Book Review – Deep Work by Cal Newport
See Deep Work on Amazon
THE BOOK IN THREE SENTENCES
The ability to work deeply is becoming more rare in today’s society. Thus, developing this ability will set you apart from most others. Embrace boredom and quit social media.
This is a list of key ideas that I recorded while reading the book. These notes include direct quotes from the book, and occasionally, my thoughts and observations.
Deep work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Shallow work: noncognitively 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.
Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks’ twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.
“If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there is a bunch of email messages that I have sent out to individual persons”.
– Neal Stephenson
Yet… most modern knowledge workers are losing familiarity with deep work – network tools.
Learning something complex requires intense uninterrupted concentration on cognitively demanding concept. [Benn didn’t know how to write a business plan, so he decided that he would find and read five different existing plans – comparing and contrasting them to understand what was needed. That was a good idea, but he could not stay focused, spending most of his time surfing the internet. Finally he locked himself in a room with no computer – just textbooks, notecards and a highlighter. He HAD to learn this material, and he made sure there was nothing in that room to distract him].
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.
CHAPTER 1 – Deep Work is Valuable
Two core abilities for thriving in the new economy:
1. the ability to quickly master hard things
2. the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed
Both of these abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work.
As performance psychology started to systematically explore what separates experts from everyone else, the answer was… deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice requires:
– your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you are trying to improve
– you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive
*Deliberate practice cannot exist alongside distraction.
Attention residue – concept from 2009 paper by Sophie Leroy, “Why is it so hard to do my work?”.
When you switch from task A to task B, your attention does not immediately follow. By focusing on a single task for a long time, you minimize attention residue. E.g. checking your inbox every few minutes – introduces a new target for your attention.
CHAPTER 2 – Deep Work Is Rare
Jonathan Franzen pushed against mandatory Twitter presence for journalists [“coercive development”], and was ridiculed. Led to a mocking hashtag #JonathanFranzenhates
Serious journalists need to focus on serious journalism, rather than participating in the frothy back and forth of online tittering.
It is objectively difficult to measure individual contributions to a firm’s output. It is difficult to measure deep work. Measuring the merit and quality of someone’s work by the number of emails sent, and/or the length of those emails is a dangerous metric to adopt.
Culture of connectivity builds expectation of being connected at all times – e.g. responding to an email within an hour of receiving it. If you were to take one full business day a week of being completely disconnected, would anyone actually notice? E.g. management consultants were forced to take one day of out of the workweek to be completely off the grid. While the consultants were initially worried that they were putting their careers in jeopardy, the result was greater enjoyment of their work, better communication, more learning, and better product delivered to clients.
If you can’t count on a quick immediate response on a particular project, then you have to do more advance planning, and be more organized and be prepared to put things aside for a while, and turn your attention elsewhere while you are waiting for what you requested.
The standing project meetings for many have become a simple and blunt form of personal organization. Other-driven vs. self-driven.
The practice of forwarding a message to a colleague with: “Thoughts?”. From the sender’s perspective, this is easier, than putting some thought into what you actually require from a recipient. Takes sender mere seconds, yet can take many minutes or hours on the part of recipient.
H-index provides a very clear way to measure output in academics, however, a similar indicator is absent in other fields. Productivity, or observable busyness, often takes place for such an index instead.
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. [E.g. sending/responding to emails at all hours of the day].
The mixture of job ambiguity and lack of metrics to measure the effectiveness of different strategies allows behaviour that can seem ridiculous when viewed objectively to thrive in the increasingly bewildering psychic landscape of our daily work.
Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make it illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. [book on technopoly by Neil Postman]. The dangerous and automatic assumption – if it’s high tech, it’s good.
E.g. Alissa Rubin, a journalist writing about genocide and political situation in middle East, is also required by the New York Times to tweet. In fact, she gets a reminder from the NYT social media desk to do so. Why is she urged to regularly interrupt this necessarily deep work to provide for free, shallow content to a service run by an unrelated media company? And why does this behaviour seem so normal to most people?
*It is not that social media is irrelevant, but perhaps, that deep content is still MORE relevant, and if individual is forced to choose, the latter is more important, and more valuable. Fundamentally, social media is not necessary. Useful, perhaps. Entertaining, sure. But not necessary.
