By Cal Newport
Deep work is a skill that is easily lost in a world full of distractions. Cal Newport believes that developing the ability to stay focused allows us to produce better results in whatever it is we’re concentrating on, and not only that, it brings with it a true sense of fulfilment from a job well done. As he sees it, the modern world has created a fast-paced, increasingly competitive, and highly-connected workplace culture that leaves people flitting from task to task and in a frantic whirlwind of keeping up with emails and social media. He points out that the distractions of modern life have become accepted as the norm, so much so that many people have never considered that there may be a better way, and he aims to change this by presenting his ‘rules for focused success in a distracted world.’
The key message he wants readers to receive is that serious professionals need to cultivate a deep work ethic. The book is divided into two parts; the first part documenting the huge benefits to be gained through mastering the ability to focus, and the second part setting out his training programme to help readers transform their minds and establish new habits – his ‘rules.’ In making a strong case for ditching social media and practising being bored, he guides anyone interested in finding focus in a distracted world to greater success in their career and in life.
My Top 3 Takes from the Summary
Deep work leads to learning, improving, and performing at your best.
Deep work skills are becoming increasingly rare and therefore more valuable.
Following the four rules of working deeply, embracing boredom, quitting social media, and draining shallow work from your day, you establish habits that will lead to greater success.
Deep work is working in a state of distraction-free concentration, a state that pushes your cognitive capabilities, allowing you to reach greater limits and perform at your best. The author points out that many years of research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience have shown that the mental effort involved in deep work is necessary if abilities are to be improved, but it's an effort that people, ‘knowledge workers’ in particular, are becoming increasingly unfamiliar with. The reason for this is network tools, meaning email, SMS, and social media networks. Ready access to these tools through smartphones and computers at work and at home has led to most people’s attention being scattered in every direction – all of the time. According to one study cited by the author, the average knowledge worker spends around 60 per cent of their working week engaged in electronic communication and searching the internet, and almost 30 per cent of that time is taken up just reading and answering email alone.
People are busy, but the work they’re doing can be considered ‘shallow work’ rather than deep work, and this is because it’s work that can be done while distracted. Deep work is cognitively demanding and not easily replicated, whereas shallow work tends to generate less value and is easily replicated. To differentiate between the two, the author suggests asking yourself this question: "How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialised training in my field to complete this task?" If the answer is many months, then it suggests that the task requires hard-won expertise, therefore deep work. If, on the other hand, the skills required could be picked up quickly, then it’s shallow work.
It’s the shift towards shallow work in modern workplaces that leads the author to believe deep work is becoming increasingly rare, and in a world where digital technology is continually advancing, his message is that only those with deep work capabilities will remain in demand as machines take over shallow work tasks. If the skills you have are easily replicated or automated, you may lose out, but deep work skills will lead to being more valued and therefore more rewarded. To survive and thrive in an increasingly automated workplace, the author believes two core abilities are crucial. They are:
The ability to quickly master hard things. This is because the serious tools and technologies used in the workplace need to be understood and mastered, and these tools are significantly more complex than iPhones and other consumer-facing technologies. They are also changing and updating rapidly, so the need to keep mastering complex things is ongoing.
The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. Mastering the relevant skills is not enough on its own. You then need to turn those skills into tangible results that are valued, meaning you need to outproduce your competition.
Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
The author makes the point that in an ideal world, workplaces would be designed to promote deep work, but in reality, most people find themselves in open offices full of distractions and working in a culture of quick responses to emails being valued over producing the best possible results. To combat this and to maximise the amount of deep work that can be achieved in a day, he provides four rules to follow.
Work Deeply. To do this, you need to create your own philosophy and make deep work a ritual habit. Charles Darwin is used as an example: he adopted a strict and structured routine in his work. Each day began at 7 am with a walk before breakfast. After breakfast, which he ate alone, he’d work from 8 to 9.30 am in his study. After this, he dedicated an hour to read his letters from the previous day, and then he returned to work in his study from 10.30 until noon. On leaving his study, he mulled over challenging thoughts and ideas while walking around his garden on a designated route. His walk ended when he was satisfied with his thinking, and his working day would be declared done.
