The Book in Three Sentences
In this book summary of Deep Work, you’ll learn about the ability to focus on a demanding task without distractions. Due to the popularity of email and social media, most people are unable to focus on a single task for a long time. In this book, Cal Newport teaches us to become more focused on a distracted world.
We shouldn’t confuse busyness with productivity. The former involves having many meaningless tasks to do. The latter, on the other hand, requires careful thought. This is what the author calls Deep Work, activities you can do in a distraction-free manner so that you push your intellectual capacity to its limit. Some of the biggest contributions from influential figures were possible thanks to deep work. Some examples include Carl Jung, Michel de Montaigne, Mark Twain, Woody Allen, Peter Higgs, J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, and Neal Stephenson.
For work to be relevant, people need undistracted time, but the modern world encourages the use of network tools (email, messaging apps, and social networks) that are the opposite of deep work. These tools are ubiquitous and on top of that, they fragment people’s attention. Deep work demands uninterrupted attention, but modern tools fragment it. These tools create the illusion of busyness, but people replying to numerous messages or answering email after email aren’t pushing their mental abilities. The author calls this distracted state shallow work and the people who engage in it often do non-demanding tasks that don’t create value.
Nowadays, most people have replaced deep work with shallow work, but this has its consequences. Deep work is a valuable skill to have in a world that’s unfocused and distracted. There are two main reasons for this. First, learning complex systems that change often is essential. Second, thanks to the power of the internet, deep work enables you to create something useful that millions of people have access to.
Doing deep work is exceedingly rare which is what makes it so valuable. The few people who can cultivate this skill will succeed. The best part about it is that to do your best work, you only need three to four hours a day, five days a week. To have such a compressed schedule, you must move shallow work to the peripheries. Apart from the obvious professional benefits of doing deep work, you’ll be more present when you’re with family and friends and you won’t waste mental energy or distractions.
Part I: The Idea
Chapter 1: Deep Work Is Valuable
In today’s economy, three types of workers will have an advantage over the rest:
- High-skilled workers: They can work with intelligent machines
- Superstars: They work remotely and can service more people
- The owners: They have enough money to invest in new technologies
Out of these three, becoming an owner is the most difficult.
To become a high-skilled worker or superstar, you need two things:
- The ability to master hard things quickly: While consumer products made us believe that technology is easy to use, serious tools are complicated. Learning SQL, for example, isn’t intuitive. Also, these tools change all the time, so learning hard things quickly is necessary. To succeed, you must learn.
- Produce quality work as fast as possible: Mastering skills isn’t enough to become a superstar. You must translate that potential into something tangible that anyone can perceive as valuable. To succeed you must produce.
Learning requires concentration, not prodigious intelligence. The more you practice, the better you get at concentrating, so to learn hard things, you need to focus without distractions. Learning is a form of deep work. Also, producing great work on a regular basis will lead to more and better opportunities. To get there, you must do your important intellectual work in long and uninterrupted periods of time. To maximize the results you produce, you must first maximize the intensity with which you work. The key to productivity isn’t the amount of time you work, but to work with more intensity when you do.
The enemy of productivity is multitasking. Trying to tackle more than one task at the same time means that your attention switches from one activity to the next, but the price you pay for this is that a part of your attention remains in the previous task. This is called attention residue and it explains why your attention feels divided when you multitask.
Chapter 2: Deep Work Is Rare
Open offices, the rise of instant messaging, and the need to maintain a social media presence are the new normal. Deep work is incredibly valuable, but the new business trends are moving away from it. There’s a cost associated with what seems to be harmless behavior (such as replying to emails or posting on social media), but that cost is hard to measure. Newport calls this the metric black hole. Being involved in administrative duties gives the illusion of productivity, but a better term for it is busyness. To be productive, you need to be clear on your goals.
There’s a culture of connectivity where everyone is expected to reply to messages quickly. The author challenges the necessity of being constantly connected. Being disconnected while working will lead to more satisfaction, more learning, and better results. The reason why most people don’t do this is because we favor the easiest behaviors in the moment. Experts call this the principle of least resistance. In other words, cultures of connectivity continue because they are easy. This is the case because if you get stuck on a problem that’s a message away from benign solved, it’s easier for you to send a message and solve it than to figure it out on your own. Also, this is acceptable behavior so everyone does it, and resisting it would imply extra work.
