Book notes: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work by Cal Newport book summary.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport



“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship.

In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive 21st-century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep – spending their days instead in a frantic blur of email and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

Deep Work is an indispensable guide for anyone seeking focused success in a distracted world.” -Audible

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A discussion on the value of cultivating a skill for deep, focused work.

Opening thoughts:

Mostly picked up this book because it had good ratings and the synopsis sounded compelling. Many of the books I’m reading are merely Audible recommendations. This month, however, I also wanted to explore this concept of “deep work” or a focused, commitment to your craft.

Key notes:

  • 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
  • The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is because of network tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like email and texting, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and infotainment websites like BuzzFeed and Reddit
    • Ubiquitous and constant access to these communication tools promotes widespread fragmented attention, which cannot accommodate deep work

Part One: The Idea

Chapter 1: deep work is valuable

  • Deep work is a skill that has great value today
    • There are two reasons for this:
      • Learning. To remain valuable in our economy, you must master the art of quickly learning a complicated thing
  • Highly skilled workers. The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines?
  • Talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels, there is a premium to being the best
    • Therefore, if you are in a marketplace where the consumer has access to all performers, and everyone’s core values are clear, the consumer will choose the very best, even if difference of the best is very small compared to the next wrong down on the latter, they superstar will win the bulk of the market
  • In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage
    • The skilled workers who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital
    • Access to capital provides massive advantages
    • The following two core abilities for thriving in the new economy are crucial to landing in these two lucrative sectors:
      1. The ability to quickly master hard things
      2. The ability to produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed
    • The question is, how does one become one of these winners?
  • Deep work helps you learn hard things
    • If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive no matter how skilled or talented you are
    • For the first core ability, if you cannot learn, you cannot thrive
  • The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain
  • What does deliberate practice actually require? Core components:
    • Your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you are trying to master
  • To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction
    • To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work
  • You get better at a scale as you develop more Mylan around the neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively
  • Two, you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive
  • Law of productivity: high-quality work produced = time spent x intensity of focus
  • Big trends in business today actually decreased people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work
  • There are certain corners of the economy where depth is not valued
    • Along with executives, we can include certain types of salesman and lobbyists for whom the constant connection is their most valued currency
  • The type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work
  • Task switching creates attention residue, in that part of your attention is still left lingering on the previous task
  • Study with old people being happier because they rewired their brains do you ignore the negative and savor the positive
    • By skillfully managing their attention, they improved their world without changing anything concrete about it
  • Deep work is hard, shallow work is easier. Visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving
  • Of distracting behaviors in braced in the workplace, consider the culture of conductivity:
    • One is expected to read and respond to emails and related communication quickly
  • Study findings: The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile
    • “Flow”
    • There is an advantage in cultivating concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems
  • Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to
    • Consider the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors
    • There is a gravity and sense of importance in deep work
  • To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction
    • Human beings are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging
  • Contrary to popular belief, flow is what gives us happiness, not relaxation and not working
    • Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time because like flow activities, they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved and ones work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it