Of course, the ritual you choose to work by needs to be your own. There’s no one-size-fits-all and finding the right fit is going to depend on the person and the type of task. However, to be effective, you need to be clear on where you’ll work; how long for; how you’ll work once you’ve started; and what methods you’ll use to routinely support your work, helping you to consistently make the most of your concentration.
Embrace Boredom. The key motivation here is improving your concentration abilities and overcoming the desire for distraction, helping you to get the most out of your deep work. One suggestion is to think in terms of taking breaks from focus rather than taking breaks from distraction. Schedule in advance when you’ll use the internet (distraction) and when you’ll avoid it completely (focus), and then stick rigidly to the schedule. The reason for this is that constantly allowing yourself to switch from high-value activities to low-value activities at the tiniest hint of boredom is effectively teaching your mind that it can’t function in the absence of novelty. Constantly switching is weakening your mental muscles, whereas minimising the number of times you give in to distractions is strengthening them.
Another approach to doing this is to meditate productively. This can be any period of time in which you’re physically occupied, but not mentally, so examples might be walking, driving, or taking a shower. By focusing your attention on a single problem while doing these activities, you may find it easier to limit the potential for your mind to wander, thereby helping to strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles and sharpen your concentration. As the author points out, your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to training your ability to concentrate.
Quit Social Media. Taking a complete break from the internet is often proposed as a means of culling distractions, but the problem with this approach is that it’s too drastic to be a lasting solution. This rule proposes a different approach: accepting that social media has its uses and is not inherently evil, but also accepting that thresholds need to be clear in terms of the amount of time and attention given to it.
To set these thresholds, begin by identifying the main goals you have in your life, both professional and personal. Next, list the two or three activities that are most important in terms of achieving those goals. For example, "regularly reading and understanding the cutting-edge results in my field" could be an activity that’s important to achieving a professional goal. For each activity listed, consider the impact of the network tools you currently use on your participation or success in it. If you conclude that the impact is negative, you need to ditch that tool. Only use the tools that have substantially positive impacts outweighing any negatives.
By avoiding the use of the internet purely to entertain yourself, you go a long way towards eliminating the carefully crafted addictive pull of entertainment sites designed to steal your time and attention. To do so, you need a strategy that gives your brain a quality alternative, preventing you from defaulting to whatever catches your eye whenever you have a moment of relaxation. Planning ahead and structuring your day, including evenings and weekends, can help. For example, dedicating time to structured hobbies, reading, exercise, or meeting up with friends can all fill your time with enjoyable internet-free alternatives.
Drain the Shallows. Applying this rule forces you to take a good look at just how much of your “busy” day is spent doing things that actually produce value. Identifying shallowness in your schedule helps you to minimise it, making more time for deep work. Suggested ways to apply it include scheduling every minute of your day by dividing your working hours into blocks and then assigning specific activities to each one. Scheduled breaks can be included, and the goal is not to stick rigidly to the schedule at all costs, but to maintain a purpose in what you do with your time, even when plans change and need to be shuffled as your day unfolds.
Another way is to ask your boss for a “shallow work budget.” In other words, how much of your work day should be devoted to shallow work tasks? Having this conversation with your boss establishes support in your workplace, and having the same conversation with yourself if you’re self-employed can be equally beneficial in terms of flagging up how much time is being devoted to low-value work. Either way, sticking to the budget will likely mean changing your habits at work, including saying no to additional tasks that are easily identifiable as shallow, and taking steps to actively reduce any shallow aspects of existing tasks.
The overriding message in the book is that deep work allows you to be better at what you do. By learning how to focus and avoid distraction, you develop the ability to achieve more in less time, and you also gain the motivational sense of true fulfilment that comes through mastery of a skill and a job well done. In a world where machines are taking over shallow work roles, deep work skills make you increasingly valuable in the workplace, giving you a distinct advantage in a competitive economy.
The author not only provides compelling evidence to support his belief that deep work is an essential skill at the heart of finding success in a distracted world, but he also offers actionable advice that anyone can follow to change their workday habits for the better. Using practical examples, he highlights that today’s workplace cultures are leading to deep work becoming a lost art, and he sets out clear suggestions and pointers that demonstrate there is a better way.
Bio of Author
Cal Newport is a writer and a professor of computer science at Georgetown University. His ideas have been featured in several major publications, including Economist, Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and New Yorker, and also on TV and radio. He writes his own long-running blog Study Hacks, and his books have been published in 35 languages.