Summary of Deep Work (2016) by Cal Newport

• 18 min read

You Should Read This If…

  • You write, code, design, analyze data, or solve complex problems for a living
  • You keep putting off “that project” for a vague future when you’ll have more time
  • You want to learn a new skill or body of knowledge… fast

Are you someone who chases deadlines at the last minute... or keep putting off long-term projects you know could change your life?

Maybe you want to take on more clients, but you feel like you can’t move fast enough. Or you want to write a book, learn a new language or put together an online course… but you can never find the time because you’re always. so. busy.

There’s a good chance you’re not getting these projects done -- not because of time -- but because you’re not prioritizing “deep work”.

Cal Newport’s 2016 book, Deep Work, will help you stop putting off the projects that matter the most to you.

Premise-in-a-Paragraph

Deep Work is when you hyperfocus on one project... for a set block of time… uninterrupted by any and all distractions and “shallow work” (e.g. email, texts, social media, surfing, calls, meetings, etc). Being able to do deep work is the most valuable work you can do in the 21st century. It will pay you more, help you finish more projects, help you learn new skills faster, and leave you more satisfied with the work you do and life in general. The challenge, of course… is finding time to do this. This book will show you how.

Book Stats: 263 pp.  Density: 3.25  Depth: 3.75
Author's Website / Get the Book / Check out their Podcast


Table of Contents

  1. What is Deep Work?
  2. Why Deep Work Is Important
  3. The Benefits of Deep Work
  4. Deep Work Isn’t For Everyone
  5. Shallow Work is Destructive
  6. Tools for Deep Work: Recalibrate
  7. Tools for Deep Work: Ritualize
  8. Tools for Deep Work: Regenerate
  9. Three Biggest Takeaways
  10. Let’s Get Osmotic! (Action Items)
  11. What’s Next After Deep Work

What is Deep Work?

There are two types of work: deep and shallow.

Deep Work is when you concentrate on one task… pushing your brain to the limit... without any distractions.

While “crafts” like woodworking, painting or sculpting requires deep work, this book focuses on “knowledge work” like writing, coding, designing, analyzing data, planning or solving complex problems.

This is important because knowledge work is often done on a computer... which is connected to the Internet -- an endless stream of distractions like email, Facebook, Twitter, rabbit holes and the news.

Shallow Work is “busywork” like emails, calls, organizing your junk, filing stuff, and a lot of those dumb Monday morning “team update meetings” you get sucked into.

They don’t require a lot of brainpower, they’re easy to do, and worst of all, you feel productive because you’re “busy”.

What’s more -- we live in a “culture of connectivity” where fast replies on IM, texts and email is expected… distracting you further.

I call these “loop days” -- those wasted days where you go from email, to Reddit, to online shopping, text messages, a Zoom call and back again… and you don’t get any project work done.

Why Deep Work Is Important

There are two reasons: financial and spiritual.

In other words -- deep work makes you more money and helps you lead a happier life… which sounds great! But to fully understand why, we need to first talk about how technology has changed how we work in three dramatic ways.

  1. The robots are coming!
    In the 90s it was outsourcing. In the 2020s, it’s artificial intelligence. AI is getting smarter every day. And with that, more and more low-skilled work (AKA shallow work) is getting automated.
  2. Being available 24/7
    At the same time, companies keep throwing “shallow work” at you in the name of “collaboration”... instant messaging, emails, and social media if you’re a public-facing employee… all expecting fast responses, even if it’s 11PM.
  3. It’s a buyer’s market.
    A lot of work can be done remotely now. We saw this with the pandemic. What this means for you is… businesses will hire the best of the global economy, and not locally.

So, your work is at risk from three fronts: robots, 24/7 access and the entire world.

And in order to thrive in this economy…

You need to do the kind of work robots can’t replicate and be really good at it.... because you are literally competing against the rest of the world… and not just that jerk across the street who keeps stealing your business. (Fucking Jimmy Pesto.)

