Skip to content
Susan's Business Book Reports

Deep Work

Book Summary, October 2019, Susan Alban
Susan Voiceover
This is a very well-researched (and yet readable) book. Georgetown CS professor Cal Newport first makes the case that in our modern world, in which an increasing number of tasks and work-product is being automated, the hard problems are the only ones left where people can create value. He then explains that solving hard problems is hard, and necessitates deep work, which he defines in his book. He follows with rules and design suggestions for unlocking more deep work in our lives.
Things I like:
Articulation of the challenges of the modern workforce working against critical deep work
Questioning of the “technopoloy” assumption that anything tech-related is good
Emphasis on real shut-down and mental breaks because they unlock creativity and problem solving
Emphasis on using technology and social media to serve your interests and being clear when you need to access it to achieve your goals, versus when you’re wanting a hit of dopamine.
Embracing boredom - because of this book, now when I’m at a traffic light or waiting to meet someone in a restaurant, I don’t immediately pick up my phone. I try to just sit and be bored and remember in a pre-smartphone world when that was the norm. That space is important for our overstimulated brains.

Things I probably wouldn’t do (at least not right now)
His productive meditation where you work through a difficult problem during a commute or a walk doesn’t resonate with me. Ideally, I’d rather use that time to just focus on the walking or driving and actually meditate in that fashion, versus pulling myself out of the moment. (In reality I do a lot of calls and listen to books on tape when I walk much of the time, so I’m no saint in this area 🤫)
A Definition of Shallow Work
Non-cognitively 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
Multitasking - "people who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand… they’re pretty much mental wrecks." -Clifford Nass, Stanford communications professor
Used to distraction and stimulation - once your brain is accustomed to on-demand distraction, it’s hard to shake the addition even when you WANT to concentrate.
Today’s Problematic Environment
Everything changing at a very rapid clip — eg., computer language that is important now won’t be important in 10 years. Therefore, to be successful you must be learning constantly. Learning requires deep work.
Impact of creating new and valuable content is limitless because of technology; therefore the value one gets from creating something new through deep work is very high
Intelligent machines are complicated and hard to master. To be able to work well with these machines requires that you hone your ability to master hard things. And because the tech is changing, you must be able to remaster over and over again.
Exposure to simplistic, consumer-facing products (e.g., tablets, iPhones) does NOT help children succeed in a high-tech economy. Comparison is encouraging a child to play with Hot Wheels as preparation for becoming an auto mechanic.
Work environment
The average knowledge worker spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communications and internet searching, with close to 30 percent dedicated to reading/answering email -2012 McKinsey Study
Busyness as a 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.
Manifestation - Marissa Mayer when she became CEO of Yahoo made a “no work from home” policy and said “If you’re not visibly busy, I’ll assume you’re not productive"
Challenge today is that it is very difficult to measure impact of busyness versus impact of deep work. Creates inertia in today’s work environment.
“Technopoly” (Neil Postman, NYU professor) - underlying assumption that anything related to tech is good.
Example: NYTimes encouraging all its journalists, including those who do deep investigative journalism, to tweet on some regular basis. Engaging in online discourse through Twitter does not help create impact around these people’s core job.
Impact of distraction / context switching / etc.
Attention residue - that when you switch contexts or try to multitask, you will not be able to work as well on the new task because a piece of your brain is still dwelling on the other/preceding task.
What is Deep Work
A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement — it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.
Happiness is determined by what you pay attention to
Cancer example — writer with very bad cancer diagnosis chooses to pay more attention to reading/movies/6:30pm martini so even though she is undergoing cancer treatment, she is very happy.
Older (wiser) people in a study responded to positive stimuli only, even when shown both positive and negative. Younger subjects responded to both.
Happiness and satisfaction comes from being engaged in something challenging
Experience Sampling Method - pager study where pager went off at random intervals and subject reported what they were doing and how they were feeling. Found that “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"
Takeaway: happiness doesn’t come from a particular kind of work or elevated field; it comes from your approach to your work.
High quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)
Rules for Deep Work
Do Deep Work
Multiple ways/rhythms to create space for deep work — full isolationist (Neil Stephenson approach); bimodal approach with isolation of 3-4 days deep work, then reemerge (Jung approach; intermittent scheduling like one semester teaching, one semester doing research and four days doing research and 3 days available (Adam Grant approach); rhythmic approach where you schedule in doing something at some rhythm (Jerry Seindfel); journalistic approach where you go deep very quickly wherever and whenever you can — this is the hardest and best for those who know how to go deep quickly and well (Walter Isaacson & Cal Newport approach)
