Deep Work by Cal Newport: Book Summary in 10 Minutes

In a world full of shallow distractions, the ability to do focused "Deep Work" is a super power that can set you apart from the crowd. This summary will give you the essentials you need to start working deeply.
Natalia Rossingol

On the banks of Lake Zurich, in a village called Bollingen, there is a small stone castle with four towers. Its story starts in 1922, when Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, bought this land to build a retreat. Hiding from hectic city life, he worked intensely on his analytical psychology, which eventually became one of the most influential schools of thought of the 20th century. And even though there are many reasons why Jung became so successful, the space and freedom away from city chaos let him develop a skill that definitely played a key role in his accomplishments – deep work. 

The term “deep work” was not coined by Jung, though. The author of the concept is Cal Newport, who described it in his book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”. Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit”.  According to him, although there is evidence that many influential individuals “go deep”, this doesn’t convince millions of others. Deep work is not popular - it requires effort, and it’s way more comfortable to stay shallow. 

Logically, this increases the value of deep work. Those who choose to prioritize depth have many doors open in front of them. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done – the world around us is full of distractions, and it’s extremely hard to resist them.

“Deep Work” by Cal Newport consists of two parts: the first one explains the idea of deep work, while the second one suggests strategies that help adopt this behavior. So, here you can read a short “Deep Work” summary by chapter:

Part 1. The Idea

Chapter 1: Deep Work is valuable 

With the rise of digital technology, labor markets have changed dramatically. In their book “Race Against the Machine”, Erik Brynjolfsonn and Andrew McAfee say that we live in the era of the Great Restructuring – a time when technologies are advancing at a high speed while the skills of ordinary workers fall behind. This creates a gap between human and technological resources, and it means employers will more likely hire smart machines than people. The good news is that while many people risk being thrown out of this new economic reality, there are still groups of workers who have a potential to win. These are:

The High-Skill Workers. These are workers who are able to work with complex machines and get valuable results. A great example of such a worker is Nate Silver – an American statistician who analyzes data and makes forecasts using the Stata system, a tool that requires a lot of learning. For people like him, machines are not obstacles but rather a means that help achieve goals.

The Superstars. E-mails and virtual meeting software make it possible to hire the best workers instead of people who are available because they live next to your office. For example, if you need a programmer, you can hire David Hansson, one of the best in the world, and the fact that he’s on a different continent would not mean anything to your company. But, as Newport pointed out, this would definitely mean something to less-skilled programmers who live right in your area.

The Owners. The Great Restructuring is a good time to have capital: according to the bargaining theory, when money is made through capital investment and labor, the rewards are proportional to the input. Digital technologies reduce the need for human labor, so the importance of investment into intelligent machines increases.  

As Newport says, there is no secret, easy way to generate large amounts of capital . However, the other two categories are relatively accessible: you have to know how to work creatively with new machines, and how to be an expert in your field. This way, he determines two abilities needed to thrive in the new economy:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things. Technologies change rapidly, so not only will you have to do hard things, you will have to constantly learn and do it quickly, again and again;
  2. The ability to produce elite level. Mastering skills is not sufficient; you need to actually produce things.

Newport explains that these two abilities are impossible to develop without deep work – and that this is a serious reason to start practicing it:

How does one cultivate these core abilities? It’s here that we arrive at a central thesis of this book: The two core abilities just described depend on your ability to perform deep work. If you haven’t mastered this foundational skill, you’ll struggle to learn hard things or produce at an elite level.

Chapter 2: Deep Work is rare

In recent years, curious trends in the business sphere have appeared. The first trend is the open office concept. This policy was adopted by Facebook, as well as many other Silicon Valley companies. By having people work in a common space, leaders hoped that they could learn from one another.

The second trend is instant messaging. It has nothing to do with chatting; its goal is to raise productivity and save customer’s time. 

Finally, the third trend is maintaining a social media presence. For example, the New York Times encourages its editors, photographers, and writers to maintain a Twitter account. 

These three trends are very paradoxical, says Newport. Open space, instant messages, and social media presence do not promote deep work. But, as we see from Chapter 1, deep work is exactly what  helps individuals work effectively. Yet organizations do not support it; what they support is a culture of connectivity. But why is this so? 

The reason, in Newport’s opinion, is the Principle of Least Resistance – which is acting in the way that is easiest at the moment. Being connected with our colleagues, we can easily get answers to numerous questions, by sending a message or simply talking to a person sitting next to you. Besides, connectivity can help organize our time. Think about meetings: they can force you to take actions, not having to manage your obligations by yourself. However, there is the other side of the coin: 

The Principle of Least Resistance… supports work cultures that save us from the short-term discomfort of concentration and planning, at the expense of long-term satisfaction and the production of real value.

There is another reason why people tend to avoid deep work – the absence of indicators of productive work. Job ambiguity, which often accompanies knowledge workers, leads to making an impression of being busy. As Newport explains,  people turn to the mindset of the industrial age, when productivity could be physically seen and measured. In the reality of the modern knowledge worker, this takes the form of sending and answering emails, scheduling meetings, and doing other visible things. But, of course, this doesn’t help you achieve deep work. 

