Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Life gets busy. Has Deep Work by Cal Newport been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, learn some key ideas now.
Cal Newport’s Perspective
Cal Newport is a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to his academic research, he writes articles and blog posts on the intersection of digital technology and culture. Cal has written for the New Yorker and the New York Times. He also has a long-running blog called Study Hacks, which receives millions of visits a year.
StoryShot #1: Unlike Shallow Work, Deep Work Increases Your Productivity
Deep work involves professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration for extended periods. This degree of concentration helps you push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, strengthen your skills, and are hard to replicate. In effect, deep work will optimize your performance and allow you to produce at a peak level.
The opposite of deep work is shallow work. Deep work is about focusing on one particular task that requires intense mental effort for a long time. On the other hand, shallow work is the kind of task that requires little mental effort and can be done while doing other activities. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. Examples of shallow work are answering emails, making phone calls, checking social media and attending meetings. Shallow work can sometimes be helpful. It allows for relaxation and breaks. But the problem is when we unconsciously prioritize shallow tasks over more important deep tasks.
StoryShot #2: Deep Work Is Valuable
Deep work is not the only skill valuable in our economy. However, it is one of the essential skills to acquire. When you are in a state of deep work, your output is unique and cannot be replicated by someone else. For example, if you can intensely concentrate and write useful code that is not easily replicable, you have produced something valuable.
If you want to be a winner in the new economy, there are two core abilities you must possess:
- The Ability to Learn Hard Things: The ability to learn complex topics quickly will play a key role in your attempt to master and perform any given skill. For example, becoming a world-class yoga instructor requires you to master an increasingly complex set of physical skills. To excel in a particular area of medicine, to give another example, requires that you quickly master the latest research related to relevant procedures.
Deep work is the act of creating intellectual value by focusing on a cognitively demanding task. It is like deliberate practice where you are using deep work to develop your skillset.
Deliberate practice involves engaging in activity for the purpose of improving performance, where feedback on performance is specific and clear (i.e., not vague or general). Deliberate practice has three defining features: it requires substantial effort, focuses intensely on improving some specific aspect of performance, and involves consistent repetition of these activities.
- The Ability to Produce High-Quality Results: If you want to become a professional at any given skill, mastering it is necessary but not sufficient. Producing tangible results with the knowledge you have is what matters in the end.
Cal Newport outlines a formula for producing quality at your highest level: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
StoryShot #3: Deep Work Is Rare
Being expected to read and respond quickly to emails is an example of distracting behavior in the workplace. Newport questions whether being constantly connected at the workplace is particularly helpful. Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow found that the professionals she surveyed spent more than twenty hours a week outside the office monitoring emails. They believed it was necessary to answer any email within an hour of its arrival. Newport views this time spent checking emails as a waste of potential time that you can apply to more crucial tasks instead.
Ultimately, a tendency to check our emails reduces our well-being and productivity. However, we don’t need this culture of connectivity in the workplace. Therefore, Newport sheds light on how workplace behavior can encourage unproductive activities like constant monitoring of emails.
- The Principle of Least Resistance: Without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors, we will tend toward the easiest behaviors.
- Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity: When clear productivity indicators do not exist, these unproductive behaviors may arise. In this instance, even many knowledge workers will turn back toward an industrial productivity indicator, i.e., visibly doing many things. Suppose you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity. In that case, these behaviors can appear crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.
StoryShot #4: Deep Work Is Meaningful
What we pay attention to shapes our world. So, consider the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors. Suppose you can cultivate deep focus at your work. In that case, this will prevent you from noticing the many smaller and less pleasant tasks that unavoidably populate your life.
Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than your free time. Newport makes this point because, like flow activities, jobs have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges. Each of these features encourages you to become involved in your work, concentrate, and lose yourself in the moment. Free time, in contrast, is unstructured. Free time requires much greater effort to be enjoyable.
Embracing deep work in your career and directing it toward cultivating your skills will require effort. This effort can transform tasks at work from being a distracted, draining obligation into something satisfying. Newport describes this transformation as a portal to a world full of shining, wondrous experiences.
Now let’s dive into the four rules of Deep Work:
StoryShot #5: The First Rule of Deep Work is to Work Deeply
Deep work is essential, but focusing on your work will never be without distractions. The urge to check important emails and notifications will interfere with your prioritized tasks. We fight desires all day long. A recent study indicated that our top five desires consist of:
- Taking a break from hard work
- Checking our emails and social networking sites
- Surfing the web
- Listening to music and
- Watching television
This study suggests the importance of adopting specific strategies to reinforce your deep work.
Newport outlines a specific approach to cultivating a deep work ritual:
- Consider 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 regular office, with the door shut and the desk cleaned.
- Consider what approach to work you’ll take once you’ve started working: Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any internet use. Alternatively, you could aim to maintain a metric like words produced per twenty-minute interval to keep your concentration honed.
- Consider how you’ll support your work: Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets support to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, your habit ritual could include starting your working day with a cup of good coffee. This coffee should help quicken the speed at which your brain wakes up. You must ensure you have access to nutritious food to maintain your energy. Finally, you should consider integrating light exercise, such as walking, into your working routine. Exercise can help keep your mind clear.
StoryShot #6: To Work Deeply, You Must Separate Life and Work
You should also inject regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day. For example, try to avoid worrying about work matters when you are not working. These worries will ruin your well-being and only hinder your working hours. You will be tired and stressed when you return to work. By providing yourself with idleness during your non-work hours, you can get more work done.
