Deep Work

Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

By Cal Newport


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Originally published

Jan 5, 2016




May 27, 2020


Jun 2, 2020

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Balance, clarity, and consistency
Journalist Mason Curry spent "two hours of undistracted writing time in his private office. His afternoons would often consist of meditation or long walks in the surrounding countryside" (1)
Bill Gates would spend "Think Weeks" twice a year where he would isolate for a week reading and thinking about big problems facing Microsoft (5)
Be comfortable being bored (17)
Example of Winifred Gallagher, a science write r suffering from cancer: "This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life the corner of her brain honed by a career in nonfiction writing, that her commitment to focus on what was good in her life—'movies, walks, and a 6:30 martini'" (76)
A plea for mindfulness over time: "Carstensen hypothesizes that the elderly subjects had trained the prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala in the presence of negative stimuli. These elderly subjects were not happier because their life circumstances were better than those of the young subjects; they were instead happier because they had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive." (78)
Evaluate your success based on the process not on outcomes (138)
A modern problem: "you'll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom." (157)
"If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the 'mental wrecks' in Nass's research, it's not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration." (159)
Change our framing of this problem: schedule distraction, social media use, etc. instead of just letting it fill gaps and scheduling concentration away from the distraction (161)
"For example, if you've scheduled your next Internet block thirty minutes from the current moment, and you're beginning to feel bored and crave distraction, the next thirty minutes of resistance become a session of concentration calisthenics." (162)
Cutting down on the negative feedback loop which gets us addicted to social media—"separates the sensation of wanting to go online from the reward of actually doing so" (164)
Sure, social media is good for some things but we need to exercise moderation and consciously throttle ourselves; social media in aggregate rarely serves a greater purpose whereas other uses of time do
"The can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they're lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper." (209)
We need formal review processes and analytics on how we use our time to combat bad habits which inherently accrue over time if unchecked (204)
"If you haven't given yourself something to do in a given moment, they'll always beckon as an appealing option" (213)
"Internet sabbatical is not the same as the Internet Sabbath...the latter asks that you regularly take small breaks from the Internet...while the former describes a substantial and long break from an online life" (183)
"It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there's a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing" (263)
Deep work
"distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit" (3)
Build something that aggregates over time: many people just spend their time perpetually getting interrupted → they end up with a bunch of sent emails instead of a novel
"execution should be aimed at a small number of wildly important goals" (136)
Flow: "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" (84)
It's not all about leisure; deep work can bring a sense of sacredness
On the work of Computer Scientists: "archaic as the techniques used by medieval cathedral builders seem to today's civil engineers, while our craftsmanship will still be honored" (90)
"massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth" (8)
"more and more of our population are knowledge workers, and deep work is becoming a key currency" (14)
Advances in tech → "bimodal trajectory for the economy" (23); "As digital technology reduces the need for labor in many industries, the proportion of rewards returned to those who own the intelligent machines is growing" (27)
Those set to benefit:
technical generalists
"close to 30 percent of a worker's time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone." (6)
"Knowledge workers...are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value" (64)
This is one of the main forces working against remote work
NYT, other publications force their journalists to tweet though this does not advance their ability to succeed in their core competencies
"our culture has developed a belief that if a behavior relates to 'the Internet,' then it's good—regardless of its impact on our ability to produce valuable things." (70)
Shallow work: "efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate" (6)
"the habit of frequently checking inboxes ensures that these issues remain at the forefront of their attention, Gallagher teaches us that this is a foolhardy way to go about your day, as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that's dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality." (81)
"In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves to identify what's meaningful and what's not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism" (87)
"If you can't learn, you can't thrive." (31)
Neurons that wire together, fire together: "you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively." (36) → "isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination" → easier and easier to slip into doing this habit going forwards (37)
Taking control of your time
"put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response...enforce strict isolation until he completes the task at hand" (40)
Reduce cognitive load, anxiety, etc. and instead prioritize focus: "the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance." (43)
Zeigarnik effect: more open loops → more stress (see Getting Things Done); "ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention" (152)
Some people don't have this luxury (executives, salesmen, lobbyists, etc.) (46-47)
"Feynman was adamant in avoiding administrative duties because he knew they would only decrease his ability to do the one thing that mattered most in his professional life" (62)
"spend ninety minutes inside, take a ninety-minute break, and repeat two or three times—at which point your brain will have achieved its limit of concentration for the day" (97)
"providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges" (146)
Attention restoration theory (ART): "spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate"; fighting "attention fatigue" (147)
"You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it" (100); "attempting to schedule your deep work in an ad hoc fashion is not an effective way to manage your limited willpower" (102)
"Shallow work, therefore, doesn't become dangerous until after you add enough to begin to crowd out your bounded deep efforts for the day" (220)
This is the power of saying "no"—limiting the ratio of shallow work
Donald Knuth "deploys what I call the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling...maximize deep efforts be eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations" (103)
Don't blur the line between time spent in shallow work and time spent in deep work; provide different communication SLA's when in deep work
Transparency: "people will usually respect your right to become inaccessible if these periods are well defined and well advertised, and outside these stretches, you're once again easy to find" (110)
Build a chain of deep work where you visually track progress day over day; "Who's to say I can't be that prolific? ...Why not me?" (113)
Deliberately make thinking about problems / seeking inspirational thoughts a part of your routine
"it's not just the change of environment or seeking of quiet that enables more depth. The dominant force is the psychology of committing so seriously to the task at hand." (125)
Gives an example of a man buying a round trip ticket to Tokyo and forcing himself to finish the project while flying on the plane there and back
At the end of the day, make an actionable plan for blocking out the next day → can enjoy your night knowing that your work for the day is done and that there is nothing you need to keep in your head (152)
"it 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." (154)
Driving change
Principle of least resistance: people do what is easiest, but "easier" is rarely "better" when it comes to building things (58)
Moving away from the open office: "combination of soundproofed offices connected to large common areas yields a hub-and-spoke architecture of innovation in which both serendipitous encounter and isolated deep thinking are supported" (131)
This can happen in pairs: whiteboard effect: "push each other toward deeper levels of depth, and therefore toward the generation of more and more valuable output compared to working alone" (134)
Self-impose deadlines instead of letting your work be dictated by deadlines placed on you
Incentivizes getting things done as soon as possible and being purposeful with every hour
From Jason Fried of Basecamp: "Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek. Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that's a good thing" (216); "The shallow stuff that can seem so urgent in the moment turned out to be unexpectedly dispensable." (217)
Avoid emails which put asymmetric load on you (either as sender or receiver)
Communicate expectations: "people appreciate clarity. Most are okay to not receive a response if they don't expect one" (245)
"created filters that put the onus on the person asking for help"
Process-centric approach: with each email clarify, predict, and remove as much uncertainty in the loop as possible (make things easy, actionable, expected)
"something as simple as scheduling a coffee meeting can easily spiral into half a dozen or more messages over a period of many days, if you're not careful about your replies" (252)

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