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Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World

Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World

Author: Cal Newport 

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.

Shallow Work: Non-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.

Fairly simplistic ideas, I would say. But why are they important? Well, in today’s economy, it is very easy to find out how invaluable and replaceable you are. Like I shared in my review of “Rise of the Robots,” artificial intelligence is rapidly taking over the job driven economy. What Newport explains over and over again in this book is how to stand out and thrive during this crisis. The way to do that is to develop the habit and skill of working deeply. This is pertinent in today’s society, and he gives two major reasons as to why:

  1. Learning. In our information economy that we have today, we are dependent on systems that are rapidly changing. If you can’t master the art of learning new things and learning them quickly, you’re at serious risk.
  2. Creation. If you can create something valuable and useful, it can reach an unlimited amount of people throughout the world. The backside of that same coin, however, is that if what you create lacks imagination or personalization, it’s easy for those same people to find different and/or better alternatives online.

The thing about working deeply, though, is that it has become extremely difficult for most people to do. There are so many minor things screaming for our attention all day, every day. For most of us, these minor things (i.e. social media) make it almost impossible for us to concentrate entirely on any one activity. This brings us to Newport’s Deep Work Hypothesis…

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the exact 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.

The Great Restructuring


I don’t mean to be redundant, but again, I have to point out how digital technology is completely ruining the U.S. job market. Newport references the book “Race Against the Machine,” written by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, and how they refer to this technological takeover as “The Great Restructuring.” Again, he goes into detail about how technology is getting further and further ahead, while our skills are lagging. “As intelligent machines improve, the gap between machine and human abilities shrinks, employers are becoming increasingly likely to hire ‘new machines’ instead of ‘new people.'” After talking about this threatening scenario, they go on to explain the three specific groups of people that can and will bring success during The Great Restructuring:

  1. The High-Skilled Workers – Essentially, those who can work extremely well with machines.
  2. The Superstars – Just like it sounds, the people who are among the best at what they do.
  3. The Owners – The ones with the money to invest in the newest technologies that contribute to advancement.

As I mentioned in my “Rise of the Robots” review, it is for reasons like this that I plan on going back to school this coming fall for a Technical Certificate in Robotics and Automation Technology. I also spend the majority of my free time learning and perfecting as many new skills as possible by not only reading books, but also from places like Udemy and Itunes U, among others.

Winning in the New Economy

Prosperity in the Information Economy, according to Newport, comes down to two basic abilities:

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

These two core abilities solely depend on your ability to perform deep work. In order to get better at performing deep work, you simply need to practice. Newport explains his key requirements needed to practice anything, including deep work. They are:

  1. Have your attention focused tightly on whatever skill you are trying to improve.
  2. Receive feedback so you can correct your approach and focus on where you are most productive.

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

In one of Newport’s previous books, “How To Become a Straight-A Student,” he talks about how, when he interviewed students from some of the country’s best schools, he learned that the very best students often spent less time studying than those students who had lower GPA’s. He says that this is the perfect example to show how important a role intensity plays in productivity. These higher-scoring students were indeed spending less time studying, but were much more engaged during their actual study time.

Decide Your Depth Philosophy

There are many strategies on how to incorporate deep work into your life. It is not a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. We all live different lives with different agendas and responsibilities, therefore we need different methods to achieve our deep work. Newport gives us four great examples in the book:

  1. The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling – This philosophy is meant to maximize deep efforts by completely eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. People that follow this philosophy of deep work are pretty extreme if you ask me. They’re the ones who delete their email addresses and discontinue their social media accounts. Their goal is to spend almost all of their waking hours on the one goal they have in mind until it is achieved.
  2. The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling – This philosophy is a little more balanced. It requires that you schedule large chunks of time for deep work. These large chunks are meant to be at least one full day or longer. During this scheduled time, you would work monastically by preventing any distractions from reaching you for the entire time you have set for yourself, maybe by leaving your phone off for the entire time, or even leaving your home until your time expires.
  3. The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling – This one is a little more practical for most people, in my opinion. Not everyone can just disconnect from everyone and everything for a day or more. This method is more of a daily kind of scheduling. There are a few ways of doing this, but one example would be to set a specific time daily to start your deep work and have a set amount of time you will spend on your work. The goal is to attain a sort of rhythm to your scheduling, like doing it at the exact same time for the same amount of time every day.
  4. The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling – This approach is for some pretty talented people…people who are trained, or are able to be trained, to shift into deep work mode on a moments notice. Newport does insist that this approach is not meant for what he calls “the deep work novice.” It is meant for people who have practiced deep work for a long time.

