March 29th, 2016 · 44 comments
The Ford Transformation
The craftsmen hand-building cars at the Ford Motor Company’s Piquette Avenue assembly plant in the first decade of the 20th century were, among other things, impressively productive at their tasks.
Two or three workers would gather around each partially-assembled car, taking parts, checking their fit, adjusting them on a metal lathe as needed, then checking the fit again, and so on. To watch them work would be to watch experts practiced in their movements and efficient in their tool use.
But as we now know, this productivity was irrelevant, as their approach to the work as a whole was sub-optimal.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, Henry Ford perfected his assembly line model and combined it with a commitment to producing interchangeable parts.
This new workflow was less natural, required significant capital investment, and introduced many new logistical headaches: but it also unleashed a level of value production that the old method of car construction could never match — no matter how skilled or efficient its practitioners.
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March 22nd, 2016 · 28 comments
A Modest Proposal
Last month, I wrote an intentionally provocative article for the Harvard Business Review’s website. It was titled, “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.”
The article starts by conceding that email, as a technology, is not intrinsically bad. The weed that’s currently strangling knowledge work is instead the workflow enabled and prodded by the presence of this tool.
As I expanded:
Accompanying the rise of this technology was a new, unstructured workflow in which all tasks — be it a small request from HR or collaboration on a key strategy — are now handled in the same manner: you dive in and start sending quick messages which arrive in a single undifferentiated inbox at their recipients. These tasks unfold in an ad hoc manner with informal messages sent back and forth on demand as needed to push things forward.
This workflow, I argued, leads inevitably to a state where constant email checking, during work hours and beyond, become necessary to keep the wheels of progress turning. And this state, in turn, is transforming knowledge workers into exhausted human network routers who are producing at a fraction of their cognitive capacity.
Given the tangled relationship between email and our current approach to work, however, it’s also clear that [a transformation to a better workflow] is almost certainly going to require a radical first step: to eliminate email.
What’s interesting to me about this discussion is less the details of my argument, but instead readers’ reactions.
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March 11th, 2016 · 22 comments
Seneca on the Myth of Free
In Letter 42 of his Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, Seneca touches on the hidden costs of seemingly “free” pursuits. In doing so, he offers to his correspondent — Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily — a warning that resonates strongly today:
Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that “buying” refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves.
These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself.
(– From Letter 42, Paragraph 7 of the Richard Gummere translation)
Over a billion people currently use Facebook — many at the cost of anxiety, lost honor, personal freedom, and certainly time. If asked why, however, many would reply, “why not?”
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February 16th, 2016 · 32 comments
In the war to reclaim your attention, some battles have clearer fronts than others. It has become clear to me that these differences matter.
Social media, for example, is digital nicotine. It’s engineered to hook you so you can be sliced and diced into advertising fodder. It’s not worth losing your cognitive autonomy over — unless your job depends on it, you should probably quit.
But the real issues seem to arise not from the obvious whimsies, but instead from the commitments that are less obviously harmful, and in fact, in the right dose, might actually be vital.
Consider, for example…
- an invitation to speak at a compelling conference,
- a request to hop on a call with an interesting person,
- a long email asking a question you know something about,
- an offer to collaborate on a project that fits your interests, or
- a new service that might make parts of your working life better.
To place a blanket ban on such activities would induce a monasticism that would likely stall your career, or, at the very least, make it unbearably monotonous.
(Even my deep work idol, Neal Stephenson — who has no public email address, and only ventures into public for book launches — ended up involved in a sword fighting video game and consults for an augmented reality pioneer.)
And yet, in my own experience, I find that the occasions when I most despair about the tattered state of my schedule are almost always the result of the accumulation of a dozen yeses that each made perfect sense in isolation.
So how do you balance these competing concerns?
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January 27th, 2016 · 23 comments
Charles Franklin Thwing is a largely forgotten but impressive figure from the early twentieth century. He graduated Harvard in the 1870s, entered seminary, became a pastor in Massachusetts, then an academic, eventually ending up president of Western Reserve University.
He came to my attention because of a book he wrote in 1912 titled, Letters from a Father to his Son Entering College. In this insightful volume is the following wisdom:
“To save time, take time in large pieces. Do not cut time up into bits…The mind is like a locomotive. It requires time for getting under headway. Under headway it makes its own steam. Progress gives force as force makes progress. Do not slow down as long as you run well and without undue waste. Take advantage of momentum. Prolonged thinking leads to profound thinking.”
Thwing, it seems, was a disciple of deep work a century before the term was coined. Good ideas, I suppose, are timeless.
Hat Tip to Morry, who turns 80 next month, and who brought this book to my attention. Morry, inspired by Thwing, has followed this advice for decades by deploying 4 hour stretches of deep work to get important things done.
