Deep Work Summary16 min read

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Deep Work proposes the idea that we have lost our ability to focus deeply and immerse ourselves in a complex task, but not without showing you that it’s a skill more than worth cultivating again and giving you four rules to help you focus more than ever before.

I’m still digesting all the valuable lessons from So Good They Can’t Ignore You, but I couldn’t help taking a peek at what Cal’s up to now. He’s been talking about the idea of deep work for quite some time on his blog (a way for him to test potential book topics), and now the accompanying book is out.

Given that we now suffer from an 8-second, less-than-goldfish attention span, Cal’s call to focus is more than appropriate. Digging deeper into deliberate practice, a concept he described in his last book, Deep Work suggests that being able to completely immerse yourself in a complex task is a rare, valuable and meaningful skill. The second part of the book then outlines four rules you can use to cultivate a deep work ethic.

Here are 3 lessons from Deep Work to help you go from busy to brilliant:

  • There are four strategies for deep work, all of which require intention.
  • Productive meditation can help you work deeper, even while you’re taking a break.
  • Stop working at the same time each day.

I hope you brought your scuba diving gear, ’cause we’re about to go deep!

Lesson 1: Use one of these four deep work strategies, but be intentional about it.

I’m glad that Cal isn’t one of those “one-size-fits-all-advice” kind of people. He knows that different things will work for different people, so when making his case for deep work he suggests four different strategies:

The monastic approach. Monastic comes from monastery – the place where monks live. It means shutting yourself off completely, for example by moving to a cabin in the woods to write a novel, and not come back until it’s finished.

The bimodal approach. This prioritizes deep work above everything else. You could set a 4-6 hour block each day for deep work, for example, where you lock yourself in your office, similar to the monastic approach. However, once that block is over, you’re free to do everything else that might be on your plate.

The rhythmic approach. This chunks down your work into time blocks, similar to the Pomodoro technique, and uses a calendar to track your progress. For example you’d plan your week ahead of time and put 10 blocks of 90 minutes on your calendar, and make working with timed blocks a habit.

The journalistic approach. If you have a busy daily routine, this works well. What you do is to simply dedicate any, unexpected free time to deep work.

I’m currently alternating between 2 and 4, depending on the kind of day that’s ahead of me, but would love to move completely to 2 over time. Being intentional about your deep work approach requires monitoring how you spend your time, so one of your first steps in making this decision should be to track your habits. You’ll quickly be able to separate productive from unproductive time and spot patterns.

Speaking of which…

Lesson 2: Make the most of unproductive time with productive meditation.

This is an idea I really like and have recently been using more and more, without knowing I’d find it in this book. Cal calls it productive meditation, and it comes down to using your “unproductive” time to do deep thinking.

For example, if you’re taking the subway to work each morning, and know you have 30 minutes to and from work, in which you can’t do much else, use this time to try solving a complex problem in your mind. Commuting, showering, household chores, buying groceries and taking a walk (with or without your dog) are all great opportunities to think.

Ever since getting an activity tracker, I try to walk 10,000 steps per day, which is why I often end up taking a long 1-2 hour walk in the evening. I often spend this time thinking about how I can make Four Minute Books more remarkable, what I could create that is so new and unfamiliar that it takes things to a whole new level, and so on.

The next time you have some “down time”, in which you do menial tasks, latch on to a big problem, try to see sub-problems of it, break it down and solve it.

Lesson 3: Quit work at the same time each day, and stick to it.

Cal has a habit of ending his work day at 5:30 PM, every day. No emails, no internet, no to-do lists, no computer after that. He describes his practice in this 7-year old blog post, and while his systems evolve, planning both work and free time have remained a constant factor.

Your brain needs some space each night to wind down, and it won’t get that if you have an as-much-as-possible work ethic. Limit yourself by quitting work and not checking email, or, even better, shutting down your computer, at the same time each day. This way, you’ll have a fixed slot of free time every day to recuperate.

Your mind will keep working below the surface, but you won’t burn yourself out by working around the clock.

For example, I let Inbox Pause move my email to my inbox at 11 AM and 6 PM. After I check it for the second time at 6 PM, I wrap up work and shut down my laptop (most days, it’s a work in progress), so I can then exercise and have a proper dinner, and I feel much better for it.

