Deep Work by Cal Newport
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Short Summary

We are living in an accelerated economy where you can only expect to thrive (assuming you don’t have access to lots of capital) if you can do one of two things: have the ability to master hard things or have the ability to produce at an elite level. To be able to do either well, you must be able to perform in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit – also known as deep work.

Favorite Quote

“I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”

—Winifred Gallagher

Book Notes

Rapid advancements in technology paired with globalization are pushing us into a new economy powered by automation. Three groups will have all of the advantages in this new economy:

  • Those who can work well with machines
  • Those who are experts in their given field
  • Those with access to capital

If you want to be a winner in this new economy, then you must learn how to produce. If you don’t create, you won’t thrive – no matter how skilled or talented you are. Producing your best creative output will require you to train yourself to perform deep work.

Deep work can be learned through a process known as deliberate practice. This practice involves tightly focusing your attention on a specific skill or idea you are trying to master while also receiving constant feedback on your progress.

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. High-quality work is a product of the number of hours invested in intense focus. So, if you wish to be a peak performer, you must be able to work for extended periods fully concentrated on a single task free from any distraction.

This ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at a time when it is becoming increasingly valuable in this current economy. Those who can cultivate this deep work skill will thrive over those who do not.

Why Deep Work Is Rare

Many mindsets and biases have pushed businesses away from pursuing deep work.

The Principle of Least Resistance: without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors on the bottom line, we tend toward actions that are easiest at 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 out in the open.

If you wish to experience more satisfaction from your working life, build your work life around the experience of flow produced by deep work. Start by tracking every hour of your day to measure how you allocate your time. Analyze how much time you spend in deep work and shallow work.

Shallow work: non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These tasks are of low value and easy to replicate.

How To Work Deeply

You must build routines and rituals into your day to maximize the opportunity to perform deep work while simultaneously reducing shallow work. This will minimize the amount of willpower needed to maintain concentration since willpower is a finite resource easily depleted throughout the day.

Consider adhering to a work philosophy which best fits your circumstances to help you design your daily rituals.

The Monastic Philosophy maximizes deep work efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. If your professional success is defined by doing one thing exceptionally well, this is highly valuable.

The Bimodal Philosophy holds that deep work can produce extreme productivity, but only if a minimum of one full day is devoted to the endeavor. To put aside a few hours is too short of time for this approach.

The Rhythmic Philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. It removes the need to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to perform deep work.

The Journalist Philosophy is the practice of fitting deep work sessions wherever you can into your schedule. This practice is not designed for novices since this requires being able to shift into full-concentration mode on a moment’s notice.

The key is to have some strategy for executing deep work. Relying on willpower alone or waiting for inspiration to strike is a fickle plan setting you up to fail.

An effective strategy for helping you achieve deep work is the grand gesture. This strategy leverages a radical change to your typical working environment to increase the importance of the task. It can also be coupled with an investment in time and money to make it more useful (For example, booking a hotel for the weekend to write your book).

There is no one correct deep work ritual. Your ritual will depend on what type of person you are and the type of project pursued. However, there are a few questions that any effective ritual must address:

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

To be able to work deeply, you also need downtime to recharge your brain. Have a strict shutdown at the end of the workday to review every unfinished task, goal or project and plan for their completion. You must learn to keep your work and downtime separated, do not allow the two to mix.

Embrace Boredom

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that can you can develop. Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t wean your mind from distraction. On-demand distraction is an addiction that destroys concentration.

Don’t schedule your deep focus activities, schedule when you will allow yourself to be distracted. Your focus and engagement should be the default use of your time, not the exception.

Learning to be bored, although becoming a novel experience in modern life, is incredibly valuable.

Try Productive Meditation when walking, jogging, driving or showering by focusing your attention on a single well-defined problem. If you notice your attention slipping away from the task at hand, gently remind yourself that you can return to that thought later.

Quit social media. Perform a 30-day social media fast, after those 30-days are over ask yourself if your time would have been better had you had access to your social media accounts. If not, delete them. Take the craftsman approach to what digital tools you use.

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 adverse effects.

Identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and personal life. Keep the list limited to what is most important. Once you identify your goals, record two or three most important activities that will help you reach your goal. They should be specific enough to allow you to picture performing them.

Put more thought into your leisure time by planning how you want to spend your evenings and weekends. Having structured hobbies that aren’t addictive but still provide relaxation will prevent you from succumbing to the addictive pull of entertainment that you may later regret. Give your brain a quality alternative.

To start fitting deep work into your schedule, schedule every minute of your day. Once you have a better understanding of how your day is structured, you can manipulate it to cater to deep work activities. Having 3-4 hour chunks of time devoted to deep work is an excellent goal to reach.

Read More on Amazon:

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World