Deep Work by Cal Newport: A Review and Key Lessons

We’ve all been there; you sit down intending to get some quality work done… Bing! The notification on your phone goes off, so you stop and quickly check it before going back to work. This start/stop method of working is the antithesis of the ideas discussed in Deep Work by Cal Newport.

What is Deep Work?

In the book, he defines deep work as, “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.”

Looking at it retrospectively, that quote encapsulates everything important from the first section of the book. This section discusses the importance of deep work. He really stresses this point, emphasizing that deep work is a rare skill and that you’ll be at a huge advantage if you can produce it. He offers examples from multiple fields that support this viewpoint. Next, the idea that a developing society will replace a lot of menial jobs with computers is introduced. He argues that by learning to produce deep work you’re future-proofing yourself.

What is Shallow Work?

The deep vs shallow work debate is explored. Shallow work is anything that you don’t have to think too deeply about and doesn’t add much value to the world. He offers a useful trick for deciding if work is shallow or deep; ask yourself if a graduate student could do the task after a few days of training. If they can do the task to a similar standard as you, it’s not deep work.

In my opinion, he spent longer than required explaining the value of deep work. It seems somewhat self-evident that focussed work is going to lead to higher-value outcomes. 

As such, we’ll move onto the how-to section which is where I found the value of this book.

Key Takeaways

It’s worth making explicit that this isn’t an exhaustive list. Newport gives a lot of practical advice; I’m only sharing the things that resonated with me.

Deep Work Philosophy

Throughout the book, he makes clear the importance of routine. This is mentioned in the context of a pre-work ritual and in how you allocate your working hours. He offers a handful of approaches you can take to schedule your work. What he calls ‘rhythmic philosophy’ is the most practical for me.

This is a fancy name for a simple time-management strategy; every day you allocate a set amount of hours that you’ll dedicate to deep work. No distractions! No checking your emails or peeking at your phone. By scheduling this into your calendar, you remove a lot of the obstacles to doing it. It’ll become a habit that you do regardless of how you’re feeling.

Using myself as an example, I schedule a block of writing every day after I’ve had my lunch. There are days I’m not in the mood, but because it’s now my habit I’ll do it anyway. I have a daily pre-work ritual; move the plant, set up the laptop, and get a cup of tea. These steps take me from a non-interested mindset, into a focussed state where I can produce deep work. If anyone is curious about the plant… I work from home and it’s an easy way for me to switch my brain into work mode. After I’ve finished, the plant goes back, and my workday is done.

Grand Gestures

Newport convincingly puts forward the idea of “grand gestures.” In its simplest form, it’s doing something dramatic that shakes you out of your default mental state. It often involves committing effort or money. He gives several examples – a man booking plane flights for the sole purpose of a new writing environment is my favorite.

Prioritize

This was something that I made an effort to address after reading the book. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got lots of projects you could invest your time in. The problem is that there isn’t enough time to dedicate to them all. I tend to invest my time in the most interesting project, which isn’t necessarily the project that will offer me the best long-term return.

Newport tells us to make a conscious choice about which projects we want to prioritize. Figure out the projects that lead to the goal(s) we wish to achieve. Once you’ve made that decision, stick to it! Only work on the handful of projects you’ve identified as leading to your goals.

The Importance of Downtime

There is an expectation in a lot of business circles that you should be trying to work as much as possible. The more hours you put in, the greater the results. Contrary to this idea, Newport suggests we produce higher quality work by giving ourselves regular downtime.

He posits that there’s an upper limit on the amount of deep work we’re able to do each day – about 4 hours. I’m inclined to agree with this, as I know that if I try and spend an entire day writing, the quality will noticeably drop off around that point. Being aware of this limit means you can structure your day to improve your efficiency.

One thing that he stresses is the importance of scheduling downtime. He’s not suggesting that you vegetate in front of the TV, rather that you should invest this time in rewarding hobbies that will ‘improve’ you as a person; instruments, reading, art, gardening, etc…

He wants us to plan out our hobbies in advance. In response to the claim that this is going to lead to burnout, he quotes Arnold Bennet, who claims our brains thrive on novel stimuli. To paraphrase slightly, “Change, not rest for the brain.”

Quit Social Media

Throughout this book, he repeatedly denounces social media. He claims that the constant connectedness keeps us in a shallow state that prevents deep work. I think this is something we can all agree holds some truth.

He recognizes that some people will need social media and offers an approach to deciding if it’s something you need. The default for most people is what he calls the ‘any benefit’ approach. In this view, if you can find even one tiny benefit to using it, then you’re justified investing time into it. 

Instead, he proposes the “craftsman” approach. A craftsman isn’t going to use a subpar tool for a job or add unnecessary features to his work. Take the same approach to your social media. If it isn’t a tool you truly need then it’s not worth using. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!

Final Thoughts

Overall, I enjoyed this book and several of the ideas have stuck with me. Newport writes engagingly. My main criticism is that he often forgets not everyone is in a similar work situation as him; this adds a “translation” step before some of the advice is applicable.

If you’re interested in how you can benefit from and improve your ability to produce deep work, then it’s definitely worth checking out. It’s a short read that contains examples of successful people modeling the behaviors he suggests. If you develop this skill, then you’re setting yourself up for success in the future.

“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.”

By: Scott D. O’Neill

Did you enjoy this review of Deep Work by Cal Newport? Then check out these 6 Deep Work Quotes to help increase your productivity, or check out some of our other reviews such as our review on Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl or Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard!

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