Book Notes – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

The book – Read in Jan 2016 – Rating 9/10

I started reading Cal’s books around 2010, when I was studying for A Level exams at school. I’d wake early, head off down to the woods for a run and some textbook reading, and then return for focused “chunks” of study that I’d tally on a whiteboard on my desk. By breakfast I’d have achieved more than I used to in a typical day, at lunchtime I’d stop working, and on exam results day things were looking good.

I can’t recommend Cal’s books enough. His latest, Deep Work, is one of the best. Also check out So Good They Can’t Ignore You for a thoughtful demolishing of the passion myth.

My notes and takeaways

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.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively 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.

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The 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.

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy: The ability to quickly master hard things. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Deep work is so important that we might consider it, to use the phrasing of business writer Eric Barker, “the superpower of the 21st century.”

I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, shut down.

This ability to fully disconnect, as opposed to the more standard practice of sneaking in a few quick work e-mail checks, or giving in to frequent surveys of social media sites, allows me to be present with my wife and two sons in the evenings, and read a surprising number of books for a busy father of two.

Ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia (a state in which you’re achieving your full human potential)

I instead tend to map out when I’ll work deeply during each week at the beginning of the week, and then refine these decisions, as needed, at the beginning of each day… By reducing the need to make decisions about deep work moment by moment, I can preserve more mental energy for the deep thinking itself.

David Brooks: “[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”

Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply on what you encounter.

Figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin, such as:

  • Structured hobbies, as they generate specific actions with specific goals to fill your time
  • A set program of reading, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books
  • Exercise or the enjoyment of good company.

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day fulfilled and begin the next one relaxed.

37signals gave its employees the entire month of June off to work deeply on their own projects and be free of any shallow work obligations. At the end of the month, the company held a “pitch day” for their ideas.

Be incredibly cautious about your use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.” Don’t easily agree to something that yields shallow work.

Tim Ferriss: “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.”

Deep work is important not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.

Your average e-mail response time might suffer some, but you’ll more than make up for this with the sheer volume of truly important work produced during the day by your refreshed ability to dive deeper than your exhausted peers.

Roosevelt would begin his scheduling by considering the eight hours from eight thirty a.m. to four thirty p.m. He would then remove the time spent in recitation and classes, his athletic training (which was once a day), and lunch. The fragments that remained were then considered time dedicated exclusively to studying. As noted, these fragments didn’t usually add up to a large number of total hours, but he would get the most out of them by working only on schoolwork during these periods, and doing so with a blistering intensity. “The amount of time he spent at his desk was comparatively small,” explained Morris, “but his concentration was so intense […]”

identify a deep task that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline.

Like Roosevelt at Harvard, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.

To nurture an environment for deep work to thrive:

  • Limit or cut down entirely on social media use
  • Batch hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches
  • Avoid switching tasks and dividing your attention
  • Prevent messages flashing up on your screen when you’re focusing
  • Limit the sites your email shows up on – make it harder for people to contact you
  • Generate a rhythm for deep work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep
  • Check off days you’ve worked in a focused way on your goals or projects and you’ll soon build a chain
  • Have a set starting time that you use every day for deep work
  • If possible, identify a location used only for depth—for instance, a conference room or quiet library
  • Give yourself a specific time frame to keep the deep work session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog
  • When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.
  • Big gestures like putting yourself in an exotic location to focus on a writing project or taking a week off from work just to think push your deep goal to a level of mental priority that helps unlock the needed mental resources
  • Any number of relaxing activities can provide a mental respite so long as they provide similar “inherently fascinating stimuli” and freedom from directed concentration
  • Having a casual conversation with a friend, listening to music while making dinner, playing a game with your kids, going for a run—the types of activities that will fill your time in the evening if you enforce a work shutdown—play the same attention-restoring role as walking in nature
  • If you try to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings, you might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown
  • Try productive meditation – take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem