Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport


In a Nutshell

Deep Work is increasingly rare and increasingly important in today’s age. If we can improve our ability to work deeply, we can accomplish way more in our lives. We improve our deep work ability by structuring and scheduling our day more carefully, embracing boredom, unplugging from social media, and being more strategic about reading and responding to emails.

Book Notes

Deep work is a distraction-free state of concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Deep work creates new value, increases your skills, and is hard to replicate.

This book has two goals

  1. to convince you that deep work is important
  2. to show you how to prioritize deeper work and how get better at it

Get isolated to go deep

Deep work is best undertaken in isolation in order to minimize distractions. Social media is a detriment to focus, concentration, and depth.

Many great works of art and science are attributable to deep work. Modern knowledge workers are quickly forgetting the value of deep work due to network tools such as email, instant message, and social media. This results in fragmented attention spans.

Shallow work is the opposite of deep work. It is easy to replicate, and does not drive meaningful results. Shallow work degrades our capacity to remain focused.

Two reasons to get good at deep work

  1. Stay valuable.  To remain valuable in today’s economy, you have to become good at learning complex things quickly.
  2. Winners take all. In a democratized digital economy, you run the risk of being overlooked if your product is mediocre. You need to be on the cutting edge in order to achieve the best results. This requires depth.

As we shift to an information economy, more people are knowledge workers, which makes deep work even more critical.

The paradox of deep work

Deep work is increasingly scarce (due to increasing distractions), while at the same time increasingly valuable (more applications).

A deep life is a good life

Limiting the number of distractions in your life will restrict the amount of mental nervousness that increasingly pervades our lives. Get more comfortable with being bored.

The great restructuring

The increasing ease of remote work is leading to an increasing number of winner take all work projects. In other words, only the best workers get hired.

Rapidly improving technology is leading to a great restructuring in our economy.  This makes access to capital critical to value creation. The contribution of capital far outweighs the contribution of labor due to automation.

Those with the ability to drive results out of increasingly complex and powerful machines will thrive. The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?

Talent is not a commodity. You can’t combine mediocre talent to achieve something great. This leads to an increasing number of a winner take all situations.

Three groups that will benefit greatly from the technology-fueled restructuring:

  1. Those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines
  2. Those were the best at what they do
  3. Those with access to capital

If you can join one of these three groups, you will do well. If you don’t, you might still be fine, but your position will be more precarious. The first two are much more accessible than the third.

Two core skills in the new economy:

  1. The ability to learn complex skills quickly

If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive. This applies to all fields.

  1. The ability to produce add an elite level in both quality and speed

If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive.

Learning how to do deep work is the foundation for achieving both of these skills.

The difference between normal adults and experts is a life time spent in deliberate practice. Natural talent plays only a limited role in expertise. Deliberate practice is based on:

– focused attention on a single idea or subject

– receiving feedback so you keep your focus exactly where it is most effective

Scientists have found that learning results in a development of a coating around neurons, which make them fire easier and cleaner. Learning is deep work.

Top performers like Adam Grant use batching to collect several hours of deep work at a time. He alternates between having an open door policy to his students and closing his door to focus on a specific task. He also batches his time spent on a single report into analyzing, writing a draft, and editing the draft for publication. He will often use an out of office reply for 3 to 4 days until a given task is done.

The productivity equation

Quantity of high-quality work = time spent * intensity of focus

Why it’s so hard to do work

Attention residue accumulates when you switch from one task to another. The more intense the residue from a previous task, the worse your performance will be on the current task. This is why working in a state of semi-distraction is toxic to performance.

Deep work is not equally important in all jobs, but the number of jobs where it is not important (executive roles, sales rolls, etc.) are becoming increasingly rare.

Three recent work trends that make deep work even harder

  • Open concept offices. Open concept offices can increase collaboration, learning, and serendipitous encounters.
  • Instant messaging. Direct messages are becoming more fluid and more integrated with day-to-day work, which can limit distractions and use properly.
  • Active social media presence

Whether we realize it or not, interruptions delay the completion of tasks significantly.

The benefits of the three trends are dwarfed comparison to the loss of deep work.