Chapter 3: Deep Work Is Meaningful
Among craftsmen, it’s common to find what Newport describes as a “connection between deep work and a good life”. This is rarely the case with knowledge workers though. The difference between the two is clarity. Craftsmen do things that are simple to define but hard to pull off. Knowledge workers replace clarity with ambiguity. In other words, sometimes it’s hard to define what a knowledge worker does.
That said, deep work can be incredibly satisfying and also leads to a good life. There are three arguments as to why depth leads to meaning:
- First, what we spend our time on determines our worldview and our attitude. When you dedicate time to deep activities, you’ll see the world as a place where you can find meaning and importance.
- Second, we feel our best when we’re accomplishing something difficult and meaningful. This is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. Despite what people think, relaxation doesn’t bring happiness. A challenging job with clear goals and where we can lose ourselves is the thing that brings us happiness.
- Third, we often find meaning outside ourselves. The value isn’t on the person doing the job but on the tools used and the task itself. There’s a certain sacredness in craftsmanship, and undoubtedly, that sacredness resonates with other people as well. The job of knowledge workers is to harness that sacredness so that the task at hand becomes a source of meaning. To do that, you need to be committed to doing deep work.
Part 2: The Rules
Rule #1: Work Deeply
This chapter focuses on achieving depth in a shallow world by using a series of strategies. Replacing distraction with focus isn’t simple. Most people feel the urge to stop working to watch TV or go to their favorite websites. You can resist those urges, but since willpower is limited, when you don’t have enough of it, you’ll inevitably embrace distractions. The strategies suggested by the author revolve around routines and rituals so that you don’t rely on willpower to do deep work. When deep work revolves around a daily ritual, you won’t have trouble doing deep tasks.
To make use of deep work in your professional life, you need a philosophy that works for you specifically. The author suggests four philosophies:
- The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: To maximize deep work, you eliminate or minimize shallow work. Practitioners of this philosophy usually have a clear, well-defined goal.
- The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This is dividing your time so that you dedicate a large portion of it to deep work and the rest to whatever you want. For this purpose, the minimum amount of time you dedicate to deep work should be one day.
- The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Word Scheduling: Comedian Jerry Seinfeld used to write jokes every day and he would signal this with an X he’d mark on a calendar. Over time, this would make a chain. Your job is to start a chain and not break it. Simply put, you must do hard things consistently. The rhythmic philosophy is about turning deep work sessions into a regular habit.
- The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This is about finding free time and switching into deep work mode. Since journalism is a deadline-driven profession, this philosophy is named after it. Novices should stay away from this philosophy though since it takes practice and confidence in your abilities.
Here are some additional strategies:
Ritualize: Have a schedule that works for you, and organize items in a specific way. To maximize deep work sessions, develop strict rituals. These rituals make the transition from not doing anything to doing deep work effortless. There aren’t right or wrong deep work rituals, but the author makes some suggestions. First, specify a location and a timeframe for your deep work sessions. Second, specify rules and processes for your sessions (Will you ban internet use? Will you limit the number of words you’ll write?). Third, specify how you’ll maintain your energy levels (such as coffee, food, exercise, or other environmental factors).
Make grand gestures: By making a radical change to your environment, which sometimes requires effort and money, you increase the perceived value of the task you’re working on. As a consequence, you’ll procrastinate less and you’ll be motivated. For instance, to finish her last Harry Potter book, J. K. Rowling stayed at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh.
Don’t work alone: Collaboration, when done right, can improve the quality of your work. Sharing a workspace with a lot of people can be detrimental to deep work though. The author mentions the whiteboard effect, which is what happens when you work with someone else on a problem and how it pushes you to the limit. When working with others, avoid random encounters because they destroy your concentration. Also, make use of the whiteboard effect when you need it.
Execute like a business: How to do deep work is as important as knowing that you must do it in the first place. To illustrate this point, the author uses Christensen’s four disciplines of execution (or 4DX, for short).
