Cal Newport's "Deep Work"―The Only Skill You Need in Your Life Toolbox
A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.
Deep Work first came across my radar a few years ago―it came highly recommended to Jeff (my partner), who proceeded to absorb the book in its entirety in a couple of days. I held off on reading it then because 1) I was too busy trying to keep my head above water at the startup I was working at, 2) I judged it to be one of those books that gave away everything in its title and would have diminishing value after the first chapter, and 3) I have this dumb rule that I’ll only read a book if it appears in my life at least three times.
Last month, Deep Work appeared for the third time―in conversation with the friend who had first recommended the book to Jeff. I was no longer working, and was instead embracing fun-employment whilst trying to solve the meaning of life and determining my next step. Jeff felt that the book deserved a read in its entirety as golden nuggets are scattered throughout, so I took it to heart and decided it was time to plunge into the depths of Newport’s book.
The following is a summary of the book consisting of my highlights and takeaways, ending with a section of my high-level thoughts.
A LONGISH BOOK SUMMARY
Deep Work is broken into two main parts. Part One explains deep work as an idea and why it is 1) valuable, 2) rare and 3) meaningful. Once you’re convinced that deep work is indeed those three things, Part Two dives into the how with rules, guidelines and practices for how one can incorporate deep work into your daily life.
What exactly is deep work? Newport defines it 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.”
Newport provides examples of influential figures ranging from Woody Allen, to Carl Jung, to Bill Gates, to JK Rowling, etc., whose successes he attributes to their abilities to work deeply.
Let’s emphasize what deep work is by making clear what it is not:
“Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
This is what Newport calls shallow work. Newport believes that the more we fill our days with the shallows, the more difficult it becomes to work deeply. In other words, the ability to work deeply is a mental muscle that needs to be trained with regularity and strengthened. If you don’t use it, you lose it. He, like Yuval Noah Harari, foresees how the exponential growth of newer and smarter technologies could potentially threaten our individual economic value―if we want to thrive in this new world, we must “master the art of quickly learning complicated things,” noting that “If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive…[and] to learn requires intense concentration.”
A simple formula Newport provides for deep work is: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
Newport goes on to explain what happens neurologically in the brain when one is in a state of deep work or learning and why distractions and multi-tasking drastically reduces effectiveness:
“By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits―effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination. By contrast, if you’re trying to learn a complex new skill (say SQL database management) in a state of low concentration (perhaps you also have your Facebook feed open), you’re firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually wants to strengthen.”
Deep work is in many ways a dying art. Modern society advocates what Newport calls network tools―social media, Slack, e-mail, instant messaging―all of which compromise the kind of environment necessary for deep, focused concentration. Open floor plans, too, highjack our attention and distract us from doing work that matters. Responding to e-mails and Slack, checking in on social media, meeting with colleagues throughout the day might make us appear busy, but it’s often administrative and shallow. We tend to mistaken “busyness as a proxy for productivity” by “doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
But most of us know when we’re not being productive and when we’re distracting ourselves, so why do we continue this way? Because “... deep work is hard and shallow work is easier... in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving.”
In the final section of Part One, Newport provides neurological, psychological and philosophical studies on why deep work contributes to a meaningful life, citing work from science writer Winifred Gallagher, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (whose work on “flow” is similar), and two philosophers from Berkeley and Harvard, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. What stands out here is a side benefit of giving your rapt attention to a workday―when you achieve “concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.” In other words, “it prevents you from noticing the many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives.” I think we can all appreciate that.
The second part of the book offers practical tips and suggestions for how to begin training the deep work muscle. It’s not easy, it requires commitment and discipline, but if you paid any attention to Part One, then it should be clear why it’s worth the effort.
Rule #1: Work Deeply
To do this, Newport says we need to: “move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life [so that it minimizes] the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.” Newport believes that we have a limited amount of willpower each day that becomes depleted as we use it, like a muscle that tires. Habits and rituals help manage and ration that daily dose of willpower.
There are four structures, or deep work philosophies, that can be adopted into a routine:
Maximize deep work by eliminating or radically reducing shallow obligations (least adaptable).
Clearly defined stretches of time for both deep pursuits and shallow obligations that occur on on a weekly, monthly or seasonal basis; however, at least one-full day of deep work without interruption of shallow obligations must be given for maximum cognitive intensity (somewhat adaptable).
Schedule regular deep work intervals into your day so that no willpower is spent on deciding whether and/or when to deep (somewhat adaptable).
