Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (2016)

deep thinkingThe 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.  14

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In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport argued that to succeed in the modern working world, people must develop skills that are rare and valuable. Rare and valuable skills allow people to make more money, and have more autonomy and engagement with their work.

In Deep Work, Newport argues that people develop rare and valuable skills through deep work, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit.” Petty distractions prevent people from completing deep work, and Newport provides some thoughts as to how you could incorporate more deep work into your life. The returns to deep work are nonlinear; you get more out of one hour of deep work than three hours of shallow work.

Essentially, Newport argues that you 1) structure your working environment so that distractions from deep work are limited and batched, and 2) you build up your mental stamina (by ignoring the impulses to get off task) in order to make it easier to stay engaged in deep work for longer periods.

While I liked the book and agreed with its primary message, I wish there was more detail about how this could be made to work day-to-day. As Newport acknowledges, some jobs are not made for deep work—if you are a secretary, or waitress, your job performance is highly dependent on how quickly you can divert your attention and put out fires. His arguments for deep work centers around knowledge workers, and so are not immediately relevant to me at the moment.

The author discusses how he’s implemented deep work in his own life, and how it’s benefited him professionally. I like that he’s speaking from experience, but I wonder how much of his success can be attributed to his system, and how much to his intellectual horsepower. Obviously, his efforts and intellect combine to create his output, but I think it’s safe to assume that a professor of computer science who’s published many papers and four popular books is innately talented. He recounts stories of how he often solves math problems and important programming problems while running home in order to exercise and have lunch with his family, to make sure that this time isn’t lost. So, his system works for people who are capable of doing serious academic work while working out, what about the rest of us?

Ideas per Page:1 4/10 (lower) This may be due to the fact that I’ve read his previous book and a few other books on personal productivity

Related Books: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, Getting Things Done by David Allen, Ready for Anything by David Allen, The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss,

Recommend to Others: Because I was familiar with many of the ideas, I would rather recommend that people read So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which argues that people should not follow their passions, but develop rare and valuable skills to find a satisfying working life.

Reread Personally: No

Quotes:

3 “Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

6 “Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

16 “On the other hand, my commitment to depth has rewarded me. In the ten-year period following my college graduation, I published four books, earned a PhD, wrote peer-reviewed academic papers at a high rate, and was hired as a tenure-track professor at Georgetown University. I maintained this voluminous production while rarely working past five or six p.m. during the workweek.

This compressed schedule is possible because I’ve invested significant effort to minimize the shallow in my life while making sure I get the most out of the time this frees up. 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.

25-6 “…[Sherwin] Rosen explains as follows: “Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” In other words, talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best.”

28 “In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.”

31 “Giving students iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for a high-tech economy as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics.”

40 “High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

119-20 paraphrase: choose where to work and for how long, plan how you will work so you don’t spend time deciding during the work time, find rituals that help you (snacks, exercise first, meditation first)

136-141 paraphrase: pick a few ambitious goals to work toward during deep work, that excite and inspire. ; measure the time spent toward a goal, or practice sessions, because that focuses on process rather than product   ; keep a scoreboard to hold yourself accountable and excited about your goals ;

161 “…constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.”

202 “By taking the time consumed by low-impact activities—like finding old friends on Facebook—and reinvesting in high-impact activities—like taking a good friend out to lunch—you end up more successful in your goal.”

227 “Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach you true potential as someone who creates things that matter.”


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

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