Deep Work by Cal Newport

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In a Nutshell:

Written by an Assistant Professor in Computer Sciences at Georgetown University, Deep Work is a strong argument for going deep, with numerous examples and arguments for it. Cal gives a number of personal examples as well and his output is certainly impressive.

Deep Work is defined as Professional activities performed in a state of deep concentration that push your cognitive abilities to the limit.

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


Cal focuses on Knowledge Workers, as opposed to Craftsman, as these workers do not have a final physical creation as a result of their work.  Indeed, there is often no definitive end to the work at all.  This in itself can cause a malaise.

The reason that we are losing our ability to work deeply – Networking Tools.  These distract us from performing work that requires deep concentration.  Knowledge workers now increasingly replace deep work for shallow; namely email.  While it is obvious to see if a craftsman is busy by the swing of his hammer, a knowledge worker must replace this by responding to emails immediately, or striding to the copier to scan forms.  That same instant email mentality arises in our social media interactions as well, so that the quick tiny distractions cause a death of 1,000 cuts to our attention.  Knowledge workers are tending towards increased visible business as they lack a better way to demonstrate their value.

The upside – Deep Work is a valuable skill in the new economy.  Master this and you will go far.  The ability to master complicated things quickly will be a skill necessary for knowledge workers looking to excel.  This requires deep focus and concentration.

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

The book gives a number of examples of famous knowledge workers who go into isolation in order to perform their work.  Whether by building a writers cabin, a stone tower in the woods, or locking themselves in a room with no computer to learn computer programming, the examples show how distractions destroy your concentration and make it hard to get back on track.

While extreme isolation is not the best plan for everybody, there are alternatives.  This involves minimizing the shallow work in your life, then performing what remains in batches.

In the New Economy there is no longer the regionalism there once was.  Knowledge work is easily outsourced around the globe.  So in order to stand out you must perform your best work.  The other aspect is the rise of the machines.  As these become more complex and powerful the chances increase that instead of hiring new workers, companies will invest in new machines.  So interacting with complex machines becomes a valuable skill.

Three groups of people listed that will have a particular advantage; those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital to invest in these new technologies.

Two core abilities to thrive in the New Economy:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level – both in quality and in speed.

The foundational skill to both those abilities is Deep Work.

Because technology changes so rapidly there is always new things to master.  You must be able to do it again and again.  Then you need to transform the latent potential of that skill into something that people value.

High Quality Work = Time x Intensity of Focus

Long periods of uninterrupted work produce the best results.  However, everyone’s capacity for performing Deep Work is different.  Research shows that attention and focus begin to fade after four hours.

Research shows that when you switch tasks your attention doesn’t immediately follow.  There is some residue of attention stuck on the previous task.  This is why multi-tasking doesn’t work and that staying focused on a single task is the only way to concentrate deeply.

There are a few exceptions to the rule – notably CEO’s.  These need to use their skills and experience to make fast decisions.  Others need to do the deep work and present them with the options.  Deep Work is not the only valuable skill in the new economy, but the niche areas where it is not are rare.  Unfortunately there are many ideas that now take priority – rapid communication, availability on social media, spontaneous collaboration that results from open floor plan offices.

A study from one company showed that every email cost the company $0.95 in labor.  This type of constantly connected behavior persists because it is easier to run your day out of your inbox, while feeling productive.

Once you decide to embrace the Deep Work ethic you’ll find however that most of these distractions are easily dismissed.  While this shallow work may seem all encompassing, taking a step back shows that it’s just whale shit in the sands of time.

As an Academic Researcher there is a single point that shows how well you are doing your job; are you publishing important papers.  There is actually a formula that details this; the H Index – named for Jorge Hirsche.  This is calculated based on the number of papers written vs. the number of times these papers are cited.  Google Scholar automatically calculates this.

The connection between Deep Work and a satisfying life is demonstrated in the ideal of the Craftsman.  But knowledge work can be craft too.  Skillful management of attention is the key.  Our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.  What we focus on.

Deep Work is related to the concept of Flow.

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.

Types of Deep Work Scheduling:

  1. Monastic – radically reducing or eliminating distractions.  Locking yourself away in a tower.
  2. Bimodal – dividing your time between dedicated stretches of deep work with the rest left open to everything else.  During the deep time the practitioner will act monastically.
  3. Rhythmic – transform deep work sessions into a simple, regular habit.
    1. The Seinfeld chain method falls under this type of scheduling
    2. A set time every day is another
    3. The period of time needs to be long enough to allow you to fall into a state of concentration.  This doesn’t just happen automatically.  90 minutes is a good start.