At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the following day. Therefore, you should never check your emails after your dinner. In addition, you should not replay work conversations or plan for your upcoming working week. Shut down completely and enjoy your relaxation time.
Newport provides three ways that downtime and having a clear endpoint to your workday can significantly improve your work performance:
- Downtime facilitates insights: Studies show that the unconscious mind can perform tasks you’re not aware of, and that unconscious thought is better at solving complex issues. The implication is that if you let your conscious brain rest, you empower your unconscious mind to begin sorting through your most complex professional problems.
- Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply: People can concentrate better after spending time in nature, or even looking at scenes of nature. You can restore your ability to focus your attention if you give the activity a break.
- The work that evening downtime replaces usually does not matter much: You are limited in the amount of deep work you can accomplish per day. If you’re careful about your schedule, you should hit your daily deep work capacity during the day. So by evening, you are past the point where you can continue to work deeply and effectively. As a result, work you do at night is not likely to be the kind of high-value work that propels your career; instead, it is likely to be low-value shallow work that is completed at a slow pace.
StoryShot #7: The Second Rule is to Embrace Boredom
The first rule teaches us how to integrate deep work into our schedule and support it with routines and rituals. These routines are rituals designed to help you consistently reach the current limit of your ability to concentrate.
The second rule will help significantly improve this limit. You should learn to live without distractions. Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it. Motivated by this reality, this strategy introduced by Cal Newport is designed to help you rewire your brain to a configuration better suited to staying on task. To succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to resist distracting stimuli. This doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate distracting behaviors. Instead, it is sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviors to hijack your attention.
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill we must learn. You need to take care of your concentration outside your intense work sessions, just as athletes must take care of their bodies outside their training sessions. If you give in to distractions at the first sign of boredom in your daily life, you’ll find it challenging to cultivate the type of concentrated concentration required for serious work.
Theodore Roosevelt is an example of an individual who adopted a similar strategy to Newport’s. Newport recommends identifying a task that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d usually put aside for an obligation of this type. Then, give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time estimation. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline. For example, you could tell the person who will receive the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible, motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid recognizing it as you work.
At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity. This expectation of intensity will prevent you from taking email breaks, daydreaming, browsing Instagram, or making repeated trips to the coffee machine. You should attack the task with every free neuron, like Roosevelt. If you commit to true intensity, your task will give way under your relentless barrage of concentration.
Start by trying this experiment no more than once a week. This will give your brain practice with intensity but also give it time to rest between tasks. Once you feel confident in your ability to trade concentration for completion time, you can increase the frequency.
StoryShot #8: The Third Rule of Deep Work is to Quit Social Media
According to Newport, leaving a distracted majority to join a focused minority is a transformative experience. Not everyone can live a deep life. It will take a lot of effort and changes in your habits. The false sense of busyness that comes from quick email messaging and social media posing provides a sense of security for many. But the deep life requires you to leave most of that behind. Any attempt to generate the most remarkable things you’re capable of elicits fear because it requires you to confront the potential that your best isn’t that great, at least not yet. It’s safer to make observations about our culture than to enter the Rooseveltian ring and try to wrestle it into a better state.
Newport covers this topic deeply in one of his famous Ted talks. He argues that social media has been addictive since it was first introduced years ago. We increasingly recognize that these tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate.
Our willpower is limited. Therefore, the more enticing tools you have pulling at your attention, the harder it will be to focus on something important. Based on this, to master the art of deep work, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.
You should create social media isolation. Ban yourself from all social networks. This includes Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and TikTok. You do not have to delete your accounts permanently, but you should start by deleting the apps for thirty days. Importantly, you should also avoid mentioning online that you’ll be signing off. Instead, stop using these social media platforms altogether.
After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit:
- Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
- Did people care I wasn’t using this service?
If your answer is “no” to both questions, you should quit the service permanently. If your answer was a clear “yes,” then return to using the service. If your answers are qualified or ambiguous, it’s up to you whether you return to the service. However, Newport would encourage you to always lean toward quitting. Adopting this approach should significantly reduce the time you spend engaging with unimportant procrastination.
StoryShot #9: The Fourth Rule of Deep Work is to Drain the Shallows
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr is the title of a book about how the Internet affects our brains and lives. Shallow work, such as answering emails and attending meetings, are often inevitable but ultimately low-value activities. You must drain the Shallows if you’re serious about working deeply. You must schedule time for deep work and spend as little time as possible on shallow work. Don’t let shallow work get in the way of deep work.
This is how Newport suggests you accomplish this:
Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks. For example, you might block off from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. for writing a client’s press release. To fully engage with this approach, you should draw a box covering the lines corresponding to these hours. Then, inside the box, you should write “press release.” The minimum length of a block should be thirty minutes.
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.
Quite often, your schedule will get interrupted, so make sure you revise your plan.
Final Summary and Review of Deep Work
Deep Work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Author and professor Cal Newport coined the term on his popular blog Study Hacks. Deep work will make you better at what you do. Deep work will also let you achieve more in less time. In addition, it will provide a sense of fulfillment that comes from the mastery of a skill. In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive economy.
We rate this book 4.7/5.
Deep Work Select Quotes
“To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.” — Cal Newport
“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.” – Cal Newport
“If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the background, it ruins what you are concentrating on” – Cal Newport
“To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience. 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 email messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands 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.” – Cal Newport
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