By James Razko
In this summary of Deep Work by Cal Newport, you will learn to harness a super-ability that links a dizzying array of geniuses across human history. So, what connects Newton, Jay-Z, Galileo, Picasso, and that kid who can stack and unstuck cups incredibly fast? Concentration. Or, more precisely, an ability to sit down and perform cognitively demanding tasks for extended periods, aka deep work. It’s not sexy. Still, without it, no matter how brilliant you are, if you can’t organize those clever thoughts into something tangible and useful, you’ll end up with not much at all. Fortunately, you don’t need to be a genius to tap into deep work; it’s a learned skill. Read this summary of Deep Work by Cal Newport to ditch distraction and reap the rewards of a honed mind.
What is and isn’t Deep Work
To start, let’s define deep work and shallow work:
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.Deep Work, Cal Newport
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.Deep Work, Cal Newport
Why Deep Work is Valuable
Law of Supply and Demand
In the age of distraction, the ability to perform deep work, push your cognitive limits, and improve your skills, are becoming increasingly rare and according to the law of supply and demand, therefore increasingly valuable.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution
Likewise, the digital age and the coming fourth industrial revolution are creating an enormous transformation in the labor market. More and more jobs are becoming automated and outsourced, and many people will suffer economically. On the other hand, some groups will reap the rewards of this global restructuring.
Those who will Reap the Rewards
Consider these three groups (among others) who have been and will continue to see massive financial gain.
High skilled workers: Individuals who can work creatively and keep pace with rapidly evolving complex machines are the future of the workforce.
Superstars: Now that communicating from nearly anywhere on earth is rather simple, many businesses prefer to hire the best of the best at a premium for a short period rather than hire a mediocre alternative full time for less money.
The Owners: Machines are allowing businesses to employ fewer and fewer people while making more and more money. And, somewhere at the top of many of these new companies are Venture Investors who cash in. If you’ve ever played monopoly, you know, it’s good to be rich; those with more (money) generally make more (money).
With these groups identified, it becomes clear that most will have to be either a superstar or be able to work with sophisticated machinery.
And, if you want to be a superstar or a high skilled worker, you’re going to need to master these two core abilities—both require deep work.
Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New EconomyDeep Work, Cal Newport
1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
Producing mediocre stuff is, unfortunately, no longer an option. You will never be the only (you name it) in town thanks to the inter-web. In short, if what you do or make is not the best, customers or employers will find something better, usually a few clicks away.
Become an Artisan
Science shows that human beings are most happy when they are fully absorbed in a task. Yes, people are happier when they are working, no matter what that work is. Deep work is a kind of happiness generator, which gives you more reason to cultivate the skill. The author believes it’s what human beings are made to do.
No matter your profession, treat your work as if you’re an artisan. Artisanship requires deep work, respect, and care, and this kind of attitude will lead to increased happiness and output.
Why it’s Hard to Focus
So, what’s stopping you from cashing in on the concentration bonanza?
The unfortunate, unpopular, you already knew this answer is likely sitting in your pocket or your hand— the internet. The internet is distracting, especially social media apps that have been purposefully designed to be as addictive as possible. If you’re thinking, no, not me— consider how many times you’ve been down the electronic rabbit hole looking at cats, or if you’re like me, fishing videos (I don’t fish).
Social media aside, consider that one study found the average knowledge worker spends 60 percent of their time searching the internet and communicating electronically. That same study found that nearly 30 percent of a knowledge worker’s time is devoted to email alone. The fact is, many of us are mind-numbingly shuffling bits of information around. And, in between all the shuffling, we are relieving the pain with distracting dopamine hits provided via smartphones and social media.
Combine the distracting nature of the internet with a culture that expects near-instantaneous replies to all things electronic, and you have constant socially accepted and expected distraction, robbing you of an ability to think up the next big thing.
Take a Break From Focus
The ability to concentrate and go deep is a skill that must be learned and maintained. Modern distractions can quickly destroy the power of concentration. And as you’re likely aware, distraction is addicting. The author recommends a simple but powerful mind shift: instead of taking a break from distraction to focus, take a short break from focus to give in to distraction.
There is a false myth that creatives only work when inspiration strikes. The truth is, professional creatives who add valuable contributions to the world do so with intention. And, the best creators are often highly ritualized and meticulous workers.