On the spiritual side…

Deep work is meditative. When you get into “flow”, you feel calmer, more engaged… and feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. This is the opposite of constant “shallow work” or what Newport calls “that background hum of nervous energy”.

The Three Benefits of Deep Work

1. Deep work helps you learn and get better at skills faster.

Newport tells the story of Jason Benn, a finance guy who had to make a sudden career change… and learned how to program in two months.

Jason "locked himself in a room with no computer: just textbooks, notecards and a highlighter” for five disconnected hours a day.

When you concentrate on one task for a prolonged period of time… you literally change your brain.

For the science nerds:

Myelin is a layer of fatty tissue that acts like an insulator.

When you fire the same circuit in your brain over and over again… a cell called “oligodendrocytes” comes over and starts wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons.

That myelin, or insulator, lets you fire that same neuron circuit even faster and cleaner.

In other words, that skill becomes second nature. Kinda cool.

2. Deep work is more valuable.

If you were to assess the “value” of all the different things you do at work… how would you price each of them?

Newport has a great criteria for figuring that out.

Ask yourself: “How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?”

If it’s something you can train someone to do in under two or three months… it’s probably not “deep work”. It’s work you can hire someone else to take care of.

In a way, deep work is work that’s unique to you… an expression of who you are as a human being… and therefore, something that can’t be duplicated.

Deep work can be...

  • Deep, insightful writing…
  • Well-built programs and apps…
  • Design that’s both user-friendly and looks good…
  • Scientific research you’ve pored over for years…
  • Planning a complex event, campaign or project...
  • Deep analysis that gets you a strategic advantage...

These are projects -- in some cases -- that call on your lifetime of experiences and expertise… hence uniquely valuable.

3. Deep work feeds your soul

Deep work is gratifying. When humans build or create something of value, they feel good about it.

Deep work also gets you into a state of flow

Think of a time when you lost yourself in your work, hobby, or a passion project. When you finally looked up, you saw that hours had passed. You were in the zone.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who came up with “flow”, writes:

“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.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, you sexy beast

Deep Work Isn’t For Everyone

Not everyone needs to do deep work.

There are high-level roles and professions that are the antithesis of deep work.

Newport brings up the example of executives and salespeople.

A CEO’s job is to get millions of data points from staff, customers, vendors, research, etc… and be an elite, intuitive (and strategic) “decision making machine”.

A salesperson’s job is to network with thousands of prospects, start conversations and build relationships.

The same could be said for a politician, lobbyist, event coordinator or PR agent.

So while it looks like they’re doing “shallow work”...

They are exceptions because their “shallow work” produces impactful measurable results.

If, however, you’re not in those roles and deep work is your primary source of income (or you aspire to a profession or career that demands deep work)...

There’s something you need to understand.

Shallow Work Is Destructive

There are two important studies you need to be aware of.

Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota, discovered the concept of “attention residue”.

She writes:

“When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn't immediately follow - a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched.”

In other words -- the more you switch tasks (or multi-task)... the more “attention residue” you build up… gunking up your focus.

What’s more -- this gooey “attention residue” is gooeier (real word) if what you were previously doing was low-level shallow work.

In short -- checking emails, attending meetings or doing admin stuff first thing in the morning… is the best way to gum up your concentration for the rest of the day.

BUT THAT’S NOT EVEN THE SCARIEST THING ABOUT SHALLOW WORK…

Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford, studied the long-term effects of shallow work. In a 2010 interview on NPR, he said:

“People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand”

In other words, you don’t even need external distractions at that point… your brain will do it for you. It will bring up useless tangents like that dog from Pixar’s Up, who…

Cal Newport adds:

“Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it's hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. It requires training to get it back.

In short, use it or lose it… literally.

Tools For Deep Work

Let’s be honest. We live in a hyperconnected world. And to block time off, cut out all distractions, and “disappear” to do deep work? That sounds almost like... a luxury.

