ROUNDUP: Deep Work

by Ron Potter
A Note From the Editor:
As we recently mentioned, we are reposting popular blog posts while Ron is recovering from some health issues. A few years on, we’re looking back at some posts Ron wrote at the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Ron’s Short Review: This book changed my habit of getting meaningful work done. I have carved out time every month to isolate myself and my thinking on particular projects. The productivity improvement has been astounding.

Deep Work

The COVID-19 virus may be offering the opportunity that you’ve been looking for to stand-out in a crowded world.  In his book Deep Work by Cal Newton he makes some great points about Deep Work and the lack of it.

One of the things that Cal says is:

To remain valuable in our economy you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.”

“A McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.

This state of fragmented attention cannot accommodate deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking. At the same time, however, modern knowledge workers are not loafing. In fact, they report that they are as busy as ever. What explains the discrepancy? A lot can be explained by another type of effort, which provides a counterpart to the idea of deep work:
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

How not to be replaced by a computer

The “easy to replicate” emphasis is my note.  Why did I highlight that particular statement?  Because when something is easy to replicate it means that a person who makes less wages can easily to the same work.  More importantly, a computer can be taught to do easily replicable work.  Your job is in danger of becoming computerized if you don’t shift from shallow work to deep work!

How do you counter this danger of being replaced by either cheaper labor or a computer?  You learn, practice, and become good at and known for your deep work and deep thinking.

Cultivate Deep Work (Thinking)

You can pick up almost any article, magazine, podcast or post that will tell you how to survive working from home.  These sources talk about

  • Get started early (don’t let your day get away from you before it starts)
  • Act like you’re going to the office (wrong, take advantage of doing things differently)
  • Have a dedicated workspace (good idea, but focus on making it a non-interruptable workspace)
  • Go to coffee shops, libraries, public lounges (may not be a bad idea but discipline must tag along as well.  You can’t go to a coffee shop just so you can enjoy your favorite drink)  And during the pandemic, many of these public places are not even available to us.
  • Stay off the public media! (Great suggestion.)  Regardless of where you’re working from, stay off public media.

What you really need is the discipline and focus for deep work.

Living a life of Deep Work and Thought

As Cal Newton closes his book he says

Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand. To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience.
The deep life requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind.”

Isolation Advice

Then I was reading a Wall Street Journal article titled “Coronavirus Lockdown Lessons from Antarctica.”  The article looks at many of the scientific teams that populate Antarctica during the wintertime and are completely isolated.  They focus on one team in particular from Norway that works at the Troll station.

“On a recent evening, Troll’s six-person team put together a list of advice for those struggling with extended lockdowns.

    • Give people space…folks have to be allowed time on their own to read books, listen to music, watch television.
    • Don’t let problems linger and get bigger—talk about it from the start.
    • Stay active, and even if you are in a small place, move furniture and get fit.
    • Take a deep breath, this is a time to be curious”


I think curiosity is the foundation piece to deep work.  Wikipedia says

Curiosity is a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation, and learning, evident by observation in humans and other animals. Curiosity is heavily associated with all aspects of human development, in which derives the process of learning and desire to acquire knowledge and skill.”

Development and Learning

Notice that curiosity is heavily associated with development and learning.  I once had a friend who was fond of saying “as long as you’re like the little kid pulling his wagon up the hill, you’re doing fine.  But as soon as you stop exerting the effort to get up that hill and you sit down in your wagon to rest, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of the hill”


I think the first thing to be curious about is yourself.  Socrates is quoted as saying “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”  I’ll give Socrates a pass because he was alive about 400 years before Jesus but the Bible says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Even if you don’t hold to the Christian faith, let’s put those two concepts together.  What they are really saying is that you must know who you are and how you fit into this life and humanity as a whole.  That doesn’t come easily.  A complete lack of this reflection is a sign of Psychopathy.  Just a few of the symptoms of Psychopathy include: Grandiose sense of self-worth, lack of remorse, guilt, or empathy.  Lack of long-term goals.  None of these symptoms show signs of self-reflection.  Start with yourself.

Notice that not having long-term goals is one of the signs associated with lack of self-reflection.  Where are you going?  What does the end of your journey look like?  What do you want to be remembered for?  These issues and others are not part of our busy lives, they are reached only by deep, reflective thought.


You’ve been handed an opportunity.  Don’t waste it!

  • What kind of person do you want to be?
  • How will you become a great leader?
  • What will make you an outstanding team member?
  • What is that thing inside you that you always wanted to learn or explore?

Build it into your routine.  Find a quiet place and a quiet time at least several times per week.  Force yourself to go quiet and think about these things.  You’ll come out the other end a better person.

This post was originally posted here and here on March 26 and April 23, 2020. This review was originally posted here on December 1, 2017.

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