The art of Deep Work, on multitasking, and the rise of intermittent fasting
The bad thing about having lots of books in the backlog is that you feel guilty about buying even more. The good thing however is that you can pick a book on a topic you finally feel like reading on, there it is! You need very little activation energy — the book is already there, you just have to pick it up and start flipping.
I realised this last week when I suddenly felt like reading about memory, and how memory mastering is not an art but an acquirable skill. And I had the perfect book for it in my library: Moonwalking with Einstein by Josh Foer. Foer writes with authority on this topic. He after all won the U.S.A. Memory Championship in 2006 by memorising a deck of 52 cards in one minute and 40 seconds, despite having a very average memory to begin with. I have not yet read the book fully, but I am already halfway through it. Made this progress on one book despite languishing on others. The key insight for me was that it’s much faster to sift through a book when I feel the need for it, rather than reading them in a pre-defined order. So, now I allow myself this freedom to randomly start a new topic, pausing the rest.
And yes, I continue to buy more books. Both Seth Godin (who I will write about soon) and Ramit Sethi (whose this book I plan to read in autumn) have said that buying a book is the best investment. Buy the book even if you are remotely interested in, they both say, for if you end up reading it then it’s the best 10 bucks spent, and even if you don’t end up reading it, for the cost of two lattes, there is not much to lose here.
Here are my three takeaways from last week (W29):
A principle that I am becoming increasingly interested in is that of ‘Deep Work’. I encountered it in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Newport defines deep work as ‘activities performed in state of distraction-free concentration’. We are increasingly distracted by influx of social media, which according to Newport, are rewarded for how efficiently they can keep us engaged. As a result, the ability to concentrate for long hours is becoming rare. Newport argues that soon the ability to do deep work will be seen as a superpower. This hypothesis rings true to me. Some of the learnings that I took away from this book are:
Willpower is limited. Better to use its reserve effectively. So the most cognitively demanding tasks should be handled when the willpower is at its peak. The best time to concentrate for me is in the mornings. To lengthen this period, for example at work, I try to divvy up my day into two halves, before and after lunch, separated by a 20 minutes meditation break.
Logging hours of deep work is good leading indicator to measure progress on your key goal. For example, a minimum of 20 minutes of writing every day is a deep work habit that ensures I am making progress towards my writing goals every day.
While doing deep work, distance yourself from social media or other distractions. For me, it’s the phone itself, and easy access to the news-sites. My solution: put the phone on silent and turn it upside down while carrying out high focus tasks, and block my most frequented news-sites from the phone — so if I have to read them, then I can only do so on my laptop.
Apply the 4DX principle, i.e.,
Identify your wildly important goals, i.e. running a marathon
Understand and log leading indicators, i.e. track how many hours of deep work did you devote towards the goals. Important to measure leading indicators as lagging indicators (those that track the results and not effort invested) are at times too late to drive actionable behaviour
Keep a scorecard. I use simple kanban boards to track my reading and writing and a simple walled monthly calendar to mark progress on my habits
Create accountability by reviewing progress. I am weak on this dimension, as I rarely take out time to measure how much have I achieved and where am I lagging behind.
In addition, I am also inspired to look closely at what all shallow work do I spend time on, and if I can somehow automate/eliminate/outsource it.
Deep Work is a hugely powerful but an easy read. Soon after finishing it, I picked up another of Newport’s book: So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I will write a note on this book too, but in the meantime if you are interested in listening to Cal Newport then I can suggest this podcast as a good starting point. He is a thought leader who I follow closely, in addition to Ryan Holiday and James Clear.
Adam Grant, author of path breaking book Give and Take, said last week, “Multitasking isn't a problem if you do it slowly. Highly creative scientists switched topics 43x in their first 100 papers.” I found this super interesting for I used to do a lot of multitasking, but lately (also inspired by Deep Work) I have moved to single-tasking. So this message from Adam Grant left me conflicted. Interestingly, another piece appeared last week that re-iterated that multitasking is cognitively costly. ‘The cost of shuffling goals and mental rules is harmless if there’s predictable downtime during one or both tasks’, it said though. I wonder what’s a good predictable downtime. Perhaps, a 20 minutes meditation while switching between two cognitively demanding tasks? On a different note, yet another piece came out last week that tried to answer whether listening to a book is same as reading it. I found it a fascinating read, for I struggle with listening to books. Mostly I listen to books on the way to work, and more often than not, I get distracted by the comings and goings around me. According to the article, audiobooks have one great advantage though, which is prosody. Hearing the audio — and therefore the correct prosody — can aid comprehension, the article says.
The world seems to be waking up to the benefits of intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting is essentially eating all your main meals in a time bound window of few hours, followed by long stretches of fasting. It’s supposed to promote longevity, and improves sleep. I first heard the term while reading a profile of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, who is often referred to as Gwyneth Paltrow of the tech world. He eats only one meal a day. While his approach has received a lot of criticism, there are many who are experimenting with this form of bio-hacking. Here is one such piece that appeared in NY Times last week. I do follow a very light form of intermittent fasting, the driving principle being not to eat three hours before bedtime (my last meal is around 7 PM and then the breakfast the day after around 8 AM, so that’s close to 13 hours without food. Ideally, the gap should be 16 hours minimum). Meanwhile, studies are indicating that cutting as little as 300 calories from daily intake can improve health. Here is a piece on that.
A new term that I learnt last week: Day Zero: The day when water resources are unable to meet water demand. I came across this term while reading on Chennai’s escalating water problems in this piece.
Here is a quote I came across last week:
A book is a screaming bargain. you spend 15-20 bucks and it can change your life. If I can learn three things, I pick it up.
- Seth Godin