Book review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Rules for focused success in a distracted world – this is the tagline of the book. Ironically, I had seen this book and skimmed it thinking that I had gotten everything that I got out of the book – focus, don’t get distracted, limit the number of decisions you make so that you have more willpower but I decided to revisit this book for a number of reasons: first, I find myself getting more and more distracted by social media, e-mails or other things and I wanted to develop better concentration skills and second, I wanted to figure out how others could be so productive. My second read through of this book revealed a number of insights for me:

  • There are two core abilities for thriving in the new economy: the ability to master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed (quoted from the book) – this speaks to the 10,000 hour rule and becoming extremely good at things that are valuable in this world. If you agree that these two abilities are key to the new economy then one of the skills that supports these is concentration, focus and the ability to do deep work.
  • Adam Grant sets an out of office e-mail even though he is in his office – this way, he can safely ignore e-mails so that he can focus on performing deep work, like writing research papers or books
  • There is a Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviours to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviours that are easiest in the moment. Cal uses this principle to explain why people tend to like e-mails or instant messaging tools as a way to communicate, but this instantaneous nature is quite disruptive to our deep work.
  • “The idle mind is the devil’s workshop – when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right” – totally see this happening in my life a lot and I used to think that it was partially because I was not an overly optimistic person but it seems that we all tend to think about worst case scenarios when we are day dreaming.
  • “Jobs are easier to enjoy than free time; free time is unstructured and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed” – wow – this was interesting to me as I reflected back on the times where I had random days off and at the end of the day, felt like I had accomplished next to nothing. This means that even on days off (or especially on days off) I still need to schedule my time and focus in on a set number of activities like my work days to make the most of the day (and not rely on instantaneous or impromptu excursions or feelings to figure out what I need to do)
  • The good thing about the non-fiction books that I read is that there are always other book recommendations and therefore, I am never short of books to read. In this case, Cal refers to a book by Arnold Bennett called “How to live on 24 hours a day”. Arnold explains that most people work from 9 – 5 (8 hours) and think that the day is over once they get home but they actually have 16 more hours to use as they see fit (granted, not all 16 hours are available due to eating, sleeping, etc.) but he argues that people should see those 16 hours as a day within a day. To me, it’s easy to sit on the couch or in bed and watch Netflix until you have to eat dinner and then go to sleep but there’s a lot of time out there for you to pursue hobbies, dreams and other activities if you consciously schedule and make use of that time outside of work.
  • Key takeaway from the book: schedule every minute of your day. Take a planner or notebook and write down all the different 30 minute blocks of activities that you will do during the day. Try to align yourself to that schedule as much as possible (though recognizing that there will be times when you will need to be flexible). This allows you to track how well you used your day and keeps you focused on the activities that you set out to do.
  • Cal provides a simple way of determining whether work is deep work or shallow work (i.e., what is the work that you need to focus in on vs. what is work that you can delegate to others) and the rule of thumb is the number of months that it would take to train a recent graduate with no specialized training to complete this task. If it’s only a few months, it is something that you can most likely delegate. If it’s more than a year, it is probably something that you need to spend time on yourself.
  • Great quote that I liked from Tim Ferriss: “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things”
  • Cal argues for a professional e-mail sorting technique (i.e., do not reply) according to these rules:
    • If it is ambiguous or hard to generate a reasonable response
    • If it is not a question or proposal that interests you
    • If nothing good would happen if you did respond and nothing bad would happen if you did not respond

Overall, there were a lot of great takeaways in the book and it made me realize how important deep work is – in fact, it may even convince me to turn off my phone or try to set specific times to check / answer e-mails although being a consultant that is always on call will make it a little tough. I can certainly see that concentration and doing deep work is what makes people valuable in this new economy though and it will be a skill that I will be developing.