Book:  Deep Work

Author:  Cal Newport

Purchase:  Print | eBook | Audiobook

Citation:  Newport, C. (2016). Deep work : rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

Three Big Takeaways:​​

  • Many knowledge workers spend most of their working day interacting with shallow concerns. Even when they're required to complete something more involved, the habit of frequently checking inboxes ensures that these issues remain at the forefront of their attention. This is a foolhardy way to go about your day, as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that's dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox isn't a pleasant world to inhibit. The idle mind is the devil's workshop … when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what's right. A workday driven by the shallow is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun. (pg. 81)

  • 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. This mental state is called flow. Most people assume (and still do) . Relaxation makes them happy. We want to work less and spend more time in the hammock. 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. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed. When measured, people were happier at work and less happy relaxing than they suspected. And the more flow experiences that occur and a given week, the higher the subject’s life satisfaction. Human beings are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. (pg. 84)

  • Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand. To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few is a transformative experience. The deep life is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. But if you're willing to sidestep these comforts and fears, and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you'll discover that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning. (pg. 262)

Other Key Ideas: 

  • Deep work is defined as 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 is 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. (pg. 3)

  • 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 are a bunch of email messages that I have sent out to individual persons. (pg. 5)

  • In 2012, the average knowledge worker spent more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker's time dedicated to reading and answering email alone. At the same time, however, modern knowledge workers are not loafing. In fact, they report they are busier than ever. (pg. 6)

  • Our work culture’s shift towards the shallow (whether you think it's philosophically good or bad) is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognized the potential of resisting this trend in prioritizing depth. (pg. 8)

  • 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. (pg. 14)

  • This book is best described as an attempt to formalize and explain my attraction to depth over shallowness, and to detail the types of strategies that have helped me act on this attraction. I've committed this thinking to words, in part, to help you follow my lead in rebuilding your life around deep work - but this isn't my whole story. My other interest in distilling and clarifying these thoughts is to further develop my own practice. My recognition of the deep work hypothesis has helped me thrive, but I'm convinced that I haven't yet reached my full value-producing potential. As you struggle and ultimately triumph with the ideas and rules, you can be assured that I'm following suit -  ruthlessly culling the shallow and painstakingly cultivating the intensity of my depth. (pg. 17)

  • The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain. Deliberate practice is as follows: 1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you're trying to improve or an idea you're trying to master; 2) you receive feedback so you can connect your approach to keep your attention exactly where it's most productive. (pg. 35)

  • The common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so. That quick check of your inbox introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment, you'll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance. (pg. 43)

  • In the absence of clear indicators (metrics) of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn their focus toward doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. This mind-set provides another explanation for the popularity of many depth-destroying behaviors. If you send and answer emails at all hours and if you schedule and attend meetings constantly - these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner.  If you're using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you're doing your job well. (pg. 64)

  • Our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant - even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love - is the sum of what you focus on. after a bad or disrupting occurrence in your life, what you choose to focus on exerts significant leverage on your attitude going forward. These simple choices can provide a “reset button” to your emotions. Skillful use of these emotional “leverage points” can generate a significantly more positive outcome after negative events. (pg. 77)

  • The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to help you transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration. The easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to make them a regular habit. The goal is to generate a rhythm that removes the need to invest energy in deciding whether or not to do deep work. By supporting deep work with routines that make sure a little bit gets done on a regular basis, you will log a larger number of deep hours per year. (pg. 100)

  • The easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you're going to go deep. The chain method is a good example of the rhythmic  philosophy of deep work scheduling. Another common way to implement the rhythmic philosophy is to replace the chain method with a set starting time that you use every day for deep work. Eliminating even the simplest scheduling decisions, such as when during the day to do the work, also reduces this barrier. (pg. 111)

  • It was the glacial writing progress during this year that drove Chappell to embrace the rhythmic method. He made a rule that he would wake up and start working by 5:30 every morning. He would work until 7:30, make breakfast, and go to work already done with his dissertation obligations for the day. His routine was producing four to five pages of academic prose per day which was a phenomenal output for someone who also worked a nine-to-five job. This approach works best with the reality of human life. By supporting deep work with Rock Solid routines that make sure a little bit gets done on a regular basis, the Rednecks scheduler will often log a larger total number of deep hours per year. (pg. 112)

  • Utilize the 4DX framework for your personal work habits. 1) Focus on a small number of ambitious goals; 2) Focus on Lead Measures which are things you will do now that will help you meet your ambitious goals (Lag Measures). A relevant lead measure would be time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your goal; 3) It's important to have a public place where you track your lead measures as it provides a reinforcing source of motivation; 4) create a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings focused around the ambitious goals (this is more geared toward teams) (pg. 136)

