8 min read

Deep Work by Cal Newport - Summary and Book Notes

Not just another rant by a technophobe, Newport makes a compelling case for the importance of 'Deep Work'.


The book is split into two parts: Part 1 argues that Deep Work is increasingly important in our economy, and Part 2 outlines strategies for increasing your ability to do Deep Work. Part 1 draws upon a survey of research from neuroscience, psychology, behavioral economics, and others. Newport's arguments are clear and concise. Part 2 has plenty of great ideas drawn from real world examples or the author himself. Actionable items make implementing these ideas quite straightforward.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

This is a great book. I highly recommend for anyone feeling like their attention is being dragged in too many directions, or for anyone who wants to be able to get more significant work done in the office or at home.

Buy Deep Work or read it on Kindle Unlimited

My summary below is very rough. For something more polished and more useful, check out this Guide to Deep Work by Alexandra Heller.


Quick Summary

The following are rough notes I took while reading. These are mostly paraphrased or quoted directly from the book.

Part 1: Deep work is Valuable, Rare, and Meaningful

What is deep work?

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate

book assumes network tools negatively impact deep work

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly valuable in our economy. The few who cultivate this skill will thrive

Three groups with advantage in new economy: those who can work well with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital

Two core abilities: quickly master hard things. produce at an elite level in both quality and speed

If you can't learn you can't thrive

Exposure to simplistic, consumer-facing products does not prepare people to succeed in a high-tech economy

Giving students iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for a high-tech economy about as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics

Deep work helps you quickly learn hard things

Ericsson: "the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain"

Ericsson: "Diffused attention is almost antithetical to the focused attention required by deliberate practice"

(neurological basis) if you're trying to learn a complex new skill with your Facebook feed open, you're firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you want to strengthen

Deep work helps you produce at an elite level

High-Quality work produced = (time spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

What about Jack Dorsey (Twitter CEO)? His job requires little deep work (lots of delegation, quick decision making, etc)

Big trends in business today actively decrease people's ability to perform deep work (Instant messaging, open office plans, etc)

As knowledge work gets more complex, it becomes harder to measure the value of an individual's performance. -> Bottom line impact of deep work blocking behaviors is hard to detect.

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

e.g. quick responses to e-mail that result in huge back-and-forth threads instead of well thought out e-mails which cover the details and get to the point; presence of IM in corporate environments; lack of business planning

Busyness as a 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 and industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner

Neil Postman: technopoly. Why are journalists urged by their papers to tweet all day? Because if its on the internet it must be good!

Ultimate goal of this book: systematically develop your personal ability to go deep--and by doing so, reap great rewards

deep work can be just as satisfying in the knowledge work as in craft work

disciplines across the board (anthropology, education, behavioral economics, family counseling) point to skillful management of attention as the key to the good life and to improving virtually every aspect of your existence

Jobs are easier to enjoy than free time because they have built in goals, feedback, and challenges (flow). Free time needs greater effort to structure it into something that can be enjoyed

People are happier at work and less happy than they suspect when measured

My knowledge work job can't possibly be a source of meaning! It is too mundane! Flawed reasoning based on our culture's obsession with job description and 'passion.' Specifics of work are irrelevant. Meaning is due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship (see Newports last book, 'so good they can't ignore you')

A deep life is a good life.

Want to level up your productivity and start getting work done?

We built an interactive coach, available 24⁄7 to give you a feasible next step to improve your productivity skills.

Get the Digital Productivity Coach

Part 2: Suggestions on how to improve the skill of Deep Work

Work Deeply

Eudaimonia Machine. Building where users can get into a state of deep human flourishing--creating work at the peak of their abilities

key to developing deep work habit: add routines and rituals (minimize willpower use)

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

4 options for deep work scheduling: Monastic, Bimodal, Rhythmic, Journalistic

  • Monastic: radically minimize shallow work in your life
  • Bimodal: Schedule long stretches of time for isolation and deep work (days or weeks)
  • Rhythmic: Schedule time everyday to do deep work (make it habitual) (can't get as deep)
  • Journalistic: Whenever you can switch into deep work (very hard to switch like this)

Seinfeld X'ing off calendar every day he wrote jokes example

David Brooks: "[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants."

