In-depth review of deep work by Cal Newport
Deep work was written by computer scientist Cal Newport. Cal has written other books but this is his most popular, likely due to its broad appeal. The main focus of the book is how to improve the quality of your work. The main idea for improving the quality of your work is to maximize deep work. Cal defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create value, improve you skill, and are hard to replicate”.
Cal splits the book into two sections: why deep work is valuable and how to do more of it and improve at it.
Cal uses examples such as Carl Jung and Bill Gates to emphasize his point that deep work is beneficial. Jung, the acclaimed Swiss psychologist who created analytical psychology, had a retreat far from his clinical practice in Zurich where he would go for extended periods of time in order to further his understanding of psychology. For someone like Jung, it is necessary to perform deep work if you want to stay at the cutting edge of your discipline as you are more likely to create new insights if you are focused on pushing your intellectual limits.
Gates, when he was still CEO of Microsoft, used to take ‘think weeks’ at least once a year where he would read and learn extensively in order to further his understanding of a key topic regarding Microsoft’s performance. These weeks allowed Gates to take a step back from the day-to-day activities of being head of Microsoft(which likely contained a significant proportion of shallow tasks, the opportunity cost of this time is the time that Gates could have used to do more high level thinking and work, which would provide a lot more value. Thus, shallow activities are unwise economically for a CEO like Gates) and see the macro trends and ideas that had an impact on Microsoft. During one of these weeks Gates recognized the importance of web browsers, which lead to Microsoft developing internet explorer. Gates also read many proposals and memos from his employees during these weeks. These ideas likely had a big impact on Microsoft’s performance. Thus, deep work allowed Gates to maximize his value, which undoubtedly helped Microsoft retain its position as the dominant player in the information revolution. This example illustrates that deep work allows you to better understand key topics and trends, which is useful for someone in Gates’ position as it can be easy to get stuck in shallow details.
Another example of someone who has effectively used deep work is the renowned physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman has said that “ in order to do real good physics work, you need absolute solid lengths of time, which needs a lot of concentration, and if you have administrative duties you don’t have the time”. These periods of intense concentration are undoubtedly what allowed Feynman to be one of the leading scientists of his time.
Deep work is also usually necessary when starting a business or coming up with a new idea. Cal uses Gates again to explain this point.
When Gates and Paul Allen came up with the idea to create Microsoft, Bill spent an incredible amount of time and energy writing lines of codes, even going through the night. This deep work allowed Gates to drop out of Harvard and lead the most innovative company of the era. Paul Allen later attributed their early success to a Bill’s ability to focus intensely for extended periods of time.
The key reason Cal gives for going deeper is that deep work has become more valuable at the same that it has become scarcer. If this is the case, which I think it is, then the value of deep work has risen significantly as an increase in demand and a decrease in supply leads to greater scarcity- scarcity=value.
Thus, if you utilize deep work effectively you will generate substantial returns.
This logic is consistent with the fact that the tech firms that provide the best services(Amazon for example), earn substantial control of their market, while firms’ that offer inferior products struggle.
The key reason why this is the case is because digital information and services are so accessible; this allows consumers to better understand which company provides the best products, meaning they will usually only choose the best service; accessibility also makes it easier for consumers to switch to a better provider. I.e in order to stand out from the noise, you must have significant expertise.
The same principle applies to individuals: the best will get outsize returns.
The main reason why deep work has become rarer is because of the rise in connectivity and social media, and a shift to more open office layouts. Working in an office with lots of people around you and lots of possible distractions such as instant messaging services like Slack, and of course email, or people to talk to, will inevitably drain your ability to concentrate, and thus your ability to do deep work. These trends have corresponded with the rise of the idea that in order to be productive you must be ‘busy’. Because you would likely be busier if you were doing shallow activities, shallow work is not only accepted but encouraged by most managers and businesses. An example that Cal uses is the former CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer. Mayer banned employees from working from home because they didn’t sign into the company’s communication servers frequently enough. This decision likely lead to a reduction in Yahoo’s labour productivity.
outlines 3 types of workers that will succeed in the new economy:
1. High skilled technology workers- people that are able to work well with technology and data. - the accountants of the new economy.