Deep work whenever and wherever possible―only for those whose deep work muscle has been sufficiently trained and strengthened (most adaptable).
Once we have a deep work philosophy, we need a ritual, which means deciding: 1) where to work and for how long, 2) how do we work once we start (i.e - cutting out wifi, Pomodoro technique, Roosevelt dashes, etc) and 3) how do we support our work (i.e - coffee, food, a walk, environmental factors, etc.)?
To train our deep work muscles, Newport recommends a method called 4DX, as inspired by Clayton Christensen in the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution, often used in the business consulting world:
Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important
Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with our deep work hours.
Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures
Once we have a wildly important goal, we’ll want to measure our success. We can measure this via lag or lead measures. Lag measures describe the thing we’re ultimately trying to improve (i.e - play Beethoven’s 5th fluidly on the piano), while lead measures measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures (i.e - practice piano for two hours each day). Lead measures are timely, within our control and have a direct, positive impact on our goals. If we’re focusing on deep work, then the lead measure would be time spent in a state of deep work dedicated towards a goal.
Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
Track the amount of time spent in deep work mode in a clear, visible manner and make note of any milestones towards the goal.
Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability
Incorporate a weekly review in which success and failures are accounted for and plan for the week ahead by adjusting as needed.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
If we want strong, sexy glutes, we need to strengthen the surrounding muscles (i.e - quads, hamstrings, etc.) to support that growth. A similar concept applies here―training the deep work muscle will only get us so far if we don’t simultaneously train our ability to overcome distraction and embrace idleness (the premise this blog is built on).
But what does embracing idleness mean? For Newport, it means being totally and completely done with work at a reasonable hour each day. It means shutting down work thinking in the same way one might power down his/her computer. It means allowing the mind to wander and revel in its idle state. A few reasons for why this is important:
Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights
The conscious and unconscious mind play different roles in decision-making, and studies have shown that our unconscious mind is particularly powerful in coming up with insights for complex issues with multiple variables. The unconscious mind runs in the background, outside of awareness―by turning off the conscious mind, we allow the unconscious mind to run its course (Unconscious Thought Theory).
Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply
Taking a break, spending time in nature, doing any kind of activity that provides “inherently fascinating stimuli” and freedom from concentration (i.e - playing fetch with your kid or dog, cooking with your partner, etc.) will help improve your ability to concentrate later (Attention Restoration Theory).
Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces is Usually Not That Important
Most deep work professionals are able to get in 3-4 good hours of deep work a day; everything thereafter follows the Law of Diminishing Returns. Thus, if you’ve hit your deep work capacity for the day, then you should be spent by evening, and beyond the point in which you can work deeply and effectively.
Newport advocates having a shutdown ritual to signal to our brains that we are done for the day. This keeps the Zeigarnik Effect―the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate one’s attention―at bay. Taking 10-15 minutes to think through a plan for how and when to tackle incomplete tasks later (whether that’s tomorrow or next week) so they aren’t forgotten “frees up cognitive resources for other pursuits.”
The flip-side to embracing boredom is overcoming distractions, for which Newport suggests the following:
Mini Rule #1: Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus
Schedule blocks of time for when to use the Internet (rather than the other way around). Avoid it outside of these times. Do this at home and at work.
Mini Rule #2: Work Like Teddy Roosevelt
Identify a high priority task, estimate how much time is needed for it, then set a deadline that drastically reduces this time. “Roosevelt dashes leverage artificial deadlines to help you systemically increase the level you can regularly achieve―providing, in some sense, interval training for the attention centers of your brain.”
Mini Rule #3: Meditate Productively
Think through problems while jogging, walking, showering, doing the dishes, etc.―the only rule here is that the physical activity requires little to no mental effort. Be weary of irrelevant thoughts and looping, which is when we default to the Principle of Least Resistance and review what we already know on repeat rather than aiming for a breakthrough thought. Distractions aren’t just limited to the outside world.
Mini Rule #4: Memorize A Deck of Cards
A neat party trick and practical exercise to strengthen your memory which I won’t go into the details of here, but if you’re curious...
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
Pretty self-explanatory. Newport calls himself a curmudgeon when it comes to the topic of social media. He recently published Digital Minimalism, which deep dives into this rule. Newport argues that society’s current attitude to new networking tools falls under the “Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection,” meaning that we justify our use of a new network tool if we can identify any benefit to its use, or experience FOMO for not using it, without considering its downstream effects. He suggests, instead, that we use “The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection,” which means identifying the core factors that will determine success and happiness in our personal and professional lives, and adopting the tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative. Easier said than done, but Newport provides a guideline:
Mini Rule #1: Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits
AKA the Pareto principle but better known as the 80/20 rule―identify main high level goals in life, consider network tools currently being used, apply the 80/20 rule and if it’s not supporting those goals, CUT. IT. OUT.
