Deep Work by Cal Newport – Book Summary

Deep Work by Cal Newport – Book Summary

Deep and Shallow Work.

Deep Work is “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration, that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.” Lets break it down to understand the qualities of Deep Work

  • Distraction Free Concentration – Deep Work is solely focussed on the task at hand. You will have to create an environment and go through an experience that only focusses on the task.
  • Pushes Cognitive Capabilities – The idea is to get into state where you are going deeper in your ability to execute on the task. New knowledge and insights obtained help you get better at your skill. You are working towards Mastery.

“Shallow Work” on the other hand refers to tasks that are easy to replicate, don’t create much value, and don’t really need concentration to perform.

Deep work examples
Shallow work examples

“The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

Deep Work Is Valuable

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy

1. The ability to quickly master hard things.

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

These two capabilities depend on your ability to perform deep work. If you haven’t mastered doing deep work, you’ll struggle to learn hard things or produce at an elite level.

Deep Work Helps You Quickly Learn Hard Things

The problem with learning hard things is that it takes time. You have to constantly dedicate yourself to the task in order to make any progress. With deep work, you can quickly learn hard things by giving focused attention to a cognitively demanding task for a prolonged period of time without distractions.

Deep Work Helps You Produce at an Elite Level

Deep work is an important part of a high-performance lifestyle. The goal is to enter into a state of total immersion and lose track of time so that you can produce better quality work. In order to do deep work, you have to set aside blocks of time where you are completely focused on one task without any distractions or interruptions. These blocks of time should be long enough for your brain to go into a state called “the flow” where you become an expert in what you are doing

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Deep Work Is Rare

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner

People at big companies find it hard to find space for deep work, because the traditional ways of working involves good doses of shallow work such as replying to emails, attending meetings, responding to phone calls etc. At the same time, there is no way to measure and evaluate deep work capabilities.

Deep Work Is Meaningful

By cultivating a lifestyle of deep work, we are also reinforcing a sense of meaning & depth in our daily routines and naturally sidestepping small-time low-value shallow tasks.

Practicing depth allows you to get into a more satisfying and interesting “flow state”. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to something difficult and worthwhile”.

Finally, at a core level, Deep work is the gateway towards extracting meaning out of boring tasks. It elevates the job to a trade that can be mastered.

By positioning Deep Work as a valuable, rare, and meaningful skill, Newport moves on to the practicalities of doing Deep Work next.

The Rules of Deep Work

Rule #1 Work Deeply

Most people channel their willpower to acquire new skills or in general to do hard things. But there is a problem with willpower. We have a finite amount of willpower at our disposal and it gets depleted as we use it. Newport motivates “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.”

Newport introduces the various Deep Working Scheduling strategies that cover the monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, and journalistic philosophies. He underscores the need for a ritual that prepares the individual to get started and sustain in the execution of deep work. Defining and executing rituals essentially resulting in conditioning the individual to a familiar process until it becomes second nature or a habit.

Newport adapts the famed 4DX (4 Disciplines of Execution) Framework to prioritize what to deep work on.

  1. Focus on the wildly important – Identify the minimal (3-4) list of super important goals and just focus on executing on them.
  2. Act on lead measures – Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve and usually is not in your control. Lead measures on the other hand are controllable metrics that eventually lead to improvement in lag measures. An example of lag measure is weight loss and a relevant lead measure is exercise time. For people interested in obtaining the deep work skill, tracking the number of hours spent in deep work is an important lead measure.
  3. Keep a compelling scorecard – Set a visible tracking system to keep yourself honest about how much time you’re deep working.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability – Review your progress regularly to see how much has been accomplished and make plans for the future.

Rule #2 Embrace Boredom

“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand… they’re pretty much mental wrecks. — Ira Flatow”

Rule 1 provides guidance in scheduling deep work and will help you attain your current concentration limits. Rule 2 is about surpassing this limit. Strategies mentioned in this rule help in improving your ability to concentrate intensely and keeping distractions at bay.

Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead, Take Breaks from Focus.

Distractions that we welcome essentially provide a break from the intense activity and potentially entertainment. The idea is to not eliminate the value from distractions but to attend to them in a smart way. To justify not taking breaks from focus, create time blocks primarily for shallow work, distractions, entertainment – anything that got pushed due to your priority to Deep Work. But do not let the distractions find their way into your Deep Work blocks.

Work Like Teddy Roosevelt.

Set an ambitious goal for yourself and make it public or motivate yourself to complete the task by setting a countdown. This can help you stay focused on your work and make sure you do everything in your power to meet the deadline.

Meditate Productively

Focusing on a problem while you are occupied physically and not mentally is no easy task, but it can be done. One of the best ways to do this is by using your commute time. With practice, you can become skilled at visualizing how a problem will be solved in your head. This will make you more focused and help you resist distractions better.

Rule #3 Quit Social Media

“The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: 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.”

Newport urges us to look at Social Media as a tool from the lens of a craftsman. Identifying what determines success and happiness is a great first step. Once that is clear, you can ask if Social Media is aiding or ailing you. Generally speaking, you would realize that there are just a “few vital” benefits of the Internet, but due to the lack of clarity and awareness, we’ve welcomed far more distractions lurking as benefits in our usage of the Internet.

“They’re (Social Media) 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.”

Put more thought into your leisure time by spending less time on the internet or watching TV and spend that time doing something with meaning. By “powering down” in the evening, you can have a more productive and healthier day. You’ll give yourself time to relax and unwind before your next workday. You can also preserve your ability to concentrate and resist distractions by keeping your brain idle while resting.

Rule #4 Drain the Shallows

Schedule every minute of your day

Take a notebook (or calendar) and roughly assign blocks of time to specific activities. This will be a broad planning of your day therefore you can still remain flexible and adapt to new challenges that appear during the day. Using a calendar or product like deepwork.easy, time block your schedule with some high-level detail. This will directionally set up your day and give you the flexibility to replan and reprioritize should new priorities come up during the day.

Be aware of both Deep and Shallow Work

By developing awareness of the type of work, you will be clear on how to execute them. Items deemed as Deep Work will help you address them with Deep routines and hacks to come up with a plan. Similarly, realization of Shallow Work items will either de-prioritize them or batch them up with other Shallow Work items when you have exhausted your concentration reserves for the day.

Stick to a work schedule

Everything we do has a place in our lives and our work is no exception. Sticking to a fixed schedule forces us to be careful in the way we organize the workday and results in producing more value compared to a longer unstructured workday.

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on email

More To Explore