Book notes for “Deep Work” by Cal Newport
Table of contents:
PART 1: The Idea Chapter 1: Deep Work Is Valuable Chapter 2: Deep Work Is Rare Chapter 3: Deep Work Is Meaningful
PART 2: The Rules Rule #1: Work Deeply Rule #2: Embrace Boredom Rule #3: Quit Social Media Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
Page: 3 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.
Page: 4 Deep work, of course, is not limited to the historical or technophobic. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts. It was during a 1995 Think Week that Gates wrote his famous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo that turned Microsoft’s attention to an upstart company called Netscape Communications. And in an ironic twist, Neal Stephenson, the acclaimed cyberpunk author who helped form our popular conception of the Internet age, is near impossible to reach electronically—his website offers no e-mail address and features an essay about why he is purposefully bad at using social media. Here’s how he once explained the omission: “If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot** what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time … there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.”
Page: 6 Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.
email, email, slack, a bit of work, email, slack, break time!
Page: 7 there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.
Page: 8 I have no stance in this philosophical debate. My interest in this matter instead veers toward a thesis of much more pragmatic and individualized interest: Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow (whether you think it’s philosophically good or bad) is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth
Page: 11 so when he dedicated himself to learning how to code, he knew he had to simultaneously teach his mind how to go deep. His method was drastic but effective. “I locked myself in a room with no computer: just textbooks, notecards, and a highlighter.” He would highlight the computer programming textbooks, transfer the ideas to notecards, and then practice them out loud. These periods free from electronic distraction were hard at first, but Benn gave himself no other option: He had to learn this material, and he made sure there was nothing in that room to distract him. Over time, however, he got better at concentrating, eventually getting to a point where he was regularly clocking five or more disconnected hours per day in the room,
Page: 13 The second reason that deep work is valuable is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.
mediocre is over
Page: 14 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.
great structured book
Page: 16 I’ve never had a Facebook or Twitter account, or any other social media presence outside of a blog. I don’t Web surf and get most of my news from my home-delivered Washington Post and NPR. I’m also generally hard to reach: My author website doesn’t provide a personal e-mail address, and I didn’t own my first smartphone until 2012 (when my pregnant wife gave me an ultimatum—“you have to have a phone that works before our son is born”**. On the other hand, my commitment to depth has rewarded me. In the ten-year period following my college graduation, I published four books, earned a PhD, wrote peer-reviewed academic papers at a high rate, and was hired as a tenure-track professor at Georgetown University. I maintained this voluminous production while rarely working past five or six p.m. during the workweek.
Page: 16 build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.
Page: 28 I just identified two groups that are poised to thrive and that I claim are accessible: those who can work creatively with intelligent machines and those who are stars in their field. What’s the secret to landing in these lucrative sectors of the widening digital divide? I argue that the following two core abilities are crucial. Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy The ability to quickly master hard things. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
Page: 32 This provides another general observation for joining the ranks of winners in our economy: If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.
Page: 54 He discovered that Atlantic Media was spending well over a million dollars a year to pay people to process e-mails, with every message sent or received tapping the company for around ninety-five cents of labor costs. “A ‘free and frictionless’ method of communication,” Cochran summarized, “had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet.”
Page: 56 I’ll describe various mind-sets and biases that have pushed business away from deep work and toward more distracting alternatives. None of these behaviors would survive long if it was clear that they were hurting the bottom line, but the metric black hole prevents this clarity and allows the shift toward distraction we increasingly encounter in the professional world.
Page: 58 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: 60 consider the frustratingly common practice of forwarding an e-mail to one or more colleagues, labeled with a short open-ended interrogative, such as: “Thoughts?” These e-mails take the sender only a handful of seconds to write but can command many minutes (if not hours, in some cases) of time and attention from their recipients to work toward a coherent response. A little more care in crafting the message by the sender could reduce the overall time spent by all parties by a significant fraction. So why are these easily avoidable and time-sucking e-mails so common? From the sender’s perspective, they’re easier. It’s a way to clear something out of their inbox—at least, temporarily—with a minimum amount of energy invested.
Page: 64 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.
