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

Reading Time: 6 minutes


The modern world is very distracting and fast-paced. To succeed, we need to be able to learn new things quickly, focus for long periods of time, and eliminate distractions. Professor Cal Newport explores these concepts and shows us how we can orient our lives towards deep work, a skill that will enable us to succeed in today’s world.

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Key Takeaways

Deep vs. shallow work

“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.”

“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 time 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.”

To remain relevant and be successful in our fast-paced world, we need to master the ability to quickly learn complicated things, cultivate new skills, and produce high-quality work. To do these things well, we need to learn how to spend more time doing deep vs. shallow work. Deep work requires a level of focus that many of us fail to attain due to the endless distractions we now face, but it’s now more important than ever.

The new economy

“Once the talent market is made universally accessible, those at the peak of the market thrive while the rest suffer.”

“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.”

In the modern world, economic, social, and technological trends will lead a select few to succeed in big ways while the majority will see fewer benefits. To adapt to this reality, we need to become one of the three groups of players who will succeed, technical people who can lead the development of and interactions with intelligent machines, people who are the best at what they do, and people with lots of capital. Cultivating the skill of deep work will help us become a part of these groups.

Business does not equal productivity

“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.”

In a business context, if we are not clear on the priorities that will lead to impact, we tend to do the easiest activities in order to prove that we are valuable and productive. This natural human tendency often leads us to focus on shallow, low-impact activities that hinder our ability to have a meaningful impact that will be rewarded. We need to fight this tendency by identifying high-impact, challenging activities that many be harder in the short-term, but reward us immensely in the long-term.

What you pay attention to matters

“Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant—even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same.

If you are diagnosed with cancer and focus on that diagnosis, you will likely be miserable. If instead, you focus on the simple pleasures that you still can enjoy, such as sipping a martini or spending time with your kids, you might find yourself in a more pleasant reality. Life is more about how we perceive the events that happen to us, rather than the events themselves. You can live a better and more fulfilled life if you recognize this power of perception and leverage it to focus on the things that make your reality more pleasant.

Pursue difficult things

“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

We are most fulfilled after we have stretched our minds and abilities. Despite this reality, many of us focus on shallow activities that might be immediately gratifying, but soon forgotten. Figuring out the vital few things that matter, even if they are incredibly difficult to achieve, and pursuing them aggressively, will ultimately lead to better, more fulfilling outcomes.

The perils of enlightenment

“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. “The Enlightenment’s metaphysical embrace of the autonomous individual leads not just to a boring life,” Dreyfus and Kelly worry; “it leads almost inevitably to a nearly unlivable one.”

In a post-enlightenment world where we have focused on the individual and the pursuit of self-actualization, we have moved away from grounding institutions like religion, and we now find ourselves in a situation where we have the burden of creating meaning. The difficulty and ambiguity of this task has led many of us to adopt an increasingly nihilistic worldview that makes life a lot more painful than it needs to be.

The difference between what and how

“As Christensen later explained, this division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world. It’s often straightforward to identify a strategy needed to achieve a goal, but what trips up companies is figuring out how to execute the strategy once identified.”

In a personal and business context, many of us are competent in figuring out what we need to do to achieve the goal we have set forth. However, we often fail to distinguish what we need to do from how we will actually do it. And if we don’t figure out how, we might end up with a great strategy that is never achieved. Digging deep and identifying the “how” of your “what” will lead you to more successful outcomes.

Overcoming distraction

“If you eat healthy just one day a week, you’re unlikely to lose weight, as the majority of your time is still spent gorging. Similarly, if you spend just one day a week resisting distraction, you’re unlikely to diminish your brain’s craving for these stimuli, as most of your time is still spent giving in to it.”

An important part of producing deep work is overcoming your desire for distraction. And just like losing weight, the fight to reduce your desire for distraction requires a consistent effort. So instead of doing a one day sabbatical from your phone or social media account, incorporate a daily practice of reducing distraction that will help you build the muscle.

Productive meditation

“By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration.”

To strengthen your ability to focus and avoid distractions, find a daily activity that you enjoy doing, such as walking or swimming, and while you do that activity, focus on diving deep into a single problem you have. Perhaps you take a morning walk to work every day, and before you do so, you identify a problem that you’d like to solve. While you do your activity, focus on that problem. This practice is called productive meditation.

Schedule your day

“This type of scheduling, however, isn’t about constraint—it’s instead about thoughtfulness. It’s a simple habit that forces you to continually take a moment throughout your day and ask: “What makes sense for me to do with the time that remains?” It’s the habit of asking that returns results, not your unyielding fidelity to the answer.”

Every morning before you start your day, schedule your day into 30 to 60 minute blocks that describe exactly what tasks you will accomplish during that time. You won’t be able to perfectly predict how long something will take, so leave a buffer period and remain flexible. Then, as a particular task takes longer or shorter than expected or as another unexpected priority arises, redraw your schedule. Each time you do so, ask yourself, “What makes sense for me to do with the time that remains” to continually push yourself to re-evaluate and focus on what really matters.

Protect your time

“Sounds interesting, but I can’t make it due to schedule conflicts.”

For many people, it’s incredibly difficult to say no to friends, family, or colleagues who ask something of you. However, it’s often these small distractions or unexpected requests that prevent you from entering a state of deep work and getting done what you really need to do. The above quote is an example of a line you can use that is respectful of the person’s request, but also allows you to maintain your existing priorities.

Protect your inbox

“Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies: • It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response. • It’s not a question or proposal that interests you. • Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.”

Often, you will receive emails from a sender who makes what seems like a simple request, but that will take you a lot of time and thought to process and respond to. Instead of taking on the burden, make rules for yourself about the types of emails that you will reply to and spend the extra time to formulate emails that will limit the endless back and forth.

Let small bad things happen

“Tim Ferriss once wrote: “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.”

With so many things to do in our modern world, we simply cannot do everything, even if we ruthlessly prioritize. Instead of getting anxious of this reality, get comfortable letting small bad things happen. When you give yourself the freedom to do this, you can find the time to focus on the big things that matter.

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