A metric black hole

The difficulty of measuring depth disruptive activities leads to they are prolific Tatian.

The principle of least resistance

In a business setting, behaviors that don’t result in clear feedback regarding their impact on the bottom line will persist because they are easier at the moment.

Distractions are the default because they are easier. If you have the option of finding something out immediately, you will take it. Also, responding to emails and other “busy” tasks feels productive.

Busyness as a proxy for productivity

In the absence of clear metrics, knowledge workers tend to perform busy tasks rather Van deep ones in order to feel and appear productive.


Today’s culture is too quick to idolize technology and the internet and assume that they are synonymous with progress. Technology companies, after all, are simply for-profit companies with investors just like other industries.

Knowledge work, by its nature, is more ambiguous than physical crafts and art that results in tangible products.  This means that it’s harder to find depth and meaning, and therefore satisfaction, in knowledge work.

Management of attention is the key to living a happy and fulfilling life. We place too much emphasis on our circumstances and outcomes of big events in determining the quality of our lives. In contrast, who you are is the sum of what you focus on.

Ignore the negative, savor the positive

When you cultivate what you want to focus on, it leaves less room for other things that are usually not as pleasant to fill that void. Shallow work tasks such as responding to emails and dealing with office politics are many times trivial and negative.

Deep work is beneficial neurologically

When you spend more time at work being focused, you get more things done, which increases your sense of meaning and satisfaction with your working life.

Deep work is beneficial psychologically

Time spent in Flo states doing something worthwhile and difficult increases satisfaction. Relaxation is not the goal. Jobs are more enjoyable than free time because they have built in goals, feedback loops, and challenges. Lacking this kind of structure, it is harder for free time to be enjoyed.

Deep work and flow

Deep work provides conditions that are conducive to flow states.

Deep work is beneficial philosophically

Dreyfus and Keli suggest that the ancient world used to be about sacred and shiny things. But ever since the works of Descartes and the Enlightenment, sacredness has evolved into the individual’s quest for sacredness and meaning. This search for meaning is not only arbitrary, but can also be miserable. Finding value outside of oneself in activities like craftsmanship is important source of meaning in a post enlightenment world. This sacredness of craftsmanship can be transferred over into the world of knowledge work. Whatever you do, you can treat your work as a craft and hone your ability to achieve the same level of satisfaction as that of a craftsman. In other words, you don’t need a rarefied job, you just need a rarefied approach to your job to receive the same value. The key to this mindset is adopting deep work.

Four rules to implement and maximize deep work

David Dewane’s Eudaimonia Machine is an ideal environment for harnessing deep work. Unfortunately, it is a far cry from our current work setups, which are typically replete with distractions.

Willpower is finite. Deep work cannot be willed into existence. The key to maximizing deep work is to build a set of habits and rituals that will avoid the need to use willpower.

Four philosophies of deep work

  1. The monastic philosophy: the radical minimization or complete elimination of distractions. This works well for people with a well defined goal for success in their career, and highly individual efforts.
  2. The bimodal philosophy: divide your time between monastic “deep” time and shallow time. The minimum time required to achieve full cognitive intensity is about one day. This period of time block is more accessible than you might think. If your deep work sessions are well communicated and established, you will not receive much pushback.
  3.  The rhythmic philosophy: create a habit of deep work sessions by creating a simple reminder to do so (such as a red X on the calendar). Stringing together the Xs will be satisfying and incentivize you to continue the ritual. The key here is to Block off the same window of time every day. Ideally in the morning to avoid interruptions.  This strategy works better with the reality of human nature, and is the most common method for people with normal office jobs.
  4. The journalistic philosophy: whenever you find free time, switch into a phase of deep work.doing this is hard, as it requires conviction and drains will power.

Standardized your work habits

Don’t wait for inspiration to Streich. Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants. Build daily rituals to minimize the friction of shape shifting to deep work.

Rules for Rituals

Work rituals should answer the following questions

Where will you work?

How long will you work for?

What time will you start and what time will you finish?

What metrics and processes will you use to keep your concentration?

What food, materials, and exercise will you need to preserve all of your energy for your work?

