Deep Work Book Summary


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This is the book summary of  Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Specifically, it covers the following:

  1. A one-paragraph summary of the book
  2. Key takeaways 
  3. Actionable advice 

Let’s get started.

Deep Work: One-Paragraph Summary

Deep Work quote

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World teaches an approach to working with undivided concentration to produce at an elite level. In the first part of the book, Cal Newport, the book author, argues that constant distractions could hold knowledge workers back from producing meaningful work. Major distractions include shallow work, social media, and instant messaging. 

Then, the second half of the book is about how to work deeply. Newport introduces four approaches: monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, and journalistic approach. Furthermore, he goes in-depth about embracing the boredom that we inevitably feel going into the unknown depth of the work. Quitting social media and eliminating shallow work also make a large part of the book’s second half. The author argues that unless you eliminate distractions and embrace boredom, you could unlikely be ready for deep work.

To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distractions. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

Key Takeaways 

This section of the book summary of Deep Work is about key takeaways from the book.

  • To produce at an elite level, you must develop the ability to sustain the pain of boredom and uncertainty.
  • Distractions hinder your ability to produce high-quality work. 
  • The intense focus necessary to produce outstanding work comes more effortlessly when you quit social media and drain shallow work. 
  • High-quality work requires both time and focus.

Without further ado, let’s dive in. 

To produce at an elite level, you must develop the ability to sustain the pain of boredom and uncertainty. 

Deep work, like deliberate practice in other domains of expertise, is effortful. To produce at an exceptional level, you must constantly improve your performance over an extended period of time. Writing expertise, for example, could take an average of 10.6 years.[1]Kaufman, S., & Kaufman, J. C. (2007). Ten years to expertise, many more to greatness: An investigation of modern writers. Journal of Creative Behavior, 41, 114–124. So, boredom and uncertainty are inevitable, and you must learn to rely on intrinsic motivation and habits if you are to reap the long-term benefits of deep work. 

The author also recommends eliminating activities you do mindlessly when you get bored, such as surfing the internet when you can’t think of writing gets tough. Meditating regularly, and learning new skills such as card memorization, playing music, and solving Rubik’s cube could also be good training for embracing boredom. 

In short, you first need to be aware of habitual activities that could distract you from deep work when boredom creeps in. Furthermore, it is important to train yourself to stay intensely focused on the task at hand

Distractions hinder your ability to produce high-quality work. 

Distractions can come in many forms, such as shallow work, social media, messaging, and multitasking. A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching. And, close to 30 percent of a worker’s time is dedicated to reading and answering e-mail and messages alone. 

How does this affect your ability to perform at your best?

According to research in 2009 by Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota, our attention does not immediately follow when you switch from one task to another. An attention residue would remain stuck with you as you think about the previous task. In fact, even when you complete one task, the residue would still be there for a while. 

In short, distractions are the enemy of the intense focus necessary to produce high-quality work.

The intense focus necessary to produce outstanding work comes more effortlessly when you quit social media and drain shallow work. 

Social media may be a good tool to stay in touch with family and friends living far away, but their habit-building features and functions could easily get people to spend too much time unnecessarily. To decide whether social media has any benefits, you could try these three steps: 

Step 1: Use the 80/20 rule to hand-pick social network tools

Start with these two sets of goals in mind: professional and personal. For example, if you are a marketing professional, your goal could be to get more website traffics and social media engagement. And, your personal goal could be to spend quality time with your loved ones. 

Then, ask yourself this: Which 20 percent of tools should I use?

Take the example above. If you work in real estate in Cambodia, Facebook could be an obvious choice for your professional goal. Social media might be unnecessary to meet your personal goal if you live together with your family and close to your important others. 

Step 2: Try quitting the 20 percent social media tools for a period of time.

After getting used to living without the 80 percent of unnecessary social media tools, the second step is to quit the 20 percent of social media tools you have selected to use. Back to the example again, you do not have to be on Facebook to engage your audience. The Facebook Business Manager could be all that you need. 

Even if you have to, you could consider the choice of developing a habit of taking a day off from social media on Sunday. Have a system to track how you do and feel daily. 

Step 3: Make the decision.

The final step is to decide, with the data and notes, what works for you. It could turn out that the Facebook Business Manager alone could be sufficient as a marketing professional trying to engage the audience. And, the Messenger could be the only messaging platform you’d need to stay in touch with your important others, or you might need them only on weekends. 