[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.David Brooks
No matter how many times you watch Good Will Hunting, the story of the prodigy is a myth. All so-called prodigies practice—a lot. If you want to be good at something, you will need to put in your 10,000 hours. But of course, not all 10,000 hours are the same. 10,000 shallow hours will get stone-cold-stunned by 10,000 deep hours — quality matters.
To be good at something, no matter your initial aptitude, you need to practice deliberately, of which there are two core components:
1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master;Deep Work, Cal Newport
(2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
Scientists now believe that deliberate practice makes you better by boosting the speed of your neural circuitry. Your brain achieves this by growing more myelin, a fatty tissue that acts like an insulator around neurons. The more you practice, the faster and cleaner your brain cells will fire. Thank you, myelin.
How to produce at an elite level
As discussed above, the quality of your deep work matters, and with that, so does the intensity. For example, when the author interviewed students for his book Deep Work, he found that the students with the highest GPAs studied less than the students just below them in GPA ranking. The author believes that those with the highest GPAs maximize their concentration and intensity, in turn, dramatically reducing the time required to prepare for school.
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)Deep Work, Cal Newport
Many believe they are good at multitasking— an IG check here, an email there, YouTube on the iPad, TV in the background, all while trying to write a thorough summary of Deep Work by Cal Newport. Yup, that’s not going to work. Sadly, humans aren’t good at doing more than one thing at a time, and scientific evidence is proving it.
For example, there is something called attention residue, and it is sucking your performance dry. Attention residue happens when you switch from one task to another. After switching, some part of your mind remains focused on the previous task, and the performance on the task at hand suffers dramatically.
What About Jack Dorsey?
The author points out that some people thrive without deep work. His primary example is Jack Dorsey, who helped found Twitter and Square and then held management positions at both simultaneously. Also, he’s well known for being tethered to his smartphone and working at a standing desk in an open office where just about anyone can walk over and spark a conversation. Yeah, he’s a multitasker and is assuredly distracted. He also has and is helping produce massively disruptive and valuable technology. So what’s up. Why doesn’t Jack need depth?
Jack’s behavior is characteristic of a corporate officer. According to the author, a good CEO is a decision-making engine, like Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy! Machine. In a nutshell, someone presents a CEO with a question, and she or he spits out a good answer honed by experience. For Jack and other CEOs, if they need a particular solution to a problem, it’s better to hire a few people to think deeply for them, and once the results are in, make the final decision. What is, other people are thinking deeply for him.
The author points out that with few exceptions, unless you’re a high-level corporate officer, you very likely need to think deeply.
Rule#1: Work Deeply
Carl Jung built a tower in the middle of the woods to get away from distraction in an attempt to upend psychology and one-up his teacher Sigmund Freud. Likewise, Bill Gates, famous for his ability to concentrate, enjoys taking “think weeks” twice a year. A sample of influential figures across all fields would reveal most have designed their surroundings to cultivate an ability to think deeply. Maybe you can’t build a tower or afford to take “think weeks,” but there are many ways to develop a lifestyle that promotes deep work.
Below are philosophies that can help its followers think deeply. It’s essential to choose the one that’s most in line with your personality and life.
The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work
The monastic philosophy attempts to ensure deep work by getting rid of all or drastically minimizing shallow obligations. These people are not on twitter and are generally hard to reach. Most monastic practitioners tend to know what’s important to them and how they want to achieve it. Of course, not everyone will be able to shut themselves away from shallow work obligations like email and the general distractions of society. For this reason, many will not be able to subscribe to this philosophy. However, if you know what it is you want to achieve, and your contribution to the world is highly personal and precise, you may want to give this philosophy of deep work a try.
The Bimodal Philosophy Of Deep Work
Bimodal deep workers will have clear divisions of their time, with parts solely dedicated to deep work and others open to whatever else life throws at them. Bimodal divisions of time can be as little as a few days out of the week or as much as a few months out of the year. This kind of working is common to academics who might use the summer for diving into projects. The goal here is to maximize efforts. This particular philosophy is best for those who need shallow activities for success. For example, if you were a professor, you might stack all of your courses into one semester and use the other solely for deep work. On the surface, it may seem that many jobs do not allow for this kind of flexibility. But, the author believes that once you move past that initial judgment, many jobs are in line with this kind of philosophy.