Rule #1: work deeply

  • The first two chapters of part one argue that deep work is becoming increasingly valuable and our economy
    • At the same time that it is also becoming increasingly rare for somewhat arbitrary reasons
    • Cultivating craftsmanship is necessarily a deep task, and therefore requires a commitment to deep work
    • You don’t need a rarefied job, instead, you need a rarefied approach to your work
  • The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration
  • Unexpected truth about willpower: you have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it
  • One of the main obstacles to going deep: We have an urge to turn our attention to something more superficial
    • This urge can complicate our efforts to concentrate on hard things, but most underestimate its regularity and strength
  • The rhythmic philosophy: The easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple, regular habit
    • The goal is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you are going to go deep
  • Seinfeld’s chain method: crossing off the day on your calendar when you complete your tasks such as writing jokes or something fitness related
    • Communities that thrive on being able to do hard things consistently like writers or fitness people use this
  • Bimodal philosophy of deep work: this philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly define stretches to deep pursuits, and leaving the rest open to everything else
  • The single best advice to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration
    • Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants
  • The journalist philosophy: an approach where you fit in deep work whenever you can into your schedule
    • Journalists are trained to shift into writing mode at a moments notice
  • Deep work needed to happen in 90-minute chunks recognizing that it takes time to ease into a state of concentration
  • How you will support your work? Your ritual needs to make sure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high-level of depth
    • Coffee, light snacks for brain food, or integrating light exercise like walking to keep the mind clear
  • How you will work once you start to work? Your rituals need rules and processes to keep your efforts structured
    • For example, what you shouldn’t do and should avoid, and what are some metrics or goals you need to head during the session
  • Any effective ritual must address: where you’ll work and for how long?
    • To make the most out of your deep work sessions, build rituals of the same level of strictness and idiosyncrasy as the importance of thinkers mentioned previously
  • Hub-and-spoke style offices where you can go from one side of the spectrum for the isolated thinker, and then embrace serendipitous collaboration in the common area’s
    • The theory of serendipitous creativity: when you allow people to bump into each other, smart collaborations and new ideas emerge
    • Properly leveraging collaboration can increase the quality of deep work in your professional life
  • It’s not just the change of environment or seeking of quiet that enables more depth. The dominant force is the psychology of committing so seriously to the task at hand
  • The grand gesture: a simple concept, by leveraging a radical change to your normal environment coupled by perhaps a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated to supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task
    • This boost and importance reduces your minds instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy
  • The four disciplines of the 4DX framework:
    • This type of back-and-forth represents a collaborative form of deep work that leverages what he calls the whiteboard effect
    • For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can’t push it deeper than if you were working alone
    • The presence of the other party waiting for your next insight short-circuits the natural instinct to avoid depth
  • Discipline one: focus on the wildly important
    • The more you try to do the less you actually accomplish
    • Execution should be aimed at a small number of wildly important goals
      • This simplicity will help focus an organizations energy to a sufficient intensity to ignite real results
  • Discipline two: act on the lead measures. Leg measures and lead measures
  • The general expectation to spend more time working deeply doesn’t spark a lot of enthusiasm
    • To instead have a specific goal that would return tangible and substantial professional benefits will generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm
  • Discipline three: keep a compelling scorecard
    • People play differently when they are keeping score. Once a team notices their success with a lead measure, they become invested in perpetuating this performance
  • Lead measures are things you can control in the short term which in turn affect lag measures that are longer term and your ultimate goals
  • Discipline four: create a cadence of accountability
    • The final step to help maintain a focus on lead measures is to put in place a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns wildly important goals
  • The 40x framework is based on the fundamental premise that execution is more difficult than strategizing
  • Discussing why is shut down is profitable to your ability to produce valuable output
    • Understanding the science behind the value of downtime
    • To encourage more idleness and recovery, shut down completely after work all work-related tasks and communications
  • Reason number one: downtime aids insights
  • Attention Restoration Theory (ART): claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate
  • Reason number two: downtime helps to re-charge the energy needed to work deeply
    • A shutdown habit, therefore, is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you are engaged in productive work but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy
  • Unconscious thought theory: for decisions that require the application of strict rules, the conscious mind must be involved
    • For decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague and perhaps even conflicting constraints, your unconscious mind is well-suited to tackle the issue
    • UTD hypothesizes that this is due to the fact that these regions of your brain have more neuronal bandwidth available, allowing them to move around more information and sift through more potential solutions and then your conscious center of thinking
  • To succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli
  • Scheduling time to indulge in distractions will help train your mind to prevent or reduce the urge to switch to these activities at the slightest hint of boredom
  • Don’t take breaks from distraction, take breaks from focus
    • Once you are wired for distraction, you crave it
  • Constant attention searching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain
  • The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained

Rule #2: embrace boredom

  • Regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work
    • When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done
  • Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits
  • Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable
    • Roosevelt’s dashes leverage artificial deadlines to help you systematically increase the level you can regularly achieve, providing in some sense interval training for the attention centers of the brain
  • Another benefit is that these dashes are incompatible with distractions, in that there is no way you can give into distractions and still make your deadlines
    • Therefore, every completed dash provides a session in which you are potentially bored and really want to seek novel stimuli, but you resist
    • The more you practice resisting such urges, the easier such resistance becomes
  • Productive meditation: The goal of this is to take a period in which you are occupied physically but not mentally, walking, jogging, driving, showering, and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem
    • As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders
  • Attentional control: measures the subjects ability to maintain their focus on essential information
    • A side effect of memory training is an improvement in your general ability to concentrate
    • This ability can then be fruitfully applied to any task demanding deep work
  • The “any-benefit” mindset: as it identifies any possible benefit as sufficient justification for using a network tool
  • Network tools increasingly fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate

