Deep Work by Cal Newport: Book Summary

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“Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.”

Rating: 9/10

Related: So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Digital Minimalism, Flow

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Get the full index of lessons here

Deep Work Short Summary

Deep Work is a guide on how to develop the superpower of deep focus on cognitively-demanding tasks in a distracted world. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. It covers many examples from real-world experiences and actionable items make implementing these ideas quite straightforward.

My in-depth article on Deep Work: Deep Work: How to Develop the Most Valuable Skill of the 21st Century.

About Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a New York Times bestseller author.

He is best known for his books on productivity and technology, such as Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.

Deep Work Executive Summary

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare and valuable in the Knowledge Economy.

To become a superstar in your field of work, you need to be able to quickly master hard things and produce at an elite level (in terms of both quality and speed).

To work deeply:

  1. Choose a Deep Work philosophy
  2. Schedule deep work blocks
  3. Decide where and how you’ll perform Deep Work
  4. Execute like a business
  5. Implement a shutdown ritual

Rewire your brain for Deep Work:

  1. Embrace boredom
  2. Quit social media
  3. Drain the shallows

How to schedule your day (on paper):

  1. On the left, mark every other line with an hour of your workday
  2. Assign 30 min block to activities
  3. On the right, list out the full set of small tasks you plan to accomplish in that block

What Is Deep Work?

Cal Newport describes Deep Work as:

“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.”

Shallow Work: non-cognitively 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.

The Deep Work Hypothesis

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare and valuable in the Knowledge Economy.

Those who cultivate this skill and make it the core of their working life will thrive.

In the Knowledge Economy, 3 types of people will have a particular advantage:

  1. Those who can work with intelligent machines
  2. Owners of capital (or people with access to it)
  3. Superstars in their field of work

Deep work focuses on the third type.

You need to be able to quickly master hard things and produce at an elite level (in terms of both quality and speed).

The New Law of Productivity: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, can produce a lot of valuable output.

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 are easiest in the moment.

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.

How to Work Deeply

To make Deep Work a habit, add routines. This reduces the willpower necessary to transition into a state of unbroken concentration.

The 4 Deep Work Philosophies:

  • Monastic: isolate yourself for long periods of time without distractions; no shallow work allowed
  • Bimodal: reserve a few consecutive days when you will be working like a monastic (you need at least one day a week)
  • Rhythmic: take 3–4 hours every day to perform deep work on your project
  • Journalistic: alternate your day between deep and shallow work as it fits your blocks of time (not recommended to try out first)

Commit to scheduling deep work blocks into your calendar and sticking to them (time blocking). Scheduling a specific time of the day in advance takes away the need to use willpower.

To build your Deep Work routine, decide:

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

Execute Like a Business

The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX)” applied to Deep Work:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important: identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours
  2. Act on the Lead Measures: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal
  3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: track the hours spent in deep work that week with a simple tally of tick marks in that week’s row
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability: use weekly reviews to celebrate good weeks, understand what led to bad weeks, and figure out how to ensure a good score for the days ahead

Implement a Shutdown Ritual

At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning.

The 3 reasons why downtime is crucial:

  • Aids insights
  • Helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply
  • The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important

Your shutdown ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited

Rewire Your Brain for Deep Work

To succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.

Embrace Boredom

Due to our fast-paced lives, our brains have been rewired and expect and request distraction. As a result, we check our smartphones at any moment of “potential boredom”.

Don’t take breaks from distraction but instead take breaks from focus:

  1. Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. Do it both at home and work to further improve your concentration training
  2. Practice productive meditation. This a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally — walking, jogging, driving, showering — and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem

Quit Social Media

Social Media fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate, making it difficult to improve your ability to work deeply.

If you service low-impact activities, like Social Media, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game.

Do a test run: without deactivating, stay off consciously from your social media of choice for 30 days. After 30 days, evaluate:

  • Was it impossible for you to stay away or were you greatly inconvenienced?
  • Did anyone care?

If you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative.

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.

Drain the Shallows

The typical knowledge workday is easily fragmented, making it hard to introduce large amounts of depth.

To take control, schedule every minute of your day on a paper notebook:

  1. At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page
  2. On the left, mark every other line with an hour of your workday
  3. Divide the hours into 30 min blocks and assign activities to the blocks (if needed, batch similar tasks into one block)
  4. On the right, list out the full set of small tasks you plan to accomplish in that block
  5. Use this schedule to guide your workday

Not every block needs to be dedicated to a work task. There might be time blocks for lunch or relaxation breaks.

If your schedule is disrupted, take a few minutes to create a revised schedule for the time that remains in the day.

Note: you can read more about this strategy here and here

Written by

Productivity and personal development. Sign up to my 5-Bullet Monday Newsletter: http://DanSilvestre.com

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