Whether it’s Slack, email, text or whatever… you may have clients, colleagues, bosses or family that expect fast responses.

In other words, doing deep work means changing your work routine and frankly, pissing off a few people (for a little while) until they get used to your new schedule.

What’s more, you, yourself will need to build up the stamina for it. As Newport says, we need to “train” for it. It’s like a muscle.

In the second half of Deep Work, there are a dozen tips and tactics to help you build a lifestyle around doing more deep work.

I’ve reorganized them into three phases that I feel is more actionable. They are “recalibrate”, “ritualize” and “regenerate”.

Let’s dive in.

1. Recalibrate

First, before you start doing deep work, you want to ask yourself what you want to achieve with deep work.

Are you looking to learn a new skill, tackle a passion project… or simply finish more projects in general at work?

Personally, deep work for me -- as a writer -- is about the latter. To increase output. Higher productivity. The more projects I do, the more money I make.

For Newport, it’s about finishing more academic journals.

So think about what results you want from deep work.

Once you’ve done that, the next step is to look at your weekly schedule and figure out where to make trade-offs.

What shallow work and distractions can you reduce, lump together, outsource... or even get rid of?

Here are some tactics I’ve used on-and-off over the years…

  • Only check email after 2PM.
  • Lump all phone/Zoom calls to only one or two days of the week.
  • Block all social media and online stores during work hours (I use freedom.to).
  • Turn off all audio, desktop, banner and lockscreen notifications.
  • Change phone screen to grayscale (makes it less appealing to look at)
  • Remove as many apps on your phone’s home screen as possible
  • Quit Facebook ← Highly recommend.
  • Delete all chat apps on my laptop (WhatsApp, Discord, etc.)
  • Mass unsubscribe from email lists
  • Create triage rules in Gmail so related emails go into folders
  • Turn on “Do Not Disturb” on my phone from 10PM to 12PM the next day
  • Track every minute of your work day (I use timeular)

Now, obviously, even with these restrictions… you won’t change habits over night. It takes discipline over time.

It might help to remind yourself that shallow work can leave lasting damage to your ability to focus and do deep work.

And as well...

Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist, discovered that every day you wake up, “you have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

In other words -- you only have so much energy each day. It’s a limited resource… and you should treat it as such.

Finally -- you may want to list out all the group activities, online communities and weekly meetings you’re a part of.

Do they serve your deep work goals?

If not -- Do you really need to be there? Can you find someone else to go for you? Can you get out of them altogether?

Obviously, you shouldn’t quit things you truly enjoy, things that feed your soul. What I am asking here is to question and consider them.

And of course, there are social obligations that you simply can’t abandon. This exercise is meant to help you prioritize the relationships in your life that truly, deeply matter.

OK, now that we’ve set goals and “drained the shallows” (as Newport calls it), let’s talk about making that deep work time really count...

2. Ritualize

First, we need to schedule deep work on our calendar. Newport suggests four types of schedules:

  • Monastic: you disappear completely for weeks, even months at a time.
  • Bimodal: you have one to a few days each week where you’re unreachable.
  • Rhythmic: you have blocks of deep work every day, but it’s not necessarily scheduled.
  • Journalistic: you work in 10-15 minute spurts whenever you can between tasks.

For most, monastic is probably completely out of the question. I imagine only scholars, novelists, and the wealthy have this luxury of time. The rest of us work.

Personally, I’ve tried both bimodal and rhythmic and find bimodal a better model for me as I tend to write longform, from three to ten thousand words or more per project.

Bimodal lets me lump all meetings and calls into one or two days of the week as a freelancer. As of this writing, my deep work days are Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

While the rhythmic model has failed for me, the canon of creatives who write daily is legendary. Stephen King famously writes 2,000 words by 11:30 AM every day except Christmas. Jerry Seinfeld calls it “The Chain Method” where he must write a new joke every day. Maya Angelou kept a bare hotel room where she worked from 7AM to 2PM.

