Book worth reading: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work – by Cal Newport.

Rules for focused success in a distracted world.

I’ve always been distracted. Or I’ve always daydreamed. Or I’ve always been lazy. When it comes to getting things done, those three statements can sometimes look like the same thing. Sometimes I feel like life is an amusement park with too many things to try, and not enough time. But the truth is, there is enough time. You just have to use it wisely.

That’s what Deep Work is about. The Author Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science, he’s written 5 books.

He starts by talking about something we all (hopefully) understand. Deliberate and focused practice increases skill. He then details strategies to help get more deliberate focus into our lives. Deep work is pretty much as simple as it sounds: truly dedicating time to do the stuff that adds value, and ignoring the rest. Shallow work is the stuff that doesn’t add value. The admin, the emails, the distractions that may or may not actually need to happen.



High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) X (Intensity of Focus).



Most of us work, we all do ‘things’. But it’s deep work that optimises performance, Newport states, with some brain chemistry science to back it up – I’d go into that, but hopefully, the theory is solid enough without it.

Newport talks about the frenetic and busy environments of most businesses today, from email to messenger platforms and all the other things that distract us. Email is a biggie – he cites Atlantic Media’s study into the effect their culture of email had on productivity and bottom line. Their study was pretty full on – they factored in typing speeds and salaries, and calculated a cost of over a million dollars per year being paid just for people to send and receive emails – the cost of a small private jet for the company each year.



Clarity about what matters, provides clarity about what does not.



He describes the reality of our new economy and how the people who thrive in it will be the ones who can quickly master hard things, and those who can produce at an elite level. Deep work helps you quickly learn hard things.

He talks about the psychologist Adam Grant – the youngest full professor at Wharfton University, a super productive academic author in his field, and the author of the best selling book Give and Take (link).

Grant practices Deep Work by alternating periods of his door being open to students and colleagues, and periods where he puts an out-of-office on his email, and spends up to 3-4 days in strict isolation, working on tasks he knows will add value.


Who you are what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.


Science writer Winifred Gallagher was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer. She discovered that by committing to focus on what was good in her life, movies, walks, a 6.30 martini – she turned what could have been a time of fear and pity into something often quite pleasant.

There’s another benefit in being able to create a tunnel of focus in your day: “such concentration hijacks your attention apparatus, preventing you from noticing the many smaller and less pleasant thing that unavoidable and persistently populate our lives…. no attention left to over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.” So the more focused we are, the less ‘bad’ the world becomes.



The idle mind is the devil’s workshop, when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.



I realise that was pretty much all just propaganda and preaching about deep work as a concept. So, how do you do it?

The author talks about creating a habit first and foremost. Not rocket science, but the single most important thing if you want to take it from good intentions to actual output. Here are a few of the routine types he talks about. The author reiterates throughout the book that it’s important to find a philosophy and method of deep work that fits your current lifestyle.


Monastic Philosophy

The Monastic philosophy of deep work is about maximising deep work by totally removing or radically reducing shallow work. Newport references Donald Knuth, a famous computer scientist. Knuth won’t let you email him. If you want to get in touch, you can send him a letter. By cutting himself off from everything other than the communication that’s important enough for someone to put pen to paper, he maximises his time doing the thing that he adds value to the world through: “learning certain areas of computer science exhaustively.”

This is pretty hardcore, and obviously not for everyone.


Bimodal Philosophy

Bimodal deep work is about dividing your time up into clearly defined stretches of deep work. During that time you act monastically, with intense and uninterrupted concentration, ignoring everything else. Included in the bimodal philosophy is the belief that breakthroughs happen only if the periods of deep work are at least a day long. This is what Adam Grant was doing.


The Rhythmic Philosophy

Seinfield did/does this. He would write jokes every day, and to further encourage himself he would note on the calendar a big red cross on the days he wrote jokes, eventually he had a chain going, and his mission was to keep the chain going. A common technique is to set a defined start time that you use every day for deep work. I do this – every morning between 4.45 am – 6 am is writing time. This is probably the single biggest improvement I’ve made to my productivity, ever.


The Journalistic Philosophy

Walter Isaacson was a writer (I know, I know, everyone is a computer scientist or an author!) – Newport talks about his observed working habits.

“It was always amazing… he could retreat up to the bedroom for a while, when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book… he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour, we’d hear the typewriter pounding, then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us… the work never seeemed to faze him, he just happily went up to work when he had the spare time.”

This method requires context switching and the jump from shallow to deep work isn’t easy.


Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants – David Brooks.


Regardless of which philosophy you choose, you need to make it a ritual. Things to consider:

Where you’ll work and for how long

Kind of self-explanatory. Choose a time when you can actually get into deep work. Eg if you have a two-year-old and you know she wakes up at 6.30 in the morning, don’t try and start at 6.30. That’s stupid.

