Deep Work — Cal Newport

“For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.”


I appreciated Cal Newport’s previous book So Good They Can’t Ignore You and the message it tried to get across: don’t seek a job you’re passion about, but rather work to be so competent at your job that the passion naturally follows. I thought it did a good job debunking potential misconceptions about what career goals should look like and what we should actually be striving for on a daily basis. Deep Work follows a similar, straight-forward approach that starts with a hypothesis — that we need to dedicate more of our daily lives to bouts of concentrated, intense effort on important work — followed by what might be called proofs. Newport explains through anecdotes and data why deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful, and how embracing it in your work life will make you more valuable in the job market. He then methodically lays out practical guidelines for injecting more time for deep work into our lives.

While this is a quick read, it does veer towards that gray area where you’re not sure if this material warranted an entire book. That’s not to discount how important I think the message is (and that it is true in the first place), but the anecdotes were sort of predictable and formulaic. You read about a few people who felt swamped in their past career with shallow work (emails, setting up meetings, seemingly doing things but not really adding value). They then decide to switch tactics and go for rigorous, uninterrupted sessions of intense work on a regular basis. And of course, the result is that they achieve more, feel that their work is more meaningful, and encounter success more regularly. Other parts of the book consist of the author’s personal experiences as a professor, researcher, and author. They all serve to “prove the hypothesis,” but I wouldn’t say any of it is that special.

If you wanted a more rigorous, analytical approach to understanding these ideas, I think Peak by Anders Ericsson (which Newport cites somewhat frequently throughout) would be a better choice. I saw the book as a type of composite between Peak and The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. Newport pulls on some of the principles Ferriss uses like the 80/20 rule (which, of course, isn’t “his” either) and even some of the advice about sending emails more efficiently. Newport also mentions Tim Kreider’s book We Learn Nothing which I really loved. He talks about Kreider’s idea that people today wear “busyness” as a badge of honor, as if being swamped with shallow work and the demands of other people is some type of achievement in itself. Kreider doesn’t buy that for a minute, and tries to pull away from those demands as much as his career allows. He also touches on how idleness is just as important as the work we do; our unconscious minds always need periods of rest to synthesize and digest new information. Newport also references Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, which is also a great, quick read; Newport seems to get the idea that we cannot really do intense work for more than 3–4 hours a day from that book and perhaps one other source. So the author does draw from a bunch of sources and blends them together. The result is a nicely structured handbook for reforming your life to do more of what is ultimately important to you — whatever that might be.

Could the goal of this book have been accomplished in a long-form article? Probably. And looking back on just four of the books I’ve mentioned here, I can’t say these ideas add much original insight beyond personal anecdotes. But Newport certainly has a skill for presenting arguments in a clear, concise fashion and following up those arguments with practical tools you can immediately apply to your life. I’d recommend it because I do think the message is that important. Too much of our lives has been given over to both shallowness and distraction. You didn’t really need anyone to tell you that email and social media are frequently a complete waste of everyone’s time, but the author does a good job recommending habits and tools you can use to extricate yourself from the draining grip of shallow work.

Score: 7/10


· Time for deep work — focused, uninterrupted, and intense — should have its own place carved out in our daily schedules. We should aim for 3–4 hours of such concentration on a regular basis.

· Just as we need to give more time to what is deep and important, we need to veer ourselves away from what is shallow and trivial. We train our capacity to endure boredom, as well as wean ourselves from the need of constant distraction.

· Framework: identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours; increase time spent doing important, uninterrupted work; keep a physical scorecard to log your hours; hold yourself accountable on a weekly basis

· Apply either the 80/20 rule or a much stricter standard for which networking tools you will use. Just because some social media tool (for example) may provide some incremental benefit, doesn’t mean it’s worth using over the long run.

· Depth and concentration are skills to be cultivated over time. Nothing can take the place of the experience of hours of prolonged concentration.