- Focus on the wildly important: The more you do, the less you accomplish. Therefore, have a small number of important goals in sight and focus on them. When in doubt, don’t add more hours of deep work. Instead, identify the most ambitious outcomes you can pursue with the time you already have.
- Act on the lead measures: once you have a goal, you need to define metrics for success. There are two types of metrics: lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures describe what you want to improve and lead measures describe how you want to achieve it. For example, a lag measure might be to drive more traffic to your website and a lead measure is to create a free PDF that adds value to your visitors. Improving your lead measures also improves your lag measures.
- Keep a compelling scoreboard: Have a system where you can keep track of your lead measures. This promotes healthy competition and keeps you motivated.
- Create a cadence of accountability: Have meetings where you commit to taking a certain action to achieve goals. This review should only take a few minutes.
Be Lazy: Commit to being lazy. This means you can be ambitious, but you don’t have to answer every email or solve every problem people present to you. Small obligations seem harmless at first, but they can distract you from the things that matter most to you. A good strategy is to shut down after work. This involves not checking email, not thinking about work, and not solving challenges. Shutting down has several benefits, such as recharging energy for deep work. Also, taking time off in the evening is better than doing trivial activities like answering emails, or browsing work-related sites. To shut down, you can have a ritual. The ritual is different for everyone, but make sure you deal with everything that’s urgent, write down what you’re supposed to do tomorrow, organize the next couple of days, and make a rough plan for the next day.
Rule #2: Embrace Freedom
Deep work isn’t a habit, it’s a skill you cultivate with practice. Carrying your smartphone wherever you go and using it when you’re bored is the antithesis of deep work. To make the most out of your deep work, you need to train this skill. If you do, you’ll soon be able to concentrate more and distract yourself less.
- Don’t take breaks from distractions, take breaks from focus: When you get used to distractions, you look for them. An Internet Sabbath (or digital detox) doesn’t solve this problem. Doing this won’t cure your distracted mind in the same way eating healthy one day of the week won’t make you lose weight. Instead of taking a break from distractions, the author suggests to take a break from focus. So you refrain from using the internet and devices until you’re done doing deep work.
- Work like Teddy Roosevelt: Teddy Roosevelt appeared to have a scattered mind, but he used every available hour of the day to study with as much intensity as possible. Working on deep tasks with intensity means that there are no email breaks, no web browsing, and no snack breaks, you just work.
- Meditate Productively: Productive meditation involves being busy physically (walking, jogging, driving, or showering), but not mentally. While you do that, you focus your attention on a single professional challenge. Your mind will inevitably wander when you do this, but bring back your attention to the task at hand gently.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
The most immediate benefits of quitting social media include being comfortable without knowing things, not having the need to share everything you do, and wanting to connect with people in real life. The author refers to online distractions like social media as network tools. These tools fragment our time and divide our attention.
Newport argues that quitting social media cold turkey isn’t necessary. He says that there’s a healthy way of using these platforms without being hyperconnected and without giving them up entirely. Before moving on though, people must understand that social networks bring shallow benefits to their lives. That said, most people are willing to keep using social networks even if they bring minor advantages. Newport calls this the any-benefit approach. The problem is that focusing on the benefits means ignoring all the inevitable drawbacks. At their worst, social media platforms are addictive and manipulative.
Identifying some benefits isn’t enough to invest your time and attention in those tools. To a certain extent, all tools have some advantages and disadvantages, but that doesn’t mean you have to adopt them. When choosing tools to work with, we should follow what Newport calls the craftsman approach. This is the idea that tools should bring us success and happiness in either our professional or personal lives. With this in mind, we should only adopt tools when they positively impact those factors.
We must abandon the any-benefit mindset and apply the craftsman approach. To do so, the author suggests three strategies:
- Apply the law of the vital few to your internet habits: Ideally, a social network should offer enough benefits to diminish its drawbacks, but in most cases, that’s simply not the case. The law of the vital few (also known as 80/20 or Pareto’s principle) says that 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the causes. In other words, you get more rewards when you invest in high-impact activities. By redirecting your efforts from low-impact activities (such as using Facebook to post simplified versions of your articles) to high-impact activities (writing long-form content for your website), you are more successful in your goals. Is using social networks part of your 20 percent that will lead to 80 percent of the results? If the answer is “yes”, go ahead. In most cases, the answer is a resounding “no” though.