  • For individuals focused on deep work, it's easy to identify the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal. Whereas I used to focus on lag measures, such as papers published per year, these measures lacked influence on my day-to-day Behavior because there was nothing I could do in the short term that could immediately generate a noticeable change to this long-term metric. When I shifted to tracking deep work hours, suddenly these measures became relevant in my day today: every hour extra of deep work was immediately reflected in my tally. (pg. 138)

  • At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning - no after-dinner email check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you'll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. Providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges. (pg. 144)

  • Some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. To actively try to work through some decisions will lead to a worse outcome then loading up the relevant information and then moving on to something else while letting the subconscious layers of your mind mull things over. This is called the Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT), which says for decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple bag constraints your unconscious mind is well-suited to tackle the issue. (pg. 145)

  • On the other hand, if you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to email or set aside time to catch up on an approaching deadline, you're robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration. Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they present you from reaching levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur. Only the confidence that you're done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow. Trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your Effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done then if you would instead left I work alone. (pg. 149)

  • At the end of the day, take a final look at your email inbox to ensure there is nothing requiring an urgent response before the day ends. Then, transfer any new tasks that are on your mind into your official task lists. Then, skim over every task on your to-do list and then look at the next few days on your calendar. These actions ensure that there's nothing urgent you are forgetting. At this point, you have reviewed everything on your professional plate. This ritual ensuring that no task will be forgotten: Each will be reviewed daily and tackled when the time is appropriate. This will let your mind be released from its duty to keep track of these obligations at every moment. (pg. 152)

  • People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They're chronically distracted. They're pretty much mental wrecks. People might say "look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused." Unfortunately, they've developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They're suckers for irrelevancy. They just can't keep on task. (pg. 158)

  • The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you're occupied physically but not mentally - walking, jogging, driving, showering - and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Similar to mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring back your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls. (pg. 170)

  • Social media can claim your time and attention as these services, if used without limit, can be particularly devastating to your quest to work deeper. They are massively addictive and therefore capable of severely damaging your attempts to schedule and succeed with any act of concentration. Social media sites can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they're lightweight and whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper. (pg. 205)

  • In the book “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day”, people don’t see the potential of the 16 hours left in the day outside of work. Instead of wasting this time, people should use this time as an aristocrat would: to perform rigorous self-improvement. With the rise of the internet and the low-brow attention economy it supports, the average 40 hour-a-week employee sees the quality of his or her leisure time remain degraded, consisting primarily of a blur of distracted clicks and least-common-denominator digital entertainment. (pg. 210)

  • Put more thought into your leisure time. When it comes to your relaxation, don't default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead dedicate some Advanced thinking to the question of how you want to spend your day within a day. In my own life I managed to read a surprising number of books in the typical year given the demands of 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 pre-planned leisure activities is to read an interesting book. As a result, my smart phone and computer typically remain neglected between the end of the work day and the next morning. (pg. 213)

  • At this point you might worry that adding such structure to your relaxation will defeat the purpose of relaxing, which many believe requires complete freedom from plans are obligations. Won't a structured evening leave you exhausted the next day at work? 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. (pg. 214)

  • Psychologists have extensively studied how much deep work can be done in a day. They note that for someone new to such practice, an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigors of such activities, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more. (pg. 219)

  • In 2013 25 to 34 year olds took a survey and estimated that they spend somewhere between 15 and 16 hours per week watching TV. This sounds like a lot, but it's actually a significant underestimate. It turns out they were watching more like 28 hours a week. (pg. 221)

  • Decide in advance what you are going to do with every minute of your workday. Without structure, it's easy to allow your time to devolve into shallow work - email, social media, web surfing, etc. This type of shallow behavior, though satisfying in the moment, is not conducive to creativity. (pg. 227)

  • Shallow work is non cognitively 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. To help differentiate between deep work and shallow work ask yourself this question: 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? If the hypothetical college graduate requires many months of training to replicate a task, then this indicates that task is deep work. (pg. 228)

  • I had applied and been rejected for a well-respected grant that many of my colleagues were receiving. I was upset and embarrassed, so I decided that instead of just complaining or wallowing in self doubt, I would compensate for losing the grant by increasing the rate and impressiveness of my publications - allowing them to declare on my behalf that I actually did know what I was doing, even if this one particular grant application didn't go my way. (pg. 261)

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