Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Published:

Summary

Part 1 of the book makes the case for why the reader should care about Deep Work. In short, Deep Work is valuable, rare, and meaningful in the information economy. This book assumes the reader is working in a knowledge field and defines success based on financial rewards. In order to be successful, you must be able to learn complex ideas and tasks quickly. You can hone this skill by practicing Deep Work. The characteristics of deep work are distraction-free concentration, pushing your cognitive limits, hard to replicate, and create new value by improving a skill. This is contrasted to shallow work, which is logistical, not demanding, distracted work that is not valuable and easy to replicate. The main problem discussed is that everyone is hyper-connected (like through email, social media, and instant messaging) so we are constantly sucked into shallow work and not working on meaningful Deep Work.

Part 2 of the book presents four rules of how to implement Deep Work into your life.

  1. Work Deeply. You need to create routines to encourage Deep Work as much as possible. There are a couple of different strategies for scheduling Deep Work, depending on your lifestyle. It is also helpful to create a ritual surrounding Deep Work such as deciding where, how long, rules for work (no internet, producing X words per hour), and environmental factors (food, walking meditation). Sometimes making grand gestures can help get things started (buying a nice notebook to take notes in). Collaboration can be done during Deep Work, but carefully. It is important to have idle time to let your brain recover.
  2. Embrace Boredom. Deep Work requires intense concentration, and that is a skill that needs to be developed. We need to get used to not being constantly distracted. A suggested perspective is to take breaks from concentration to be distracted, even if the distracted breaks are at first longer than the focused time. This time should be planned. You can also practice productive meditation, where you think deeply while doing some other physical task (walking the dog, making dinner, showering). You can also practice some memory strengthening tasks like memorizing a deck of cards.
  3. Quit Social Media. The main question of this section is whether social media brings more benefits than costs. Depending on your personal and professional goals, that may mean a particular platform is more trouble than it is worth. To help make this decision, list the top 20% of tasks that will help you meet your goals (about 2-3 tasks) and ask whether a particular tool or platform contributes to these. If not, get rid of it! Many people go to the internet for entertainment, but there are so many other things in the real world that are entertaining.
  4. Drain the Shallows. Most people can only do up to four hours of deep work per day, so other parts of the work day can be used for necessary shallow work. You can minimize the amount of shallow work by being more intentional with emails (not answering some, answering some more thoroughly to minimize replies), scheduling your tasks for the day (prioritizing deeper tasks), and setting a time budget for shallow work.

Main Take-aways

After reading this book, I definitely agree that incorporating Deep Work will be helpful in renewing my interest in research and being productive without being unnecessarily busy. I really liked the idea of seeing the 8-hour work day as a “day within a day”, with 16 other hours to purposefully put towards other meaningful work in my life. Here’s the strategies I’m taking from the four rules:

  1. Depth Philosopy. Since we are aiming for consistency and not binge-and-bust, I will work towards the “rhythmic philosophy”, which makes Deep Work a daily habit. This will reduce the mental friction of deciding whether or not to do the work. This means scheduling the same time each day to engage in Deep Work. This can be adjusted over time as my stamina improves and I figure out what my peak productive hours are. Ritual. Deep Work will start at my clean desk. I will write the task for the work period on my white board. The only other thing on my desk to start is a drink (water or tea). I will not use the internet except for collaboration files. Each work period will start as a 25-minute pomodoro until I can go longer. If it is a brainstorming session, I may go for a walk outside. At the end of each period, I will write a brief summary (2 sentences) about what I accomplished and what is left to do. Idleness. I will continue to not check email in the evenings and weekends. If I find myself thinking about work, I will redirect that attention.
  2. Productive Meditation. This would be easier if I were able to commute to campus! There are lots of opportunities to do this still - showering, runs, daily walks, brushing teeth. To start, I will take one run each week to think deeply, without any music.
  3. Social Media. I have been thinking about getting rid of Facebook for a while, and this has convinced me to do it! My main fears were losing touch with people and the marketplace. Most of the people I contact on the platform already have other ways to reach me, so this isn’t a big problem. And, there are other places to sell things online. Time to make this change and take out a time suck.
  4. Drain the Shallows. I can see this being really important when dealing with my service commitments for the department graduate student association and the student government on campus. For each of these, I will set a weekly budget for each position and make an effort to make email correspondance as efficient as possible.

Other random thought: it was interesting to hear the perspective of the author, who is Computer Science faculty. It is especially encouraging to hear that it is possible to be successful without working the crazy hours that are worn like a badge of honor by some people.