Book Review: “Deep Work” by Cal Newport

“Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they decided to show their full measure.”

– Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, as quoted in Deep Work p.35.

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. Before writing Deep Work, he wrote three books on study practices, as well as So Good They Can’t Ignore Youin which he debunks the myth that to love your job, you must follow your passion.

There are many things I like about Newport’s work, key of which is that he appears to practice what he preaches. Furthermore, his advice is practical and flexible.

In Deep Work Newport explains the eponymous term, before giving advice on how to achieve this state.

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. (page 3)

Newport argues that knowledge workers are losing the ability to perform deep work due to network tools, because they fragment their attention. Although people appear to be busy, this tends to be with shallow work, the non-demanding, logical-style tasks which do not create new value and are easy to replicate (p.6).

This shift toward shallow work creates an opportunity for those who master deep work. Deep work is a skill with great value in an information economy, because practitioners must be able to learn quickly and must be able to produce their best work. This leads to Newport’s hypothesis that deep work is scarce and valuable, and therefore “the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive” (p.14).

Many readers will be familiar with Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice, even if through the popularised version presented by Malcolm Gladwell. Newport reminds us of the core components of deliberate practice (p.35):

  • your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve;
  • you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

Focus is important (intense focus triggers myelination), and “to learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction” (p.37). To emphasise the importance of intense and uninterrupted focus, Newport proposes a law of productivity:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

(p.40).

Newport is a proponent of digital minimalism and he draws on the work of New York University Professor Neil Postman, specifically Postman’s Technopoly, to point out the flaws with society’s obsession with technology.

“Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and non-technological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech.”

Deep Work, p.69

In speaking about the meaningfulness of deep work, Newport points out that “the connection between deep work and a good like is familiar and widely accepted when considering the world of craftsmen” (p.74), but that it is less clear when it comes to knowledge work. However, this does not mean that the connection does not exist.

Newport sets out four rules for deep work:

Rule 1: Work Deeply. Your willpower is limited, so let your routines and rituals help you transition into deep work with a minimum use of willpower.

Rule 2: Embrace Boredom. Use productive meditation (thinking about a specific problem while you go for a walk, for example).

Rule 3: Quit Social Media. Apps are tools. Approach tool selection as a craftsman would.

Rule 4: Drain The Shallows. You should identify the shallowness in your life and minimise it.

In relation to each of these rules, Newport provides practical advice and examples to help implement them into your life.

In chess, as in work, it is not enough to plod along if you want to improve. You need to find ways to stretch yourself, and to gain new skills and knowledge. As ever, it is up to you to take charge, but Deep Work provides an outstanding route map to get you started on your way to success.

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Latest ECF Ratings

The ECF has finally published the 2016 year-end ratings. For those who don’t know, unlike the USCF or FIDE, who update ratings very regularly, the ECF updates official ratings only every six months.

I am very glad to report that my rating has improved from 111 (1533 Elo) at end June 2016 to 121 (1608) at end December 2016. That now makes an increase of 323 points from my first rating of 1285 at June 2014, to 1608 two and a half years later. This is not spectacular progress, but frankly I am very pleased that I am still improving.

elo

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Review – 2016

If I had to sum up the calendar year 2016, I would say it was a year of distilling my study plan and approach, and remembering there is more to life than chess.

Here is a quick run-through of where I ended up.

  • I played 54 rated OTB games (all standard time controls; can’t see myself ever playing quicker controls). My ECF rating was 103 on the January 2016 list (1473 Elo); I expect it to be around 116 (1570) on the January 2017 list.
  • finally recorded / codified my opening repertoire (Tiger Chess Building an Opening Repertoire course),
  • did more tactics than ever,
  • fixed on the Yusupov course as my source of general chess improvement, supplemented by Tiger Chess videos.

For 2017 my focus will be on:

  • Openings: learn lines, build “Pattern-Groups” to study more deeply the plans, themes and patterns across different lines.
  • Tactics: continue the high-volume low-rating spaced repetition tactics sets, with some higher-rating low-volume tactics to build calculation and visualisation skills.
  • Endgames: continue to build on knowledge by working through books; build fluency of concepts through practice on ChessTempo.
  • General: Work through Yusupov’s course and Tiger Chess videos, continue to build and review pattern bank.
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Book Review: “Mindset” by Carol Dweck

What an utter disappointment this book was. I wasted a few evenings reading it, having to force myself to read on, thinking the good stuff must be just around the corner. Well, it never came.