The grand gesture

Try pairing a significant change to your normal routine and environment with a large investment to create a sense of urgency and significance to your craft. Examples include renting an expensive hotel room, building a cabin in the woods, etc. to do your work in. To go deep, sometimes you have to go big.

Don’t work alone

The old MIT Building 20 was a perfect environment for deep work. It was poorly constructed, but it allowed it’s tenants the flexibility to move walls and ceilings to suit their projects and needs. It also put together scientists and engineers from many different fields, which led to serendipitous encounters.

A hub and spoke layout offers a ideal mix between serendipitous encounters (in the hubs) and spaces for solo deep work (in the spokes).

The whiteboard affect

For some projects, working in a small group at a whiteboard or shared space can push you deeper than you would be on your own. This is because the presence of someone else can bypass the tendency to avoid deep work.

The 4 Disciplines of Executing Deep Work (4DX)

  1. Execution should be aimed at a small set of extremely important goals. Likewise, you should focus your deep work periods on a specific task or goal.
  2. Act on lead measures, not lag measures. Lag measures have been too late to change your behavior. For the purposes of deep work, lag measures are your actual work product. Instead of focusing on this, you should focus on time spent directly on the goals you aim to achieve.
  3. Keep a deep work scorecard. To track your progress and motivate yourself, keep a visual record of how many hours you spent performing deep work. Whenever you reach a key milestones, circle it on your board. This serves two purposes. First, it allows you to keep a record of deep work hours and results. Second, it gives you a realistic record of how long it takes you to obtain tangible results.
  4. Accountability. Review your deep work record on a weekly basis to review your habits and results.

The Case for Idleness

Idleness is indispensable to the brain. There are four reasons for this:

  1. Downtime aids insight. The unconscious mind benefits from Time spent mowing over complex issues.
  2. Downtime helps you recharge for more deep work. Spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. Attention spans are finite.
  3. The work that downtime replaces is usually not that important. Our minds have a finite capacity for deep work in a day. You might actually get more done by resting rather than by checking emails at night.

Four rules for implementing deep work

Rule #1. Have a shutdown ritual

It is good to have a shutdown ritual whenever you end a period of deep work. A good ritual is like an algorithm, a series of steps, that you follow every time you finish. End it by saying a sentence that you signals the conclusion of your work.

A shutdown ritual may look like this:

  1. Check email inbox for any urgent requests.
  2. Add any new tasks to your to do list.
  3. Scan your calendar for upcoming deadlines.
  4. Recite your shutdown mantra, such as “shutdown complete.”

This ritual is important due to the Zeigarnik effect, which states that incomplete tasks dominate our attention. If you have a plan to complete it later, however, it will free your mind to focus on other things.

Rule #2. Embrace boredom

The ability to concentrate intensely comes through practice. Just as an elite athlete would avoid junk food, so should you avoid dependence on distraction. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy.

It’s harder to take a break from distraction than to take a break from concentration. Instead of implementing an Internet Sabbath (i.e. taking a break from technology for one day per week), it is more effective to schedule times where you take a break from concentration.

Schedule Internet blocks

Try keeping a notepad with a list of times where you are allowed to use the Internet, And a void using it otherwise. The Internet is seductive. Even if you need to retrieve only one thing from it, you will inevitably get sucked in to additional browsing. Instead, try switching to another off-line task or just relaxing. Try to continue the practice of scheduled Internet use even outside of work. Your brain makes a little distinction between work and non-work. The key is not to reduce Internet usage, but instead to avoid switching to Internet use at the first signs of boredom. Don’t allow the Internet to hijack your attention.

The Roosevelt dash

Increase the intensity of your deep work by setting an aggressive deadline or by setting a countdown timer to increase the stakes. Start off by doing this once a week to give your brain a recovery period. After a few months, you will improve your ability to engage in intense deep work.

Meditate productively

While you are on a run, in the car, or in the shower, try focusing your attention on a single work related problem. If you were attention starts to wander, bring it back to the problem. This exercise will help you avoid distraction and sharpen your concentration.

Two suggestions to improve your productive meditation:

  1. be wary of distractions and looping. Don’t allow your mind to default back to preliminary ideas.  Instead, push your mind to think deeper about the problem.
  2. Structure your deep thinking. Do this by identifying key variables, defining the next step question using these variables, then consolidating gains toward answering that question.

