Deep Work - A summary


Several months ago, I read the book Deep Work, by Cal Newport and wanted to write a summary of the main takeaways I found within it. Originally I planned to write this shortly after reading the book, but life happens… On a positive note, it’s given me a chance to see what parts have stuck with me after finishing the book many months ago.

There are many things in Deep Work that I agree with or have made improvements to my work; however, there are points that I disagree with or do not place as much importance upon.

Before I start, remember this is a summary, my summary, more precisely. I’m not going to replace the act of reading the book itself. I’ll highlight parts that I found interesting and beneficial. I’m not trying to advertise the book, I swear, but if you need more thorough explanations after reading this, then you’ll probably have to buy the book!

Deep Work Is Valuable

The book’s first chapter explains why the author believes deep work is valuable.

Below are some quotes from this chapter:

“The ability to quickly master hard things.” (page 29)

“High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus) (page 40)

It all sounds appealing so far.

Deep Work Is Rare

Life is full of distractions: emails, instant messaging and social media, all negatively affecting our ability to focus. These points aren’t entirely novel; you’ve probably thought this yourself or overheard others discussing it; however, the thought that quick and easy access to information could reduce your capability to plan and prepare was new to me.

“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.” (page 58)

“If you couldn’t count on this quick response time you’d instead have to do more advance planning for your work, be more organized, and be prepared to put things aside for a while and turn your attention elsewhere while waiting for what you requested.” (page 58)

Personally, I used to have a tendency to run head first into my work and then ask questions about the first issues I faced. This solved the immediate problem, but I would inevitably have another issue and another question and so on. So why did I do it? Because it was the easiest thing to do.

Thankfully I’ve moved away from this behaviour, and these quotes collected and labelled positive habits that I’ve adopted.

Deep Work Is Meaningful

This chapter gave the most significant explanations as to why we should work deeply. A description of “Flow state”, which I’ve heard thrown around and have experienced first hand as a Software Engineer, struck a chord with me.

“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.” (page 84, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

This quote got to the core of why I felt frustrated about my current working habits and why I sought out this book. I was rarely entering a flow state anymore, and as a consequence, I was rarely enjoying my job anymore.

So I read on with vigour in search of guidance.

Rule #1 Work Deeply

The previous chapters covered the why and now the book moves onto the how.

This chapter shares information on ways to increase your focus and lower the boundary into switching into a flow state.

The author details different philosophies on deep working:

  • Monastic:

    • Purposely being hard to reach to reduce distractions.
    • Assign significant periods of time to focus, which could be weeks or months.
  • Bimodal:

    • Separating your time, where blocks are spent in deep work, and others are open to everything else.
    • Assign blocks of time to focus, which could be days to weeks.
  • Rhythmic:

    • Create a habit of having deep work sessions.
    • Generate a rhythm for this work style, so it doesn’t take energy to continue doing it.
    • Assign specific times within a day to focus.
  • Journalistic:

    • Switch into a deep work state whenever you have the time to do so.
    • Hard to follow because it requires flipping a switch into flow mode.
    • Requires a lot of willpower.

For me, the “Rhythmic” philosophy appealed to me the most. Especially for someone who was finding it extremely hard to focus before reading this book, the systematic process of a schedule gave me a way to hold myself accountable.

At the time of writing, several months after reading Deep Work, I have scheduled reoccurring meetings in my calendar for focusing. I pick a singular task, evict distractions and focus solely on the task until I’ve reached the end of the “focus” time. I started off scheduling 30-minute blocks and progressed to 1-hour blocks throughout the day.

I don’t always stick to my schedule. If I don’t have a task on which I can focus all my time, then I might cancel my “focus” time or accept that I can still focus on a few tasks, but I won’t complete any deep work.

This chapter also says you should be lazy. Now that’s a bold statement. Before you take it literally and stop reading here because you decided to be lazy, let me give you some extra context.

You should be lazy, in that you don’t work all the time. You need time to recharge. This recovery time will help you perform during your working hours as your mind will be refreshed and ready to work deeply. Furthermore, deep work can be draining, and if you are successfully working in that way for long periods of the day, you will eventually run out of gas. Forcing yourself to keep going might get some extra work done, but you’ll be sacrificing the energy and willpower reserved for the next day. The author also points out that the work you’re doing so late in the day is probably work that isn’t all that important. Meaning you’re burning yourself out for tasks that don’t provide much value.

