Deep Work was published in 2016 authored by Cal Newport. He is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He is the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and three other books giving advice to students.
The book is currently a best seller in Time Management, Personal Time Management, and Job Hunting & Career Guides.
This book provides rules and tactics to help you stay focused doing work deeply and avoid shallow work that distracts your productivity.
On a personal level, Deep Work helped me block uninterrupted time to work deeply on my projects being away from the internet and quitting social media for a while. In this blog post, I’ll compile my notes on the book that has eight main points:
- Deep Work is Valuable
- Deep Work is Rare
- Deep Work is Meaningful
- Rule #1: Work Deeply
- Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
- Rule #3: Quit Social Media
- Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
As always will include quotes from the book and my personal notes and will leave my review at the end.
- (Book recommendation) Daily Rituals by Mason Currey
- Deep work is the type of effort you need to stand out.
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.
- Peter Higgs, a theoretical physicist who won the Noble prize, didn’t use computers.
- During the writing of Harry Poter, the author J.K. Rowling was absent from social media.
- Books recommendations discussing internet issue and its effect on our brains and work habits:
- Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers
- The Tyranny of Email by John Freeman
- The Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
- Jason Benn, after quitting his job and learning to program, locked himself in a room with no computer; just textbooks, notecards, and a highlighter.
- Jason Benn read about 18 books on the topic by the time he was done.
- Four hours before the first meeting and maybe 3–4 hours in the afternoon. That’s how Benn spends his time during his workdays focused; no email, no Hackernews. Just programming.
Deep Work is Valuable
- (Book recommendation) Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
- (Book recommendation) Average is Over by Tyler Cowen
- To thrive in the new economy, you need two core abilities:
- Quickly master hard things.
- Produce at an elite level in terms of quality and speed.
- If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive — no matter how skilled or talented you are.
- (Book recommendation) The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
- (Book recommendation) Give and Take by Adam Grant
- Law of productivity: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
- The more focused you are, the less time you need to produce high-quality work. So with high focus, you can spend less time accomplishing your task.
- Deep work is when you work on a paper for days, like Adam Grant did, without even checking email. No distractions.
- If deep work is so important, why are there distracted people like Jack Dorsey who do well?
- P.S. Dorsey is the co-founder and CEO of Twitter. He is also the founder and CEO of Square (a financial payments company). He is worth $13.8 billion dollars. His schedule is very tight as you might think.
To ask a CEO to spend four hours thinking deeply about a single problem is a waste of what makes him or her valuable. It’s better to hire three smart subordinates to think deeply about the problem and then bring their solutions to the executive for a final decision.
- Kerry Trainer, CEO of Vimeo, can go most of Saturday daytime without email.
Deep Work is Rare
In the absence of metrics, most people fall back on what’s easiest.
- Deep workers examples: Richard Feynman, David Allen
- Checking emails could be part of your job and you should then invest a considerable amount of time emailing. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer banned employees from working at home because they didn’t have more time checking their emails signaling, “If you’re not visibly busy, I’ll assume you’re not productive.”
- Deep worker: Adam Grant became the youngest full professor at Wharton University by repeatedly shutting himself off from the outside world to concentrate on writing.
- If he worked for Yahoo, Marissa Mayer might have fired him. What matters here is the bottom line.
- (Book recommendation) To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
Deep Work is Meaningful
- Deep worker as a craftsman: Ric Furrer
- (Book recommendation) Rapt by Winifred Gallagher
- Gallagher noticed a connection between attention and happiness. She overcame her cancer by focusing on her life.
Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on
- You need a “reset button” for your emotions.
When you focus, your mind tends to fix what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.
- Most people assume (and still do) that relaxation makes them happy. But results from the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM (Experience sampling experience) studies reveal that most people have this wrong.
- Our minds like the challenge of deep work regardless of the subject. Deep work is rewarding.
- Deep worker: coding prodigy Santiago Gonzalez
Rule #1: Work Deeply
- David Deware, an architecture professor, explains this deep work chamber to allow total focus and uninterrupted workflow.
- Deep work process through his perspective is 90 minutes of work inside the chamber and then another 90-minute break; and repeat two or three times throughout the day.
- (Book recommendation) Willpower by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister
- Deep worker: a famous computer scientist Donald Knuth, a recipient of the ACM Turing Award, informally considered the Nobel Prize of computer science
- Deep worker: a theologist Brain Chapell, although he is a father with a full-time job he worked deeply from 5 to 7:30 AM every workday morning.