January 27th, 2016 · 15 comments
A Deep Diversion
I wanted to share some brief updates about how my new book, Deep Work, is faring since its release a couple weeks ago. It seems to have hit a nerve. This excites me — not just because it’s good news for my book, but because I think it points to a bigger shift in our cultural conversation. People seem increasingly ready to move past self-deprecating humor about how they check their phone too much, and instead seek concrete changes that will improve their cognitive life.
Anyway, here are some highlights from the book launch:
- The book debuted as a Wall Street Journal bestseller and was selected as one of Amazon’s best business & leadership books for the month of January.
- The New York Times wrote: “As a presence on the page, Newport is exceptional in the realm of self-help authors…”
- The Wall Street Journal called the book: “engaging and substantive…”
- The Economist wrote: “deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy…”
- The Globe and Mail wrote: “This is a deep, not shallow, book, which can enrich your life…”
- 800-CEO-READ named Deep Work the best business book of the week and wrote: “[Newport presents] a wonderfully entangled, intertwined, and erudite series of strategies, philosophies, disciplines, and techniques to sharpen your focus and dive deep into your work.”
If you want to learn more, read my original post about the book launch. In addition, my publisher has posted two long excerpts. The first is about how deep work helps make you massively more productive and the second tackles the inanity of open offices.
I am, of course, most grateful for your support here over the years as I developed these ideas. I can’t thank you enough.
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
January 18th, 2016 · 30 comments
The Attack of the Inbox
Not long ago, I was listening to Pat Flynn’s podcast. Pat is an excellent podcaster, so it doesn’t take much to convince me to listen, but this time I was particularly interested because the episode title caught my attention: 9000 Unread Emails to Inbox Zero.
Pat tells the story about how his email inbox grew along with the success of his online brand. He used to try to empty his inbox. After a while, he began to consider “only” 100 unread messages as a victory. Then, one day, he looked up and his inbox had expanded to 9000 unread messages.
Something had to give.
Pat’s solution was radical: he hired a highly-trained executive assistant who could devote many additional hours to sorting through the communication deluge before it reached Pat. He still spends a lot of time on email, but at least now it’s tractable.
Longtime readers will not be surprised to learn that the subtext of this story depresses me.
I am, as you know, a big proponent of deep work — as I think this activity can produce a professional life that’s both successful and deeply meaningful. But as Pat’s experience seems to attest, our current digital economy has perverse incentives: forcing you, it seems, to fragment your time into increasingly small, anxious slivers as recognition for your skill grows.
To me, the idea of needing to hire assistants to increase the amount of one-to-one communication you can fit into a single day is, to steal a relevant phrase from George Packer, a truly “frightening vision of the future.”
But then Brett McKay came along and gave me hope…
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January 5th, 2016 · 80 comments
A Focus Opus
It’s official, today is the release of my new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
The book argues that deep work (focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task) is becoming more valuable in our economy at the same time that it’s becoming more rare.
The implication: if you’re one of the few to take advantage of this trend and cultivate a deep life, you’ll thrive.
Not only will you produce at quantity and quality levels that stun your peers, you’ll also find your work more meaningful and less exhausting.
To make this claim more concrete, consider me as a case study. As a longtime devotee to depth, I’ve been able to publish close to 50 peer-reviewed papers as an academic (earning over 2500 citations), write five books as an author (selling over 200,000 copies), and build a popular blog (300,000 page views last month) — all without working at nights and rarely working on weekends. The secret is my fanatic commitment to deep work.
This highlights an important point that I want to emphasize: This book isn’t a cranky screed about how kids these days spend too much time on the Facebook, and it isn’t a collection of warmed over suggestions about how you should turn off notifications on your phone and not check email first thing in the morning.
It instead calls for a radical transformation to your work life in which focusing with great intensity becomes your core activity, not an occasional indulgence.
With this in mind, the book then details specific strategies, divided among four “rules,” that you can use to accomplish this transformation — covering topics from focus training, to effective scheduling, to rituals and routines, to aggressive tactics for taming the tide of shallow obligations that constantly threaten to drown the typical knowledge worker’s day.
Give Yourself the Gift of Depth
To help you learn more about the book, I’ve included below an annotated table of contents and a link to a long excerpt.
In the meantime…
- If this topic sounds interesting to you — whether you’re a longtime reader of my writing or new to the party — please consider buying a copy of this book.
- If you already bought the book and found it useful, please consider buying copies for your friends or colleagues (if you do buy multiple copies, send me an email so I can thank you personally).
I’m proud of this book and believe it can have an impact on how we think about work in a digital age.
Deep Work is available now at Amazon (kindle and hardcover), Audible, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, or anywhere else books are normally sold.
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