CHAPTER 3 – Deep Work Is Meaningful
Master craftsman, blacksmith, making swords: “To do it right, it is the most complicated thing I know how to make. And it’s that challenge that drives me. I don’t need a sword. But I HAVE to make them”.
For craftsmen, the challenges are simple to define, but difficult to execute. In knowledge workers, there is no such clarity. It is indeed difficult to define what exactly they do.
Our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. “Who you are, what you think feel, and do, what you love – is the sun of what you focus on”. [Winifred Gallagher]
Elderly research subjects showed amygdala inhibition when shown negative images – it seems that older subjects have trained themselves to ignore the negative and savor the positive, and were, thus, happier.
Mihaly Cz. highlights the advantage of cultivating “concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems”. In knowledge work especially, this is a real danger, due to its dependence on ubiquitous connectivity which generates a devastatingly appealing buffet of distraction.
A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”. FLOW. Jobs are easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. The feeling of going deep is in itself rewarding.
Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state. And flow generates happiness.
The answer to lack of meaning often generated by “individual freedom” is craftsmanship. Sacredness is common to craftsmanship. The task of a craftsman is not to “generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there”.
“We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals”. [the medieval quarry worker’s creed]
Whether you are a writer or a lawyer, 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 don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.
1. Work deeply.
2. Embrace boredom.
3. Quit social media.
4. Drain the shallows.
The Eudaemonia Machine – a space designed for the sole purpose of deep work.
Desire is the norm, not an exception. The most common desires: eating, sleeping, sex, following by taking a break from work, checking email, social media sites, surfing the web, etc. You can expect to be bombarded wth the desire to do anything but work deeply throughout the day. And those desires will often win.
The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions, and add routines and rituals designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
Pick a philosophy of deep work:
– eliminate or radically minimize shallow obligations (e.g. do not use email at all)
– Neil Stephenson: “All of my time and attention are spoken for – several times over. Please do not ask for them”.
– this approach makes many defensive – it’s the clarity with which its adherents identify their value to the world
– dividing your time, dedicating clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits
– e.g. three days out of the week, one month out of the year
– the minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy is at least one day
– chain method: keep a calendar on the wall, don’t break the chain
– way to start working deeply consistently is to transform this way of working into a simple regular habit
– Seinfeld’s secret http://lifehacker.com/281626/jerry-seinfelds-productivity-secret
– at least 90min chunks of time; works better with the reality of human nature and other obligations
– journalists are trained to shift into writing mode on a moment’s notice, as is required by the deadline-driven nature of their profession
– not for the deep work novice
– requires a sense of confidence in your abilities
Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply on what you encounter.
“I asked you how to do it, and you told me what I should do. I know what I need to do. I just don’t know how to do it”. This division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world. It’s often straightforward to identify a strategy needed to achieve a goal, but what trips up companies is figuring out how to execute the strategy once identified.
Focus on the wildly important. If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say no to the trivial distractions you find, try to say yet to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.
Act on the lead measures. Lag measures – describe the thing you are trying to improve. The problem with those is that they come too late to change your behaviour. *E.g. weight on the scale is a lag measure of few past weeks of choices. Lead measures – measure the new behaviours that will drive success on the lag measures. E.g. the number of customers you contact to discuss your product/service. You can directly increase this number, and your lag measures will likely to improve as well.
In deep work, lead measure is the amount of time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal. E.g. tracking deep work hours – simply tally.
Keep a compelling scoreboard. E.g. see above.
Execution is more difficult than strategizing.
Be lazy. Turn off your work email at the end of the day, and do something else. Allow your mind to wander, and rest.
ART – attention restoration theory claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. Proposed in the 1980s by Kaplans, based on the concept of attention fatigue. You can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this activity a rest.
Shutdown ritual – have a plan for the next day, and a system in place to capture the next actions.
For a novice, one hour of deep work is about a limit per day, for an expert – closer to four hours. At the end of the day, when you re done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion. “And I’m done!”. Or something to that effect – to indicate the shift.
Zeigarnik effect = tendency of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. The effect can be alleviated by having a specific plan for the incomplete tasks.
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.
People who multitask all the time cannot filter our irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They are chronically distracted.
William Powers – Hamlet’s Blackberry – reflection on technology and human happiness. Internet Sabbath by itself cannot cure a distracted brain. If you eat healthy just one day a week, you are unlikely to lose weight, if the rest of your time is spent gorging.
Instead of scheduling a break from distraction so you can focus, try the opposite. Schedule an occasional break from focus to indulge in distraction. E.g. schedule in advance when you will use internet, and then avoid it altogether outside of those times. You can record a time you are allowed to go on internet on a pad by your computer, and until that times arrives, no internet.
If your job requires quite a bit of internet use, you can still use this strategy, just makes blocks more frequent.
Schedule your internet use even while at home, except for time-sensitive communication (e.g. texting a friend to get together for coffee). If internet plays a large role in your entertainment, just schedule large blocks of internet time.
To simply wait and become bored is a novel experience in modern life.
Work like Teddy Roosevelt. He would divide up his day in blocks, remove the time spent in classes and training, and then considered the time dedicated to studying. Then he would get most of those hours, by doing nothing but studying during those blocks. The only way to get a deep task done in time is to work with blistering intensity – no daydreaming, no FB breaks, no trips to the coffee machine. These Roosevelt dashes require a tight deadline, and are incompatible with distraction.
Productive meditation – take a period in which you are occupied physically, but not mentally, and focus your attention on a single well defined professional problem. Continue bringing attention to that problem. Your goal should be to participate in a session like that few times a week. You can even consider scheduling a walk in the middle of your day to work on the most pressing problem. It may take up to a dozen sessions to start noticing yourself to be able to concentrate at the task at hand.
Be wary of distractions and looping (simply rehashing what you already know about the problem). Structure your thinking – start by considering all the variables of the problem, then identify the next step question, then consolidate your gains by reviewing the answer you identified.
Memorize a deck of cards – train your memory. Biggest difference between memory athletes and the rest of the population is “attentional control”, subjects’ ability to maintain focus on essential information. A side effect of memory training is improvement in your ability to concentrate. Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it.
Baratunde Thurston – quit social media for 25 days. Wrote it in #unplug.
Internet sabbatical vs. internet sabbath – the former requires a lengthy substantial break from the internet. Yet, such radical approach suggests a false dichotomy. These tools are not inherently evil. There is a middle ground.
Wrote an article on why he never joined Facebook – article was not meant to be defensive, but elicited many defensive responses from readers, most of those responses provided fairly minor reasons. E.g. they were not suffering a deficit in entertainment before FB, they would not die of boredom if that service stopped working, etc.
The network tools are engineered to be addictive.
Any-benefit approach to network tool selection: you’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify ANY possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it. Of course, all tools have SOME benefit.
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.
Identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life. Think – life mission. E.g. help people become better versions of themselves. Then list for each the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy that goal. E.g. regularly write and publish high quality blog posts.
Now, consider the network tools you currently use. For each 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. Keep using the tool only if it has substantially positive impact, and the positive outweighs the negative.
Professional goal: ?
Key activities supporting this goal: ?
Assuming you could list ten to fifteen distinct and beneficial activities for each of your life goals, it’s the top two or three such activities that make most of the difference in whether or not you succeed with the goal. All activities, regardless of their importance, consume your same limited store of time and attention. If you service lower-impact activities, you are taking time away from higher-impact activities. It’s a zero sum game. Hence, it is not uncommon to “fire” unproductive clients.
Ryan Nicodemus – simplify his life.
Experiment: ban yourself from using ANY social media for thirty days. All of them. Don’t formally deactivate them, and don’t mention online that you will be signing off. After thirty days, ask yourself:
1. would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
2. did people care that I wasn’t using this service?
If your answer is “no” to both questions, then quit the service permanently. If your answer is a clear yes, then return to using this service.
Network tools can be especially devastating to your quest to work deeper. They offer personalized information arriving on an unpredictable intermittent schedule – making them massively addictive.
It is no longer difficult to build an audience. Part of what fuelled social media’s rapid ascent 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 exchange with a shallow alternative: “I’ll pay attention to what you say if you pay attention to what I say – regardless of value”.
Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself.
Bennett – 1910 self-help classic “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day”.
Most workers insist on looking at eight hours they spend working as “the day”, and the hours before and after work as nothing but a prologues and epilogue. Instead, why not look at the free hours as a day within a day? And spend that time as aristocrat would – in pursuits of self-development?
You both should and can make deliberate use of your time outside work. Put more thought into your leisure time. Structured hobbies with specific goals, or a set program of reading, each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books.
If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured web surfing.
E.g. cutting down the work week from five days to four days seemed to not have impacted the deep work.
37signals gave its employees the entire month of june off to work deeply on their own projects – period free of shallow obligations. At the end of the month, the company holds a pitch day.
Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated, and its importance vastly overestimated.
Schedule your day into blocks for similar tasks. Be liberal with your use of task blocks, and make them longer than required.
How do you identify particular tasks in your day as deep vs. shallow? Consider how much time would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in your field to complete this task. Many months? or even years = deep. Only few months, or weeks? Shallow.
Ask your boss – what percentage of your time should be spent on shallow work? For most people, the answer will be in 30-50% range – there is something distasteful about spending the MAJORITY of your time in shallow tasks. The discussion with your boss establishes implicit support from your workplace. [It is incredibly wasteful to pay a highly trained professional to send email messages and attend meetings].
Finish your work by five thirty. Fixed-schedule productivity. E.g. one academic decided that she would only travel five times a year for any purpose, as trips can generate a surprisingly large load of shallow but urgent obligations (e.g. lodging arrangements, tickets, etc.).
“Sounds interesting, but I can’t make it due to schedule conflicts”. Resist the urge to offer a consolation prize for saying no.
It can be difficult to accept a shallow commitment – e.g. get coffee or jump on a call. A commitment fixed schedule productivity creates a scarcity mindset. Any obligation beyond your deepest efforts is suspect, and seen as potentially disruptive.
Become hard to reach. Make people who send you email do more work.
E.g. If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, email me at: . For the reasons stated above, I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests. Can you think of your inbox as a collection of opportunities that you can glance at when you have free time? Psychologically, this can be very freeing.
Most people easily accept the idea that you have a right to control your own incoming communication. Most are okay to not receive a response if they don’t expect one.
How you respond to messages will have a significant impact on how much time and attention the resulting conversation ultimately consumes. What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
Process-centric approach to email – designed to minimize the number of emails you receive. Identify the project implied by the message. Take a minute or two to think through the process that gets you from the current state to a desired outcome with a minimum of messages required. Write a reply that clearly describes this process and where we stand. [Sometimes something as simple as scheduling a coffee date can spiral into half dozen messages or more]. This way of emails requires that you spend more time thinking about your messages before you compose them. However, this approach is saving you many messages and many minutes later.
The final option to consider is to not respond. Do not reply if the message is ambiguous or makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response. It is not a question or proposal that interests you. Or: nothing good would happen if you responded, and nothing bad would happen if you didn’t respond.
The end result: you send fewer emails, and ignore those that aren’t easy to process.
Gates’ ability to concentrate – fell asleep at his desk after working for hours, then would wake up and continuing working.
A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement – it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.
“Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things”.
– Tim Ferriss
To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few is a transformative experience.
There is uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you are capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.
“I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is”
– Winifred Gallagher
OTHER BOOKS MENTIONED
The Shallows – examines the Internet’s effect on our brains and work habits.
The Tyranny of E-mail
The Distraction Addiction
The Intellectual Life by Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges – guide to the development and deepening of the mind
To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov – technopoly, internet as an ideology, internet-centrism
Rapt by Winifred Gallagher – diagnosed with cancer; looks at importance of attention/focus
All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly – exploration of the role of the sacred
Willpower by Baumeister. People fight desires all day long.
Anthem by Neil Stephenson – intellectual elite live in monastic orders, thinking deep thoughts
Mason Currey – journalist looking at habits of famous thinkers and writers
David Brooks – NYT column, “Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants”.
Michael Pollan wrote a book about his experience building a writing cabin in the woods
The Four Disciplines of Execution
Buy The Book: Deep Work
*Books are my weakness, yet I strive to own less, rather than more. I have long been looking for a way to capture main ideas from the books I read without keeping the books themselves. My gratitude goes to Derek Sivers and James Clear for coming up with clean and straightforward formats for book summaries. My approach represents a blend of both.