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  • Writer's pictureKelly Adams

Deep Work Book Notes

by Cal Newport


My personal book notes/summary on Cal Newport's book, Deep Work.


Table of Contents

 

INTRODUCTION


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

Deep work is necessary to get value and improve your abilities


Knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work: network tools, communication services like email, SMS, social media networks and infotainment sites --> loosing their attention, it's fragmented.


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


Knowledge workers are trading deep work for shallow work.

Many people like William Powers, John Freeman, and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang generally agree that network tools are distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration aka deep work, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused.

Author's Thesis: Work culture has shifted toward the shallow and this is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth


Deep work still has value today:

  1. In our economy in order to remain valuable, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. And if you don't cultivate this ability, you're likely to fall behind; and

  2. To succeed you have to produce the absolute best you're capable of producing- a task that also requires depth.

Deep Work Hypothesis - 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.

 

PART 1 - The Idea

Chapter 1: Deep Work is Valuable

Gives examples of "winners", those who have risen in this new economy:

  1. Nate Silver - a baseball statician turned into election forecaster

  2. David Heinemeier Hanson - computer programmer who created the framework that is the foundation of Twitter and Hulu

  3. John Doerr - general partner in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, fund key companies like Twitter, Google, Amazon, etc.

Why have they done so well? Two types of answers:

  1. micro - focus on personality traits and tactics

  2. macro - less on the individual and more on the type of work they represent

Three Groups of "Winners" (from Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee)

  1. High-Skilled Workers - like Silver; those with the ability to work well and creatively with increasingly complex machines

  2. Superstars - like Hansson; because the market is made universally accessible (with the rise of the internet and connections) , and everyone's value is clear, people will choose the very best because talent is rare

  3. Owners - like Doerr; those with capital to invest in the new technologies that are driving our economy right now

Great Restructuring - the period we're in right now because of the unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy. And the three groups listed above: high-skilled workers; superstars; owners, will have a particular advantage


Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy

  1. ability to quickly master hard things (if you can't learn, you can't thrive)

  2. ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed (if you don't produce, you won't thrive)

Examples: Nate Silver didn't just learn how to manipulate large data sets and run statistical analyses, he showed that he could use this skill to get information from these machines that a larger audience cared about.


The two core abilities just described depend on your ability to perform deep work

  • Quickly Learn Hard Things

    • In order to do that you must master deliberate practice.

    • The core requirements of deliberate practice are: attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you're trying to improve or an idea you're trying to master; and you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it's most productive

    • To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work

  • Produce at an Elite Level

    • one method is to batch hard put important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches

    • If you maximize your intensity while you work you are maximizing the results you produce or this formula: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

    • To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction

    • Type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work

Deep work is important for high-skilled workers and superstars but for Owners, it doesn't require deep work, only the capital to invest


Chapter 2: Deep Work is Rare

Many other ideas are being prioritized as more important than deep work in business like "serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and an active presence on social media".


Big trends in business today actively decrease people's ability to perform deep work, the benefits promised by those trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, more exposure) are dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level)


It's become harder to measure the value of an individual's efforts, it's become a "metric black hole" --> ideas that are harmful to deep work are still used because they can't be measured, and we are unable to clearly see if they are hurting the bottom line


The Principle of Least Resistance - in a business setting without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment


Culture of Connectivity Persists Because:

  1. if you can get an answer to a question quickly this makes your life easier

  2. creates an environment where it becomes acceptable to run your day out of your inbox, you feel productive even if you aren't

Principle of Least Resistance, protected by the metric black hole, supports a work culture focused on saving us from short term discomfort at the expense of long-term satisfaction and production of real value. It drives us towards shallow work in an economy that rewards depth.


Busyness as Proxy for Productivity - in the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner


Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in this technology-drive world because it builds on values like quality, craftmanship, and mastery ="old fashioned and nontechnological", rejection of what is new and high-tech


Chapter 3: Deep Work is Meaningful

Deep work can generate as much satisfaction in an information economy as it so clearly does in a craft economy.

Three Arguments:

  1. Neurological - if you spend enough time in deep work, on focusing your mind on a single task, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance; "concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems"

  2. Psychological - human beings are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging; build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction

  3. Philosophical - think like a craftsman, their task "is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in themselves the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there"; your work is a craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your personal life; cultivating craftsmanship is a deep task and therefore requires a commitment to deep work

 

PART 2 - The Rules


Rule #1: Work Deeply

"You're a disciple of depth in a shallow world"


You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it - Roy Baumeister

The key to developing a deep work habit add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary

Depth Philosophy - integrating deep work into professional life (choose a philosophy that fits your circumstances)

  1. Monastic Philosophy - attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations

    1. do this all year-round, this is a life-style

    2. mutually exclusive ideas: you either do deep work or you commit to shallow work