Ritualize your deep work

  • Where you'll work for and how long
  • How you'll work once you start
  • How you'll support your work

Make grand gestures: JK Rowling finishing last Harry Potter in expensive hotel

Deep work is not incompatible with collaborative effort

Hub and spoke architecture might be best layout for deep work with spontaneous idea-bouncing

Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply on what you encounter.

Distraction is a destroyer of depth

Distinction between 'what' and 'how' is crucial but often overlooked

4 Disciplines of Execution - Christensen

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important
  2. Act on the Lead Measures
    -lag measures are too late
    -lead measure for deep work: time spent in deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal
  3. Keep a compelling Scoreboard
    -track hours of deep work in a prominent place
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability (regular progress reports)

Be lazy

Idleness is indispensable [and]...paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. -Tim Kreider

Completely shutoff during breaks or after when work is done

Downtime aids insights. Allows subconscious to sort through data

Downtime helps you recharge (deep work is hard)

Squeezing more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day

Work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important

have a shutdown ritual at the end of the day (Zeigarnik effect: incomplete tasks dominate our attention)

When you work, work hard. When you're done, be done.

Embrace Boredom

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained
corollary: also have to wean your mind from dependence on distraction

Internet Sabbath just as effective as eating healthy only 1 day a week

Strategy: schedule your internet time, avoid it completely all other times
if work requires quick responses to emails, schedule internet time every 15 minutes
Change schedule if need-be, but make sure next internet block doesn't start for at least 5 min.

To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it's incredibly valuable.

Learn to work more intensely: set hard deadlines that are just barely attainable

Productive meditation: focus attention on single well-defined problem while [walking, jogging, driving, showering]. Like mindfulness meditation with focus on problem instead of breath.
Like all meditation, difficult at first, requires lots of practice. Avoid distractions and looping.

Structure your deep thinking. Setup relevant variables and next-step question. After getting solution, consolidate by reviewing the answer.

Memorize a deck of cards. Memory skills aren't a measure of cognitive ability but a measure of attention skill.

Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it

Quit Social Media

To master deep work, take back control of your time and attention from diversions

Don't have to completely get rid of social media, there is a middle ground

The 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
Flaw: ignores all the negatives that come along with the tools
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.

Apply the law of the vital few to your internet habits
Identify high level goals in both professional and personal life (2-3 max each)
Consider network tools and their impact on your goals

The Law of the Vital Few (Pareto Principle): 80% of a given effect is due to just 20% of the possible causes

In business: fire unproductive clients

Perform a 'packing party' but for your social media. Ban yourself from them for 30 days, only restart the ones which would have made the last 30 days notably better, or if people cared that you weren't using the service.

Fear of Missing Out is often irrational

Delusion: people want to hear what you have to say. Fueled by people paying attention to you if you pay attention to them--regardless of value. "like my status and I'll like yours"

Don't use the internet to entertain yourself

Put more thought into your leisure time

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 one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.

Drain the Shallows

Schedule every minute of your day
Change as things come up
Goal of a schedule is not to force behavior into a rigid plan, it's about thoughtfulness

How to quantify deep work: How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training to complete this task?

Ask your boss "what percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?"

A job that doesn't support deep work is not one that will help you succeed in this information economy

Don't work after a set time (Five Thirty)

Most dangerous word in one's productivity vocabulary: "Yes"

Just because your boss is clearing her inbox at night doesn't mean she expects an immediate response

Become hard to reach
Make people who contact  you do more work
Do more work when you send or reply to emails
-What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient process (in terms of messages generated) for bringing this project to a successful conclusion

Buy Deep Work or read it on Kindle Unlimited