Mini Rule #2: Quit Social Media
Social media minimalism―it’s a thing. That and we’re not as important or interesting as we think.
Mini Rule #3: Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself
I think this one is the most important―if we can get a handle on this, then the two rules above become arbitrary. Newport suggests putting more thought into our leisure time―being intentional about how and where we spend our time. Does structured relaxation defeat the purpose of relaxing? Newport doesn’t think so―instead, giving the mind something meaningful to do throughout all waking ours will lead to more fulfillment and relaxation, whereas “letting it bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured web surfing” often causes undo stress and discontent.
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
Reduce, if possible, shallow work. I dare say that this is possible in most white-collar jobs though the degree of reduction will vary from role to role. Again, Newport offers some suggestions for how to do this:
Mini Rule #1: Schedule Every Minute of Your Day
Newport draws out his day in blocks in a journal every morning. I prefer Google Calendar as it’s easier to create, move and adjust event blocks. My calendar is color-coded with blocks for deep work, shallow work, lunch, calls, exercise, reflection, meditation, etc. that I loosely slot into times at the start of each week. I am stubborn with my scheduled deep work, exercise, reflection and meditation time, but flexible with everything else. I leave space for spontaneity, and adjust the blocks as needed throughout the day and week. At the end of the week, I look back to see what worked and what didn’t, and plan for the next week using insights from the past. This method keeps me accountable.
Mini Rule #2: Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
How do we know if it’s deep work? Newport suggests asking the question, “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?” If the answer is less than a year, reconsider whether you need to be the one doing it.
Mini Rule #3: Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget
This is a phenomenal tip with the potential to dramatically improve our professional lives if executed artfully. It requires thinking deeply about what we want out of our roles, career, even life, and strategizing a path to get there while demonstrating to your boss how this is for the betterment of not just you, but the company as a whole.
Mini Rule #4: Finish Your Work by 5:30
Similar to Roosevelt dashes, setting an artificial deadline to your work day forces you to focus on what’s important and ditch what’s not.
Mini Rule #5: Become Hard to Reach
Does that email really need an immediate response? Does that Slack message need an instant reply? Is that call or meeting absolutely necessary? Much of the time, the person reaching out is too lazy to do the research to figure it out themselves. It’s not always necessary to respond or to say yes, but if you must, make the people who are reaching out to you do more work, and conversely, do more work when you send and reply to messages. Find ways to reduce the number of back-and-forth exchanges.
While the idea of deep work―a period of intense, focused learning and concentration―as a determinant of success is not revelatory, I found a ton of value in Newport’s rules, tips and guidelines, all of which are well-detailed and pragmatic. I understood the importance of deep work on an intuitive level before picking up the book, but Newport’s approach makes the practice attainable, tangible even, rather than something reserved only for the Elon Musks and JK Rowlings of the world. His perspective on the value and rarity of deep work in an increasingly shallow world is unique and refreshing. While he makes it known that he is not trying to argue against social media in this book, it’s clear that he finds it more harmful than helpful. (I often wonder whether networking tools are here to stay, and if so, whether they’ll take on the same shape and form as they do today, and how society might stand divided between those who choose to limit their participation and those who don’t―perhaps a topic for a future post).
In my own life, this book has shifted the way I approach my career and work. It has helped me recognize how much I need and want to nurture my deep work muscle and spend the majority of my time and efforts in this state. Many modern day jobs don’t allow for this―my last role revolved around administrative tasks, calls and meetings, many of which were superfluous. While at times necessary, I’ve come to realize how much they degrade my mental state and quality of life. More and more, our modern economy seems to superficially reward breadth over depth, and I’ve always gravitated towards roles that necessitate a Jane-of-all-trades, only to later find the work unfulfilling. Recognizing deep work as a non-negotiable in my life has led me to reevaluate and identify career paths that are best and worst suited for me. Sales? No way. Recruiting? Probably not. Writing? Worth pursuing. Strategic consulting? Worth exploring. To that end, Newport says, “You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work,” and while I agree to a degree, I do think that some jobs are easier to have a rarified approach to than others. Attitude is only half the battle.
But before I can even begin to explore those paths, I first need to relearn how to learn.
Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Rapt by Winifred Gallagher
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport