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  
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:

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