Book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

TitleDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Author(s)Cal Newport  
Initially PublishedJanuary 2016 (English)
PublisherGrand Central Publishing  
Formats AvailableKindle, Hardcover, Paperback  
Available AtAmazon.com; Amazon.in
NotesAvailable in other languages. i.e., Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu, etc.

Here is a paragraph from the Introduction of the book:

“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.”

“Deep Work” (a term coined by the author, Cal Newport) is the ability to focus without distraction on a complicated and cognitively demanding activity. Newport explains that this is work that requires attention, concentration and continuity for long periods. It is typically done alone and pushes one’s mental abilities to the limits. Some examples are: working on strategy (product launch, investment), design of complex systems, learning something new, analysis, writing a book, writing complex code.

Newport points out that many people have lost the ability to do deep work – doing multi-tasking and being driven by e-mails and social media, without being conscious of it. People often do deep work while they are in the learning mode, and then coast along with the skills they have assimilated, doing work in a ‘shallow’ manner. They also lose their ability to pick up new skills. Later, when their skills become irrelevant (e.g., due to automation), or their profession is significantly transformed, they are unable to learn new things that require concentration – and hit a crisis – typically in the later part of their lives.

Over the years, I too had gradually lost my ability to do deep work – and I am trying to pick it up again, using the tips listed in the book.

Key Messages for Me

  • Deep work requires deliberate, focussed attention for long, continuous, periods of time (45 – 90 mins) at a stretch without interruptions where we take our mind to its limits, concentrating, and losing ourselves in the activity (the maximum recommended deep work time is 4 hours per day). Deep work is essential to stand out and make contributions in demanding fields. It is also more satisfying than reading-answering emails, chatting on the net, and forwarding jokes on social media.
  • Frequent use of emails, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, etc., along with mobile phones, and networked computers do not let us spend long periods of uninterrupted, focussed thinking and do any cognitively difficult work unless we take deliberate steps to rearrange our time. Many of us have become addicted to social media and such distractions.
  • Doing important work in a scattered way, with frequent interruptions, significantly increases the time to complete it and reduces the quality of the output.
  • Deep work is rare and hard. Shallow work is easy and all-pervasive.
  • Maybe Google search has reduced the capacity of our memory and our cognitive abilities. Because we can always search and retrieve information easily, we no longer have the ability to hold a set of ideas in our mind at the same time – to enable our brain to make new connections.
  • Many people, including tech giants (like Bill Gates, Neal Stephenson) took long periods ‘off’ from being connected – to think big and deep.
  • To adopt deep work, one has to understand, minimize and optimize shallow work – tasks that make us look and feel busy!

Why Do Deep Work?

According to the book:

  • Deep Work is Valuable. It creates the High-skilled Workers (who do cognitively tough, innovative and complex work) and Superstars (good actors, sportspersons, artists, programmers). Both need to master hard things and produce meaningful results – abilities that are created by doing deep work. Speed of creation and the quality of new products and services are also enhanced by deep work.
  • Deep work is Rare. Current work environments and expectations from knowledge workers do not easily support deep work. Open offices, instant responses to emails and other messages, meetings, presentations, etc. are not conducive to deep work. Combined with the principles of “least resistance” and “short processing time”, deep work takes a back seat. Measures for work have been substituted by “# of likes” on social media, and time to acknowledge an email (with just ‘Thanks’?). It is easier to show ‘busyness’ with shallow work. Being constantly connected (all-pervading Internet) adds to the problem.
  • Deep Work is Meaningful (to the worker). Doing focussed work makes people happy, more than relaxation activities (relaxation activities generate happiness only up to a point). Also, doing deep work makes one less conscious of minor annoyances.

How To Do Deep Work?

Cal Newport explains this in the later part of Deep Work:

Adopt one or a combination of the following philosophies:

  • Bimodal philosophy – divide the time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches of days to deep work (like a retreat in a remote location) and leave the rest of the days open to everything else – minimum unit of time for deep work in this tends to be at least one full day; and some deep work may need weeks. During these days being devoted to “deep work”, avoid / minimize shallow work, and connecting with others.
  • Monastic philosophy – minimize communication, physical distractions, emails, social media, etc. at all times. Avoid fragmentation of time. This may apply to some folks – they become hermits.
  • Journalistic Philosophy – Any time we find free time, go into the deep mode – rapidly switch from shallow to deep; not advised for the deep work novice.

