Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World - by Cal Newport
11 min read

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World - by Cal Newport


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I can't recommend this book enough. The information and teachings on focussed work throughout this book are invaluable to a life well lived.

Recommendation: 5/5

My Highlights

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 is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.

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.

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same 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.

The High-Skilled Workers

...those with the oracular ability to work with and tease valuable results of increasingly complex machines will thrive.

"The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?"

The Superstars

...the growing number of fields where technology makes productive remote work possible—consulting, marketing, writing, design, and so on. Once the talent market is made universally accessible, those at the peak of the market thrive while the rest suffer.

The Owners

The final group that will thrive in our new economy...consists of those with capital to invest in the new technologies that are driving the Great Restructuring.

Current economic thinking, as I've surveyed, argues that the unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy. 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.

How to Become a Winner in the New Economy

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

...intelligent machines are complicated and hard to master. To join the group of those who can work well with these machines, therefor, requires that you hone your ability to master hard things. And because these technologies change rapidly, this process of mastering hard things never ends: You must be able to do it quickly, again and again.

This ability to learn hard things quickly...also plays a key role in the attempt to become a superstar in just about any field—even those that have little to do with technology.

Now consider the second core ability from the list shown earlier: producing at an elite level. If you want to become a superstar, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You must then transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value.

...another general observation for join the ranks of winners in our economy: If you don't produce, you won't thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.

How does one cultivate these core abilities?

The two core abilities just described depend on you ability to perform deep work.

Deep Work Helps You Quickly Learn Hard Things

To learn requires intense concentration.

...what deliberate practice actually requires. It's core components are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you're trying to improve or an idea you're trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep you attention exactly where it's most productive.

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 oligodencrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits—effectively cementing the skill.

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

Deep Work Helps You Produce at an Elite Level

...the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.

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

To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.

The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

"The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." Csikszentmihalyi calls this mental state flow.

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one's work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

...ESM studies confirmed, the more such flow experiences that occur in a given week, the higher the subject's life satisfaction. Human being, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.

Gallagher's writing emphasizes that the content of what we focus on matters. If we give rapt attention to important things, and therefore also ignore shallow negative things, we'll experience our working life as amore important and positive. Csikszentmihalyi's theory of flow, by contrast, is mostly agnostic to the content of our attention. Though he would likely agree with the research cited by Gallagher, his theory notes that the feeling of going deep is in itself very rewarding. Our minds like this challenge, regardless of the subject.

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

This brings me to the motivating idea behind the strategies that follow: The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of you limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

...monastic philosophy...This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.

The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

...the bimodal philosophy of deep work. This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.

The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

...the rhythmic philosophy. This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you're going to go deep. The chain method is a good example of the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling because it combines a simple scheduling heuristic (do the work every day), with an easy way to remind yourself to do the work: the big red Xs on the calendar.

Another common way to implement the rhythmic philosophy is to replace the visual aid of the chain method with a set starting time that you use every day for deep work.

The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

"[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants."

...To make the most out of your deep work sessions, build rituals of the same level of strictness and idiosyncrasy as the important thinkers mentioned previously.

...there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address:

  • Where you'll work and for how long.

Regardless of where you work, be sure to also giver yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.

  • How you'll work once you start to work. Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured.

Without this structure, you'll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you're working sufficiently hard.

  • How you'll support your work.

To maximize you success, you need to support your efforts to go deep. At the same time, this support needs to be systematized so that you don't waste mental energy figuring out what you need in the moment.

...a curious but effective strategy in the world of deep work: the grand gesture. the concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceive importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind's instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.

Sometimes to go deep, you must first go big.

Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important

"The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish."

...execution should be aimed a small number of "wildly important goals."

Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures

...lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures describe the thing you're ultimately trying to improve.

Lead measures, on the other hand, "measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures."

For an individual focused on deep work, it's easy to identify the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.

Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

Discipline #4: Crate a Cadence of Accountability

...the habit of a weekly reviews in which you make a plan for the workweek ahead...

...execution is ore difficult than strategizing.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

At the end of the workday, shut down you consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check,no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you'll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free to encounter Kreider's buttercups, stink bugs, and stars.

Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights

A shutdown habit, therefore, is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you're engaged in productive work, but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy.

Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply

...attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate.

Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important

To succeed with this strategy, you must first accept the commitment that once your workday shuts down, you can not allow even the smallest incursion of professional concerns into your field of attention.

Another key commitment for succeeding with this strategy is to support your commitment to shutting down with a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you succeed. In more detail, this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it's captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another. When you're done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion (to end my own ritual, I say, "Shutdown complete"). This final step sounds cheesy, but it provides a simple cue to your mind that it's safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.

...the Zeigarnik effect. This effect, which named for the experimental work of the early-twentieth-century psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention.

"Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits."

The shutdown ritual described earlier leverages this tactic to battle the Zeigarnik effect. While it doesn't force you to explicitly identify a plan for every single task in your task list (a burdensome requirement), it does force you to capture every task in a common list, and the review these tasks before making a plan for the next day. This ritual ensures that no task will be forgotten: each will be reviewed daily and tackled when the time is appropriate. Your mind, in other words, is released from its duty to keep track of these obligations at every moment—your shutdown ritual has taken over that responsibility. should take a week or two before the shutdown habit sticks—that is, until your mind trusts your ritual enough to actually begin to release work-related thoughts in the evening.

...regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you're done, be done.

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.

...schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.

The idea motivating this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain's ability to focus. It's instead the 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.

Point #1: This strategy works even if your job requires lots of Internet use and/or prompt e-mail replies.

Point #2: Regardless of how you schedule your Internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these block absolutely free from Internet use.

...working with great intensity...

...productive meditation. The goal of productive meditation is to 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.

Be Wary of Distractions and Looping

Structure Your Deep Thinking

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you'll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.

...treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated. This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn't impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact.

Schedule Every Minute of Your Day

We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we're doing with our time.

At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook you dedicate to this purpose. Down the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you typically work.

...Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks.

...the minimum length of a block should be thirty minutes..

If your schedule is disrupted, you should, at the next available moment, take a few minutes to create a revised schedule for the time that remains in the day.

Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it's instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you're doing with your time going forward—even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.

Become Hard to Reach


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