Rule #3: quit social media

  • Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it
  • Memorizing the order of a deck of cards: use the five-room walk-through with 10 different items in a specific order
    • Your mind can quickly routine lots of detailed information if it’s stored in the right way
  • The Craftsman’s-approach to tool selection: identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a jewel only if it’s positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts
    • The problem with this approach is that it ignores all the negatives that come along with the tools in question
    • These services are engineered to be addictive, robbing time and attention from activities that more support your professional and personal goals such as deep work
  • Once these high-level goals have been identified, list for each the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal
    • These activities should be specific enough to allow you to clearly picture doing them
    • On the other hand, they should be general enough that they are not tied to a one-time outcome
  • First step of the strategy: identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and personal life
  • Apply the law of the vital few to your Internet habits
  • Don’t use the Internet to entertain yourself
  • Based on the law of the few, if you service low impact activities, you are taking away time that you could be spending on higher impact activities
    • It’s a zero-sum game
  • The next step is to consider the network tools that you currently use
    • For each such tool, go through the key activities you’ve identified and ask whether the use of the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity
  • Lastly, keep using this tool only if you’ve concluded it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts
  • If you give your mind to something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you will end your day more fulfilled and begin the next one more relaxed
  • During your relaxation time, ask yourself how you want to spend your time in your day within a day
    • Spend your time with something of more quality
    • Figure out what you were going to do in advance with your evenings and weekends before they begin
    • Structured hobbies fill your time with specific actions for specific goals

Rule #4: dream the shallows

  • On base camp adopting a four day work week. If you were official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical work week
    • Once everyone has less time to get their work done, they respect that time even more and spend it more wisely
  • Task-and-block scheduling tactic is about thoughtfulness in how to most wisely use your time
    • Schedule every minute of your day
    • Shallow work doesn’t become dangerous until after you add enough to begin to crowd out your bounded deep efforts for the day
    • Removing shallow time but also replacing with deep work time can significantly help the business become more successful
  • Without structure, it is easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow
    • A structure is more conducive to creativity as you regularly schedule blocks to grapple with new ideas or were deeply on something challenging or brainstorm for a fixed period, a type of commitment more likely to instigate innovation
  • Ask your boss for a shallow work budget
  • Evaluate activities by asking a simple but surprisingly eliminating question: “how long would it take in months to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?
  • Quantify the depth of every activity
  • Asking your boss establishes implicit agreement and support from your workplace
    • This strategy provides cover when you turn down an obligation or restructure a project to minimize shallow work
    • You can justify it because they will help you hit your target percentage work type
  •  When asking the shallow-to-deep ratio question to your boss, if they say in so many words, “as much shallow work as needed for you to promptly do whatever we need from you at the moment”
    • The answer is still useful as it tells you this job doesn’t support deep work, which is not one that can help you succeed in our current information economy
    • You should thank the boss for the feedback and then probably start planning how you can transition into a new position that values depth
  • Tips to reduce email use:
    • Tip one: make people who send you email do more work
    • Become hard to reach
    • He makes a commitment that he doesn’t work after 5:30 PM. He calls this commitment fixed-schedule productivity. From that fixed time, he works backward to find productivity strategies that allow him to satisfy that declaration
  • He has a sender-filter approach in which he directs people to different contact locations so they can filter themselves based on their requests
  • To summarize, the technologies underlying email are transformative, but the current social conventions guiding how we apply this technology are underdeveloped
  • When thinking of responding to an email prompt, ask yourself: what is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient in terms of message generated process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
    • Tip number two: do more work when you send or reply to emails
  • The process-centric approach to email identifies the project, identifies the current state, and the steps needed in order to bring the project to a successful conclusion
  • Famous professor philosophy: when it comes to email, they believe, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile
    • Tip number three: don’t respond
      • Do not reply to an email message if any of the following applies: it’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response
      • It’s not a question or proposal that interests you. Nothing really good would happen if you did respond, and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t
  • The idea of deep work is a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done
    • Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it allowed bill gates to start $1 billion industry in a semester
    • Bill Gates was a serial obsessor and had a skill for focus and concentration
  • Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand

Closing thoughts:

One of my favorite books this year for sure. This book gives a lot of tips on how to cultivate the habit of focused work, as well as how and why it’s so important in order to succeed. Being able to do deep work will help you thrive in the workplace by being able to learn hard things9/10 quickly.

The ideas and principles in this book are very applicable to almost any field or industry. No matter what you’re trying to learn, being able to do deep work effectively will help you learn faster and perform better.

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9 thoughts on “Book notes: Deep Work by Cal Newport”

  1. I have gone through all the summaries online (non-paid). The 2 main reasons why this one stands out are as follows:

    – in note form, yet comprehensive; almost 3500 words
    – he uses the technical/descriptive terminology as used by the author.

    Liked by 1 person

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