Deep Work by Cal Newport

8 minute read

Deep Work by Cal Newport

This was my favorite book of 2018. It profoundly impacted the way I approach my work and organize my time. After reading it, I find it easier to maintain concentration and to prioritize important tasks. It was also the final push I needed to un-addict myself from social media.


What I Liked

  • The author’s arguments in favor of deep work are logical and compelling
  • Made me recognize how much time I was spending on low-effort, low-value work
  • Opened my eyes to the concept of “attention residue”
  • Offers many simple, pragmatic techniques for achieving deep work

What I Disliked

  • A bit too heavy on fluff stories about highly accomplished people who achieved greatness due to their commitment to deep work techniques
  • Some of the focus techniques felt extreme past the point of being practical or helpful

Key Takeaways

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: 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.

  • Emails are a common form of shallow work.
    • Sending emails makes us feel productive but, in reality, we’re not accomplishing anything meaningful.
  • The more time we spend in reactive state (e.g., checking email, checking social media), the harder it is to concentrate when we do attempt to focus.

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at 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.

  • Deliberate practice (a pre-requisite for elite performance) necessitates deep work.
    • Deliberate practice requires the practitioner to commit their focus (deep work) and receive feedback to correct their mistakes.
    • Deliberate practice helps the brain build myelin around the neurons that relate to the skill being practiced. The more myelin, the easier it is to fire the neurons. Therefore, exercising this skill becomes less mentally taxing.
  • Productivity formula
    • High-quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)
    • Often high-performers don’t work more hours but rather focus more intently.
  • Attenion residue
    • When you context-switch between tasks, even though you’re focused on the new task, your focus is lower because there’s still “residue” from the previous task.
    • Attention residue decreases your performance on the subsequent task.
    • Checking email or social media and then returning to work creates attention residue because part of your mind continues to think about messages you need to respond to.
  • Publishers now encourage journalists and novelists to maintain an active presence on social media.
    • Worrying trend given that these writers need to be free from distraction to write well.
  • Principle of Least Resistance
    • At work, people often choose actions because they’re the easiest to complete in the moment, not because they’re necessarily the correct thing to work on.
    • Example: Arranging a weekly status meeting to discuss a project.
      • It’s easy to invite everyone to attend, and it feels like it’s productive, but there are usually less disruptive ways to get progress updates.
    • Example: Forwarding an email with only a terse note, such as, “Thoughts?”
      • Very easy for the sender to do and makes them feel like they’re doing something useful, but imposes shallow work on the recipients. Usually can be avoided if the sender invested more thought into their initial email.
  • Busyness as a proxy for productivity
    • It’s hard to measure a knowledge worker’s productivity.
    • Some managers have begun erroneously using busyness as a measure of a person’s productivity.
      • Workers try to demonstrate their value by responding quickly to emails, answering messages outside of work hours, performing lots of visible work regardless of whether it’s important.

Ironically, jobs are actually 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. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

-Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

  • Deep work requires periods of idle detachment
    • Your brain needs to relax with something unrelated to the target of your focus. Should not be low-effort, high-stimulation shallow work (e.g., email, social media). Something like reading a book for pleasure or memorizing a deck of cards.
    • Your unconscious mind makes progress solving a hard problem while your conscious mind is distracted from the task.
    • Shutting down allows you to rebuild energy for deep work.
  • Important to establish a “shutdown ritual”
    • Shutdown ritual is a process to end the workday so that you don’t have to worry about work until the following workday.
    • Make sure all urgent emails are answered and critical tasks are complete. Otherwise, you’ll worry in your downtime about whether there are incomplete tasks.
  • Deep work is a skill, not just a habit.
    • If you think of it like a habit, you develop the unrealistic expectation that you can just “switch it on” when you decide to do it.
  • It’s okay to be bored!
    • If you constantly seek stimulation / entertainment in your downtime, it makes it harder for you to focus when you’re trying to do work.
    • If you can’t wait in line for five minutes without checking your phone, you’re training your brain to expect constant distraction.
  • Memory training exercises can improve your ability to focus because they require extended periods of deep focus.
  • People have irrational justifications to continue using social media.
    • Most people recognize that social media is harmful and unproductive but continue to use it.
    • “Any benefit approach”: people justify social media by naming any benefit it provides, however minor (e.g., see funny photos, maintain loose relationships). They often don’t weight the value against the costs.
  • Social media has corrupted useful content.
    • In the early Internet, the only way to attract an audience was to create high-value content.
    • Now, it’s easy for people to get an audience by “liking” what their friends post and waiting for reciprocation.
    • “I’ll like your status update if you’ll like mine.”
    • Validation by reciprocity lowers the bar for the value of content and pushes everyone to “like” everything and consume content in only a shallow way.
  • Plan in advance how to spend your free time.
    • It otherwise becomes too tempting to waste time on garbage activities like reading Buzzfeed.
    • People expect that structuring their free time will suck the fun out of it. In reality, most people find it more satisfying to spend free time on high-quality activities.
  • Schedule every minute of your day.
    • You otherwise spend the day on auto-pilot and don’t exercise deliberate thought about how to spend your time.
  • Scheduling strategy: daily schedules
    • Map out your entire day on a piece of standard notebook paper.
    • Write 30-minute increments of time down the lefthand side, then activities on the right.
    • For each planned activity for the day, assign it to one of more blocks (e.g., “write presentation” can be 90 minutes = 3 blocks).
    • Goal is not to predict exactly how you spend your day, but to remain vigilant and conscientious about your time. If there are interruptions or changes of plans, just update the map at your next free moment.
  • Metric for qualifying the depth of an activity
    • “How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”
    • Tasks that require years of training are where you should be spending most of your time.
  • Ask your boss how much of your time you should spend on shallow work.
    • If you’re spending more time than they expect, work with them to figure out how to eliminate shallow work activities so that you can do more deep work.
    • If your boss won’t specify a target and instead focuses on how responsive you need to be to achieve short-term goals, probably time to look for another job.
  • Setting yourself up for deep work requires you to decline jobs that involve lots of shallow work.
    • e.g., for an academic, traveling to conferences, serving on committees
  • Fixed schedule productivity: committing to work only during a fixed schedule (e.g., 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday)
    • Treating work time as fixed prevents you from being tempted to take on additional shallow work tasks. You have a scarce amount of total time, so any shallow tasks necessarily mean less deep work.
    • Honoring this schedule prevents work thoughts from encroaching on your downtime.
  • Become hard to reach
    • The cultural expectation is that, unless you’re famous, you owe a reply to everyone who emails you.
    • You can reduce your volume of emails by setting the expectation that you’re unlikely to respond and can only reply to emails that match your schedules and interests. See Cal Newport’s contact page for an example of this.
  • You can reduce email noise by investing more thought into your replies.
    • Emails generally represent a “project.”
    • Think about what reply most quickly brings the project to a resolution.
    • The normal temptation is to write the easiest possible response in the moment, but this generally causes many more emails (i.e., future interruptions, more shallow work).
    • Example: “We should get lunch! Are you free this week?”
      • Bad: Requires many back-and-forth emails to converge on a plan.
    • Example: “We should get lunch this week. I’m available Thursday from 11:30 to 2, Wednesday from 12 to 2:30, and Friday from 12 to 2. Do any of these work for you? If not, send me two or three times that work for you next week. What do you think of Shake Shack or Tony’s? If those don’t work, I’m good with most restaurants that have Mexican, American, or Italian cuisine.”
      • Good: Helps you arrive at final plans in 1-2 more emails.

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