Updated on December 12 2019 • Martin Shishkov

Deep Work by Cal Newport - Book Summary

A brief introduction to the concept of Deep Work and how to be more productive

Three of the most important groups to belong to:

  1. Highly skilled individuals – work well and creatively with intelligent machines
  2. Superstars – those who are the best at what they do
  3. Investors – have access to capital

People who belong to these groups will have a serious advantage over others.

How to join these winners?

There are 2 core abilities for thriving in the new economy:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level in both quality and speed

Mastering hard things

Machine and tools worth mastering are complex and are not mainstream.

The process of mastering hard things never ends because tech changes constantly.

This will help in becoming a super star.

If you can’t learn – you can’t thrive.

Producing at an elite level

This is a core requirement if you want to be a super star. Having only the skills is not enough.

If you don’t produce – you won’t thrive.

How to cultivate these abilities?

Deep work helps you quickly learn hard things. To master a field, you must tackle

relevant topics systematically.

Take a look at the concept of ‘Performance psychology’

Deliberate Practice – attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you are trying to improve or an idea you are trying to master. You receive feedback so you correct your approach.

‘Myolin’ – a layer of fatty tissue that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. 

Intellectual or physical skills are nothing more than brain circuits.

More myolin = better mastering the skill around the relevant neurons. This allows the corresponding circuit to fire effortlessly and effectively.

Когато извършваме някаква задача мозъкът ни обвива съответните клетки отговорни за тази задача с myolin. Затова е важно да не се разсейваме докато извършваме действието, за да работим върху тези клетки в изолация.

To learn hard things quickly you must focus intensely without distraction. This is called deep work.

Deep Work is Rare

Companies adopt concepts that distract employees. Shared spaces, instant messaging and social media presence are all a massive distraction.

Even small distractions are detrimental to completing a task. Big trends in the world today actively decrease peoples’ ability to work

Metric Blackhole

Observe behaviors and track what consumes a lot of time (on small and large scale).

It is extremely difficult to make measurements in today’s modern jobs, so that’s why businesses are pushed away from deep work.

Principle of least resistance

Constant connectivity to everything does not help doing more work. 

If there isn’t fast feedback on the work we’re doing, we tend to get distracted with other easy to do stuff.

Busyness as a proxy to productivity

  • avoid administrative work
  • clarity about what matters gives clarity about what does not
  • concrete sense of accomplishment is super important
  • everyone wants to be a productive member of their teams, however there isn’t a clear definition of productivity
  • in the industrial age it was easier: productivity = produced quantity / time

Knowledge workers are turning towards this old definition of productivity and are trying to solidify their value. They are tending towards visible busyness because they lack better ways to demonstrate their value. Aka doing lots of work in a visible manner. Deep work is not a priority in today’s business climate.

Deep Work is Meaningful

  • find meaning in work
  • knowledge work is hard to define progress (it is muddy)

Neurological argument for depth

Attention and happiness are related. Our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Who you are, what you think, feel and do, what you love – all of those are the sum of what you focus on. Your world is the outcome to what you pay attention to. 

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.

Psychological argument for depth

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind stretch to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

You don’t need a rarified job, instead you need a rarified approach to do your work. The process is more important than the end result.

The Rules

Rule 1 – Work Deeply

People fight desires all day long; desire is the norm not the exception. Some examples of desires might be eating, sleeping, sex, music, TV, surfing the web, email and social media, taking a break from hard working.

Willpower is finite and your desires will fuck you up if you are not smart about your habits. The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

Depth philosophies

Decide on your deep work strategy and what is going to work best for you.

  1. The monastic strategy – eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. For people that have a well-defined, highly valuable professional goal worth pursuing. Isolate yourself for long periods of time without distractions.
  2. The bimodal strategy – divide your time, dedicating some of it to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. During the deep period act monastically. This division of time can happen on multiple scales. Weekly – 4 days of depth; 3 days shallow work. Yearly – one season for depth; one for shallow obligations. The minimum is one full day, a few hours are not enough.
  3. The rhythmic strategy – Make is to that deep work becomes a habit. Set yourself days and time of the day in which to indulge in deep work. That way you don’t have to think about it and it will cost you much less energy. Use some strategy for getting feedback and sense of accomplishment. One example might be to mark deep work days with an ‘X’ on your calendar. Get a little work done on a daily schedule; this strategy fits better to the human nature that the previous two.
  4. The journalistic strategy – Fit deep work whenever you can in your schedule. You must have the ability to switch from shallow to deep work (and that’s hard). Without practice, such switches can seriously deplete willpower; you must have confidence in your abilities – a conviction that what you are doing is important and will succeed. This conviction is built on existing accomplishment. 

Rule 2 – Ritualize

To make the most out of deep sessions, build rituals with super strictness. These rituals minimize the friction for switching to depth, allowing you to go deep easily and stay in this state longer. Don’t wait for inspiration.

Ask yourself: where you will work; for how long; how are you going to work (ban internet use, set goals to achieve at some intervals); how are you going to support your work (keep your mind sharp with food and exercise, walking; start your session with a cup of coffee).