· 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

o Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow is exposing a large economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth

o Deep work will be necessary to remain valuable in a changing economy that demands new skills decade after decade; it will also be necessary to produce the quality of work required to stand out in an ultra-connected society

· Deep work is valuable

o Advances in automation will increase the value of: high-skilled workers (skills based on more abstract and data-driven reasoning that can be augmented by computers), superstars (the top performers in a given field that can be given outsourced work or can work remotely anywhere), and owners (those with capital to invest in the new technologies driving our labor market restructuring)

o Two core abilities:

§ The ability to quickly master hard things

§ The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed

· Deep work is rare

o Big trends in business today actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though their benefits (serendipity, faster response times, more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits of concentration

o The Principle of Least Resistance: in a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that’s are easiest in the moment (ex: culture of connectivity = fast responses, easier work)

o In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back towards being visibly “busy”

· Deep work is meaningful

o “The skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”

o Falling victim to the shallow work that vies so often for our attention will ensure your mind will construct an image of your working life that is dominated by stress, irritation, and triviality

o Our life satisfaction is directly correlated with the number of flow experiences that occur in a given week; being immersed in something deeply challenging can be easier (in a sense) than unstructured free time

o What matters more than the subject matter of your work or how it is performed is that you cultivate craftsmanship while doing it

· The Rules

o Work deeply

§ Choose a philosophy:

· Monastic — eliminate or radically minimize shallow obligations

· Bimodal — divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches (i.e. one week a month) to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else

· Rhythmic — transform deep work sessions into a simple regular habit, removing the need for you to invest energy making a decision about them; use a visual aid or set starting time

· Journalistic — shifting into deep work in an ad hoc manner whenever you have free time

§ Ritualize:

· Where you’ll work and for how long

· Rules and processes to keep your efforts structured

· How you’ll support your concentration

§ Make a grand gesture:

· Leverage a radical change to your normal environment

· Make a significant enough investment of effort or money to increase the perceived importance

§ 4DX Framework for Execution:

· Focus on the wildly important — identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours

· Act on the lead measures — increase time spent in a state of deep work dedicated to your important goal

· Keep a compelling scoreboard — physically tallying deep work hours each week, and making a mark when a tangible goal has been reached

· Create a cadence of accountability — weekly reviews in which you make a plan for the workweek ahead

§ Interject regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day (i.e. shutting down work thinking completely at the end of the day)

o Embrace boredom

§ Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction (i.e. fleeing the slightest hint of boredom)

§ Don’t take breaks from distraction; take breaks from focus

· Designate explicit times in advance for when you’ll use the internet, then avoid it altogether outside those times

· Whatever is distracting you is not in itself reducing your brain’s ability to focus — it’s the constant switching that is the problem

§ Create difficult artificial deadlines for certain tasks that require intense concentration to finish; introduce these bursts slowly over time (sort of a form of interval training for concentration)

§ Productive meditation — take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally to focus on a single, well-defined professional problem

§ Deck of cards memory exercise

o Quit Social Media

§ The main problem is the threshold for using a network tool is too low — we tend to agree to use a new one even if the incremental benefit is small, or there is anything we might miss out on if we don’t

§ Instead, we should identify the core factors that determine success/happiness in our professional and personal lives — and only adopt a tool if its positive impacts substantially outweigh its negatives

§ For many people, many networking tools don’t have a significant enough benefit towards our long-term goals to justify their constant access to your time and attention

§ Given our limited capacity of time, attention, and willpower (not to mention switching costs), it makes sense to apply an 80/20 rule to your current networking tools — eliminating all but the vital few

§ Sample removing some form of social media or entertainment outlet for thirty days and evaluate whether the quality of your life changed

§ Put more thought into how you will spend your leisure time in advance, rather than succumbing to whatever catches your attention

o Drain the Shallows

§ Must identify shallowness in your current schedule and then cull it down to minimum levels, leaving more time for the deep efforts that matter most

§ Schedule every minute of your day, breaking things down into 30 minute blocks

· Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs, but rather maintain a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward (even if that means multiple revisions)

· Have regularly occurring blocks of time to address surprises or things running over your estimates

· Allow for spontaneity when something truly important and unexpected arises, returning to a revised schedule later

§ Ask the question to gauge importance: how long would it take to train a smart recent graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?

§ Establish an acceptable ratio of shallow/deep time spent at work with your boss

§ Fixed-schedule productivity: set a limit on work hours for the week, and then work backward to determine what rules and habits are needed to satisfy the constraint

§ Become hard to reach

· Make people who send you email do more work (sender filter)

· Do more work when you send or reply to emails (focus on the process needed to be done, closing the messaging loop as quickly as possible

· Don’t respond (if too ambiguous, not interesting, or not important)


· “For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.”