Rule #2 Embrace Boredom

“The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.” (page 157)

“Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence of distraction.” (page 157)

As described earlier in this post and the book, life is full of distractions, and if you always submit to them, you’ll never refine your ability to truly focus.

“Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.” (page 159)

For me, this works alongside my scheduled focus time, giving me a “reward” for focusing for a period of time. I give myself time to relax without feeling guilty because I know I just completed quality work (most of the time), rather than the opposite, where I feel bad while being distracted, which almost creates a cycle of distraction that can be hard to break.

This chapter details much more extreme methods of blocking time without distractions, but I didn’t really gravitate towards them.

The author also writes about trying to think deeply while you’re physically but not mentally distracted. This could be walking, running, cooking, cleaning and many more. For me, I’ve stopped listening to podcasts/music so much when walking around; instead focusing on my thoughts about work, life or whatever I currently see. This has helped me eke out some valuable insights without setting aside specific time to think about something.

Rule #3 Quit Social Media

While I agree with much of what was written in this chapter, it did not give noteworthy points that I’d like to write in this post.

Onto the next one.

Rule #4 Drain the Shallows

Similar to life being full of distractions, there is also a good chance that significant amounts of your time are spent on tasks that don’t require much thought or focus. These are low-value tasks that need to be done, but if scattered throughout the day, they provide constant distractions preventing you from sitting down and focusing on a singular piece of work.

This chapter advises you to consider how much time you spend on these sort of tasks and when you do them.

“Quantify the Depth of Every Activity” (page 228)

Once you know what tasks deliver the most value, prioritising the order you complete them and where your energy is directed becomes clearer.

That being said, sometimes these “low value” tasks might be urgent or unblock others, so figuring out the ranking between tasks isn’t always cut and dry. This book is written from the perspective of a professor (since that is the author’s profession), which doesn’t always transfer over cleanly to working professionals. For example, as a Software Engineer, I have to review my team’s code. While some reviews might seem low value to me, ignoring them negatively impacts my team, so I can’t simply stop doing them.

“Schedule Every Minute of Your Day” (page 221)

I do believe there is a benefit in scheduling more of your time. Consciously deciding what you want to do beforehand gives you a target to aim for with the time you spend, more precisely focusing your energy.

You might find that in your “unstructured” time, you don’t get so much done because you’re constantly trying to determine what to do next. With your mind continually flicking from one thought to another, stopping you from giving any of the thoughts any real attention.

I solved my problem of reviewing code mentioned a moment ago by blocking off time to do them. Even if some of them are “low value”, grouping them together and giving direction to my time improves the overall quality of the reviews I give. Even if there is a context switch between each review, staying in the mindset of “I’m doing reviews” is extremely beneficial.

Now, I’m not saying to schedule every minute of your day. However, being more aware of how you spend your time can be enlightening.

“Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails” (page 248)

I’ve been putting more effort into providing well-written emails by including enough information and the next steps or outcomes needed from the recipients increasing the likelihood they reply with precise emails themselves.

If I wrote emails missing information, they might have to contact me again to ask for more context. If I wrote emails not specifying the outcome I wanted, the feedback I’d receive might be undirected and not deep enough in the desired areas. Both of these lead to each side investing more energy into reaching the original purpose of the email.

“What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project too a successful conclusion?” (page 249)

The content in a “good” email will always vary, but the point above should give you a solid foundation to work from.

My Main takeaway

My main takeaway from reading Deep Work is that I must be deliberate in my decisions.

Hoping to move away from being constantly distracted, aimless and unmotivated and into someone that can focus deeply in a directed manner is pointless. Instead, I have to consciously work to address these flaws.

Scheduling more of my time as “focus” time has worked wonders for me.

I’m getting vast amounts of quality work done during these periods, I’m more easily entering a flow state, and most importantly, I’m enjoying my work again.

I can’t promise that the same changes will work for you, but it might be worth a try.

This has been my summary of Deep Work, by Cal Newport. I hope what I’ve written is useful, giving you some pointers; however, I recommend reading the book itself.

Written by Dan Newton