Deep Work by Cal Newport: Summary with Comments

Rational Hustle


Deep Work by Cal Newport is a book about the science of productivity. The author argues that the best way to get meaningful work done is by working deeply — working in a distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit. If you want to create real value or improve your skills, you have to work deeply.

I started reading Deep Work as I wanted to be more productive and have more time outside of my day-job. At the time, I was working as a financial consultant at a Big 4 firm. Every day, I found myself spending a lot of time on e-mails, going to several meetings and having limited time to do actual work. It became increasingly difficult for me to focus for a long time on any activity as I was often distracted by phone notifications or discussions at the office. All of these things lowered my productivity and increased overtime. As a result, I didn’t enjoy my job and felt that my career progress was too slow.

Given the problems that I personally had, I think that Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” addressed issues with concentration and productivity very well. The book had plenty of actionable advice and good examples to be inspired from. Everyone who wants to achieve more in less time or master a new skill should read this book!

My top 5 takeaways from the book

  1. Quit social media
  2. Plan every minute of your day! (also plan the planning time)
  3. Downtime is very important
  4. Work on your email skills — it’s one of the biggest energy drainers
  5. Spend your free time on meaningful activities — reading books, doing sports, spending time with family and travelling (these are my meaningful activities)

Below I have written a short summary of the book with comments. I hope you like it!

Deep Work is valuable

So what is Deep Work? What is the difference between Deep Work and Shallow Work?

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 skills and are hard to replicate.

Shallow work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much value in the world and are easy to replicate.

The author argues that there are three groups of people who will have a particular advantage in the current economy:

  • Those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines
  • Those who are the best at what they do
  • Those who have access to capital (difficult category to reach)

If you want to thrive in the current economy, you have to be able to master new things quickly and perform tasks at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. In order to do so, you must focus intensely without distraction.

Have you noticed that many job ads require ability to multitask? Actually, multitasking kills your productivity! Checking your email too often introduces a new target for your attention. By seeing messages that you can’t deal with at the moment, you would feel worse when performing other tasks.

Deep Work is rare

There are 3 business trends that destroy productivity (probably there are more, but these are the main ones that most of us face on a daily basis):

[Comment] One of the concepts that stuck in my memory after reading the book was “busyness as a proxy for productivity”. When I started working as a financial consultant, many people around me were working lots of overtime. They seemed more productive than others and they were quickly promoted. It created a culture, where people were proud of their overtime and anybody who didn’t go by those rules was labeled eccentric or less motivated. Cal Newport explained this: “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in a job, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity — doing lots of stuff in a visible manner”. It is interesting that sometimes even management of a company can mistake busyness for productivity.

Systematically develop your personal ability to go deep — and by doing so, reap great rewards.

Deep Work is meaningful

Practicing Deep Work is also a source of great satisfaction and value. There are 3 arguments why depth generates meaning:

  1. Neurological argument: when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.
  2. Physiological argument: people get more satisfaction and are happier when their body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to achieve something difficult and worthwhile.
  3. Philosophical argument: Deep Work is key to attracting meaning from your profession. By viewing your job as a craft, you can turn a boring task into something satisfying.

What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore — plays in defining the quality of our life.

The four rules of Deep Work

Knowing that Deep Work is valuable is the easy part. The hard part is to start working deeply. We are so used to multitasking, replying to the latest email and using social media that it has become difficult for us to work deeply. Hence, Cal Newport has come up with 4 rules that will help you to do more Deep Work.

✓ Rule #1: Work Deeply
✓ Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
✓ Rule #3: Quit Social Media
✓ Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Below, I have described each rule in detail.

Rule #1: Work deeply

The key to developing a Deep Work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life. For example, Jerry Seinfeld wanted to write better comedy, so he wrote every day. He kept a calendar on the wall and crossed out each day with a large X when he wrote some jokes. His goal was to keep writing without skipping a day — this is called the “chain method”. The chain method promotes generating a rhythm for Deep Work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you are going to go deep. By having a rock solid routine for Deep Work you learn to get something done on a regular basis. In the long run, you would record more total hours of Deep Work per year than working irregularly.

Before you start working deeply, you should sort out the following 3 things:

  • Where you will work and for how long
  • How you will work once you start to work
  • How you will support your work

In addition, if you want to properly implement your Deep Work strategies, you should follow 4 key principles:

  1. Focus on the important: The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish. You should identify a small number of goals that you want to pursue with your Deep Work hours.
  2. Act on the lead measures: Once you have identified your main goals (from point 1), you need to understand how you measure your success. Time spent in a state of Deep Work dedicated toward your key goals is one way to measure your success.
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard: If your lead measure (from point 2) is hours spent working deeply, you should have a scoreboard that displays your current Deep Work hour count.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability: Analyze your scoreboard (from point 3) and see why you had poor Deep Work weeks and good weeks. This will help you to analyze your Deep Work habit.