The key here, though, is to simply try one of these schedules to see if they work for you. I would recommend at least a few weeks. If it doesn’t work, try the next one.

And if I may opine on the journalistic model for a minute... I think it’s bullshit. I’m sure some people on this planet can do it, but I’m guessing the majority can’t… especially given all the studies cited in this book on attention, focus and willpower.

Next, you’ll want to give your blocks of deep work a sense of importance by adding rituals.

For example...

If possible, find a place dedicated for deep work -- a corner, a desk, or a room. Make rules on what you’re allowed to and not allowed to do during deep work.

  • Maybe you cut off the Internet altogether. Or turn your phone off, or leave it out of reach.
  • Maybe you bring your beverages, snacks and everything you need... and once you’ve sat down to work, you’re not allowed to leave.
  • Maybe you’re not allowed to “look things up” and accidentally fall into rabbit holes. That means you must plan your block of deep work (I.E. you have all your research, tools, and raw materials prepared.)

You may even need a “Plan B” or secondary piece of deep work ready if you absolutely get stuck on the “A Project”.

All these rules force you to go into each block of deep work with more intention and purpose.

And in some cases, for projects that are especially difficult, “rituals” may not be enough; You may need to make “grand gestures”.

For example --

  • J.K. Rowling checked into the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh in order to finish the last book in the Harry Potter series.
  • Another example was Peter Shankman who bought a roundtrip ticket to Tokyo and back, writing for 30 hours straight on the plane to finish a manuscript.
  • Yet another example is author Daniel Pink, who built a writing cabin in his backyard.

The point is -- for some projects -- it might be necessary to shake yourself out of your regular routine… and even invest significant effort or money to block off time.

Finally -- it’s important to track your deep work.

When you see a history of deep work blocks, you’re motivated to keep doing it. After Jerry Seinfeld writes his daily joke, he puts a red “X” on his calendar. As the chain of “X’s” gets longer, the last thing you want is to lose your streak by “breaking the chain”.

Cal Newport suggests a simple spreadsheet tracking the number of deep work blocks you complete each day. I made one for you here.

Regardless of how you track your deep work however, it’s important to not get too hung up on your output. That is, the number of words written, number of designs iterated, or the number of projects completed.

I know it sounds counterintuitive, but Newport refers to something called “lead and lag measures” from the book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling.

Lag measures are outputs. The results of your work. The problem with tracking output, however… is “it doesn’t allow for behavioral change fast enough. It’s too late. It’s reactive.

In other words, it’s not helpful to track how much you’ve done. You can feel good (or bad) about your results, but your results won’t tell you how to get better. It’s more important to track the inputs.

What do you have to do in order to get the results you want?

In the case of completing projects that require deep work, the answer is obviously, doing more blocks of deep work.

Of course, you can also apply the concept of “lead measures” to other areas of your life.

For example…

  • If you’re a salesperson, tracking how much business you closed is a “lag measure” and is out of your control. But you can track the number of cold calls you make in a week, which is a “lead measure”, and is completely under your control.
  • An influencer’s number of followers is a “lag measure”. You can’t control that. I mean, you could buy Russian bot followers… But what they can control however, are the number, quality and frequency of their content.
  • A day trader’s ROI (or profit) is a “lag measure”. Their “lead measures” are the rules they’ve made for when to get into a trade, how much to risk and when to get out. (And maybe how much they post on /r/wallstreetbets? lol.)

3. Regenerate

Deep Work is intense. Remember, it’s “pushing your cognitive capabilities to their limit”. After all, when you do it right, you’re literally rewiring your brain! So it’s important to shut down and rest after a day of deep work.

Like the rituals we designed just now to start and do deep work… it’s important to also have a ritual to end deep work.

Newport shuts down his laptop at 5:30 PM and says a prayer of sorts. He argues that if you try to squeeze in “a little more work out of your evenings… [you] might reduce your effectiveness for the next day… [and] you end up getting less done [the next day].”