The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work
In this philosophy, you will develop a regular habit of working or a rhythm. You might consider working on your project at the same time every day and marking a large red x on the calendar when you’re finished. The red X will serve as a visual aid and will create a satisfying chain that you don’t want to break, aka The Chain Method. For example, if you have an already busy life with kids, you could wake up at the crack of dawn and squeeze in three hours of deep work before anyone wakes up or your job starts. While this style of deep work may not achieve the deepest levels of concentration, it’s most conducive to human life and behavior. And, when you add up the consecutive bits of deep work that a solid routine will foster, you will end up with a significant amount of deep work hours per year. Ultimately the rhythmic philosophy may even surpass the other two before mentioned philosophies.
The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work
If you practice the Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work, you will squeeze in deep work whenever a moment of freedom presents itself. This philosophy is labeled the journalistic approach because journalists are famously good at sitting down and whipping out articles whenever and wherever to meet deadlines. Importantly, this philosophy isn’t for deep work beginners. For this philosophy to function, you will need the expertise and confidence of a professional and the ability to switch into deep work whenever the moment presents itself. It’s not easy, but this philosophy can yield surprising results.
For any philosophy to work, you need to designate:
- Where you will work and for how long: For example, in a coffee shop with your noise-canceling headphones on.
- How you will work when you start: For example, no internet use once deep work has begun.
- How you will support your work: For example, you might start with a cup of coffee or begin with a light walk.
It’s hard fighting biological desires, and we do it all day, every day. Consider how much you think about eating, sex, sleep, and your social media of choice. In the context of your workday, it’s easy to see much of the day is spent fighting Paleolithic whims.
More worrisome is that some scientists believe that willpower is dolled out to each of us in a finite amount. And, if you’re going to sit down and work deeply free of distraction, you’re going to need a large helping of will power. So, if you use your will power reserve up on unimportant decisions throughout the day, you may not have enough left to go deep.
To conserve will power, build habits and routines that buttress your deep work. Use these four disciplines below to help conserve willpower.
Discipline #1: Focus on the Important:
Identify a small number of widely important and ambitious goals and focus on them.
Discipline #2: Act on Lead Measures:
There are two types of measures, lead and lag measures. Lag measures describe what you’re trying to improve. For example, if I want a better blog, my lag measure could be the number of satisfied monthly active users. Lead measures measure behavior that will achieve better lag measures. On this blog, a good lead measure might be the number of users who sign up for my newsletter after reading this summary of Deep Work.
The good news is that for any deep worker, its pretty simple to accurately know your lead measure. To calculate your lead measure, add up your time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your widely important goal.
Don’t focus on achievements like the number of book summaries published. Instead, focus on the behaviors that will produce the desired outcomes, and you will have a solid foundation to exceed your wildest dreams. It’s all about the process.
Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability:
Implement a consistent review of your deep work. The author recommends doing this weekly. Keeping an account of how many hours you are working will help you adjust if you get off track.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
Idleness is Good
While it may seem that working (on book summaries like this one of Deep Work by Cal Newport) every waking hour of the day is the clear road to producing the most and best work, it isn’t. Our brains need downtime, so when your done working, actually stop. Put down your phone and resolve not to send one email after you clock-out. Here’s why:
Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights
Sometimes you can’t consciously think of a solution to a problem. For example, developing the theory of relativity is complicated. Connecting all the dots of space and time in a firestorm of deliberate thought is Herculean, even if you’re Einstein. Luckily for Einstein and us, the non-conscious mind, unlike the conscious mind, is good at sifting through and organizing immense amounts of abstract data. When you’re not doing much, your unconscious mind is solving problems and presenting them to your conscious self. This process is also known as the Unconscious Thought Theory or UTT.
Reason #2: Downtime Helps you Recharge
Your mind gets tired, and when it does, your performance suffers, it’s as simple as that. Luckily for us doing relaxing activities that provide fascinating stimuli and freedom from direct concentration replenishes this emptied reserve. Activities that help the mind recharge include playing the guitar, going for a walk, or listening to your favorite music.