This will be a short review, as I do not want to waste much more time or energy on the book. For the same reason I won’t monitor or respond to comments in this post.

Here is a summary of the key content. If you believe you are born with a set amount of talent for a given subject or sport, you have a fixed mindset and are doomed. If you believe you can get better at anything by working at it, you have a growth mindset and will be a great human being.

After introducing this concept, Dr. Dweck gives example after example of an individual or team doing badly, stating they had a fixed mindset. John McEnroe pops up as a frequent example. Yup, some of her examples are that old. Then follow those who did well and therefore had a growth mindset. Like Tiger Woods… Well at least he is still active. The approach appears to be to take any event ever and claim this binary view of humanity was the cause for the outcome.

Why this book has the reputation it has, is beyond me.

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Chessable Review

Short version: Loved Chessable initially; had two major and a few minor issues which stopped me using it; fantastic customer service and an ethos of continuous improvement resulted in those being fixed; Love it again and would recommend it freely.


The debate about how much time a chess player should spend studying openings will rage on forever. Some say don’t touch openings until you reach 2000, others report how 1200s are booked to the teeth in the US.

My own view is that I will study openings insofar as they help me become a better chess player. At the moment (Dec 2016, rated ~1550) that means sticking with a very narrow repertoire (as advocated by GM Nigel Davies in his Building an Opening Repertoire course on Tiger Chess).

There are two aims for me. Firstly, I want to be able to rush through the first ten or so moves whenever possible, to give me time to think in critical positions later in the game. That means learning the lines of my opening repertoire (or sometimes the general structures, since much of it is system-based).

Secondly, I want to understand the positions I end up in, so that I can apply known plans and ideas and rely on pattern recognition rather than calculation.

In pursuit of the first aim, rote learning of lines, I have used all sorts of methods. These have included bespoke software such as Chess Opening Wizard and Chess Position Trainer. When IM John Bartholomew announced early this year that he was part of the team behind a new website, Chessable, aimed at helping people learn openings, I signed up. I was a very active user early on, staying on the overall points leaderboard (not that that is important) and racking up a 109 day streak, broken only when I went on holiday.

Initially I really enjoyed Chessable, as my activity level showed. Things I loved included:

  • The idea of using spaced repetition to learn openings; this was missing from other software.
  • Being able to import pgn files.
  • Having access to free books set up by IM Bartholomew; rook and pawn endgames and simple checkmates.
  • The initial learning process, where you are shown the move before being asked to play it, then repeating your full line twice.
  • When reviewing a line, if you make a mistake, Chessable shows the correct move and repeats it at the end of that set of ten moves.
  • The Quick Move mode.

But all was not well. There were things that made me drop my activity dramatically, eventually to the point where I stopped using Chessable and moved back to Chess Opening Wizard. The main issues for me were:

  • In review mode, being fed out of sequence, random positions. The more I used it, the more it irritated me. This was simply not how I wanted to learn openings. I wanted to start at the beginning position, then play a full line while Chessable plays the opposition’s moves.
  • Chessable was unusable on my mobile phone, because it showed only a quarter of the board and was not resizeable.

Minor issues which did not bother me that much, but which added to my decision to stop using Chessable, included a chaotic forum format with no search function and problems with uploading pgns (100k was ‘too big’ a file and had to be queued).

Then in September I received an email from Chessable asking me to review the site. Before writing the review I emailed the main man behind the project, David, to let him know the review is not likely to be all positive. And this is where Chessable stands out. The customer service is outstanding.

I had emailed David a few times in the early days and he had always been very helpful. This time again he offered to address the issues I raised. He tinkered with the mobile version of the website and after a few false starts, I was able to report that it worked just fine on Android.

More importantly, he introduced a linear review option. Now you have the option to get the full line when you click ‘Review’. You may still get random lines, and that is great, but rather than ask for a random move in the middle of one line, then jumping to a random position in another line, the review now starts from the starting position and plays out like a normal opening would, logically and in order.

David is constantly improving the site and listening to user feedback. Another improvement that comes to mind is when he fixed an issue where the overstudy function would play through all moves, not just key moves. Some descriptions for those who don’t know, overstudy is an option where you can study a specific line even if it is not due for review. I used this a lot before the linear review option was introduced. Key moves: if you have a repertoire which includes a block of 20 lines which starts with say 11.Qc2, you might not want to play moves 1 through 10 every time, just to get to 11.Qc2. You can select 11.Qc2 as a key move for those lines, so that when you study those lines, they start at move 11. Great function.

