Calm, Focused, and Deep

As part of switching gears at work from a hectic management role back to an "individual contributor" role as a software engineer, I've read a couple of books based on recommendations from friends. First, It Doesn't Have to be Crazy at work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (thanks Paschal!) and, second, Deep Work by Cal Newport (thanks Fred!). Below is my attempt to summarize some key points I'm taking away from these books, if only to prove to myself that I was concentrating!


Why "deep work"?

  • The ability to quickly master hard things, and to perform at an elite level in terms of qulaity and speed, will set you apart

On choosing what to work on:

  • Deliberately work on getting better at picking what to do
  • Don't simply work on things that are easiest in the moment
  • Understanding what really matters - embrace "good enough" for the less important things
  • Drucker - "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all"

On achieving intense focus:

  • The rate that high quality work is produced is proportional to the intensity of your focus - or "Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity"
  • Aim for "Rooseveltian" style "blistering intensity"
  • You can't achieve such intensity with "residue slathering interruptions" from constant context switching
  • Spend your time and attention "in large bills, not in small change"
  • Don't let your hours become fractured with "calendar tetris" (see also "Maker's schedule")
  • Careful management of your attention as the key to a happy and fulfilling life
  • "Ruthlessly culling the shallow and painstakingly cultivating the intensity of my depth"

On a cadence for your work:

  • Work on projects in iterations - go deep, then take time to decompress
  • Finish what you started, and let new ideas wait

Embrace real downtime:

  • Downtime aids insights - Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT) establishes that some decisions are best left to your unconscious mind
  • Downtime helps recharge the energy needed for deep work - Attentional Restoration Theory (ART) establishes that - like willpower - we have a limited store of "directed attention" that needs to be recharged
  • The work that would replace downtime tends to be shallow and unimportant - if you have the capacity for, say, a maximum of 4 hours per day of intense concentration, you're not going to squeeze more focused time out of downtime

On the type of co-worker you aspire to being:

  • Aim to leave a lasting positive impression on people
  • Be a good person that others can rely on and enjoy working with
  • Set an example for others to follow

On living a good life though depth:

  • Aspire to a craftsman's work ethic - finding a connection between deep work and meaning in your life, as a path to living a good life
  • Medieval quarry workers creed from The Pragmatic Programmer
  • "We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals"
  • The best moments occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limit to achieve something meaningful
  • Humans are a species that flourishes in depth and wallows in shallowness


Schedule your time:

  • Schedule large blocks of time for deep work
  • Allow the schedule to flex - the goal is not coerce your work into a rigid schedule, but rather to be thoughtful about what you are spending your time on

Work environment:

  • Work in a private office, and close the door when working deeply
  • Or, in an open office, try to set the expectation of "library rules"

Work deeply:

  • Develop your own philosophy for integrating deep work in your life - Newport describes "monastic", "bi-modal", "rhythmic", and "journalistic" styles
  • Add routines and rituals that minimize the willpower required to enter a state of unbroken concentration
  • Consider the use of "grand gestures" to help motivate you into deeper intensity of focus - I loved the story of JK Rowling finishing the last Harry Potter book in an extravagant suite in The Balmoral
  • Don't work alone, but separate the pursuit of serendipitous encounters from your efforts to think deeply
  • Try self-imposing an extremely tight deadline for some projects to force yourself into working with "blistering intensity"

The 4 disciplines of execution (4DX):

  • Focus on the wildly important - a small number of ambitious goals
  • Act on "lead measures" - new behaviours that will drive success, ultimately reflected in "lag measures"
  • Keep a compelling score card - a visualization of your progress
  • Establish a cadence of accountability - e.g. a weekly or monthly review where you examine your progress and make a plan for the coming weeks
  • Compare 4DX to OKRs to SMART goals

Embracing downtime:

  • Add a "shutdown complete" ritual to end your workday
  • Put a hard constraint on your work day - e.g. finish consistently at 5.30pm

Managing distraction, and thoughts on social media:

  • Make a daily mental practice of weaning your mind from a dependence on distraction - got a free moment? Don't pick up your phone, essentially begging it to distract you
  • Take a complete break from social media (or "distracting services", more generally) and only re-enable them as you find you need them
  • Avoid taking an "any benefit" approach to how you consider the value of these services - consider the opportunity cost, what else you could be doing instead
  • Schedule the use of these distracting services
  • Networking tools are just tools - they can be used to enhance your professional work, but you should assess their impact in terms of a small number of goals and activities in the vein of "the vital few" or the 80/20 Pareto principle

Meditate productively:

  • Try bringing your attention back again and again to a pressing problem as you are occupied physically - this requires practice
  • Avoid distractions from the problem at hand, and avoid looping on information you already know

Structure your deep thinking:

  • Identify the variables, identify the next step question, and then consolidate your gains

Set yourself a "shallow work budget":

  • What proportion of your time is acceptable to spend on "shallow work"? 20%? 50%? 80%?
  • This gives you a heuristic for saying "no" to shallow work
  • Evaluate the shallowness of your activities by how long it would take to train a bright, recent college graduate to do it
  • You should aim to reduce the amount of time spent not using your expertise


  • Fixed deadlines, but allow the scope to be reduced - "narrow as you go"
  • Break big projects up into smaller chunks - "scope hammer"
  • Use time budgets, not time estimates - "what's the best widget we can build in 2 weeks", not "how long will it take to build a widget?"

Instant messaging:

  • Realtime sometimes, async most of the time
  • If it's important, slow down
  • If everyone needs to see it, write it down

Become hard to reach:

  • Make people who send you email do more work
  • Avoid making it easy for people to rob big chunks of your time with little investment of their time
  • "Process-centric approach to email" - with your reply, consider what will bring the project represented by the email to a conclusion. Avoid bouncing back and forth
  • Develop the habit of accepting that small, bad things happen, for example if you don't reply to email. If you don't allow small, bad things to happen, then you won't leave room for good, big things

In Summary

Reject crazy, distracted, and shallow. Embrace calm, focused, and deep work.

Deep work is important simply because it enables you to get useful things done.

"I'll live the focused life because it's the best kind there is".