In other words, you need to recharge.

One of the key lessons in this book is to “embrace boredom”. That is, don’t fill your downtime with endless stimuli.

We live in a time where most of us jump on our phones the moment we’re in a lineup, waiting for an elevator or find ourselves in liminal “dead space”. Practice resistance. See if you can train yourself to not scroll through Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter or whatever you do on your phone when you’re free.

Why do this?

On one hand, it’s about building up your “focus muscles” for deep work. On the other hand, it’s really about letting your brain relax and recharge. It's like defragging your subconscious... a concept I stole from author Jeff Vandermeer.

We briefly talked about quitting social media altogether, but to take it to the next level, Newport suggests you “become hard to reach”.

It’s OK to not respond to every email. It’s OK to say no when you’re invited to join committees or groups or clubs. It’s OK to not get sucked into other people’s drama.

Physicist Richard Feynman has a cute little trick for getting out of things:

“To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time... it needs a lot of concentration... if you have a job administrating anything, you don't have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I'm irresponsible. I'm actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don't do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, ‘no,’ I tell them: I'm irresponsible.”

So what should you fill your evenings with when you’re recharging?

Casual conversations with friends and family. Playing a game with your kids. Going for a run or a walk in the woods. Reading a book. Listening to music. Practicing an instrument or pursuing a hobby. Doomscrolling. (One of these is not like the others)...

Basically, stop working, but also… don’t fill it with mindless activities. Be thoughtful about your downtime. Do something that restores and feeds your soul. Not something that numbs you.

Three Biggest Takeaways

Here are my biggest takeaways from Deep Work:

1. Shallow work erodes your ability to do deep work.

If your primary income, like me, comes from doing deep work (e.g. writing, designing, coding)... this should scare you. You are basically destroying your money-maker.

I guess I’m especially freaked out by this because I recently had a consulting retainer where meetings and Slack were constant. At some points, my schedule looked like this:

And that was just the meetings. I still had other client-work, like writing, that did require deep work… and it was extremely difficult getting any deep work done. (Did I also mention I have three kids?)

It wasn’t until several months after the retainer ended I realized how damaged my focus had become.

2. Tracking “lead measures” is better than “lag measures”.

I love this. It reminds me a little bit of Warren Buffett’s investing philosophy. He has an internal checklist of standards when he chooses what to invest in. And he’s not bothered when the market goes against him, because he knows he’ll eventually be right.

Tracking “lead measures” is also something you can control. So you’re not at the mercy of an emotional rollercoaster when good or bad results come in. You simply focus on doing your thing and adjusting as needed.

3. Deep work is hard and forces you to plan.

Over the years, as a writer, I’ve refined the different stages each project needs. Furthermore, there’s a sequence to it. And anytime I get stuck on the writing or start going down research rabbit holes... It’s usually because I skimped on one of the previous stages.

Now, I’m not saying I’ve discovered the holy grail of process for creative work. There are many times I need to go backwards. But the point is, I go into each deep work block with clear intentions.

Let’s Get Osmotic! (Action Items)

Recalibrate

  • First, set goals. Are you looking to tackle a one-time project… or do you already do deep work for a living and need to optimize your productivity?
  • Next, question everything. What shallow work and distractions can you cut from your life? If you lack self-control, what are some tools and processes you can implement? You can jump back up to the things I’ve used here.

Ritualize

  • Which schedule will you try first? Bimodal, rhythmic or journalistic?
  • Do you have a “spot” you’ve designated for deep work?
  • Create a set of rules for what you’re allowed to and not allowed to do during your deep work block. Design a ritual for when you start and end your day.
  • Create your own tracker, use mine here or grab a timeular dice.

Regenerate

  • Decide on when you’ll end your day every day… and honor it.
  • Practice “embracing boredom”. This week, when you’re lining up, waiting or just hanging out with people… see if you can resist looking at your phone.

What’s Next After Deep Work?

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