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Summary of Deep Work by Cal Newport

What will you learn from the Deep Work?

  • The ability to eliminate distractions at the workplace
  • How to produce content that is value able to the economy
  • Cal’s strategies to be productive and laser-focused.

Who is the author?

Calvin Newport is an assistant professor in the department of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of five how-to books and a blog focused on academic and career success.

Deep work summary

 What is Deep Work?

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.

What Deep Work Is Not?

Shallow Work: No 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.  

To put it deep work is something that optimizes your performance.

“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.” 

Chapter 1: Deep Work Is Valuable

Deep work is not the only skill valuable in our economy, but it is one of the important skills to acquire. The content you are able to produce when you are in a flow state is unique and cannot be replicated by someone else. If you are able to deeply concentrate and write a code that is not easily replicable you have produced something value able.

If you want to be a winner in the new economy, there are two core abilities you must possess:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.

 This ability to learn hard things quickly plays a key role in the attempt to master and perform any given skill. To become a world-class yoga instructor, for example, requires that you master an increasingly complex set of physical skills. To excel in a particular area of medicine, to give another example, requires that you be able to quickly master the latest research on relevant procedures.

  1. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

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.

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

“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.” 


Chapter 2: Deep Work Is Rare

“If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the background, it ruins what you are concentrating on”

One is expected to read and respond to emails quickly, is an example of distracting behavior at the workplace.

The question is does it really help you to be constantly connected at the workplace? Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow found that the professionals she surveyed spent around twenty to twenty-five hours a week outside the office monitoring e-mail—believing it important to answer any e- within an hour of its arrival, thus waste potential time that could have been used in doing other important chores.

Why do so many follow the culture of connectivity in the workplace when it is not required and kills well-being and productivity of the employees.

The answer can be found in the reality of workplace behavior:

The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors on the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest at the moment.

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.

If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.


Chapter 3: Deep Work Is Meaningful

Our world is an outcome of what we pay our attention to so consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors. If you are able to cultivate deep focus at your work it prevents you from noticing the many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably populate your life.

Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

To embrace deep work in your own career, and to direct it toward cultivating your skill, is an effort that can transform a knowledge work job from a distracted, draining obligation into something satisfying—a portal to a world full of shining, wondrous things.


Part 2: The Rules

Rule #1: Work Deeply

We have built the foundation of why deep work is important for individuals but when it comes to working with focus, distraction steps in. The urge to check important e-mails, notifications intervenes with your task at hand. We fight desires all day long. A recent study indicated that our top five desires consist of taking a break from [hard] work… checking e-mail and social networking sites, surfing the web, listening to music, or watching television.” The lure of the Internet and television proved especially strong.

These studies are bad news for this rule’s goal of helping you cultivate a deep work habit.

In this chapter Cal devises a strategy to cultivate deep work ritual, it is as follows:

1.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

2.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.

3.How you’ll support your work.

Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear.

Cal further talks about the 4DX framework he personally uses which is taken from the book  The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney [Read Summary] which I have covered specifically and didn’t explain it here. So make sure you check the out summary.

You should also inject regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day by providing yourself with the idleness paradoxically required to get work done.

At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.

There are 3 value-able reasons for downtime.

Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights
Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply
Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important

Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead, Take Breaks from Focus.


Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Rule #1 teaches us how to integrate deep work into our schedule and support it with routines and rituals designed to help you consistently reach the current limit of your concentration ability.
Rule #2 will help in significantly improving this limit.

Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it. Motivated by this reality, this strategy 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 be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. This doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate distracting behaviors; it’s sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviors to hijack your attention.

Use this strategy to work like Theodore Roosevelt :

Identify a task 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. If this isn’t possible (or if it puts your job in jeopardy), then motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid seeing 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—no e-mail breaks, no daydreaming, no Facebook browsing, no repeated trips to the coffee machine. Like Roosevelt, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.

 Try this experiment no more than once a week at first—giving your brain practice with intensity, but also giving it time to rest in between. Once you feel confident in your ability to trade concentration for completion time, increase the frequency.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media.

This point sounds bizarre. Quit social media but why? Before I summarize this part I would like to share an amazing Ted Talk because of which I discovered Cal’s work.

Cal covers this topic deeply in his Ted Talk so if you haven’t watched it I would request you to watch it.

Social media has been here for a very long time and all of us have been hooked on it ever since. We increasingly recognize that these tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate.

Willpower is limited, and therefore the more enticing tools you have pulling at your attention, the harder it’ll be to maintain focus on something important. To master the art of deep work, therefore, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.

“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 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.” 

This strategy asks you to ban yourself or quit from all the social networks Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, Snapchat, Vine or whatever other services for 30 days. Don’t formally deactivate these services, and (this is important) don’t mention online that you’ll be signing off: Just stop using them altogether.

After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit:

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

If your answer is “no” to both questions, 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, though I would encourage you to lean toward quitting.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

This is how the strategy works:

At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook you dedicate to this purpose. Down the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you typically work.

Now comes the important part: Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks. For example, you might block off nine a.m. to eleven a.m. for writing a client’s press release. To do so, actually, draw a box that covers the lines corresponding to these hours, then write “press release” inside the box. 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.

There are many chances that your schedule is going to get interrupted so the best thing to do is to revise your plan accordingly and execute.

To Summarize: Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter.


What did you learn from Deep Work? Is there an important takeaway or lesson that we missed? Comment below, on the text storyshot page or tweet at us at @storyshots

Related books:

Rework by Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson (Open in the app)

The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss (Open in the app)

Essentialism by Greg McKeown (Open in the app)

The One Thing by Gary Keller, Jay Papasan (Open in the app)

Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler, Jamie Wheal (Open in the app)


Text storyshot is adapted from 10reading.

Deep work free chapter by Chapter summary
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