Without this structure you’ll have to think about what you should and shouldn’t be doing at these sessions.

Rule 3 – Make grand gestures

By leveraging a radical change in your normal environment, you increase the perceived importance of the task. Bill Gates had ‘think weeks’. Sometimes to go deep you must first go big.

Rule 4 – Don’t work alone

Discipline for depth

Discipline 1 – Focus on the wildly important

The more you’re trying to do – the less you accomplish. Identify a small number of ambitions outcomes to pursuit within deep session. 

Just knowing you should work more deeply longer is not really enthusiastic and motivating.

You have to set specific goals to achieve in order to generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm.

Discipline 2 – Act on the lead measures

Once you identify a wildly important goal, you need to measure your success. Describe the thing you are trying to improve. The problem with these measures is that they come too late to change your behavior.

Lead measures – turn your attention to improving behaviors you directly control in the near future that will have a positive impact on your long-term goals.

Discipline 3 – Keep a compelling scorecard

Discipline 4 – Create a cadence of accountability

Weekly review to make a plan for the week ahead.

Be Lazy

After working hours, shut down work thinking completely. Downtime aids insights and recharges energy needed for deep work.

Spending time in nature helps people with their attention.

If you are exhausted, you’ll struggle to concentrate. When you work – work hard; when you are done – be done. Resting your mind helps you work deeply.

Embrace Boredom

  1. Don’t take breaks from distraction – instead take breaks from focus
  2. Work like Teddy Roosevelt – find an important task and make an estimation about how long would it normally take you to complete it; then set a deadline for a drastically less time and try to manage meeting it
  3. Meditate productively – when occupied physically but not mentally – walking, jogging, showering etc., focus on a well-defined problem.
  4. Be wary of distractions and looping. While meditating your mind will offer unrelated but more interesting thoughts.
  5. Looping is when your mind is going to preserve energy by repeating what you already know about the problem without going deeper

Structure your deep thinking

  1. Start with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving that problem
  2. With these variables, find the specific next step question you need to answer using these variables.
  3. Consolidate your gains – review your answer deeply

Train your memory and attention control – memorize a shuffled deck of cards. We are not really good at remembering information, but we’re good at remembering scenes.

Quit Social Media

Allowing a site an access to your time and attention should be very stringent. These websites might help you with your success, however you should choose them carefully and have control over when are they going to take from your time.

Choose the tools you use carefully. Don’t use a tool just because it has ‘some benefits’. Weigh out the negatives as well and how it will integrate with your situation.

The craftsman approach to tool selection

Identify the core factors that determine the 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.

The Law of the Vital Few

Identify main, high-level goals for both your professional and personal life. The key is to keep the list small, only the most important goals.

Once you’ve specified the goals, go through each one and list 2-3 most important activities that satisfy the goal. These activities should be specific enough to allow you to clearly picture doing them. They should also be general enough so that they are not tied to a one-time outcome.

Consider the network tools you currently use. 

For each tool go though the key activities you identified and ask whether the use of the tool has a substantially positive impacts; a substantially negative impact; or little impact on the activities. Keep using the tools only if they have substantial positive impacts.

Don’t use the internet for entertainment

Put more thoughts in your leisure time. Plan out in advance what you are going to do in your free time. If we don’t plan, we’re going to fall into those addictive and distractive sites.

Drain the shallows

Very few people work a full 8 hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few productive hours at best. Fewer official working hours help squeeze the meat out of the typical workweek.

When people have less time to finish a task, they begin to value their time more. They don’t want to waste it on stuff that doesn’t matter. When you have fewer hours, you spend them more wisely.

People will get better results when they have a long stretch of uninterrupted time. Five days in a row is better than one day for five weeks.

Identify the shallowness in your schedule then call it down to minimum. Businesses that replace shallow concerns with deep work tend to thrive.

You can’t eliminate shallowness completely but you must keep it confined.

  1. Schedule every minute of your day – we spend most of our day on autopilot, not caring much what we do with our time. This is a problem.
  2. Everyday before work begins, write down working hours on a piece of paper. After that divide your time in time blocks (like in Google Calendar). There are going to be many issues with this approach – false estimations, outside interruptions etc. The goal is not to be super strict but to know how our time is filled.

Shallow work

Non-cognitively demanding, logistically styled tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create real value in the world and are easy to replicate.

What % of my time should be spent on shallow work?

For most people, it would be in the 30-50% range

A business’s purpose is to generate value, it’s not to ensure its employees’ lives are as easy as possible.

Finish your work by 5:30

Avoid conventional wisdom and opinions about what’s important and deliberately guard your happiness.

Become hard to reach

You have more control over your electronic communication that you might’ve just assume.

Only respond to those proposals that are a good match for your schedule and interests. If you state your boundaries clear, so that the sender won’t have an expectation that you’ll respond, your inbox becomes a list of opportunities. You are not obliged to respond. 

Before someone contacts you, make sure he’s gone through a FAQ section – his question might already have been answered.


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