Finally, you have to understand that no one can work deeply for the whole day. Hence, you also need to have regular freedom from professional activities. Research suggests that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your Deep Work. You can do that by retreating to a place where you are isolated from work (nature or countryside house) or shut off completely after ending your workday — no email, no laptop and no looking into your smartphone.

Distraction remains destroyer of depth.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

In today’s world we are constantly being distracted by many things and our general ability to concentrate has diminished. Concentration, just like any other skill is something that has to be trained and maintained outside of your Deep Work sessions. Every time you feel bored and give in to a distraction, you damage your ability to concentrate.

[Comment] Reading this chapter, I remembered how I lived without a phone for about 3 months. I had to stand in the line for a coffee without looking into my phone. I navigated around the city without using GPS (took me 2 hours on bank holiday to get to a place where I would usually get in 40 minutes). During that time, I had far less distractions than I normally would have. I basically lived the whole day during those 3 month with no major distractions, which helped me to concentrate on anything I wanted to achieve in a day. I don’t suggest now that everyone should stop using their phones, but switching off once in a while might be very beneficial — try it!

If you regularly give in to distractions, you will find it increasingly difficult to concentrate when you really need it. The solution is to embrace boredom. Stop checking your email or looking at your smartphone at every opportunity you get. Train your ability to resist distractions.

[Comment] I would also like to mention here a great book that I read and which was mentioned in Deep Work — “Moonwalking with Einstein”. The book focuses on memory training. It is relevant here since a side effect of memory training is an improvement in your general ability to concentrate.

Small obligations may seem harmless in isolation but aggregate to serious injury to your Deep Work habits.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

Social media is a very good example of shallow living. It usually offers very little benefit, if any. If you have the need to use social media every other minute, then you won’t be able to work deeply. Due to its addictive nature, social media and Deep Work don’t go well together.

Cal Newport discussed 4 approaches to using social media:

  1. Use social media like a craftsman uses his tools: identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
  2. The law of the vital few (80/20 rule): In many cases 80% of the result is due to 20% of the effort. The law of the vital few states that the most important 20% of your activities provide the bulk of the benefit. If social media is not key for achieving your goals, then don’t use it.
  3. If social media doesn’t help you, quit it: After looking at the first 2 points, does social media produce enough benefits to achieve your goals? If not, then just quit it.
  4. Put more thought into your leisure time: when it comes to relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention (YouTube, Instagram, Facebook). Instead, plan your free time with some quality activities. You will preserve your ability to concentrate and you will have more energy the next day.

Rule #4: Drain The Shallows

Shallow activities, such as checking email, going to meetings and having phone calls are inevitable in many professions, but ultimately they are low value tasks. You cannot eliminate shallow work completely, but if you want to achieve the potential of Deep Work, you have to spend as little time on shallow work as possible.

To minimize shallow work, you can follow some of these ideas:

  1. Plan every minute of your day: We spend much of our day on autopilot, not thinking of how we spend our most valuable asset — time. This is a problem! It is difficult to keep away all the shallow and unnecessary activities from your daily life (YouTube videos, TV, Instagram etc.). Plan every minute of your day with activities that you consider time well spent. This way you would be able to do more Deep Work and spend the rest of your free time on meaningful activities.
  2. Quantify the depth of every activity: try to categorize your time spent between deep and shallow activities. Once you know where your activities fall, try to bias towards the deep ones.
  3. Determine your shallow work budget: ask yourself or your boss a question — how much of your time you should spend on shallow work. Once you determine a good balance, try to stick to it.
  4. Finish your work by 17:30: By limiting your working day, you will force yourself to focus more on Deep Work and eliminate shallow activities. You will also improve your time management skills so you can spend your time on meaningful activities.
  5. Become hard to reach (especially regarding email): send fewer emails and ignore those which are not easy to process, and those that don’t bring you any tangible benefits. This way, you will spend significantly less time on shallow activities and have less stress over what’s in your email.

Great book suggestions from Deep Work

✓ The Innovators
✓ Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work
✓ Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success
✓ Willpower: Why Self-Control is The Secret to Success
✓ The Pragmatic Programmer
✓ Flow: The Psychology of Happiness: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness
✓ Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything [One of my personal favourites]
✓ The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox
✓ Hamlet’s BlackBerry: a practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age
✓ The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember
✓ Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul
✓ Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy
✓ How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day

Originally published at on June 13, 2019.

Rational Hustle

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This blog is about personal finance, side hustles, investing and the daily struggles that we all face to keep our business going

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