Deep Work by Cal Newport | Book Summary

  • Post last modified:September 18, 2020
  • Post category:Books

Deep Work, a best-seller by Cal Newport, is a groundbreaking book on the importance of focused work in a distracted world.

Cal Newport argues that with the advent of disruptive technology, such as email, social media, among others, has come a deeply eroded ability to do the kind of deep work that matters.

In my opinion, Deep work is extremely relevant to the kind of people who Cal refers to as knowledge workers – people whose work depends on doing research, writing, teaching, or coming out with innovative ideas.

In essence, knowledge workers are people who mainly work in the creative industry — writers, artists, programmers, professors, etc.

As a writer and blogger, the ability to perform deep work is the lifeblood of my existence.

Writing is hard enough as it is, and to deal with the constant distraction from email and social media notifications makes the work even harder — sometimes impossible.

In order to produce and thrive as a writer, it is imperative, therefore, to steer clear of the distractions of this world and perform the kind of deep work that produces results; the same goes for all knowledge workers.

Definition of Deep Work

Cal Newport defines deep work as,

“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.”

What Successful Knowledge Workers Think About Deep Work

In his book, Cal gives several examples of successful knowledge workers who employ deep work rigorously into their lives.

Cal argues that deep work is required to succeed as a knowledge worker, and he backs up his claim with the argument that many renown, knowledge workers practice deep work.

About Bill Gates, Cal wrote,

“Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts. It was during a 1995 Think Week that Gates wrote his famous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo that turned Microsoft’s attention to an upstart company called Netscape Communications”

Neal Stephenson, an acclaimed cyberpunk author, also offers this explanation about his practice of deep work,

“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 is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.”

Cal highlights these examples to further buttress the importance of deep work. He further explains,

“The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers —a group that’s rapidly forgetting the value of going deep.”

Most Important Points from Deep Work 

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1. Deep Work is Valuable

Cal explains that the ability to do deep work — as in working for long stretches of time without distraction — is becoming increasingly rare in this modern world, and thus more valuable.

He states that there are two core abilities required to thrive in this modern world.

1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and quantity.

To harness the aforementioned abilities, you need to develop your capacity to do deep work.

Considering the first ability, Cal gives two examples to further explain his point.

“To become a world-class yoga instructor, for example, requires that you master an increasingly complex set of physical skills. To excel in a particular area of medicine, to give another example, requires that you be able to quickly master the latest research on relevant procedures.”

Giving my own example, I say,

“To become a world-class blogger requires that you master WordPress, keyword research, social media marketing, and various other software, all at the same time.”

Summarizing these observations, Cal writes, “If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.”

I find it necessary to repeat that again.

“If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.”

Considering the second ability, Cal gives an example of a statistical whiz who, after mastering various complicated machines, uses his skills to produce valuable information that a large audience cares about.

In essence, this stat whiz didn’t just master his craft but also produced something valuable from it.

Bringing this example closer to home: thriving as a blogger requires that you not only master the necessary software but that you also produce valuable content at an elite level.

To summarize, Cal says,

“If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive — no matter how skilled or talented you are.”

He then goes on to add that if you haven’t developed your capacity to do deep work, “you’ll struggle to learn hard things or produce at an elite level.”

2. Deep Work is Rare

The author argues here that the big trends in business are actively reducing our ability to do deep work in this current age. With our current acceptance of distraction in the workplace, it is becoming increasingly difficult to focus deeply on performing one’s task.

We have resorted to projecting an appearance of busyness as a way to showcase our productivity.

Cal dismisses that idea and argues that busyness is not equal to productivity. He writes,

“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.”

He highlights the idea that in this current internet-cult world we are embracing distracting, high-tech behaviors, such as the professional use of social media and email, at the expense of performing high-quality deep work.

Finally, Cal writes that the main reason why deep work is on the decline is because it is relatively easier to do shallow work (the kind of work that doesn’t require intense focus and can be performed while distracted) than deep work.

He says,

“[The reality is] that deep work is hard and shallow work is easier”

3. Deep Work is Meaningful

Here, Cal asserts that a deep life is a good life; a life dedicated to the practice of deep work is arguably the best life there is.

He proposes a theory that our world is the outcome of what we pay our attention to.

He explains,

“There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work, … [so] if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.”

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work, Cal says, is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

How to Incorporate Deep Work into Your Life

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In Deep Work, Cal discusses some methods for introducing the habit of working deeply into your life.

He introduces four philosophies that he believes you can adopt to foster deep work.