- Quit Social Media: We tend to accumulate stuff, but we don’t need most of it. Something similar happens with social media. We use a lot of platforms, but most of them aren’t essential. The author suggests not using social media for thirty days and not telling anyone unless they ask. After the thirty days have passed, ask yourself two questions for each platform. One, has your life improved since you stopped using the service in question? Two, did people notice that you weren’t using the service? If you answer both questions with a “no”, then quit permanently. Staying away from social media for a month will show you that the events you expose yourself to are unimportant. What truly matters in life isn’t on social media. Despite what social media has conditioned us to believe, creating an online audience takes a lot of time and effort because producing value takes time and effort.
- Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself: Leisure time is important yet we usually spend it in a distracted state of digital entertainment. Most sites encourage you to keep clicking, but they might turn your leisure time into something empty and meaningless. Since you’re giving in to distraction often, you’ll have trouble concentrating when you want to do deep work. To solve this, we should think about our leisure time more. In other words, we want to be more intentional with how we spend our free time. So instead of sacrificing and structuring leisure time to distract yourself with mindless entertainment, replace that with a quality alternative.
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
Having less time to work forces you to spend those hours more wisely. Whenever possible, eliminate shallow work and focus on deep work. As long as the important things get done, the rest doesn’t matter. The problem with shallow work is that it seems urgent at the moment and sometimes disguises itself as deep work. But deep work is indispensable.
With this in mind, the author came up with a series of strategies to identify shallow work and eliminate as much of it as possible. To be clear, you can’t get rid of all shallow activities. You must answer email at some point, for instance. Also, deep work can be so mentally taxing that you need time off.
- Schedule every minute of the day: It’s easy to spend our days on autopilot and do shallow activities. To avoid this, pause for a second before doing an activity and determine if it’s worth doing it now. Also, schedule every minute of your day using time blocking. It’s likely that certain tasks will take more time than you initially anticipated, but you can revise your schedule as the day goes on. Scheduling tasks isn’t about establishing constraints, but about being more intentional with your time. Without structure, your days will soon become a series of shallow activities.
- Quantify the depth of every activity: When you start scheduling your days, you’ll soon see how much time shallow activities take.
- Ask your boss for a shallow work budget: For those who have a boss, have a conversation about the amount of time you should dedicate to shallow work. Usually, this ranges from 30 to 50 percent. Hopefully, once they see how you spend your time, they’ll encourage you to pursue certain tasks and avoid others.
- Finish your work by five thirty: Don’t work after five thirty. The author calls this rule fixed schedule productivity. Reducing the amount of shallow tasks you do frees up your time and energy.
- Become hard to reach
The epitome of shallow work is email. It’s almost impossible to avoid email altogether, but you can at least control how you use it and limit its negative impact.
- You can make people who contact you via email do more work. Only commit to responding to emails that interest you. Newport calls this sender filter because the person who contacts you has to filter him or herself before writing.
- Do more work when you send or reply to emails. Responding to most emails is a time-consuming and never-ending task. When an email makes it to your inbox, think about what project it belongs to and the most efficient process it needs to go through to finish it. Newport calls this the process-centric approach so that you minimize the number of emails you get. This approach reduces the number of emails you get, it also reduces the amount of time you spend reading and writing emails, and you’ll be finishing projects faster.
- Don’t respond. If your default reaction to email is to not respond, you don’t have to worry about it in the first place. This implies that you do respond, but only when the sender convinced you in some way. As a default, ignore vague email requests that take too much of your time and that encourage a lot of back and forth. This involves feeling discomfort or ambiguity at first, but once you get over that feeling, you’ll reap the rewards.
There are obvious advantages to developing obsessive focus. In an era of distractions and shallow activities, being able to do deep work is an important asset. To get important things done, you need deep work.
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