Three Questions to Answer Before Starting Your Deep Work Ritual

  1. Where you will work and for how long. – You need to have a specific location. If possible, make this a location you can dedicate to deep work time only. You also need to give yourself a set time-frame for how long you will be working.
  2. How you’ll work once you start – You need to develop rules and processes to keep yourself structured. Maybe you won’t allow any cell phones in your deep workspace, or maybe there will be no internet allowed at all.
  3. How you’ll support your work – This includes things like starting your deep work sessions with a cup of coffee or downing a full glass of water. Maybe taking a long walk immediately before starting. Pick something you can train yourself to do that will allow your brain to enter “deep work mode” immediately after.

Focus on the Wildly Important

The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish. When entering your deep work, keep your attention on what must get done. Try to identify a small number of important tasks to pursue. This is just another emphasis on how to keep yourself in deep work mode. Decide what you are going to accomplish and then get it done! Don’t let little distractions enter your mind. What helps me is making a small checklist of the tasks I need to complete and using that to keep my mind focused.

Embrace Boredom


Something I talked about in my review of “How to Live a Good Life” is mentioned by Newport as well: cell phone addiction, something I’ve become very conscience about in the past few months. Cell phone addiction is my own term; Newport refers to it as a distraction addiction. In order to practice working deeply, you need to be able to train your mind not to rely on the immediate gratification of any distraction. This doesn’t mean just ridding yourself of distractions while you’re working, but also training your mind not to depend on these distractions during your off hours as well. This will help lessen any “cravings” you get during your deep work to check these distractions. You have to let yourself become bored sometimes. Don’t just whip out your phone and hop on your Facebook or Instagram feed in order to avoid said boredom. Aside from training your mind to stop craving these things, this can aid in many other areas of your life as well. Simon Sinek has also given a few speeches referring to this and explains that most innovation comes out of this boredom and if we keep distracting ourselves, innovation consequently slows down. One way you can practice avoiding these distractions is by performing what Newport calls an “Internet Sabbath.” This ritual asks that you set aside one full day a week to rid yourself of network technology. This is meant to remind you of what you miss when you are glued to a screen. There are some people who perform different variations of this ritual like going as drastic as one to two months without any network technology, and some who do as little as one to two hours per day. All are beneficial in rewiring your brain to not crave distraction so much. Newport also gives an alternative to this Internet Sabbath, where he suggests scheduling time for these distractions in contrast to scheduling time of focus. You can do this by keeping a notepad by you while you are working and write down the next time you are allowed to give in to these distractions and for how long.

Productive Meditation

Productive meditation is a period of time where you are occupied physically, but not mentally. This could be done while walking, jogging, showering, etc. While performing the physical activity, have your mind focused on one professional problem. I have been doing my own version of this for quite some time, I just never really gave it a name. I try to go for long (about one hour) walks once a day and during these walks, I like to think about my goals, accomplishments, etc. Doing this not only has its physical benefits, but it also helps me improve my ability to think deeply. Like everything else described in the book, the ability to perform productive meditation does require practice, so don’t expect to be able to successfully clear your mind on the first try.

Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself

At least not all of the time. This kind of builds off of the cell phone addiction issue. When most of us are bored, we pull out our phones and surf social media and the internet. In this part of the book, Newport talks about how much time people waste by just binge surfing the internet. Why not spend this time productively? If you work 8 hours a day, that gives you 16 hours do with as you please (for the most part.) Even if you sleep for 8 of those hours, you still have 8 hours to be productive. With those 8 hours, you can work on all kinds of self-improvement like building a side business, reading, writing, exercising, and so on, yet so many of us hesitate to do any of those things. We’d rather look for memes. Put more thought into your leisure time. In other words, when it comes to relaxation, don’t just settle for the first thing that catches your attention. Try scheduling your down time with more productive ways to spend it instead of latching onto whatever is on TV. Even sharing company (in person) with someone can be more beneficial than giving in to the distractions all around you. Practicing this will not only improve your ability to resist distraction and concentrate, but in the words of Arnold Bennet, “You can experience what it means to live, not just exist.”

Final Thoughts

Deep Work is another great book that I am happily adding to my list of reviews. It is somewhat a combination of a few books and idea’s I have already shared, with some added beneficial content as well. It really puts perspective on how much time people waste on social media and how much that same time, if spent differently, can positively affect their lives. After reading this book, I have now given myself set time frames for every day that are to be spent in a state of deep work. Writing this blog is a great example of that as I have spent the last 3 hours writing non-stop. I also cherish my free time a little more now. I try to be as productive as possible with it, while also enjoying the company of my amazing girlfriend. I look forward to continuously using the strategies from this book in my daily life as I grow my blog and learn more about how I can become a better me.

Have you read this book? What deep work strategies do you use? Let me know; I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Avid book reader obsessed with self-improvement and learning. I read an average of one book a week on topics like personal finance, health, character building, and so on.

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