Reason #3: Work That Replaces Downtime Isn’t Important
You may have discovered when pressed by a deadline, you work harder, ditch unnecessary tasks, and design your schedule to achieve the goal. A fixed work schedule gives you this kind of clarity every day. Become ruthless with your time by giving yourself the daily deadline of a clock out time. Anyway, the work you do after hours will likely be low quality
For example, one scientific study found that elite athletes and musicians can maintain 3-4 hours of deliberate practice per day, usually separated into two distinct periods. Basically, your capacity for deep work is limited each day. The work that you might end up doing in the evening is likely going to be shallow and contribute little to your wildly important goals. It’s better to take some time off replenish your system and to give it your all the next day.
The author recommends practicing productive meditation. Create a time when you focus on a problem. You could do this on a walk. Like mindfulness meditation, when you notice you’ve slipped from the problem refocus. Do this over and over, and you will begin training your mental concentration muscle.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
The internet and its mobile portal the smartphone is hard to shake. The author recommends scheduling time with the internet and especially smartphones, to start building a focused mind. The next time you feel like you have to google that thing that seems essential, just don’t, instead wait until your scheduled time. This behavior will help train your brain to avoid novelty seeking and distraction.
The Cult of the Internet
The internet is a cult, albeit a popular one. And like any good cult if your not in your are out. The cult of the internet says all things internet are good, no matter what. The internet cult says things like: you must have a Facebook page or your weird. This same cult has influenced the New York Times to unofficially force all their journalists on to twitter, even when it’s clear Twitter distracts the journalists from their job.
Despite what this cult wants you to believe, not all of the internet’s tools are good for you, and many of them are surely hampering your success. Don’t go around drinking any and all of the internet’s flavors of techno-juice just because its there. Make informed and thoughtful choices with the technology you choose to use.
Social media and the internet are the antitheses of a focused mind. In fact, the author dedicated his Entire next book Digital Minimalism to the subject, which I’ve summarized in-depth here: Book Summary: Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
Be wary of shallow work; it’s often more damaging than you realize. Of course, you will have to do some shallow work sometimes, but you must do your best to reduce shallow work as much as possible.
Schedule Every Minute of Every Day
Scheduling your entire waking life might sound horrible at first. However, considering that humans are terrible at estimating time spent doing things. For example, when people self-evaluated how much time was spent watching television, sleeping, hours worked per week, they were way off the mark. So, scheduling your entire day will make sure you’re not wasting your valuable time watching Spongebob Squarepants instead of putting in the work you should be.
The author recommends at the beginning each day, open a blank sheet of paper, and schedule out every hour. Importantly he notes this schedule should be flexible. For example, if you have a eureka moment, there’s no harm in clearing the entire day’s plan to work on it. Likewise, if you schedule a work activity and it takes longer, you can adjust your schedule by eliminating shallow work first and prioritizing deep work. Or, if you finish a task ahead of time, don’t jump on your phone, readjust your schedule and lengthen or add a new block.
To prioritize tasks, you will need to quantify how deep or shallow a given job is. To do so, the author recommends you deploy a simple 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 you can train a recent graduate relatively fast, say a few months to do the task, then it’s shallow. On the other hand, if it would take years of hard-earned professional work, then it’s deep. The longer it would take to train your imaginary college graduate, the deeper it is. Prioritize your tasks throughout the day according to their respective deepness.
Become Hard to Reach
Just because you have to use email doesn’t mean you have to play by current rules. Batch emails and respond later—it’s more efficient and prevents constant distraction. In the end, people won’t care all that much if you take a little longer to respond to them.
Also, if you get a bunch of emails that you don’t deserve a response, don’t respond to them. Delete them and move on. Not everyone is entitled your time and attention, especially if they put little or no thought into the email in the first place.
Let people know in advance what kind of emails will and will not get a response. This way, many people won’t send the email in the first place, and the people who don’t abide by your filter won’t be upset when you don’t respond.
Do More Work in the Beginning
Make your Emails and replies are as detailed as possible to elicit the fewest email exchanges. Make sure to describe the respective process, outline the steps you have taken, and emphasize the next step.
Adding a little more work on the front end of an email exchange can drastically cut the number of emails you receive and reply to per day.
A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.Deep Work, Cal Newport
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