An overlooked observation of those that create valuable things with their minds is that they tend to work in a very structured manner.  Creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.

Building effective (maybe obsessive) rituals help you reach deep faster.  This incorporates location, time frame, coffee, etc.

The Grand Gesture – leveraging a massive change in your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a large investment of money, to increase the perceived importance of the task in order to help you complete it.  An example is buying a round trip ticket for an overseas flight in order to work distraction free.  Or building a writers cabin.  Sometimes, in order to go deep you must first go big.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution – 4DX

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important
    1. 80/20
    2. The more you try to do, the less you accomplish
    3. Execute towards a small number of wildly important goals
  2. Act on the Lead Measures
    1. You need to measure your progress towards your goals.  There are two metrics:
      1. Lag Measures – describe the thing you are ultimately trying to improve
        1. These come too late to help influence your behavior.
      2. Lead Measures – measure new behaviors that will drive success on lag measures
        1. For Deep Work this metric is Time spent in a state of Deep Work.
        2. What gets measured gets managed.  Tracking this time increases its importance and relevance.
  3. Keep a Compelling Score Board
    1. Have a public place to record and track your lead measure.
    2. For Deep Work devotees this should be a physical scoreboard in the work space that tracks the DW hour count.
    3. To maximize motivation, circle important milestones.  This will show how much work is actually required to get to that point and connects DW with a tangible result.
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability
    1. Regular and frequent meetings of any team working towards a wildly important goal.
    2. If doing individual work then a weekly review during which you plan the workweek to come.

Attention Restoration

As willpower and attention are a finite resource it stands to reason that they must be replenished.  To facilitate this, at the end of your day shut down work considerations until the next morning.  Use a strict shutdown ritual to help make it concrete.  This helps add confidence that you are actually done until the next day, which allows the brain to downshift to a level where it can recharge.

The ritual should ensure that every unfinished task is reviewed and a next action is made.  The process should have a strict number of steps to be completed in order.  Finally, a phrase completes the cycle.  Something corny like “Power Down!” works fine.

The Zeigarnik effect describes how incomplete tasks can dominate our attention.  The shut down ritual mitigates this.

The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important.

Attention Restoration Theory (ART) – spending time in nature improves your ability to concentrate.  See Thoreau – On Walking, Walden’s Pond, etc.

As your capacity for deep work is limited (1 hour for a novice up to 4 hours for a pro) if you schedule your day accordingly you should hit your deep work limit during the working day, freeing up the evening for attention restoration.

When you work, work hard.  When you are done, be done.

Don’t take breaks from distraction.  Take breaks from focus.

Schedule the times you will use the internet in advance.  Stick it on a post-it to your monitor.  Outside those times there is no internet allowed whatsoever.  Scheduling internet time helps regain your power of focus.

Roosevelt Sprints – create artificial deadlines so that the only way you can get the task done is through Deep Work.  Like interval training for your brains attention center.

Productive Meditation – thinking on a single, specific problem, while engaged in a simple physical task.  Walking for example, or showering.

3 Steps:

  1. Identify the relevant variables
  2. Identify the next step
  3. Review and clarify the answer you came up with

Memory Athletes

The biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention.  The ability in question is called “attentional control,” and it measures the subjects’ ability to maintain their focus on essential information.

By training your memory you improve your ability to concentrate.

Memorize a deck of cards is good practice.

The final chapter gives tips on evaluating the use of social media in your life and ultimately quitting it.  A few points:

  • part of the draw of social media is that it makes you think that people care about what you say.
  • quit cold turkey for 30 days and see if you were missed at the end, or if your quality of life degraded.
  • Don’t Use The Internet to Entertain Yourself

Put more thought into your leisure time.  Don’t default to whatever comes up.  Plan your evenings and weekends ahead of time.

Schedule every minute of your day

  • Take a sheet of paper.  It always comes back to a single sheet of paper.
  • Every line will represent a half hour.
  • Mark every second line, covering your typical working hours.
  • Divide your workday into blocks and assign activities to each block
  • This is a living document so if something comes up just re-block from that point
  • Benefit is it allows you to see how much time you spend doing shallow work.

Fixed Schedule Productivity

  • Finish your workday by 1730
  • Choose your own time then work backwards to find productivity strategies that will allow you to meet it.
  • The authors main tactic was to introduce artificial constraints on his schedule
  • Turn down time consuming commitments
  • Work in isolation
  • Track deep work hours
  • Work on problems in your head when idle
  • This allowed him to double his his academic productivity, all while not working into the evening

Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.

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