2. Superstars/specialists- people who are highly skilled and are at the top of what they do. These could be high level CEOs or consultants but will mostly be freelancers who provide their specialist services.
3. Owners/funders- people who have the ability to invest in companies and will thus dictate which companies will be successful.
The core abilities needed to thrive in the new economy are:
1. The ability to quickly master hard things
2. Having the knowledge and the ability to execute at a high level- you need to be able to turn your knowledge and skills into tangible results
The necessary ingredient for both of these abilities is deep work; you cannot quickly master challenging things and execute at a high level without being able to focus and learn intensely.
The easiest way to maximize deep work is by minimizing shallow work. Cal defines shallow work as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to create little value or insights and are easy to replicate. The activities that Cal highlights as particularly productivity-draining are E-mail and Twitter. I, and Cal somewhat, believe that these activities provide value, and we agree that they are overused my most workers.
One of the key reasons why distractions such as these are so antithetical to deep work is because of the phenomenon of attention residue. Attention residue is when a proportion of your attention remains stuck on the activity you did previously, meaning that you can’t maximize your concentration when you switch tasks frequently. Cal correctly states that a lot of workers remain in a state of hype-distractedness, severely decreasing their ability to go deep.
Cal defines four philosophies of deep work
1. Monastic- Monastic workers work individually and limit connectivity to the world. They do this in order to radically minimize shallow activities and distractions, allowing more time and attention to be spent on deep work. Monastic workers generally produce tangible results, such as a book or a work of art.
2. Bimodal- people that are adherents of the bimodal philosophy of deep work split their professional lives between monastic-style deep work and ‘traditional’ work- i.e they attempt to get the best of both worlds. The clearest example of this is the aforementioned Carl Jung. When Jung spent time in his retreat he worked monastically; he radically eliminated shallow activities and thus focused solely on pushing his cognitive capabilities. When Jung was in Zurich he worked at his clinic, which likely allowed him to test the efficacy of his ideas and theories. Jung also interacted and debated with many of the leading psychologists and thinkers in Zurich, not only further testing his ideas but also sharing and promoting them. Thus, Jung’s theories likely wouldn’t have been as refined or as well known if he had worked monastically. However, if he hadn’t spent time in isolated deep work his ideas wouldn’t have been as innovative. I think this example shows that bimodal deep work is most effective when it is feasible.
Another example of an adherent to the bimodal philosophy of deep work is the academic and author Adam Grant. Adam is one of the leading thinkers on organizational psychology and was one of the youngest tenured professor. Adam dedicates one semester each year to teaching. This work is time consuming and also contains more shallow activities so it would be difficult to get much deep work done. When he isn’t teaching he spends a lot of time in deep work. These deep work sessions have allowed Adam to write multiple popular books and to also produce academic papers at a high level, at a fast rate.
Bill Gates and his aforementioned ‘think weeks’ are another example of bimodal deep work, just with the periods of monastic deep work being more intense but less frequent.
Professional chess players are another example of adherents to the bimodal philosophy of deep work. For significant periods of time throughout the year, chess players spend up to 10 hours a day, and in some cases more, improving their knowledge of the game. This intense deep work is necessary if they want to compete at the highest level. Outside of these periods they spend their time in competition, testing their ideas and knowledge. So, chess players use deep work in a similar way to Carl Jung: intense periods spent away from the limelight, and also intense periods testing and refining their knowledge.
In summary, bimodal deep work is more effective than monastic deep work as it allows you to test your ideas to a much greater extent and share and promote them to a larger audience, and is thus why I think monastic deep work is only effective when you are trying to learn something or doing something very idiosyncratic, such as writing a fiction book. Bimodal deep work is best for people working in a competitive intellectual field, who also have enough autonomy to spend periods of the year with little external commitments.
3. The third philosophy of deep work is rhythmic or habitual deep work.
Adherents of rhythmic deep work schedule specific times on specific days for deep work periods. For example, in the morning before work. Rhythmic deep work is usually the only way people with consistent schedules can fit in consistent periods of deep work. One strategy that can be effective for making deep work a habit is to ‘create a chain’. Doing this adds formality and competition, making easier to stick to the habit.
It is necessary to schedule what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and when you’re going to do it if you’re going to effectively use the rhythmic method of deep work.
4. The fourth and final philosophy of deep work(according to Cal) is ‘journalistic’ deep work. Journalistic deep work is when you fit deep work in to your schedule on an ad hoc basis. For example, when you get free time from work or some other commitment. It is near impossible that you will be able to do deep work consistently if you adhere to this philosophy due to its unpredictable nature. The main example that Cal uses in his book is Walter Isaacson, the famous biographer and former editor of Time. When he was writing his acclaimed biography of the key figures in the Cold War: Wise Men. The journalistic method allowed Isaacson to produce a high quality and deeply researched book, while also being one of the leading journalists at the time. The main reason why this method worked for Isaacson was because he had a clear purpose and vision for what he wanted to achieve. Thus, the journalistic method is usually the only feasible option for people with demanding schedules but also have passions or projects on the side, which is usually journalists, who generally have inconsistent but demanding schedules and also usually write books or do other work on the side.
Because rhythmic deep work is usually used when you don’t have the time or autonomy to do longer, consistent periods of deep work, focus is more of a concern as you will likely suffer from greater attention residue. Thus, it is key to have clearly defined and refined triggers for getting in a deep work zone.
Distractions thrive in a vacuum. Thus, in order to minimize distractions you must have a clear focus on what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it- i.e you need to be in the zone-, this fills the vacuum. This ‘zone’ is what Mihaly Csikszsentmihalyyi would call flow. Mihaly wrote a whole book about this phenomenon. The key insight from Mihaly is that when you’re interested in and focused on what you’re doing you work at a much higher level and ideas ‘flow’. This is why creativity is more consistent when it is structured. This contradicts the popular belief that creative insights and aha moments come spontaneously. Being in a flow state also makes it easier to sustain deep work periods for longer, and also to make such sessions more frequent as they will be more enjoyable and fruitful.
So, in my opinion, the key barrier to consistent and effective deep work is distractions; distractions reduce concentration and thus inhibit your ability to reach a flow state.
The best way to reduce distractions is to minimize the possibility of distractions, and to minimize your susceptibility to them.
I believe that concentration is a skill not a habit, and thus I think it can be improved and not just done more frequently.
The first way to improve your ability to ignore distractions is to be comfortable not having anything to do. One of the main reasons why many people have become hyper-distracted is because of the prevalence of ‘boredom killers’ such as social media and infotainment. These services exacerbate this state of hyper-distractedness, which they thrive on. My argument isn’t that these services are definitively bad, but that they’re certainly not conducive to deep work.
The second way to improve your ability to ignore distractions is to practice what Cal calls ‘productive meditation’. Productive meditation is when you focus your attention on a problem when you are actively doing something else, for example exercising. Productive meditation improves your ability to work through problems, and to concentrate. Productive meditation also allows you to do something productive(thinking about a problem) while you are doing something that isn’t intellectually stimulating, increasing the time available for deep work. Cal cautions that you should be patient when you first start practicing it as you will likely struggle to focus your attention for an extended period of time. Cal also cautions against ‘looping’, which is when you go back over the things you already know instead of going deeper.
The final method that I think can improve your ability to concentrate is to do intellectually stimulating activities more frequently, such as reading, learning a new thing or writing.
Scheduling how, when, and what you are going to do is key for doing deep work on a frequent and consistent basis. Having a clear schedule makes it easier to stay on track, which allows you to use less willpower when you are trying to switch to deep mode. I think the key to accurately scheduling a time period is to schedule things that you expect to take up 80 percent of the allotted time. I call this the 80% rule. This rule allows you extra time to go deeper or to take more leisure time if you finish in the time you expect to take(for example, if you finish after 48 minutes in a 1 hour period), and also gives you a buffer if you go over the expected time. Using what I call option routes can also be effective. Option routes are periods of time that are blocked out that give you the opportunity of doing what you think is best at the time; if you have more energy than usual or if you have a pressing problem to work on, go deeper; if you have less energy than usual or do not have anything important or urgent, do something leisurely.
This logic is consistent with that of decision trees: If thing A, do this. If thing B, do this.
Setting clear finishing points and clear starting points is important as when you’re working, work hard; when done, be done. I.e be decisive.
Scheduling effectively is necessary but not sufficient for effective deep work; you also need to execute.