I have uploaded my refreshed repertoire onto Chessable and use it as the only tool to simply learn lines (not themes and ideas). It does a great job of this, has ever improving functionality and options, and I would recommend you give it a try.

 

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Review – November 2016

From a chess point of view, October was a non-event. I was away on holiday for two weeks, had visitors for a few days and spent a lot of time on work (a few big tasks all delivering at the same time) and on home administration.

I worked through 18 endgame book pages, watched 16 Tiger Chess videos, did ‘only’ 821 tactics problems and played 3 games. Those were a draw against an 1863 and wins against a 1248 and a 1488. Come to think of it, it is a good sign of intention when that level of activity came from me thinking I spent no time on chess.

November was somewhat better, although still with some reds on the dashboard. Part of the reason was a continuation of work and home commitments, but part was that I rebalanced chess with other interests. I have read barely any books this year, which is not a good thing. I have been reading more and will continue to do so.

The key metrics for November were 20 endgame pages, 3 Yusupov chapters (taking by far the most chess time), 29 Tiger Chess videos (many of them opening repertoire videos; getting there on that long process), 1,035 tactics problems and 4 games. Those were three wins (versus players rated 1248, 1450 and 1518) and a draw against a 1533. That has left my provisional rating at around 1570, up from the mid-year official ECF rating of 1533.

In the continuing effort to make the most of the time that I spend on chess (focus, deliberate practice, deep work, growth mindset and all that), I have been thinking about whether to continue with this blog. On the one hand, it provides an opportunity to reflect, something I suspect played a role in this year’s culling of my training plan. It also makes me think about summarising lessons from books on mastery (few and far between, but see paragraph three above). On the other hand, it takes up time that could be spent studying. Does it really add value to anyone? I don’t know that it does, because bar a few posts, it is not an instructional blog; it just exists to tell my tale of agonisingly slow progress. It would be good to hear what you think, especially those of you who also write blogs, or used to.

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Review – September 2016 – Tactics, tactics, tactics

I am glad to report that I have continued to stick to the undertaking I made at the end of July to not change my study plan for at least the rest of 2016.

This means that I do a bunch of tactics, record my opening repertoire, work through Yusupov’s course, watch some Tiger Chess videos and work on endgames.

For tactics, I still do mostly spaced repetition on ChessTempo, using custom sets that I have created. These sets are all low rated (in the range 900 to 1,100) and split into mates and non-mates. I also do some Mixed Mode tactics on ChessTempo and to engage with a different medium, I use the Manual of Chess Combinations.

In September I did 7,229 tactics. You read that correctly. For some reason I just found myself in a mood to do loads of tactics this month, so I did. The idea is to build up an awareness of and then internalise, as many patterns as possible. So although the volume is huge, I deliberately aim to see the underlying pattern in each problem and make connections across problems. I doubt I’ll keep up this volume, but I do want to at the very least meet my 1,500 per month target every month.

With the huge amount of tactics I did in September, I didn’t do too much on the other areas. I made some progress in recording my opening repertoire and now have 24% to go. Including the opening videos, I watched 32 Tiger Chess videos, a bit short of my target. I did only 20 pages of Pandolfini’s Endgame Course and only one lesson in Yusupov.

dash

The Yusupov book is very time consuming, because I do it in the way he prescribes. This entails setting up every position on a real chessboard and first visualising variations and moves before playing them. For each question in the tests (there are 12 questions in each end-of-chapter test), I also set up the position on a board, then try to work it out without moving pieces, test my thoughts by physically moving the pieces and then writing down my answers. Because I am still somewhat rubbish at chess, but do want to move through the books, I’ve had to limit myself to 10 minutes of mental analysis and then 5 minutes of physical analysis, after which I write down my answers. Including the setting up and writing down time, this means around 20 minutes per question, so around 4 hours to get through 12 questions.

Finally, I planned to play in two congresses in September, but had to withdraw. Therefore I have played only 2 games, a draw against a 1615 rated player and a loss against a player rated 1705.  The loss was a little disappointing, because although I was out of book after move 2 and without a plan for maybe 15 moves, I built up a really good position (Stockfish evaluation +1 for me), only to throw it away. I attempted a breakthrough when I just needed to be patient and create a second weakness. Lesson learnt.

I will be less active in October as I will be away for a couple of weeks.

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