we’d better be really good at those things, because competition is going to be fierce.
Furthermore, the single faculty that will most determine how well we can achieve those objectives is the one most under assault in our current culture: focus. The ability to focus deeply and solely on a single task at hand, and for long periods of time.
As Cal says in the book, “High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).”
The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
I’ve found this to be very true in not only in work but all areas of life. It’s very easy to shy away from short-term discomfort at the expense of long-term satisfaction, and in many ways, our culture is engineered to help us do just that.
As far as work goes, the trap is avoiding the hard, intense work that will really move the needle, like product formulation, market research, and content creation, by wallowing in shallow, low-value work instead, like email, social media, and meetings.
As far as the rest of life goes, try this for the next 30 days: put more thought into your leisure time. Instead of defaulting to whatever might catch your attention at any given moment, like addictive websites or TV shows, think about how else you could spend your downtime. Maybe you could pursue hobbies or personal interests? Maybe you could try getting more involved in your community? Maybe you could sneak in some much-needed exercise?
For example, I watch very little TV and instead use most of my away-from-work time to work out, do yoga, read books, learn German, and do outside-the-house activities with my family, and it pays huge dividends in terms of physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being. That, in turn, greatly enhances my ability to do deep work by improving my ability to deeply focus on tasks at hand and stay in that state for long periods of time.
The bottom line is if you don’t do this—if you don’t give yourself specific things to do outside of work—you’ll always find the many shiny, barren objects around you alluring.
We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.
Most activities, work and otherwise, tend to follow a U-shaped emotional curve, and when you’re in the middle—the “dip,” as Seth Godin puts it—it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, the why, and with it your motivation to keep showing up and putting in the work.
Well, this quote is a nice reminder when you’re in the trenches of the dip every day slugging it out. I come back to it regularly myself. Some people like to say I’m building a fitness “empire,” but that’s a little too braggadocious for my liking. Fitness cathedral has a nicer ring, I think. 🙂
If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.
This is so true. If we’re going to take back control of our attention and minds, we need a very good reason to forego all the many forms of instant gratification immediately available to us at all hours of every day. The only type of reason that will ever be good enough is an interest, goal, or ambition that we feel drawn toward above everything else, a burning curiosity or desire that drowns out all the noise.
For me, that’s researching and writing. I enjoy many aspects of business and marketing, but the one thing that most keeps me going is learning, interpreting, and explaining. For whatever reason, I’m just compelled to do it.
I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out can produce a lot of valuable output.
If you organize and tackle your work in batches according to type (as opposed to regularly jumping between different types of tasks) and reserve three to four of your best hours every day for your most important deep work, you might be surprised how much meaningful production you can get done. It’s one of the best productivity “hacks” you can find.
I myself do it like this: mornings are my best energy- and focus-wise, so unless something is on-fire urgent, my first three to four hours of the day are for writing. These days I’m working on a new book, several digital courses for Muscle for Life, and articles for my blogs at MFL and Legion. Then, after my writing is done, I do all of my email in one go, which can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. If I have podcasts, calls, or meetings, they’re almost always in the afternoons (intentionally scheduled that way), and if not, I usually have miscellaneous tasks to do related to running my businesses. I also find that I enjoy writing at night, so if I’m going to be working after dinner, it’s almost always that and not shallower activities.
This basic schedule has served me incredibly well over the years and has allowed me to maintain a steady, high productive output without putting me at risk of burnout, mentally or physically.