Whatever your decision is, it is not final. You could and should further adapt as your situation changes. 

High-quality work outcome requires both time and focus.

This is the Deep Work formula: 

High-quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus) [2]Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (p. 40). Grand Central Publishing.

That is why deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. The world needs people with the ability to work deeply and produce at an elite level. As a result, we can less effortlessly find meaning in our career and life. Most people work, with constant distractions from shallow work, social media, and instant messaging, making it difficult to find people with this very quality. 

Again, the book introduces four ways to schedule deep work: monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, and journalistic approach. 

1. The monastic approach

The monastic approach to deep work suggests that you eliminate or at least radically minimize shallow obligations to maximize deep focus and produce at an expert level. 

An example of the monastic approach to deep work is the renowned computer scientist Donald Knuth. He quit email in 1990 after having used it for 15 years. His reason? “To learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then… digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.” As a result, he produced one of the best physical-science monographs of the century, The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP). This comprehensive monograph started in 1962 and covers many kinds of programming algorithms and their analysis.

2. The bimodal approach

The bimodal approach to deep work requires that you divide time for both deep work and other obligations. In other words, you work with intensely focused concentration during the deep work period, but this level of uninterrupted concentration is not necessary for the rest of the time. 

The time-division could be one day per week for deep work and four days for other obligations. Or if you can, half a year for deep work and the other half for other obligations would work, too. However, the minimum time for deep work should be at least one full day, as that is the time required to achieve real breakthroughs. 

The way Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist who developed analytical psychology, works is an example of the bimodal philosophy. He worked full-time in his clinic in the city of Zurich, Switzerland. But, he would also retreat regularly to his lakeside tower for deep work. There, Jung would rise at 7 a.m., and after breakfast, he would spend two hours of undistracted writing time in his private office. In the afternoons, he would meditate and go on long walks. According to Deep Work, this bimodal approach to deliberate practice was how he became one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.

3. The rhythmic approach 

The rhythmic approach is about developing habits for deep work. In other words, when deep work becomes a habit, it creates a rhythm and makes it easy for you to get into a state of flow when you do the work. 

A great example was how Jerry Seinfeld taught Brad Issac how to become a better comic. His advice was to write jokes every day and cross out the date on a calendar with a big red X. And by doing so, Brad Issac created a visual chain that motivated him to keep at it. 

Visuals make a great cue to trigger a habitual behavior. However, the rhythmic method does not have to be visual but could also be time-based or location-based. For example, a doctorate student Brain Chappell designated a time from 5:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. every weekday to work on his doctorate research. When it becomes a rhythm, it makes it effortless to reach the state of flow. 

4. The journalistic approach to working deeply

It is an approach in which you fit deep work where and when you can — the way journalists train to deliver their work on short notice. An example of journalistic approach in the book is how Walter Isaacson, the famed journalist who worked with the author’s uncle, would switch into a deep work mode and wrote his famous 900-page book, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, whenever he had free time. Isaacson made his deep work decisions on a moment-to-moment basis, according to the author. 

However, this approach works only if you have existing deep work knowledge and skills. For instance, if you want to develop outstanding content for an online course and want to adopt the journalistic approach, you need to have prior knowledge of the course topic. And extensive experience in teaching or speaking before an audience could also be essential for the journalistic approach to work. 

Actionable Advice

Deep Work provides a comprehensive guide to deliberate practice for attaining expert performance in knowledge work. The key message from the book is that it is crucial to clear distractions, learn to embrace boredom, and improve your intensity of focus to produce valuable and meaningful work results. 

Cal Newport quoted Winifred Gallagher, who he called the converted disciple of depth, saying, “I’ll live the focused life because it’s the best kind there is.”[3]Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (p. 92). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition. And with that, the author concluded, “A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.”

In closing of the book summary of Deep Work, here is a piece of actionable advice to help you kick-start your deep work journey:

Learn a new skill regularly. 

You don’t have to master them. The goal is to train yourself to deal with boredom and uncertainty because learning a new skill usually requires focused attention for a period of time until you get familiar with it. 

That’s it for the book summary of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Now over to you: 

What one new skill will you learn this month? 


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About the author, Y Samphy

Samphy is a facilitator, blogger, consultant, personal productivity coach, and lifelong learner. His writing and ideas here focus around productivity and self-improvement.

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