- Science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson chose uninterrupted time chunks to write good novels.
- Adam Grant’s bimodal approach: stacked his courses into one semester and spent the other one on deep work.
- Perhaps once or twice a month, he takes a period of two to four days to become completely monastic; meaning his door is shut, auto-responder on his email.
- Bryan Chappell’s morning routine is deep work from 5:30 to 7:30 AM although he was working from 9 to 5! He later pushed his wake-up time to 4:45 to squeeze out even more morning depth.
- (Book recommendation) The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made by Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson
- Deep worker: famous journalist Walter Isaacson wrote a 900-page book on the side work. Any free time he could find, he would switch into a deep work mode.
- Your deep work can start as a ritual after having your coffee, having access to enough food, or lighting an exercise.
To maximize your success, you need to support your efforts to go deep. At the same time, this support needs to be systematized so that you don’t waste mental energy figuring out what you need at the moment.
- Make Grand Gesture strategy like:
- Think Weeks by Bill Gates concentrating for weeks with a stack of papers and books without any distraction.
- Tiny Islands in Maine by MIT physicist Alan Lightman. This island has no phone service nor internet. He would stay there for 2.5 months each summer.
- Peter Shankman, an American entrepreneur and social media pioneer who traveled from the US to Tokyo, Japan making use of this flight time writing his manuscript. “The trip cost $4,000 and was worth every penny,” he explained.
- Isolation is not required for productive deep work. Example: Walter Brattain (the experimentalist) and John Bardeen (the quantum theorist) who over a period of one month in 1947 made the series of breakthroughs that led to the first solid-state transistor.
- (Book recommendation) The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Jim Huling, Chris McChesney, and Sean Covey. The book discusses the implementation of strategies for companies.
- Specify the time spent in your deep work to achieve your wildly important goal.
- Create a scoreboard to record and track your lead measures.
- A study related to attention restoration theory (ART) claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.
- The idea of ART is that you can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this activity a rest through a relaxing activity; like walking, having a casual conversation with a friend, playing a game with your kids, going for a run.
- An hour of intense concentration a day seems to be a limit. Four hours (or rarely more) for experts.
- There are always tasks left incomplete, but you got to shut down at the end of your workday (e.g. 5 PM).
Resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
- Research shows that multitaskers can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.
Rule #1 taught you how to integrate deep work into your schedule and support it with routines designed to help you consistently reach the current limit of your concentration ability. Rule #2 will help you significantly improve this limit. The strategies that follow are motivated by the key idea that getting the most out of your deep work habit requires training, and as clarified previously, this training must address two goals: improving your ability to concentrate intensely and overcoming your desire for distraction.
- Schedule e.g. a 30-minute break to be away from the Internet.
- From the perspective of concentration training, try to block internet use outside work when you’re forced to wait (for example when you stand in a line at a store).
- Try to set an early deadline for a deep task you’re trying to do. Or commit to it publicly by telling a friend or someone who expects the project to be finished.
- Daniel Kilov, an Australian memory champion who was able to memorize a shuffled deck of cards, was forgetful and disorganized at high school.
- What makes memory athletes different than normal people is their ability to retention and concentrate.
- Joshua Foer, US Memory Champion, became a champion after just one year of intense mental exercise and memory training.
- There is a memory training you can exercise to be able to recall 52 shuffled deck cards.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
- In 2013, Baratunde Thurston an author and digital media consultant decided to disconnect from his online life for 25 days: no Facebook, no Twitter, no Foursquare, not even email. The reason is he was burnt out by social media.
- Internet Sabbath: is to regularly take small breaks from the Internet/
- Internet sabbatical: a substantial and long break from an online life lasting many weeks and sometimes more.
- ‘The any-benefit approach to network tool selection’ definition is to identify any possible benefit to its use or anything you might miss out on if you don’t use it. The problem with this approach is that it ignores all the negatives that come along with the tools in question.
- Apply the law of vital few to your Internet habits.
- Writers such as Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, and George Packer don’t use Twitter.
- Decide what platform you should quit and stop having the ‘any benefit’ mindset and start analyzing whether the service has a substantially negative impact on you or the positives outweigh.