How you’ll work when you start deep work

You might ban internet use, you might put a target on your word count if you’re writing, or some other kind of metric to make sure you’re being productive without having to spend willpower and focus on measuring this throughout your deep work time. I use an app call self-control (link) to block all non-writing websites while I’m in deep work. I’ve seen people using earmuffs. (Their deep work wasn’t carpentry).

How you’ll support your work

You need to set your ritual up to succeed. Food, coffee, whatever you need to keep your energy up and keep your brain working, make sure your ritual includes those. You should also aim to reduce decision fatigue leading up to your deep work by making this stuff something you don’t need to think about. I’m on autopilot as soon as I get out of bed. I clean the kitchen as the jug boils, make my coffee, do the dishes, and then sit down and write. I don’t need to think about any of that. By the time my coffee is kicking in, I’m into what is at least an hour of writing. That’s 365 hours of writing a year, or 10 full work weeks of writing, every year. I can’t take 10 weeks off work to write, but I can get up early enough to spend an extra hour at my desk.

Make grand gestures

In 2007, J.K Rowling was trying to finish the last book in the Harry Potter series. No pressure. She couldn’t concentrate at home so she did something drastic (though not as drastic for her), she checked into a suite at a 5-star hotel to write it. She ended up staying and finishing the book. It’s an expensive illustration of a simple idea: “By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated to ward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.” This can be as simple as going to a cafe to work, walking down to a room that you always do the work from, anything where you invest time and energy enabling yourself to do the deep work.

The disciplines of execution

Focus on the wildly important.

This discipline points out that the more you try and do, the less you actually accomplish. So identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work schedule.

Act on the Lead Measures first

The lead measure when it comes to deep work, is the deep work itself, so measure that and focus on embedding and improving it as a behaviour to start with.


Be lazy. Oh, and don’t work long hours. There are 3 good reasons for this.


1. Downtime aids insight

In short – our unconscious mind plays a part in the problem-solving and decision-making that we often only point our conscious mind at. Sometimes, the best thing we can do to solve a problem is to stop thinking about it. Our unconscious mind sifts and sorts through the information we already have, in a way that can’t happen when we’re actively working on the problem or decision.


2. Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply

In short – if you don’t switch off properly at the end of Monday, you don’t recharge effectively and you’re not going to be as effective on Tuesday.


3. The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important.

In short – the stuff you leave until late at night or after work, is left that late because it’s not urgent. You’re hurting your effectiveness on Tuesday, to get non-urgent stuff done on Monday. Save it for tomorrow.

Newport talks about his evening shut down technique. He says the phrase ‘shut down complete’ every night as he turns off his work computer. This sounds weird but it’s designed to fight the Zeigarnik effect, which describes how incomplete tasks can dominate our attention. It says if you stop abruptly at 5pm – the unmet obligations of the day can keep fighting for your attention. Assuring himself that the day’s work is as finished as it can be, helps prevent this.


Quit Social Media

Whoa. Calm down. I know it sounds crazy.

The author talks about social media in a similar way to emails. It’s pretty widely acknowledged that both channels fragment our time, distract us regularly, and stop us concentrating as much as we would like. But it’s as if we’ve all just decided there’s no way fight it – that the culture of being tied to your inbox has already won. But it’s just a tool. Newport says “to master the art of deep work, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.” He suggests reviewing the benefits you actually get from Social Media, then look at what would happen if you quit. Then try and find a happy middle-ground. Quitting cold turkey might not even be worth considering. But scheduling in time allowances when you will use Social Media, and sticking to it, might.


Ask you boss for a shallow work budget

“Here’s an important question that’s rarely asked: what percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?”

In short – talk to your boss about how much shallow work they expect you to do. Then use that as approval to decline shallow work that takes you over your budget.


Be process-centric when answering emails


“I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I listed two days next week when I’m free. For each day, I listed three times. If any of those day and time combinations work for you, let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation for the meeting. If none of those date and time combinations work, give me a call the number below and we’ll hash out time that works. Looking forward to it.”

He also acknowledges it may take time to get comfortable with such a technical, and action heavy email tone. If you need to set it up with more rapport at the start, do it. I can think of lots of emails where a response like that would have saved me 3-4 other replies.

Definitely worth a read.

Oh yeah, why did I post this? Good question. I punctuate and edit these summaries for you, but I write them for me. I take notes when I read books that I think are noteworthy, it’s the easiest way for me to remember the good stuff after I’ve closed the book. If I’ve gone through the hassle of formatting and proof-reading those notes, then posting them here, it’s because I also think the book is good enough to justify the time in recommending it to you.



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