Deep Work

I am familiar with Cal Newport’s work as I have read his blog in the past. I avoided Deep Work for many years because I thought I already know the content of it. The case studies in the book are interesting like that of Walter Isaacson who could be social but also do deep work, and the extreme case of computer scientist Donald Knuth who ironically does not use e-mail. I also like the counter examples like Jack Dorsey who could run Twitter and Square while being constantly distracted by meetings and people.

I have to agree on the merits of Deep Work. To remain focused on something for long hours is enthralling and meditative. I have personally experienced the joys of Deep Work when I had no social media for a few years and was unreachable for most of the time. Today, I prefer to keep my phone on silent.

I particularly like this quote from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi:

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

Deep Work is challenging yet rewarding because it helps you focus on the moment. And I do agree with Newport’s thesis that Deep Work is needed by the workers of today and the future because we have already transitioned from an Industrial Economy (at least in the West) to a Knowledge-Based Economy. We will need more data scientists, programmers, and AI specialists in the future. Hence, the ability to concentrate is a very valuable skill.

I like the fact that Newport shows the different techniques of Deep Work that other people have used. One doesn’t need to live in the middle of nowhere without internet connection. One can be like Walter Isaacson who could perform social duties but also have plenty of time for Deep Work. I have tried isolating myself in the past and while I was really productive, the experience was quite lonely. Balancing deep work and social life is key. One very useful tip I got from this book is to have a distraction time. Set aside many hours for Deep Work but also set aside time for distraction. I think this is a better strategy than being constantly distracted for most days and scheduling some days to be distraction-free. It is like eating shit for one week and then fasting for a few days. Not a great experience for the mind and body.

Newport advises to rethink social media use. Like stated earlier, I have been off social media for many years. It was great. But recently, I found how powerful social media is for networking. So I had to come up with a compromise. Now, I schedule 30 minutes at the end of my day for social media use.

I give this book three stars because it is longer than it should be. But maybe because I am familiar with Newport’s work so there were plenty of “yeah I already know that” moments.


Deep Work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.

We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.

Why deep work?

  1. We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.
  2. To succeed (in the information economy), you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing – a task that requires depth.

As we shift to an information economy, more and more of our population are knowledge workers, and deep work is becoming a key currency.

Unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy. In this new economy, three groups will have particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

High-quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)

When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.

The Principle of Least Resistance: in a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

Busyness as a proxy for productivity: in the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doings lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Quote  by Winifred Gallagher:

Life fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.

The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.

As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftmanship. The task of a craftsman, they conclude, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.”

Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of our professional life.

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

Rhythmic philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.