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Deep Work: Book Notes and Takeaways

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is Cal Newport’s ode to productivity focusing on one key premise — the prioritization of deep work as a way to live a fulfilling life.

“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.

Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive 21st-century economy.”

Cal Newport, Deep Work

Distilling this further, he defines deep work as work that requires deep focus and minimal distractions.

Cal Newport explains the difference between shallow and deep work as well as why Deep Work is important and necessary. In true Deep Work fashion, this book also dives deeper into the methods to design a life dedicated to deep work as a way to accelerate productivity and drive long term, lasting impact.

Deep work is continuously being deprioritized in the information age, where oftentimes people can be rewarded more in the short term for transmitting bits of data (subtext: information) while not generating true, long term value. Cal Newport argues that a dedication to deep work is akin to “slow work:” the dedicated process of mastery and craftsmanship that is less technology focused and arises from achieving flow state.

By walking us through the science of willpower and the impact of deep work on our concentration, attention span, cognitive ability, and overall well being, Deep Work explains why it is critical to develop our ability to focus deeply, and how to accomplish this through four main rules:

  • Rule #1: Work Deeply
  • Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
  • Rule #3: Quit Social Media
  • Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Actionable Takeaways

  • Discipline is key to deep work, do not rely on willpower. Minimize the mental energy required to jumpstart motivation so this brain power can be conserved and reallocated to the deep work itself. Do this by:
    • Establishing a schedule of when, where, and how to do deep work as a methodological plan to prevent external requests from deprioritizing your time dedicated to focused work.
    • Design accountability into your practice.
    • Think like a CEO. Track and measure, keep score.
  • Win against attention, fight distraction. Deep work is only derived through the ability to have intense focus and ignore the seductive calls of distraction.
    • Studies show context switching causes poorer performance for future tasks due to attention residue that accumulates from previous tasks and is proven to have a “lasting negative effect on your brain.”
    • Incomplete tasks will dominate your attention. It is more effective in the long run to fully complete one task (or at least have a plan of action for the next steps as mental closure) instead of hopping from one incomplete task to another.
    • Winning against distractions does not necessarily mean eliminate distractions altogether. While useful, it can be unrealistic or sustainable. The low-hanging fruit is to rewire your brain to no longer crave novelty.
  • Frontload the cognitive effort. Minimize back and forth communication by being strategic. Being intentional about the second order and third order consequences of your work, you can improve the outcome (and long term efficiency of your work) by investing extra energy in the beginning through better organization, planning, and preparation. While more tedious in the short run, it has exponential benefits in the long run.
  • Social media prevents us from doing deep work. I’ve already beat this subject of digital detoxes over the head with my phone, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce the message: social media is a “plague o’er both your houses.” It rewires your brain to crave the dopamine kick from seeing new content in a variable and unpredictable schedule. This has been shown to be the most effective way to create a new addiction, following a format similar to slot machines at casinos. It serves as a “quest for self-importance” and makes deep work difficult by reducing your ability to concentrate.
  • Deep Work = flow state = a life well lived. Michael Csikszentmihalyi (try to spell that correctly with Google, DM me if you can) presents the idea that we as humans thrive when we are deeply focused in something that challenges us in his book Flow. Cal Newport goes on to argue that deep work is synonymous with flow state. By resisting the urge to do the shallow work prevalent in today’s knowledge economy, we choose to pursue something deep and meaningful. This means subsequently, we pursue a life with better intention and well-being.
  • Minimize shallow work. This relates to Rule #4 and is one of the fastest shortcuts towards dedicating more time to deep work. Search out all the types of shallow work that exist in your day to day, and either batch them together or eliminate as many as possible. Shallow work is unavoidable, however, the goal is to significantly reduce the amount of shallow work on hand when available. Otherwise, it becomes excessively easy for it to dominate your focus.

Quotes to Remember

  • To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you.
  • You’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.
  • 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.
  • The Principle of Least Resistance, protected from scrutiny by the metric black hole, supports work cultures that save us from the short-term discomfort of concentration and planning, at the expense of long-term satisfaction and the production of real value.
  • Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated. This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact.

Yina’s Reflection

While a lot of Cal Newport’s concepts can be condensed into a succinct article outlining actionable takeaways, I believe the reinforcement of his key points is one of the reasons Deep Work resonates so deeply.

Consistently sharing examples, research backed studies and reference material allows Cal Newport to engrain the idea more deeply into our minds as a way to positively influence our future behavior.

Reading timeless books like these, relatable at any age and circumstance, is what makes these posts worth the effort of reviewing and synthesizing the information. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Deep Work and the time spent putting together the key takeaways and excerpts to further process what Cal Newport is preaching. (5h 33m and counting!)

Despite being time and effort intensive, I believe the opportunity to absorb these concepts more deeply (pun intended), will only contribute further value to my work going forward.

I’ve been a disciple of the Deep Work philosophy for quite some time now, albeit a disciple that is still far from mastering their master’s work. I am extremely miserly at anything that pulls my attention without explicit control and have taken Draconian measures in my personal life to eliminate as much distraction as I can.

Cal Newport’s book serves as validation for the “super intense” measures I’ve taken such as deprioritizing digital correspondence, turning on Do Not Disturb mode for every waking hour to minimize notifications, and prioritizing my deep focus windows over any other tasks of the day. I plan to continue refining my ability to hone focus and attention.

raul julia GIF

Beyond being just a validation, Deep Work also serves as a reminder that despite the measures I’ve taken, there is always room to further reduce shallow work. More importantly, simply reducing shallow work does not necessarily correlate to output. I need a reminder that the efforts to reduce shallow work can actually be a form of procrastination; the priority is to create more with the dedicated time to deep work I have already established.

Lastly, one point that resonated the most with me and mentioned less by others is this idea that what you created out of your deep work may not (yet) be that good. This discomfort arises because despite your best efforts to create something of value, it might not be very good yet. It’s important to recognize when these feelings arise, and how even when it does arise, it’s still important to keep going.

Byron Please GIF by zoefannet

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, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.

Filed under: Books

About the Author

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INTJ. Startups. Infinitely Curious

1 Comment so far

  1. thank you for this post! Deep Work has been high on my list of books to dive into and you pretty much emphasized why.

    I pretty much keep my iPadPro (my daily driver) on DND 24/7 and my smartphone in Focus Mode (distinct from DND) a large majority (near 24/7) of the time. I feel I, much like it sounds like you, am not only moving away from social media, but away from 1-on-1 communications (including phone, texting, private chats, and even email) in favor of public and multi-person conversations (like your blog posts, in our graph, Notion, multi-person Slack channels and the like).

    I love the last two points you made in regards to (1) being careful not to direct time to reducing shallow work when deep work is right in front of you and (2) vowing to continue the deep work you’ve generated (and in my words: even if it is not eliciting the response(s) you expect)

    I’ve been collecting [[puzzle pieces]] in my personal graph to remind myself to keep up the deep work!


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