The business world understands this math, This is why it’s not uncommon to see a company fire, unproductive clients. If 80 percent of their profits come from 20 percent of their clients, then they make more money by redirecting the energy from low-revenue clients to better service the small number of lucrative contracts — each hour spent on the latter returns more revenue than each hour spent on the former. The same holds true for your professional and personal goals. By taking the time consumed by low-impact activities — like finding old friends on Facebook — and reinvesting in high-impact activities — like taking a good friend out to lunch — you end up more successful in your goal. To abandon a network tool using this logic, therefore, is not to miss out on its potential small benefits, but is instead to get more out of the activities you already know to yield large benefits.
- Ryan Nicodemus, who promotes a minimalist lifestyle, decided to simplify his life by packing everything he owned into cardboard boxes as if he was about to move. He realized that most of his stuff was not needed.
Part of what fueled social media’s rapid ascent, I contend, is its ability to short-circuit this connection between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you. It has instead replaced this timeless capitalist exchange with a shallow collectivist alternative: I’ll pay attention to what you say if you pay attention to what I say — regardless of its value . A blog or magazine or television program that contained the content that typically populates a Facebook wall or Twitter feed, for example, would attract, on average, no audience. But when captured within the social conventions of these services, that same content will attract attention in the form of likes and comments. The implicit agreement motivating this behavior is that in return for receiving (for the most part, undeserved) attention from your friends and followers, you’ll return the favor by lavishing (similarly underserved) attention on them. You “like” my status update and I’ll “like” yours . This agreement gives everyone a simulacrum of importance without requiring much effort in return.
- (Book recommendation) How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett
- Your day is not your workday (from 10 to 6). There are another 8 hours left.
In my own life, for example, I manage to read a surprising number of books in a typical year, given the demands on my time as a professor, writer, and father (on average, I’m typically reading three to five books at a time). This is possible because one of my favorite preplanned leisure activities after my kids' bedtime is to read an interesting book. As a result, my smartphone and computer, and the distractions they can offer, typically remain neglected between the end of the workday and the next morning. If you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative.
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
- Jason Fred, the co-founder of 37signals, made workweek from 5 days to 4 from May through October. The result was the same productivity as 5 days. Each day is still 8 hours. The idea is the fewer hours we have, we usually spend them more wisely.
- People have better results when they have a long stretch of uninterrupted time.
- Another experiment from 37signals to test the previous one was to give employees an entire month of June off to work on their own projects; a period free of any shallow work obligations - no status meetings, no slides.
- The damage of shallow work (like meetings, responding to emails, etc) is often vastly underestimated and its importance is vastly overestimated.
- Without structure, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow - email, social media, web surfing.
- Ask your boss what percentage of your time should be spent in shallow work. You’ll realize for non-entry-level work jobs 30–50% would be the answer.
- Maybe end up dropping the weekly status meeting and only keep it when there is significant progress.
- Finish your work by 5:30 PM; a commitment called “fixed-schedule productivity”.
- Although the author doesn’t work at night and rarely works on weekends, in 2014 he published around 20 peer-reviewed articles, won 2 competitive grants, published almost two (non-academic) books including this book.
- How to say “no” to an invitation to something that would be considered shallow? Just say “sounds interesting but I can’t make it due to schedule conflicts.” Don’t provide details to the requester.
- (Book recommendation) The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox by John Freeman
- Become hard to reach when you’re doing deep work.
- The author hired two agents for replying to emails asking about rights requests or speaking requests. Not a general-purpose email.
- If you own a website and you have a ton of emails coming from the
contact page, you can filter the messages to avoid any shallow work
by doing something like Antonio Centeno did. He asks three questions
with three checkboxes implying that the requester:
- Not asking Antonio a question that can be searched on Google for 10 minutes.
- Not spamming him to promote unrelated business.
- Will do a good deed for some random stranger if Antonio responds within 23 hours.
- The message box in which you can type your message doesn’t appear on the contact page until after you’ve clicked the box by all the three promises.
- Make your reply to the emails obvious and specific so that you don’t have to spend too much time replying.
I like Deep Work especially for the emphasis on quitting on social media while doing actual deep work. I found the idea of deep work relevant to many uninterrupted times that I had during study and work. I really wish I had read it during college; it would change my mindset a lot and become more focused.
There are many recommendations to books in this book. I really like it and I find the author authentic and very knowledgeable.
As a whole picture, the book is amazing and can help you become more focused and being able to say no to shallow work like social media and replying to some emails and status meetings. On a personal level, I have quit Facebook for a year now and after reading Deep Work I realized it’s one of the best decisions I made in my 20s (I may talk about it in more detail later)
You can find Deep Work on Amazon
Image by the Author