Be ready to feel bored. Being distracted by doing more shallow work is not going to open the mind to new ideas. Stay with that boredom, even if feeling impatient or stuck. Do not quickly switch to shallow transactions. Instead, take scheduled breaks from deep work to do the necessary shallow tasks. Keep thinking of the deep problem while doing activities like jogging, walking, driving, treadmill, etc., instead of checking social media, or brooding over office politics or thinking of whom to forward the jokes that you received. Improve memory (there are proven techniques for this), because deep work requires you to remember multiple dimensions of the problem being worked on, so that the mind can build connections. Avoid multi-tasking as far as possible (read this post for more on multi-tasking: Is Multitasking Still a Skill to Boast About? )

Minimize the use of social media. We don’t need to be constantly active on the social media either for entertainment or for friendships.

Reduce time spent on shallow activities. Delegate, combine, optimize, automate, and sequence shallow activities, so that more continuous time is available for deep work.

Extremely Useful Book

Deep Work is an extremely useful book. It makes complex concepts simple and easy to understand. All guidance in Deep Work is common-sense.

Deep Work motivated me to adopt some of the recommended practices, and I am thankful for that. I have experienced some benefits already.

The book includes several examples of famous people who have made significant contribution in their fields: Carl Jung, Woody Allen, Peter Higgs, JK Rowling, Bill Gates, Jason Benn, Adam Grant, Jack Dorsey, Richard Feynman, Jerry Seinfeld, Theodore Roosevelt, and Malcolm Gladwell – to name a few.

Many studies, reports and books have been referred to (they are also listed at the end). A brilliant and useful book, simple to read and understand, and worth re-visiting, especially if one finds oneself falling back in the trap of scattered days full of shallow, unsatisfying activities that seem to attract but actually don’t result in a satisfactory, meaningfully-spent time.

About Cal Newport – the Author of Deep Work

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University, and a writer who explores the intersections of technology, work, and culture. He is the author of seven books, including, A World Without Email, Digital Minimalism, and Deep Work. These titles include bestsellers and have been translated into over 40 languages. More information about Newport is available here.

Here is a link to a YouTube video where Cal Newport summarizes the core idea of Deep Work (https://youtu.be/xJYlhhT7hyE). There are a lot of videos on YouTube by Cal Newport.

The book is available at: Amazon.com, Amazon.in

Please feel free to share your views, experiences or queries, using the “comments” feature available.

Your comments are welcome!

Author: Rajesh Naik

I'm Rajesh Naik, and this is my personal website If you are interested in contacting me, I am also available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite.

12 thoughts on “Book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport”

  1. Very well said
    I feel our ability to work with concentration has gone down when we have so many more distractions.

  2. Sounds like an interesting book, fully subscribe to the notion of deep work, I find I might be practicing it to some extent

  3. This resonates with what Peter Block propounds in The Answer to How is Yes – adopting Idealism, Intimacy and Depth.

      1. And yet again Rajesh… Brilliant takes on things I know and still find it hard to change.
        It is difficult to remember the pre social media time when we weren’t connected all the time. And distraction is not just social media .. it’s way more.

        Am reminded of Elliot’s quote… .
        Distracted from distraction by distraction.

        Keep the super reviews on!

  4. You had told me about this book a few years ago..
    Had read it then. Can absolutely relate to it.

    Your take summarizes the essence of the book wonderfully. I do practice deep work myself. I can do 8 to 10 hours of concentrated work at a stretch. And I know my best outputs that gave me the greatest joy (could be things like reports, presentations, etc.) were a result of deep work.

    Deep work gives you happiness, relaxation gives you transient joy.
    This is well said.

    Now I was doing deep work till I took a break to catch up on WhatsApp. Lemme go back to my deep work :).

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