Cal gives an outline of the popular book the four disciplines of execution in the book. The book was written by management consultants who understand the divide between strategizing and actually executing the strategy very intimately. They broke their knowledge down into what they think our the four key principles for executing a strategy. This framework also applies to people looking to get more out of their deep work.
1. Focus on the wildly important: This is the most important discipline in my opinion as it’s very important to prioritize the things that provide the greatest value. This discipline is similar to Pareto’s principle: 80% of effects come from 20% of the causes. Focusing on the stuff that provide some value, for example shallow activities, won’t provide the same kind of value as focusing on the most important stuff. So, you shouldn’t just prioritize deep work; you should also prioritize the most important deep activities. In order to prioritize, you need to first know what provides the most value. When you have determined what’s most important, start prioritizing these things when scheduling.
2. Focus on lead measures: A lag measure is the thing you are looking to achieve. They are called lag measures because there is a time lag between when you realize your performance on them and when you can actually improve on them. An example of a lag measure is to read a book.
A lead measure is something that will help you achieve the lag measure. They are called lead measures because they are what lead your performance. Lead measures are the things that you can change. An example of a lead measure is how much hours of deep work you spend reading the book.
Focusing on lead measures allows you to adjust your performance on the things that have an impact on the outcome- i.e focusing on the short term objectives rather than the long term goal.
For example, if a business was to focus on it’s year long goal, say increasing sales by 20%(lag measure), while avoiding the things that would allow them to achieve that goal, such as improving labour productivity and brand awareness(lead measures), they wouldn’t achieve their goal.
3. Keep a compelling scoreboard: In order to improve your performance you must first measure your performance. For example, you couldn’t improve by playing golf in the dark as you wouldn’t be able to tell if you hit a good shot or not. Keeping track of how you perform not only makes it easier to measure your performance but also provides an incentive to improve your performance. Cal sums up this discipline concisely: “people play differently when they’re keeping score”.
4. Create a cadence of accountability: A consistent review process is what makes everything else work. It’s human nature to overestimate both how long you spent doing something and how much you got done; regular reviews mitigate this bias, allowing you to improve your scheduling accuracy, and highlights what needs to improve. This is why the 4dx authors state that this discipline is “where execution really happens”.
The key reason that deep work is so effective is because it allows you to go deep on things. Going deep means you learn things effectively and thoroughly (one of the aforementioned key abilities), and also get things completed- i.e focused, deep work is more effective than broad, shallow work. Having a regular review process ensures that you stay on top of things that you’re currently working on, and keep track of ideas. Thus, in order for your work to be more creative and relevant, and to follow through on things, you must consistently review your work and your working habits.
As mentioned previously, you must be able to measure something before you can improve it; reviewing your performance is the best, and most objective way, to measure and understand what areas need of improvement- i.e without reviewing your performance you will be in the dark regarding your performance (similar to what Cal calls the metric black hole).
Leaving tasks incomplete without reviewing them will cause what is called the Zeigarnik effect. The Zeigarnik effect is the phenomenon that incomplete tasks consume a proportion of your attention. This not only makes it harder to be done, when done, but will also likely carry over into future working periods- i.e not reviewing incomplete tasks will worsen your future productivity. Because it’s likely that there will be incomplete tasks at the end of each day, reviewing them helps determine whether you should try and complete them or not the next day, helping you to prioritize the most important tasks. If you decide that an incomplete task is worth completing, strategize how and when you are going to complete it, and then schedule it into the next day. Doing this is necessary for following through on tasks.
Failing to review incomplete tasks will likely worsen the quality of your leisure time as part of your attention, even subconsciously, will remain on the incomplete tasks. When your concentration is fragmented when you’re not working it will be harder get into deep mode as your brain is like a muscle- when it’s fatigued it doesn’t work optimally. Thus, the main goal of a daily review is to have a clear slate at the end of each working day.
Weekly and monthly reviews are less important from an attention point of view(micro) but are vital from a macro point of view. Reviewing your weekly and monthly performance, and the work you completed, ensures that you have a good understanding of your trajectory and thus it’s easier to schedule future weeks and months, and to better understand how you are progressing- which is important as it’s natural to have an inflated view of your progression. Also, weekly and monthly reviews increase the likelihood that larger tasks and projects don’t go unfinished or under finished.
