Deep Work by Cal Newport

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The Introduction

Published in 2016, the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport runs 263 pages and is bold and daring in its view of today's popular culture.

Dr. Newport, who earned his Doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, sees most people as being on automatic pilot. Most of us are bobbing through life, lost in shallow social networks when we could be more mindful of our opportunities, taking control of our lives, and producing something of real value.

Deep Work

It's essential to read the book's introduction, because it is where Dr. Newport defines the term deep work.

Deep Work: Professional work 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 duplicate.
 — Deep Work by Cal Newport, p. 3.

Cal Newport considers the work of notables such as Carl Jung, Mark Twain, Woody Allen, Bill Gates, and J. K. Rowling to be perfect examples of the value of being able to work deeply. He describes how each of these luminaries has taken measures to shut out distractions to achieve their goal of producing something of real value.

Given the benefits, we would think bosses would encourage deep work. This rarely happens, though, due to what Dr. Newport calls the metric black hole. Because the results of deep work are often invisible, it is difficult to measure them.

Shallow Work

Deep Work cites current authors, such as Nicholas Carr, William Powers, John Freeman, and Alex Soojung-Kin Pang, who have written recently about how being constantly connected online is ruining our ability to concentrate on difficult problems.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively 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.
 — Deep Work by Cal Newport, p. 6.

When work does not create much new value  and is easy to replicate,  the people who do it become a commodity. The trend towards shallow work makes occupations formerly considered to be careers become increasingly easy to outsource, automate — and even eliminate.

The Book

Cal Newport describes Deep Work as his attempt to formalize and explain my attraction to depth over shallowness.

After the Introduction, the rest of the book is in two parts. Part 1 describes why deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful, and Part 2 gives readers four rules for how to do more of it.

Part 1: The Idea

In Chapter 1, Deep Work Is Valuable, Cal Newport describes the two abilities needed to thrive in the New Economy, then describes how deep work helps you quickly master hard things and perform at an elite level.

It's easy to see how learning new things requires concentration, and quickly producing high-quality work depends on your ability to focus. What might be surprising is, studies show short interruptions take a higher toll than we think.

Taking care of a quick work obligation — or a temptation, like checking email or a social network site — lasts longer than we might think. The studies show a residue of these interruptions remains after the emergency is resolved, or the lapse of self-discipline passes.

In Chapter 2, Deep Work Is Rare, the author takes on current trends such as shared desks and open office plans, the need to maintain a presence on social media, and instant messaging.

Early in the chapter, Dr. Newport describes the metric black hole and how complicated it is to answer even a seemingly simple question such as What's the impact of our current e-mail habits on the bottom line? He calls current thinking a culture of connectivity  that embraces the new, decidedly unconscious, self-assured corn-pone opinion that many of today's knowledge workers are expected to respond to e-mails (and related communication) quickly.

Newport goes on to describe how embracing the internet has become cult-like — a technopoly. Anything having to do with high-tech is unquestionably assumed to be good, and the subconscious thinking is we all need to be connected and responsive at all times — much to the dismay of those of us who crave to work deeply.

Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and non-technological.
 — Deep Work by Cal Newport, p. 69.

In Chapter 3, Deep Work Is Meaningful, Cal Newport continues exploring the theme of craftmanship by introducing Ric Furrer, who uses midieval techniques to make swords. A master craftsman, Furrer explains he doesn't need a sword, but feels compelled to make them.

For anyone who remains unconvinced of the value of deep work, Newport details three arguments supporting it.

Dr. Newport's neurological argument contends our worlds are defined by what we pay attention to. His psychological argument cites studies finding we are happier when working in a state of flow — deep concentration — than we are even when relaxing. And his philosophical argument maintains our modern, nihilist lives are largely devoid of meaning, and one way we can find meaning is by embracing craftmanship, which involves working deeply.

Part 2: The Rules

Part 2 comprises the remainder of the book, and accounts for 168 of its 263 pages — almost two-thirds of it.