Page: 69 Deep work is exiled in favor of more distracting high-tech behaviors, like the professional use of social media, not because the former is empirically inferior to the latter. Indeed, if we had hard metrics relating the impact of these behaviors on the bottom line, our current technopoly would likely crumble. But the metric black hole prevents such clarity and allows us instead to elevate all things Internet into Morozov’s feared “uber-ideology.” In such a culture, we should not be surprised that deep work struggles to compete against the shiny thrum of tweets, likes, tagged photos, walls, posts, and all the other behaviors that we’re now taught are necessary for no other reason than that they exist.
Page: 82 “After running my tough experiment [with cancer** … I have a plan for living the rest of my life,” Gallagher concludes in her book. “I’ll choose my targets with care … then give them my rapt attention. In short, I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” We’d be wise to follow her lead.
Page: 89 The Pragmatic Programmer, a well-regarded book in the computer programming field, makes this connection between code and old-style craftsmanship more directly by quoting the medieval quarry worker’s creed in its preface: “We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.” The book then elaborates that computer programmers must see their work in the same way: Within the overall structure of a project there is always room for individuality and craftsmanship … One hundred years from now, our engineering may seem as archaic as the techniques used by medieval cathedral builders seem to today’s civil engineers, while our craftsmanship will still be honored.
Page: 91 The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship—not the outcomes of their work. Put another way, a wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be. The same applies to knowledge work. You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.
Page: 116 To write this book, for example, I had to take advantage of free stretches of time wherever they popped up. If my kids were taking a good nap, I’d grab my laptop and lock myself in the home office. If my wife wanted to visit her parents in nearby Annapolis on a weekend day, I’d take advantage of the extra child care to disappear to a quiet corner of their house to write. If a meeting at work was canceled, or an afternoon left open, I might retreat to one of my favorite libraries on campus to squeeze out a few hundred more words. And so on.
Page: 119 This strategy suggests the following: To make the most out of your deep work sessions, build rituals of the same level of strictness and idiosyncrasy as the important thinkers mentioned previously. There’s a good reason for this mimicry. Great minds like Caro and Darwin didn’t deploy rituals to be weird; they did so because success in their work depended on their ability to go deep, again and again—there’s no way to win a Pulitzer Prize or conceive a grand theory without pushing your brain to its limit. Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer. If they had instead waited for inspiration to strike before settling in to serious work, their accomplishments would likely have been greatly reduced.
Page: 119 Where you’ll work and for how long. Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door shut and desk cleaned off
Page: 120 How you’ll work once you start to work. Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any Internet use, or maintain a metric such as words produced per twenty-minute interval to keep your concentration honed. Without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard.
Page: 122 the grand gesture. The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.
Page: 133 Brattain and Bardeen worked together during this period in a small lab, often side by side, pushing each other toward better and more effective designs. These efforts consisted primarily of deep work—but a type of deep work we haven’t yet encountered. Brattain would concentrate intensely to engineer an experimental design that could exploit Bardeen’s latest theoretical insight; then Bardeen would concentrate intensely to make sense of what Brattain’s latest experiments revealed, trying to expand his theoretical framework to match the observations. This back-and-forth represents a collaborative form of deep work (common in academic circles) that leverages what I call the whiteboard effect. For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone.
Page: 137 For an individual focused on deep work, the implication is that you should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours. The general exhortation to “spend more time working deeply” doesn’t spark a lot of enthusiasm. To instead have a specific goal that would return tangible and substantial professional benefits will generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm.
Page: 137 don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” For example, when I first began experimenting with 4DX, I set the specific important goal of publishing five high-quality peer-reviewed papers in the upcoming academic year. This goal was ambitious, as it was more papers than I had been publishing, and there were tangible rewards attached to it (tenure review was looming). Combined, these two properties helped the goal stoke my motivation.
Page: 139 when attempting to drive your team’s engagement toward your organization’s wildly important goal, it’s important that they have a public place to record and track their lead measures. This scoreboard creates a sense of competition that drives them to focus on these measures, even when other demands vie for their attention. It also provides a reinforcing source of motivation.