My personal take-aways

I’ve only checked out some previews, read excerpts, interviews with Cal, articles on his blog, and the summary on Blinkist for this one so far, but I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I’ve been moving towards a deep work mindset already, and I’m feeling more productive than ever. I highly recommend you explore the concept of Deep Work.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

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Deep Work Summary

The Book in Three Sentences

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.

Shallow work is non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style work, often performed while distracted.

Deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive twenty-first-century economy.

The Five Big Ideas

In order to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of, you need to commit to deep work.

The ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed, are two core abilities for thriving in today’s economy.

“To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.”

“Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.”

“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.”

Free Download: Download a free PDF version of this book summary. (Includes exercises not included in the post.)

Deep Work Summary

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.

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

Newport argues if you spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness, you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.

“Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers. It’s instead a skill that has great value today.”

In order to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of, you need to commit to deep work.

Newport calls deep work, “the superpower of the 21st century.”

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.

In Newport’s own words,

I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

The ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed, are two core abilities for thriving in today’s economy.

“The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”

The core components of deliberate practice are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

“This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.”

“By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits—effectively cementing the skill.”

“To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.”

“When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.”

According to Sophie Leroy, “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task,” and the more intense the residue, the worse the performance.”

“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.”

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.

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

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.

“Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and non-technological.”

“Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.”

“To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.”

“Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.”

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

“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.”

“You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life.”

“You must be careful to choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances, as a mismatch here can derail your deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify.”

“[Donald] Knuth deploys what I call the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling. This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.”

“[Carl] Jung’s approach is what I call the bimodal philosophy of deep work. This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.”

“[The rhythmic philosophy] argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.”

John Paul Newport on Walter Isaacson, “It was always amazing … he could retreat up to the bedroom for a while, when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book … he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour, we’d hear the typewriter pounding, then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us … the work never seemed to faze him, he just happily went up to work when he had the spare time.”

The journalist philosophy: you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.

“To make the most out of your deep work sessions, build rituals of the same level of strictness and idiosyncrasy as the important thinkers mentioned previously.”

“Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts.”

“Regardless of where you work, be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.”

“Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured.”

“By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.”

“[Peter Shankman] booked a round-trip business-class ticket to Tokyo. He wrote during the whole flight to Japan, drank an espresso in the business class lounge once he arrived in Japan, then turned around and flew back, once again writing the whole way—arriving back in the States only thirty hours after he first left with a completed manuscript now in hand.”

The Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX)

These deep work rules include the ability to:

Focus on the Wildly Important

Act on the Lead Measures

Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

Create a Cadence of Accountability

“For an individual focused on deep work, the implication is that you should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours.”

David Brooks: “If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”

“In 4DX, there are two types of metrics for this purpose: lag measures and lead measures.”

“Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve.”

“Lead measures, on the other hand, ‘measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.’”

“Lead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals.”

“At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.”

Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights

Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply

Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important

Deep work training must involve two goals: improving your ability to concentrate intensely and overcoming your desire for distraction.

“Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.”

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.

“The first step [to the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection] is to identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life.”

“The key is to keep the list limited to what’s most important and to keep the descriptions suitably high-level.”

“When you’re done you should have a small number of goals for both the personal and professional areas of your life.”

“Once you’ve identified these goals, list for each the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal. These activities should be specific enough to allow you to clearly picture doing them. On the other hand, they should be general enough that they’re not tied to a onetime outcome.”

“The next step in this strategy is to consider the network tools you currently use. For each such tool, go through the key activities you identified and ask whether the use of the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity. Now comes the important decision: Keep using this tool only if you concluded that it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts.”

“After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit: Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service? Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?”

“If your answer is ‘no’ to both questions, quit the service permanently. If your answer was a clear ‘yes,’ then return to using the service.”

“The shallow work that increasingly dominates the time and attention of knowledge workers is less vital than it often seems in the moment.”

How long can deep work be sustained by an individual in a given day?

“[Anders Erickson] note[s] that for someone new to such practice (citing, in particular, a child in the early stages of developing an expert-level skill), an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigors of such activities, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more.”

“We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time.”

Free Download: Download a free PDF version of this book summary. (Includes exercises not included in the post.)

Recommended Reading

If you like Deep Work, you may also like the following books:

Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Buy The Book: Deep Work

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