Create rituals - very important - “[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants” -David Brooks
Where, when, for how long, any rules, any props (e.g., coffee/snack)
Make “grand gestures” - e.g., JK Rowling going to a fancy hotel to finish Harry Potter; Bill Gates has an annual think week. This behavior helps raise the stakes on completing a piece of deep work.
Make space for defined downtime and shut down formally. Consider creating a “shutdown ritual” - make sure that every incomplete task/goal/project has been reviewed and that you have a plan, or that it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited at the right time. Say a phrase when you’re done. Reasons for downtime.
UTT - unconscious thought theory - proposes that for decisions that have strict rule, you need to engage your conscious mind, but for decisions involving large amounts of data and vague conflicting constraints, it’s better to engage your unconscious mind. To do that, you must take a break from conscious thought.
Ability to pay attention is finite - taking a break from this helps recharge batteries of attention - walk experiment where people who went for a walk in the woods were able to pay attention better than people who went for a walk in the city (the city people had to keep paying attention to crosswalks, etc)
Usually the work that you’d be doing if you weren’t having down time isn’t that important (shallow work)
Create deadlines that push you - create timelines for achieving a chunk of deep work (e.g., shipping a paper) that push you to work deeply for some period of time.
Live a full life - 1910 self help book called “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day” that encourages the London salaryman to also enjoy his 16 hours outside of work rather than thinking about the workday as the full day and the hours before and after as a prelude and epilogue. Mental faculties don’t need a break like arms or legs; they need change.
Embrace Boredom
Take breaks from focus; not breaks from distraction - internet sabbath etc is fine, but doesn’t actually help train your mind to focus better. Instead, schedule out when you will take a break from focus and allow distraction. And when you’re in a period of focus, don’t use the internet (proxy for distraction). If you absolutely must to make progress, take at least a 5 minute break before doing so to rewire your brain around instant gratification. Schedule internet use at home too, not just at work. Don’t check email or your phone when you’re bored and waiting in line, at a traffic light, etc.
Meditate productively - on your walk/drive, think through something that is challenging you and make progress on it in your mind.
Train your mind - memorize a deck of cards (p174)
Quit Social Media
Any-Benefit Approach - you’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.
Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection - identify the top goals in personal and professional life. Then determine the underlying key activities that support those goals. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
Drain the Shallows
Schedule the entire day - create blocks for various tasks and deep work. If something blows those up, revise the schedule. Helps you treat time with respect.
Quantify the depth - when you look at a task, measure its depth/shallowness - how long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college grad with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?
Ask your boss for a “shallow work budget” - Helps you get on the same page and gives you a framework for saying no to things — likely will be 30-50%.
Create a fixed schedule - end your day at 5:30 or some other reasonable time. Helps create boundaries and enables you to say no to things.
When you say no to things, say no in an unspecific way so that people cannot rebut your decline - e.g., “I can’t make it due to schedule conflicts”
Don’t offer a consolation prize when you say no.
Become hard to reach -
Make people who send you email do more work (e.g., if you have a website, explain what type of emails you’re open to receiving)
Take time in your reply with a process-centric response to reduce the back-and-forth - “I’d love to get coffee. Here are x times and a location proposal. If one of those works, let me know and I’ll consider that a confirmation. If not, please call my cell and we’ll find a time"
Other Practices and Design Considerations
Four disciplines for execution
Focus on the wildly important - don’t only try to say no to distraction; say YES to what you want to achieve
Act on lead measures / inputs - e.g., focus on number of hours of deep work in a given week, not on the desired output.
Keep a scorecard of lead measures - e.g., a count of how many hours you’ve done deep work.
Create a cadence for accountability.
Designing office space
Design for BOTH deep work and collaboration (p131)
Examples are Building 20 at MIT (replaced by a Frank Gehry building) and Bell Labs in NJ
Have separate offices that can be closed off (soundproof, with doors, closed visually even), AND long connecting hallways that people must walk through - “hub and spoke” model.
That enables deep work & serendipitous interaction.
Open floor plan + conference rooms are not enough — question: what about Uber’s “library” on the 14th and 15th floors?
Designing work itself
Design for both deep work and collaboration
Integrate collaboration into deep work: taking turns working on a problem deeply and then reacting to the progress your partner makes on the problem - “whiteboard effect” - p133
Separate distraction / serendipitous interaction with deep work. Don’t try to do both at once. E.g., go eat lunch in the cafeteria when you are ready to interact and run into people; but go to a quiet place when you need to concentrate.
Want to print your doc?
This is not the way.
Try clicking the ⋯ next to your doc name or using a keyboard shortcut (
) instead.