Page: 161 Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. I suggest that you keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed—no matter how tempting. The idea motivating this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities,
Page: 162 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. A full day of scheduled distraction therefore becomes a full day of similar mental training.
Page: 162 you’re required to spend hours every day online or answer e-mails quickly, that’s fine: This simply means that your Internet blocks will be more numerous than those of someone whose job requires less connectivity. The total number or duration of your Internet blocks doesn’t matter nearly as much as making sure that the integrity of your offline blocks remains intact.
Page: 167 identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline—for example, by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. […] At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity—no e-mail breaks, no daydreaming, no Facebook browsing, no repeated trips to the coffee machine. Like Roosevelt at Harvard, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.
Page: 170 The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls. […] As a novice, when you begin a productive meditation session, your mind’s first act of rebellion will be to offer unrelated but seemingly more interesting thoughts. […] gently remind yourself that you can return to that thought later, then redirect your attention back.
Page: 173 “Thinking deeply” about a problem seems like a self-evident activity, but in reality it’s not. When faced with a distraction-free mental landscape, a hard problem, and time to think, the next steps can become surprisingly non-obvious. In my experience, it helps to have some structure for this deep thinking process. I suggest starting with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem and then storing these values in your working memory. For example, if you’re working on the outline for a book chapter, the relevant variables might be the main points you want to make in the chapter. […] Once the relevant variables are identified, define the specific next-step question you need to answer using these variables. In the book chapter example, this next-step question might be, “How am I going to effectively open this chapter?,” […] the final step of this structured approach to deep thinking is to consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified.
Page: 214 One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep. In my experience, this analysis is spot-on. If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.
Page: 223 When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.
Page: 224 If your schedule is disrupted, you should, at the next available moment, take a few minutes to create a revised schedule for the time that remains in the day.
Page: 226 In other words, I not only allow spontaneity in my schedule; I encourage it. Joseph’s critique is driven by the mistaken idea that the goal of a schedule is to force your behavior into a rigid plan. 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?”
Page: 244 Another benefit of a sender filter is that it resets expectations. The most crucial line in my description is the following: “I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.” This seems minor, but it makes a substantial difference in how my correspondents think about their messages to me. The default social convention surrounding e-mail is that unless you’re famous, if someone sends you something, you owe him or her a response. For most, therefore, an inbox full of messages generates a major sense of obligation. By instead resetting your correspondents’ expectations to the reality that you’ll probably not respond, the experience is transformed.
Page: 250 Process-Centric Response to E-mail #2: “I agree that we should return to this problem. Here’s what I suggest … “Sometime in the next week e-mail me everything you remember about our discussion on the problem. Once I receive that message, I’ll start a shared directory for the project and add to it a document that summarizes what you sent me, combined with my own memory of our past discussion. In the document, I’ll highlight the two or three most promising next steps. “We can then take a crack at those next steps for a few weeks and check back in. I suggest we schedule a phone call for a month from now for this purpose. Below I listed some dates and times when I’m available for a call. When you respond with your notes, indicate the date and time combination that works best for you and we’ll consider that reply confirmation for the call. I look forward to digging into this problem.”
Page: 252 a good process-centric message immediately “closes the loop” with respect to the project at hand. When a project is initiated by an e-mail that you send or receive, it squats in your mental landscape—becoming something that’s “on your plate” in the sense that it has been brought to your attention and eventually needs to be addressed.
Page: 253 The other issue is that process-centric messages can seem stilted and overly technical. The current social conventions surrounding e-mail promote a conversational tone that clashes with the more systematic schedules or decision trees commonly used in process-centric communication. If this concerns you, I suggest that you add a longer conversational preamble to your messages. You can even separate the process-centric portion of the message from the conversational opening with a divider line, or label it “Proposed Next Steps,” so that its technical tone seems more appropriate in context.
Page: 261 I became ruthless in turning down time-consuming commitments and began to work more in isolated locations outside my office. I placed a tally of my deep work hours in a prominent position near my desk and got upset when it failed to grow at a fast enough rate. Perhaps most impactful, I returned to my MIT habit of working on problems in my head whenever a good time presented itself—be it walking the dog or commuting.
Page: 264 The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. 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, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.