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Deep Work summary

Deep Work is a book by Cal Newport on how you can change your working practices.

As the name suggests, this Deep Work summary will look at ways you can develop a working practice that allows you to get a lot of work done in a shorter space of time.

The premise behind deep work is you immerse yourself in a task rather than flitting in and out. This way you get more done, find it easier to focus and free up more time for other pursuits.

Newport used the strategies he talks about to write this book and there’s not just one method to follow. He recognises people have different working habits, so offers a variety of ways you can incorporate deep work into your working life.

If you want to get more done, become more productive and free up more time for yourself, Deep Work is a good primer on the subject.

Deep Work summary

  • 1-sentence summary: Deep Work looks at the strategies you can use to beat distractions and focus intensely to get more meaningful work done.
  • Author: Cal Newport
  • Year published: 2016
  • Pages: 296
  • Rating: 6/10

Takeaway 1 – Find out which of these four strategies works for you

Newport lists four strategies that various writers, thinkers and creatives have used to work deeply and get stuff done.

They are:

The monastic philosophy: This philosophy attempts to maximise deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimising shallow obligations.

The bimodal philosophy: This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.

The rhythmic philosophy: The rhythmic philosophy provides an interesting contrast to the bimodal philosophy. It perhaps fails to achieve the most intense levels of deep thinking sought in the daylong concentration sessions favoured by the bimodalist. The trade-off, however, is that the approach works better with the reality of human nature.

The journalistic philosophy: This philosophy is simpler than the others. With the journalistic philosophy you develop any spare time you may have to work deeply. This is an ideal approach if you work a lot of hours. You can dedicate any free time you have to work deeply on your pet projects.

There’s no right and wrong method here. Just find one which works for you and use it. If you’re starting out, it may be best to experiment with all four until you find one which works.

I used the journalistic approach when I was teaching. I had little free time throughout the day, so in between classes, or for a few hours when I was done, I’d try and get as much work done as I could.

This worked well for me and I got a lot done in that time. Now that I work for myself, I use the rhythmic and monastic philosophy. I don’t like planning my day out thoroughly, so the bimodal approach doesn’t work for me.

Try each one and see which one works for you. When you find one that works, stick with it and crack on with your deep work.

Takeaway 2 – These two abilities will help you thrive in the new economy

The world is changing. Or rather, it’s always changing.

However, the world is changing at a greater pace than ever before. Technological change is increasing at ever-growing speeds. Just think back to the turn of the century.

Flat-screen TVs weren’t commonplace, the iPod was still to be released and touchscreen phones were the stuff of Hollywood films.

That change isn’t going to stop as the years progress, it’s going to increase.

This is where deep work comes in according to Newport. He believes two abilities will become important in order to navigate this new reality.

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

In a fast-changing world, if you can master things quickly, you’ll have an advantage over the rest of the competition. This will be a key attribute as intelligent machines come to start matching human ability.

This will need to be matched with the ability to produce quality work at a fast rate. New port believes the economy will favour those who can not only master new tasks quickly but complete them in double-quick time too.

While we’re yet to see how this will play out. There’s no reason to think these abilities won’t come in handy. Indeed, they’re already valuable. It may just be they become more valuable over time.

Takeaway 3 – You can only achieve deep focus without distractions

One of the downsides of the inter is its propensity for distraction.

For me, the worst site is YouTube. I like to listen to music or a podcast while I work. But if I have to change the song, or listen to a new podcast, I end up flicking through multiple videos before choosing a new one.

This played havoc with my ability to focus and get work done. Eventually, I switched to Spotify, a platform with fewer distracting features and my focus improved.

This is anecdotal evidence, but if you don’t work to eliminate distractions you will continue to be distracted. The problem with this, it impacts how much work you get done.

To get into a flow state and get work done, you need as few distractions as possible. When using Fluent Forever to learn Spanish, I had to eliminate all other distractions or I’d get nowhere.

If I kept checking my phone or reading an article before coming back to my learning, I’d struggle to make any progress.

It seems like everything in the modern world is designed to distract you. Your phone, your computer and any other technological device you may own.

If you can limit these distractions for just a few hours, it will make a world of difference to your ability to work deeply.

Favourite Quotes

  • “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.”
  • “Writing in the early 1990s, as the personal computer revolution first accelerated, [Neil] Postman argued that our society was sliding into a troubling relationship with technology. We were, he noted, no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiencies against the new problems introduced. If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed.”
  • “Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant – even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same.”
  • “To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life – say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives – is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the ‘mental wrecks’ in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work – even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”
  • “But part of what makes social media 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 review

This Deep Work summary has explored Cal Newport’s book on improving your productivity. It’s an interesting read and one which will be valuable for many people.

Newport knows his stuff. That’s clear from the variety of methods and topics he explores. However, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed by the book.

Let’s get this out of the way: If you’re looking for a book that will help you improve your focus and productivity, Deep Work will do that. There’s no question this book would have helped me no end at university.

I would have got much more done and probably got better grades as a result. If you’re a student, I’d be snapping this book up straight away.

For everyone else, the book is less valuable. It’s a good introduction to what you need to work deeply. But aside from that, there’s not much else going on.

A lot of time is spent going over topics that don’t need covering. Do I need to know how Carl Jung worked? Not really.

The feeling I got from Deep Work is, as helpful as the book is, this could have been condensed down into a blog post. At nearly 300 pages, this is a lot of info on how to focus and improve your productivity.

I found it hard to keep going towards the end. My advice would be this:

If you need to improve your work habits, this is a great book and will help you a lot. If you don’t, there’s not much point in reading it.

Who should read Deep Work?

If you’re a student this book will provide you with a lot of useful nuggets. I wish I had this book back when I was at university, I would have got much more done.

Anyone who’s looking to start their own business, write a book, or embark on any creative task will also find a lot of value in Deep Work.