    3. e.g. eliminating email, social media, or correspondence

  2. Bimodal Philosophy - divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else;

    1. during deep time bimodal worker will act monastically, intense and uninterrupted concentration, but during shallow time that focus is not prioritized

    2. scaled - week (f-day weekend to depth, rest open time); year (one season to depth)

    3. minimum time - one full day (reach maximum cognitive intensity)

  3. Rhythmic Philosophy - easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit; 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

    1. e.g. "chain method" - do the habit everyday, or "don't break the chain" by marking every day with an X that you do the habit

    2. e.g. schedule a time in your day to solely work on deep work (create a routine)

    3. while it fails to achieve the most intense levels of deep thinking, works better with human nature by creating routines (log larger total number of deep hours per year)

  4. Journalistic Philosophy - Journalists are trained to shift into a writing mode on a moment's notice, as required by the deadline-driven nature of their profession; your rapidly switch tour mind from shallow to deep mode whenever you have time

    1. best for those who don't have consistent schedule or have a multitude of obligations

    2. can't take time away from shallow work as much as the others

    3. "squeeze" in deep work whenever you can in your schedule

Ritualize - to make the most out of your deep work sessions, build rituals of the same level of strictness and idiosyncrasy as important thinkers (e.g. Mason Currey, Charles Darwin). No right way but address these general questions:

  • where you'll work and for how long

  • how you'll work once you start to work

  • how you'll support your work

Make Grand Gestures - leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward a supporting deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task (e.g. book a hotel room for a weekend to work on your novel)

Work with Others

  • Theory of serendipitous creativity - when you allow people to bump into each other smart collaborations and new ideas emerge; you should expose yourself to ideas in collaborative spaces on a regular basis, but maintain an individual space (physical or mental) in which to work deeply on what you encounter

  • whiteboard effect - working with someone else can push you deeper than if you were working alone; presence of other party waiting for your next insight can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth

Execute Like a Business - how to execute deep work strategy based on The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Clayton Christensen

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important - identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours (specific goal)

  2. Act on the Lead Measures - lag measures describe the thing you're ultimately trying to improve; lead measures "measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures"; for deep work you measure the time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal

  3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard - individual's scoreboard should be a physical artifact in the workspace that displays the individual's current deep work hour count

  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability - weekly review where you make a plan for the workweek ahead (Rule #4)

Shutdown Work - at the end of your work day shut down work thinking completely. There are several reasons:

  1. Downtime aids insights - giving conscious brain time to rest lets your unconscious mind think through your most complex professional challenges

  2. Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply - you can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give deep work a rest

  3. The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important - capacity for deep work in a given day is limited; cannot allow even the smallest though of professional concerns into your attention; and create a shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you'll succeed

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Focused concentration has little to do with a onetime decision to think deeper, and more to do w/a commitment to training this ability


Rule #2 help you significantly improve the limit of your concentration ability

The following strategies will help you do this with two goals in mind:

  1. improving your ability to concentrate intensely; and

  2. overcoming your desire for distraction

Take Breaks from Focus

  • Internet Sabbath (or digital detox) - put aside regular time, where you refrain from network technology

  • the problem is in terms of brain wiring --> internet sabbath cannot by itself cure a distracted brain

  • instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction

  • if the internet = distracting stimuli; and absence of internet = focused work --> schedule in advance when you'll use the internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times

  • the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities at a hint of boredom/cognitive challenge teach your mind to seek novelty

  • Things to Consider:

    • Point #1 - this strategy works even if your job requires lots of internet use and/or prompt email replies (blocks becomes more numerous but you still get deep work in)

    • Point #2 - regardless of how you schedule your internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from internet use (this helps build your concentration muscle)

    • point #3 - scheduling internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training (practicing this at all times can benefit your training, you don't loose training by falling into old habits at home)

  • to succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli

Rooseveltian Intensity - identify a deep task that's high on your priority list; estimate how long you'd normally put aside for it then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time so when you work on it that's all you can do;

  • only one possible way to get this deep task done in time, work with great intensity

  • creates imaginary deadlines so you can systematically increase the level you can regularly achieve; interval training for your brain

Productive mediation - take a period in which you're occupied physically but not mentally (i.e. walking, jogging, driving) and focus your attention on a single well-defined problem. Two suggestions to increase your success:

  1. be wary of distractions and looping - for both distractions and looping (going over again and again what you already know) once you notice you're doing it then redirect your attention back to the problem

  2. structure your deep thinking - use with following process: (1) careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem then storing these values in your working memory; (2) define the specific next-step question you need to answer using these variables; (3) consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified; (4) repeat the process to reach the next level of depth

How to Memorize a Deck of Cards (aka Memory Training)

Side effect of memory training, is an improvement of your general ability to concentrate. The technique is:

  1. memorizing in your mind the mental image of walking through five rooms in your house

    1. remember a collection of ten (large) items in each of these rooms like a desk

    2. establish an order in which you look at each of these items in each room (add two more to make 52)

    3. practice this mental exercise of walking through the rooms and looking at items in each room, in a set order

  2. associate a memorable person or thing with each of the fifty-two possible cards

    1. practice these associations until you can pull a card randomly from the desk and immediately recall the associated image

  3. Deck of Cards - begin mental walk-through of your house; as you encounter each item, look at the next card from the deck, and image the corresponding memorable person or thing doing something memorable near that item

  4. Should be able to recite the shuffled deck by performing the walk-through, and connecting each memorable person or thing to its corresponding card as you turn your attention to it

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

"Network tools" (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram)

  • fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate

  • impotence which knowledge workers discuss this problem of network tools and attention

Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection - justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don't use it


Newport offers an opposite approach to selecting tools, opposing the "any-benefit"

Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection - identify the core factors that determine 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


Three Strategies for Applying the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection:

  1. Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits

    1. (1) identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and personal life; (2) list for each two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal, be specific yet general; (3) consider the network tools you use and for each go through the key activities you defined and ask whether the use of the tool has substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity

    2. Law of the Vital Few - in many settings 80% of a given effect is due to just 20% of the possible causes

    3. Ex. personal goals is "to maintain close and rewarding friendships with a group of people who are important to me" you can take the time consumed by low-impact activities (e.g. liking their post on Facebook) and reinvest in high-impact activities (e.g. taking a good friend out to lunch) you end up more successful in your goal

  2. Quit Social Media

    1. First: ban yourself from social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.) for thirty days; no need to formally deactivate them, just uninstall; and don't mention online that you'll be signing off, go cold turkey; if anyone asks feel free to explain

    2. Then: After 30 days ask yourself: (1) would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?; (2) Did people care that I wasn't using this service? If "no" to both -> quite service, if answer was a clear "yes" return to the service

    3. If used w/o limit it can be devastating to your quest to work deeper

    4. Reason why: by spending a month w/o these services, you can get a more grounded view of the role of social media in your life

  3. Don't Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself

    1. Talking about entertainment focused websites designed to capture and hold your attention for as long as possible (e.g. Buzzfeed, Reddit, Business Insider)

    2. Put more thought into your leisure time; don't default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead think about how you want to spend your off hours

    3. If you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention -> give your brain quality alternatives (e.g. reading, exercise, enjoyment of good company)

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

If you eliminate shallow work and replace it with deep work, you can become more successful.


Schedule Every Minute of Your Day

  • Beginning of each workday, use a lined piece of paper in a notebook dedicated to this. On the left side mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the hours you typically work. Then divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks.

  • Remember things can go wrong: (1) estimate is wrong; and (2) interruptions with new obligations will appear. If that happens create a revised schedule.

  • It's more important to maintain a thoughtful say in what you're doing with your time, than it is to stick to the schedule.

  • If you have man schedule revisions -> overflow conditional blocks - if you're not sure how long an activity might take, block off the expected time, and follow it with an additional block that has a split purpose

Quantify the Depth of Every Activity

By asking "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?"

  • More months -> most likely need more expertise = deep work

  • Less months -> most likely doesn't need expertise = shallow work

Strategies to Bias Your Time Towards Depth

  • Ask your boss for a shallow work budget

    • "what percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?"

    • For most people in knowledge work jobs it's 30-50%;

    • Lets deep work become central while not abandoning your shallow obligations

  • Finish Your Work by Five Thirty

    • fixed-schedule productivity - create a firm goal of not working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow you to satisfy this declaration

    • Shifts to you scarcity mind-set, your time is valuable and you'll end up saying "no" more often

    • It's a meta-habit, simple to adopt but broad in impact (high level impact behavior, focus on this one)

  • Become Hard to Reach (with three tips to do so)

    • Make people who send you email do more work - use a sender filter, to have correspondents filter themselves before contacting me; lets you reset expectations

    • Do more work when you send or reply to emails - (1) identify project; (2) think through a process that gets us from the current state to desired outcome w/a minimum of messages required; (3) write a reply that clearly describes this process and where we stand - process centric approach. => reduces emails and time spent

    • Don't respond - to emails if any of the following applies (1) ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response; (2) it's not a question or proposal that interests you; (3) nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn't

 

CONCLUSION

Commitment to deep work is the recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.


Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand.

If you're willing to become uncomfortable with leaving behind email demands and social media, and instead deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, that depth generates a rich life with productivity and meaning.

 

SUMMARY

The book in 3 sentences.

  1. Deep work is activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.

  2. Reduce the amount of shallow work dramatically in order to increase deep work time.

  3. In order to thrive in the new economy you need to be able to quickly master hard things and produce at an elite level both of which need deep work.

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