Memory training

People with outstanding memories have the ability to control their attention better than others. This ability can be extrapolated into any kind of deep task. Memory training improves your ability to concentrate.

Practice memory training by memorizing a deck of shuffled cards. Instead of trying to simply memorize the sequence, use the memory castle technique by imagining yourself walking into a room with five rooms, and think of 10 large memorable items in each room (each item corresponds to each number in a sequence). Then think of memorable people that interact with each item. Choose people that make sense with the type of card. For each card in the deck, think of memorable interactions between the people and things to represent the sequence.

Rule #3: Quit social media

Social media sites and infotainment sites like Business insider and BuzzFeed fragment our attention and reduce our ability to concentrate. To master deep work, you have to reclaim your time from the diversions that are trying to steal it. People justify using social media by citing benefits that don’t really matter. This argument also ignores the cost of using the Internet.

The craftsman approach to tool selection

Instead of adopting any new tool because simply because it has value, we must adopt a more sophisticated approach that takes into account the cost as well. Tools are simply aids that help us achieve our goals and our craft. Adopt a tool only if the benefits outweigh the costs of using it. Before you start using a tool, make sure that the benefits outweigh the costs of using it.

The bulk of the value of all your activities come from a vital few things.

Unplug for 30 days

Try taking 30 days off from all social media services. Ask yourself these two questions after the 30 days:

  1. Would my life have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using the service? If he answers to both are yes, then continue using the service. If they are both no, then stop using them. If your answers are in big US, then air on the side of quitting. You can always re-join later.

Use your time outside of work for rigorous self improvement. Too many people view the workday as “the day “and neglect the other hours in the day for anything constructive. Your mental faculties do not require rest like muscles do, they only require change between activities. If you give yourself something meaningful to do during all of your waking hours, you will find yourself more fulfilled.

Rule #4: Drain the shallows

People rarely accomplish eight hours of work in a typical workday. This is due to all of the shallow work, personal matters, and office politics, and meetings that occur in a typical office. If you give yourself less time in the office, it forces you to remove the fat, and be more efficient with your time.

There is a limit to the amount of deep work that can be accomplished in a day. The upper limit of deep work in a day is about four hours.

Schedule every minute of your day

People underestimate the amount of time they spend watching TV and over estimate the amount of time they spend working. Mitigate this problem by scheduling your day into 30 minute blocks, assigning a task to each 30 minute block. To problems will arise with this method: tasks will take longer than you thought, and you will be interrupted periodically with more urgent issues. The good news is that you can revise your schedule along the way. If you finish early, have an alternate block ready to fill the extra time. Treat your time with respect.

Quantify the depth of each activity

Determine the level of depth of each task by asking this question: how long would it take to train a recent college graduate to do this? Minimize the amount of time spent on shallow work, and maximize the time spent on the deeper work.

Don’t work after 5:30 PM

If you fix the back end of your schedule, it will force you to be more productive throughout the day. Say no more often.  Fixed schedule productivity is a meta habit that should be one of the first behaviors that you change to go deeper.

Three tips to help you manage emails

Tip #1 Become hard to reach

Make people who send you email do more work. If you were in a position to do so, set up sender filters that make it more thoughtful require more thought from the center prior to contacting you. This will free up your time and let you reclaim control over your time and attention.

Tip #2 Process-centric email responses

When you get an email that is open ended, resist the urge to fire off a quick response. Instead, craft a well-thought-out email that references the process needed to complete the project, the current status, next steps, and detailed options for them to choose from, if necessary. Try using a decision tree in your message to short circuit unnecessary emails. While this may cost you more time in the short run, it will reduce the number of messages in your inbox and save you time in the long run.

Tip #3: Don’t respond

Not responding to an email should be the default unless the topic is relevant or urgent. Don’t respond to the following types of email: ambiguous/vague ones, irrelevant/uninteresting ones, and emails in which the consequences of not responding are minimal. Develop a tolerance for little bad things that happen. If you don’t, you will never find time for the life-changing big things.

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