  1. The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling 

This philosophy requires that you maximize your deep work efforts by eliminating or drastically reducing your shallow work obligations.

Cal stresses that this philosophy applies to knowledge workers who measure their success by the number of quality work they produce.

For example, a novel writer measures their success by the number of high-quality novels they’re able to produce within a certain time frame. Thus, this type of person needs to dedicate a large portion of their working hours to writing, while minimizing any other activity that does not improve their writing efforts or relate to it in any way.

2. The Bimordial Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling 

This approach requires that you divide your time into two parts, dedicating one part to deep work pursuits and the other to shallow work obligations.

This philosophy is important for those who cannot eliminate, reduce, or get out of their shallow work obligations.

In this case, you commit equally to both shallow and deep work.

3. The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling 

This approach requires that you transform your deep work habits into a simple, regular routine.

You set a starting time for every day that you pursue your deep work efforts and commit to it.

This creates a habit chain that encourages you to keep going.

You can also cross out each day on the calendar that you perform your deep work duties; this way, you have visual indicators of your progress.

4. The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling 

This approach preaches the art of rapidly changing your mind from shallow to deep work mode at a moment’s notice — whenever a free period opens up.

This philosophy — as it is rightly named — is borrowed from journalists, as they are often required to shift into a writing mode at any time, due to the deadline-driven nature of their jobs.

As a caveat, Cal emphasizes that this approach is not for the deep work novice. The ability to instantly switch your mode to cater for deep work doesn’t come naturally and requires practice.

Mastering this form of deep work has its perks and is particularly suitable to this current age, where shallow obligations, such as the checking of email, social media, or collaborating in realtime, is ubiquitous and seemingly unavoidable.

In this modern world, you’ll need the ability to switch between shallow and deep work modes in order to work effectively and produce high-quality work at a good rate.

Embracing the Boredom That Fosters Deep Work

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Cal advocates that to foster deep work and produce things of value we must learn to embrace boredom.

This requires you to stop trying to fill every part of your day with unnecessary activities and distractions.

In order to strengthen your mind’s ability to concentrate, you must wean it off its dependence on distractions.

Cal summarizes this in the following lines,

“Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction … it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where … it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”

By finding a distracting activity to entertain you at the slightest hint of boredom, you’re training your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty or entertainment.

It is this craving for distraction that causes you to check your phone obsessively or scroll through social media on end, looking for entertainment.

This type of behavior doesn’t support deep work, as you need long hours of singular focus to thrive in a deep work setting.

Cal suggests that we embrace the regular boring moments that come with our day, such as waiting in line or ironing our clothes.

This attitude will strengthen our deep work muscle and improve our ability to focus.

Quit Social Media

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Cal makes a point here that social media is one of the major sources of distraction in this current, digital world and thus poses the biggest threat to cultivating a healthy, deep work ethic.

Social media, he argues, is psychologically engineered to take as much of our time and attention as possible.

In recent times, more and more people are beginning to become conscious of their compulsive use of social media, but are powerless in regards to how to curb this bad habit.

Cal suggests a radical solution: Quit Social Media for 30 days and then reevaluate its role in your life.

A difficult project to undertake, yes, but a freeing and self-empowering move that will enable you to win back your autonomy from these time-and-attention sapping social media platforms.

Cal, however, stresses that the purpose of this exercise is not to take a hard stance against technology or social media – as in an anti-technology stance.

Its purpose is to help you to choose carefully and deliberately how and when you’ll use technology in your life.

To gain back your freedom and autonomy, you must quit social media — at least for a while.

Draining the Shallows

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Draining the shallows requires that you eliminate any activity which does not benefit you in any way or offers very little value.

With this method, you eliminate the trivial things in order to create more room for the important things.

Cal proposes that you schedule every minute of your day. By planning thoroughly, you are able to eliminate any trivial activity and that helps you focus on the wildly important.

Without a proper planning structure, Cal says, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow — such as e-mail, social media, web surfing.

You can produce more valuable work with fewer hours if you focus your time and energy on the wildly important.

Conclusion

Deep work is an important skill to learn and master, especially, in this digital world that is plagued with distractions.

Cal, in writing this book, provides the key insight and strategy required to master deep work and gain focused success in a distracted world.

Everyone — knowledge worker, entrepreneur, social media manager/strategist — will benefit from cultivating a deep work habit.

To succeed, you must produce things of value; to do that, you need to work deeply.

“If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive – no matter how skilled or talented you are.”

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