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Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Without concentration there can be no learning, and today our ability to concentrate is taking heavy fire from the armies of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, clickbait links, and plain old email and text messages. Just as we begin to get something important done, our phone vibrates—or we check our inbox, or scan our Facebook feed—and we are pulled away into another world, losing our focus over and over again.

Though I consider myself a hard worker and self-directed learner, I am completely guilty of the above crimes. I leave my inbox open while working, ready to be distracted by the most mundane incoming message. I check my phone multiple times an hour (sometimes dozens). I respond to momentary boredom by opening Facebook. And I go down internet black holes more often than I care to admit, checking back into reality many hours later.

So when I heard that Cal Newport had written a new book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, I was curious, but also hesitant. I had serious issues with Cal’s previous book where he argued that following your passion is a bad idea. Eventually I succumbed and read the book—and I’m so glad I did.

Deep Work is a really great book.

Cal has tackled a giant problem in the modern world—how we have invited distraction and fractured attention spans into our lives—and offers many practical ways to deal with it. He makes a strong case for “deep work” being both a major asset in the information economy and a more satisfying approach to getting important work done.

For self-directed learners who don’t have a teacher peering over their shoulder to keep them on task, Deep Work offers practical advice that’s more coherent and actionable then whatever you’ll pick up from browsing online articles about productivity.

Below you’ll find the notes I took while reading the book. They don’t offer a complete summary—because my goal was to write down things that felt highly applicable to my own life—but most of the big ideas are here. Enjoy, and happy focusing.

The ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.

There are two types of work: Deep Work and Shallow Work.

Deep Work: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits. These efforts create new value, improve your skills, and are hard to replicate.”

Shallow Work: “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

There are three winners in the new economy:

  1. High-skilled workers (esp. those who can work with smart machines)
  2. Superstars
  3. Owners

Deep work can’t help you with becoming an owner, but for numbers 1 and 2, deep work is what lets you quickly master hard things and produce at an elite level. It’s a vital skill for teaching yourself new things as the world changes.

Deliberate Practice has serious overlap with deep work. Both demand laser-focused attention and a high challenge level. (Deliberate Practice also involves constant feedback and/or coaching.)

When we switch projects, we suffer “attention residue“: some of our attention remains in the previous project / object of our focus, giving us less attention to spare on the new project, thereby lowering performance. That’s why checking my email inbox every 10 minutes is a bad thing.

The act of looking and feeling “busy” (e.g. by responding to unimportant emails) is not the same thing as “being productive.” (In other words, separate the urgent from the important.)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describing the flow state, said: “The best moment usually occurs when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Flow moments are the ones that we remember and value the most.

Think of deep work like a craftsman thinks of his craft: he seeks the sacred in his work. The modern world lacks sacredness; we must manufacture it for ourselves by working on projects with external metrics of success (see: Shop Class as Soul Craft).

Willpower—the ability to focus and eliminate distractions—is not an innate quality that some people have and others don’t. It’s like a muscle: we all have it, but we have to train it, and it will fatigue at some point. Deep work trains your will power. Checking BuzzFeed on your phone in the grocery story line because you experienced a moment of boredom is like bad processed lunch meat.

Deep work scheduling philosophies:

  1. Monastic: Cut out all distractions (including email), all the time, to produce your masterpiece. Neal Stephenson.
  2. Bimodal monastic: Every once in while take a period between one day (minimum) and one week to go on monastic retreat, then return to your shallow work commitments. Carl Jung.
  3. Rhythmic: Do a period of deep work (1.5 – 4 hours) each day, often prior to other work obligations. Jerry Seinfeld.
  4. Journalistic: Fit in deep work when you can, day by day, seizing chance opportunities. Think: Deep work “on demand.” Difficult, only for the experienced. Walter Isaacson.

[Note: 80% of Cal Newport’s cited exemplars of deep work are white dudes who are writers.]

No matter what schedule you choose, ritualize! Intentionally determine:

  • Where and how long you’ll work. (Choose a sacred location, and set a time limit.)
  • How you’ll work. (What are your specific goals?)
  • How to support your work. (Coffee? Food? Exercise? Breaks? Disable the internet and silence your phone.)

The Grand Gesture: Invest time and money to commit to a period of deep work. JK Rowling in the hotel room finishing the sixth Harry Potter book. Writing retreats. Building a cabin on your property just for deep work. Peter Shankman’s Japan roundtrip flight. Me in Guatemala. Stickk.

What about the benefits of collaboration, like open offices? Generally they’re bad for deep work, unless you can employ a hub-and-spoke model which combine central common areas (for cross-pollination) with separate sanctuaries (like private offices) where deep work can take place.

Execution strategies:

  1. Focus on the WILDLY IMPORTANT
  2. Focus on hour of deep work accomplished per day, not necessarily the final outcome
  3. Keep a tally of your hours of deep work per day
  4. Regularly review your tally for accountability

Embrace boredom: Don’t switch between deep and shallow tasks constantly. Carve out untouchable blocks of time with apps like Self-Control. When you feel an urge to switch to a shallow task, wait 5 minutes before doing it (and then maybe you won’t do it at all).

Social media: Don’t fall into the “any benefit” mindset, i.e. if a network service provides any benefit to you whatsoever than it’s worth your time. Balance pros and cons. Try quitting for x weeks and then ask yourself: Would the last x weeks have been notably better without this service? Did people care that I wasn’t using it?

These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers. They can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they’re a lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper. Or maybe social media tools are at the core of your existence. You won’t know either way until you sample life without them.

Don’t spend your leisure time surfing the Internet or social media. Read a book. Have a structured hobby. Spend time with real people. Be focused in leisure too, not just your work life.

Fixed-schedule productivity: Consider planning out your entire week in 30-minute blocks. End each day by 5:30pm and don’t do anything work-related after that time.

Email tactics: Help senders self-filter themselves, write emails that “close the loop” (i.e. don’t promote ongoing logistical discussions), and sometimes just don’t respond.