Finally, deep work is seriously hindered by the cult of the Internet: it is based on quality and mastery, and this is often non-technical and even old-fashioned. 

As we can see, there is nothing substantial about distracting behaviors, and nothing flawed about deep work. Appreciating this helps you realize that you can, and should, enhance your deep work ability, says the author. 

Chapter 3. Deep Work is meaningful

In this chapter Newport discusses deep work from the viewpoint of three arguments: neurological, psychological, and philosophical.

A Neurological Argument for Depth

Going through a serious life drama as she was diagnosed with cancer, a science writer Winifred Gallagher discovered an interesting connection between attention and happiness. Instead of focusing on suffering and pain, she decided to focus on “movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini”, and noticed that this worked better than she could think: this period of her life, expected to be dark, appeared to be quite pleasant. Management of attention worked a miracle. 

Our problem, says Newport, is the assumption that circumstances always determine how we feel. However, our worldview is constructed by our brain. This means that we can choose what to concentrate on. It applies to work as well. Even more, as the author says,  

A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun.

A Psychological Argument for Depth

Most people erroneously assume that happiness comes from relaxation. This is not true: free time is unstructured, and it can be hard to organize it and actually do something you enjoy. Work, on the contrary, can give you mental pleasure: goals, challenges, and rules encourage you to get really involved, and feel a sense of accomplishment. 

In other words, work creates a state of “flow”. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who first defined this idea, describes “flow” as a state when “a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” And a state of flow definitely falls into the category of deep work.

A Philosophical Argument for Depth

Descartes’ skepticism, which ushered in the Age of Enlightenment, was based on a belief that individuals seeking the truth surpass God or the King. People had to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, which caused a lack of order and sacredness.  

Dreyfus and Kelly, the authors of “All Things Shiny”, explain that there is still a way to reopen the lost sacredness. The thing is, you should not try to find a meaning outside of individuals or things, but rather accept that the meaning is already there, as their intrinsic part. For example, a wheelwright shouldn’t decide which part of the wood is valuable – he should know that the wood is valuable by itself. Cultivating an appreciation for what you do uncovers the meaning, and extracting the meaning is what deep work is about.  

Part 2. The Rules 

Rule #1: Work deeply

To integrate deep work into your professional life, you can choose a way that suits you best, says Newport. Scheduling deep work, you can pick one of the following approaches, which he calls “philosophies”:  

The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

This approach is about getting rid of or drastically minimizing things that can be considered shallow. For example, a science fiction writer Neal Stevenson doesn’t provide his email address on his website page. He explains that this way he makes it clear he doesn’t want to be disturbed. He understands that answering many emails can result in lower quality of his books – and to a much slower pace of his work.

The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

Carl Jung, who we looked at earlier, did not totally eliminate distractions. What he did was eliminate them only for the period he spent at his retreat. The bimodal philosophy consists in dividing your time and dedicating one part of it to deep thoughts, and the other one to everything else, including shallow activities. What is important in this approach, says Newport, is the amount of time you devote for deep work: it must be at least one full day. A couple hours in the morning doesn’t count. 

Unfortunately, many people lack flexibility at work to afford these deep work time periods. However, when you clearly determine the time frames and let people know about your desire to work deeply, they will probably respect your decision.

The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

If you consistently do your deep work sessions, you will transform them into habits. This way, you won’t have to make an effort if and when you want to go deep. Here Newport tells a story about  the comic Jerry Seinfeld who described his secret of being brilliant at his job: every day he writes a joke, and every day he crosses out the date on the calendar, so in a few days he can see a chain of crosses. The chain growing creates a rhythmic routine and works as a great motivation.

The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

The journalistic philosophy is about being able to quickly switch from deep work to shallow work mode. This ability doesn’t come naturally but can be practiced. So how does this approach work? Walter Isaacson, who was called one of the best magazine journalists in America, worked like this: he could enjoy the company of his family, then go upstairs for some twenty minutes, then come back. Any time he wasn’t busy, he was able to switch to deep mode work. This way, he wrote a nine-hundred page book, aside from his articles. 

You must be careful to choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances, as a mismatch here can derail your deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify… It’s therefore worth taking the time to find an approach that makes sense for you.

Rule #2: Embrace the boredom

To achieve the deepest levels of concentration, says Newport, one must spend the rest of their time in boredom. When Newport says “boredom”, he means a state when a person is literally bored, while his brain is relaxing from hard work. But what do we usually do when we feel bored? We get online! Meanwhile, switching attention using different apps or browsing the Net has a very negative impact on our brain.

People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand… they’re pretty much mental wrecks.

So if every time you get bored you grab your smartphone, you develop a habit to get distracted, which is opposite to deep work. To fight this, Newport suggests the following strategies: 

Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus. 