This part contains four chapters, one for each of the rules Dr. Newport prescribes for those of us who want to put his theories into practice:

  • Rule #1: Work Deeply spans 59 pages and presents four strategies for scheduling deep work, discusses ritualizing it and making grand gestures when finding focus becomes difficult, and suggests four disciplines for implementing a deep work strategy
  • Rule #2: Embrace Boredom runs 25 pages and is about training yourself to focus by embracing boredom — rather than your smart phone — when waiting in line, and practicing productive meditation  by exercising your ability to focus while doing mindless tasks like driving, chores, walking, and showering
  • Rule #3: Quit Social Media is 44 pages long and explains in plain language what many of us already know, if not consciously certainly subconsciously — that too much social media can be bad for you, hmm-k? — and includes strategies for cutting back or even quitting completely one or more of these highly addictive sites
  • Rule #4: Drain the Shallows spends the last 41 pages of the book offering strategies for getting the most out of whatever time you can carve out of your schedule and devote to deep work, and tactics you can use to maximize this precious time

Here are a couple of quotes from Rule #3: Quit Social Media:

[Social networking sites] offer personalized information arriving on an unpredictible intermittent schedule - making them massively addictive and therefore capable of severely damaging your attempts to schedule and succeed with any act of concentration.
 — Deep Work by Cal Newport, p. 205.

Reading this and remembering how I struggled with an addiction to tobacco for many years gives me deja vu. Then, on the very next page:

But part of what makes social networking insidious is that the companies that profit from your attention have succeeded with a masterful marketing coup: convincing our culture that if you don't use their products you might miss out.
 — Deep Work by Cal Newport, p. 206. [Emphasis in original.]

If you're interested in more, you should definitely buy the book and read it for yourself, because it is full of this sort of assumption-busting, non-corn-pone-y enlightenment! But the book is much more than just complaining about these sites.

Finding and Taking Specific Steps

In addition to articulating some of what we might already suspect about social networking sites, Dr. Newport offers specific steps to cut down and eliminate wasting time on the internet. Just because there are advantages to being on a site like facebook to some people — for example, a college student would be lost without it — doesn't mean everyone needs to check out every notification as soon as it comes in.

I've learned it's easier to moderate facebook use than it was to cut down on the ciggies, but I still get sucked in from time to time. While quitting totally will work best for some, exercising discipline by setting a schedule may be best for others. Ultimately, of course, it's up to each individual and the goals they have for their life.

Thanks to Deep Work I now have ideas to help exercise more mindfullness. Since reading it, I find it's now easier to catch myself before too much time slips into shallow thinking — whether it's taking a quick peek at facebook or letting my mind drift while driving or in the shower — when I could be thinking more productively.


My first professional job was programming Assembler in 1976. Even before that I enjoyed working with a great deal of concentration on calculus, physics, and chemistry problems at Virginia Commonwealth University. That job and all of the technical positions I have held since have required similar skills, and around 2008 I remember feeling that social networking, especially twitter, was interfering with my ability to mainain focus.

When living in changing times, it's possible for bogus assumptions — what I call corn-pone opinions — to sneak in under the radar.

For someone who grew up in Virginia, the analogy with smoking cigarettes is fitting. As typically immortal teenagers, we never thought for a second smoking was dangerous. Things like the Vietnam War and H-bombs seemed like much greater threats. Plus, everyone else is doing it! Then decades and thousands of dollars later it's like, why the hell am I paying a small fortune to ruin my health with these nasty things?

Cal Newport's book offers a similar wake-up call.

An example of a new sort of bogus assumption that can easily sneak under the radar is, it's possible to take a quick peek at email, facebook, reddit, medium, etc. Just reading the two quotes above, from Part 2 of the book, tells us the creators of these sites are doing their level best to make taking a quick peek as difficult as possible. Good. To. Know!

Deep Work is an excellent book that can help you identify and purge these unproductive, bogus assumptions.

I loved reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and recommend it highly to anyone who'd rather do work that matters than waste time thinking shallowly!

Buy Deep Work Now!