Author: Cal Newport. He is a writer and an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He writes and blogs on productivity and making yourself useful. See his full bio on his site.
My Overall Thoughts: This book makes the case for working with your full attention. It shows how to make best use of both your conscious and subconscious minds. It also shows you ways to eliminate distractions.
Should You Read This Book?
If you have these challenges:
- You want to develop a deeper understanding of a work or learning project but aren’t sure how.
- You don’t think your study and work methods are very effective.
… then it might help because it:
- Tells you how to find the time and space to do the deep work.
- Gives you techniques for doing more effective deep work.
- Helps you better evaluate the ROI of social media.
But you might not want to read it if:
- You don’t like to nerd out on learning.
- If you’re looking for learning hacks, shortcuts, or quick tips, or easy fixes.
What I Got Out Of This Book
The book is divided into four sections. Here’s the highlights of what I found valuable in each section.
This is the most important chapter and covers the heart of the book.
What is Deep Work? It’s work that is valuable, rare, and meaningful. It’s work done with real focus and deep thought. It’s a space where deeper learning and understanding happen and breakthroughs are made.
Use Grand Gestures. I liked the idea of “The Grand Gesture”. This means adding some pomp and circumstance to your deep work ritual. One classic example is Thoreau going out to isolate and write at Walden. My first thought was “aw, who needs this superficial stuff? It’s just window dressing and procrastination” But then I realized that I already do some of it.
When I need absolute silence and concentration I go over to the University of Texas Law Library, which is the most beautifully quiet and desolate place I’ve found in Austin. I get real work done there. Deep work.
Other “Grand Gestures” include the “daily shutdown routine” to demarcate the work from the rest of your life.
Be Lazy. Speaking of the rest of your life, be lazy (at times). When I hit a wall and can’t figure things out, my solution is usually going for a walk. I have had countless breakthroughs on quiet walks with just me and my thoughts. I’m not actively looking for answers, I just sort of go out and let the back of my head figure it out. This, apparently, is called “Unconscious Thought Theory” and is the idea that if you stop working the front of your mind, that will let the back of your mind figure it out.
The Scoreboard. Absolutely one of the best things I got out of this book. There is a power in streaking. Making a visual representation on a calendar or other physical “scoreboard” of how many days in a row you have done something. Or how many hours you have worked on something. It doesn’t take long for things to add up. And once you have a streak going it is very very hard to quit. There’s an amazing satisfaction to this. Try it. I currently have scoreboards for: days meditated in a row, days blogged in a row, days practicing guitar in a row.
Review your strategy. Most people take just a little time to determine how they will work, then they just do that system forever. Deep Work makes a big deal about reviewing your system and strategy weekly and making adjustments. This seems tedious but you can do it in under and hour and it can save you many hours if you start to look for ways to improve how you are working. Like much in the book, it seems like something you can skip because it’s not that important. Holy shit it is important. Do it.
There’s loads more in this section of the book. Those are just some of my favorite ideas.
Newport is a big proponent of boredom. I don’t think he means the listless sort of boredom, but a unjudged “nothing is going on right now” factual boredom.
Why do we need to embrace boredom? So we can get good and comfortable with being bored.
Why do we need to get good with being bored? Because a lot of the important work we do is boring. If we can develop some comfort with boredom, then we can make it through the work without feeling that need to scratch the itch and reach for our phones or other distractions.
Quit Social Media
Newport wrote an entire book on this topic, called Digital Minimalism. He really believes in cutting back these distractions. Why?
Our attention is valuable and limited and needed to do work that is important to us. Giving it up to social media is taking it away from ourselves.
Best idea in this section: “Any benefit” vs “Enough benefit”. These are the proverbial angel and devil on your shoulders.
The devil makes the case “You’ve found valuable things on social media before, so you should go check it out again. There’s value there”.
The angel says, “You can always find some benefit in your actions. Instead of asking if there’s ANY value, ask if there’s enough VALUE. And how does that compare to other actions you might take instead? What is the opportunity cost? And don’t forget to take into account the negative effects social media has.”
“You never know. It’s worth a shot”. Be wary of these words. They usually come out of the mouth of someone who wants to take the easy road of taking the first idea rather than spending the time to do the work to better assess the options.
Drain The Shallows
This section is sort of a grab bag of techniques to manage and minimize lower-value work. He suggests budgeting blocks of shallow time and scheduling every minute of your day (which I like to do and find immensely valuable).
Here’s my final one-page summary that I use for studying the book:
Other Interesting Things I Learned
This book stayed on topic the whole time and there weren’t any odds and ends to be mentioned here.
- Effort Required of you to get the most out of this book: Soul: 0%, Emotions: 50%, Mental: 50%, Physical: 0%.
- Topics Covered: Productivity, Deep Work, Learning
- Qualifications of Author: Been-there-done-that
- Content Source: Author’s experience, Other’s research.
- Content and Style
- Personableness: Neutral
- Writing Competency: Good
- Repetitiveness: New content all the way through
- Explanations: Good
- Organization: Great
- Anecdote level: Appropriate (10%)
- Convincingness of evidence: Good
- Annoyances: None