There is a popular technique called Internet Sabbath: you pick a day of the week when you are not allowed to use network technology. This technique is not the most useful though: if you eat junk food all week except Friday, will it really save your health? Definitely not. 

Instead, Newport proposes the opposite approach – scheduling a break from focus to give in to distraction. Avoid the Internet during the time you’re supposed to focus. This applies not only to work hours, but also when you’re at home. This way, you can teach your brain to resist distracting stimuli. 

Work Like Teddy Roosevelt

Theodor Roosevelt had an “amazing array of interests' – dance lessons, bodybuilding, poetry reading, boxing, and so on, and yet he was not falling behind his classmates. His biographer Edmund Morris says that this can be explained by how he approached his schoolwork. Dedicating 8 hours to it, and excluding time for classes, training, and lunch, he studied intensely the rest of the time, reading quickly and paying maximum attention. This would let him spend the rest of his time on other activities. 

Meditate Productively

We all have time periods when we are not occupied mentally but are occupied physically – for example, while walking to work, or driving. As Newport says, we can use this time for productive meditation – thinking about a problem that is most pressing at the moment. This allows you to actually use the time that would otherwise be wasted. 

Rule #3: Quit social media

In 2013 Newport wrote an article where he explained why he never joined Facebook. And even though the article was never meant to be accusatory, he received some interesting feedback from readers, who were trying to defend their choice to be active users. For example, one person said Facebook was a source of entertainment; but was she suffering from a lack of entertainment before she joined it, asks the author? 

Analyzing the comments he received, Newport came to the conclusion that the benefits people mentioned were minor and random. To describe this way of thinking, he uses the term “Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool”: people justify using a tool if they can find ANY benefit it gives. As opposed to it, there is the “Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection” – identifying the factors that positively impact your professional and personal lives. And it’s the Craftsman Approach, says Newport, that really matters.

So he suggests three strategies to abandon the any-benefit approach and adopt the craftsman one:

Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits

According to the Law of the Vital Few, “80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes”. Speaking about it in the context of Internet habits, try to analyze if the internet tool you use supports the most necessary activities you have to do to achieve your goals - in other words, if you use the tool while doing the 20 percent of activities that make a difference.   

Quit Social Media

Newport suggests trying this strategy: quit social media services you use for thirty days – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. After thirty days pass, ask yourself: have these thirty days been better? Has anyone noticed that I have been missing? If the answers are “yes” and “no” respectively, stop using the service completely.

Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself

With the rise of the Internet and the low-brow attention economy it supports, the average forty-hour-a-week employee… has seen the quality of his or her leisure time remain degraded, consisting primarily of a blur of distracted clicks on least-common-denominator digital entertainment.

How do we use our time outside of work? Probably on our phones, scrolling thoughtlessly. But Newport insists that we can and should make deliberate use of our free time. It is important to plan out evenings and weekends in advance, so that we don’t get confused later. This can include hobbies or things that can help us achieve our goals in the long run.    

Rule #4: Drain the shallows

Deep work is exhausting, and your cognitive capacity is not limitless. Unfortunately, even though the value of deep work definitely overweighs the value of shallow work, you cannot devote all your time exclusively to it. For an average person, an hour a day is enough; for a person who permanently practices deep work, it can be extended up to four hours. 

Yet, shallow activities like meetings, phone calls, and other events you cannot really control can consume much more time than expected, and often won’t leave you a chance to focus. These “time drains”, as Newport calls them, are pretty dangerous. So he suggests some strategies to “tame” shallow work that cannot be avoided altogether: 

Schedule Every Minute of Your Day

Planning is a very useful habit that helps you stay focused, so plan your workday – and do it in advance. At the beginning of each workday, divide your workday into blocks; then assign activities to them. Of course, something will probably not go as planned: you may wrongly estimate the time needed for a particular activity, or maybe something will appear out of the blue. Don’t worry: you can always revise your schedule. 

Planning your workday in such a detailed manner may seem restrictive; however, the idea behind it is not about limiting yourself – it’s about concentration. 

Quantify the Depth of Every Activity

Analyzing how deep you have to go doing a particular activity, ask yourself this question: how much time will a graduate student without a special training need to do it? For example, if you need to edit an academic paper, you will have to know the subject, as well as how to work with academic literature (proper citation and so on). A student who doesn’t have the knowledge like this will need a lot of time to get the task done. This can definitely count as a deep work.  

Finish Your Work by Five Thirty

That’s a simple one. Don’t work after your workday is finished. It can seem that this strategy will make you miss deadlines – but not necessarily: if you know that your time is limited, you will use it more productively.  

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.

Deep work is a much more powerful instrument than most people can imagine. It’s not for everybody though: to learn the skill, you will have to change habits and use your willpower, and to many of us, this sounds uncomfortable.

But if you do choose to make deep work a part of your life, you won’t have many competitors. And without a doubt, you will be rewarded. 

 📚 Read other book summaries on management from Runn:

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