The best way to review your daily work is to have a specific list where you take down ideas, and to go over the tasks that you set for the day and determine whether they need more time spent on them. Also, review your scoreboard to measure your performance on the lead measures, which will most likely be how long you spent doing deep work. Another important lead measure, in my opinion, is the percentage of daily objectives you completed. This will not only provide a clearer picture on how much you are getting done but will also inform your scheduling.
Time spent outside of work is as important as time spent at work as it can revitalize your concentration abilities and also provide a greater incentive for working. Cal uses the writings of Arnold Bennett to emphasize his point that workers do not effectively utilize their time outside of work. Bennett condemns workers who waste their “day within a day” by saying that their attitude is “utterly illogical and unhealthy. If you’re leisure time is amorphous you will be more susceptible to distractions and will also be less fruitful. Bennett advises that these workers spend their time as an aristocrat would: “to perform rigorous self improvement”. Cal suggests that people also review what they spend their time doing outside of working hours. This can help avoid wasting time doing things that are unenjoyable and reduce your ability to concentrate. I don’t think you should structure your time as diligently outside of deep work as you do for deep work but doing things like reading, exercising routinely, and other challenging things will help fill the vacuum, making it less likely that you succumb to unproductive and unenjoyable things outside of work. Bennett sums this up: “What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. 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”- i.e do challenging things inside and outside of deep work.
I would recommend deep work to pretty much anyone as everyone can benefit from it. Cal does a great job of mixing in real world examples to elucidate his points and to back up his arguments. Cal also does a good job in making his points actionable. The book gives a very good roadmap but the biggest weakness is that Cal didn’t go into enough depth when discussing deliberate learning, and how to concentrate and reach a flow state. I think these skills are the key to maximizing the intensity and quality of deep work, so their omission is glaring. There are, however, other books on these topics; peak, by anders Ericsson for deliberate learning; flow, by Mihaly Csikszsentmihalyyi, for flow; focus, by Daniel Goleman, for concentration/focus; the art of learning, by Josh Waitzkin, for practicing and learning.
To follow on after reading deep work it’s best to start with these books. Like anything, it’s also important to put Cal’s ideas, and your form of them, to the test. This will allow you to see what works best and to internalize the key principles.
Another problem with the book is that Cal is a bit too extreme when it comes to email and social media. These services provide value when used in moderation; a lot of workers benefit from the increased awareness that services like Twitter provide; email and other services can help with making and solidifying professional connections; services such as twitter help you keep up to date with national and international news and thus be better informed; YouTube can be great for learning things. I think the key point is to only use these services outside of deep work periods, and when using them, do so in moderation.
Overall, I would give deep work a 9/10, and I agree with the WSJ that it’s “engaging and substantive”.
1. Deep work is cognitively demanding tasks that push your intellectual limits
2. Deep work is valuable and fulfilling
3. Deep work is the key to succeeding in the new economy
4. The most important skill required for deep work is concentration
5. Concentration is the absence of irrelevant thoughts
6. The biggest inhibitor of deep work is distractions
7. Distractions fragment your attention, making it harder to do deep work
8. Focused, deep work is much better than broad, shallow work
9. Being able to focus your attention is the key to success
10. Bimodal deep work is best suited for people who need to push their intellectual limits in order to succeed, and also have enough autonomy to take periods of time away from regular work
11. Rhythmic or habitual deep work is best suited for people who do not have the time or autonomy to take periods of time away from regular work, but have a consistent schedule to work around
12. Journalistic deep work is still beneficial but should only be used when necessary
13. Follow the four disciplines of execution in order to turn plans/strategies into results
14. Structuring your time outside of work will not only improve your leisure time but also your deep work
15. Reviewing and learning from your deep work habits is the key to making deep work habitual and relevant
Implementing deep work framework
1. Deep work philosophy? (It’s also possible to use an amalgamation of them)
2. Executing process (routines and triggers)
3. Scheduling process
4. Review process
How to utilize deep work effectively
1. Outline the tasks and projects that you want to complete
2. Plan how and when you’re going to do them
4. Review your performance in order to improve and ensure you have a clean slate after each deep work period by going over incomplete tasks