Deep Work by Cal Newport Book Summary, Notes, and PDF

Last Updated on November 16, 2020

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This excellent book written by professor Cal Newport ought to be read by anyone wanting to improve their ability to focus at work. This ranges from attending meetings or going through the never ending lists of emails and replying to them one by one.

A lot of us nowadays suffer from an “8-second long attention span”. The author calls us to focus only on essential things. 

This book states that immersing yourself fully is genuinely a meaningful skill. 

The next part of the book offers four rules outlining how to create a proper work ethic.

Work is categorized into two categories:

  • Deep work consists of professional activities that you carry out when you don’t have any distractions, and you can push your cognitive abilities to the breaking point. This effort has a unique value to it, as it can improve skills, and it’s not easy to replicate.
  • Shallow work consists of doing tough, logistical tasks that may be performed while distracted. These works do not create new value in this world and can be easily replicated.

The first half of the book explains why deep work is so valuable and meaningful in today’s complicated world. The author argues that our attention is so fractured that a lot of us only really do a little deep work every single day.

A lot of us are exposed to years of shallow work, and it harms our ability to focus correctly that cannot be reversed easily.

There is a lot of evidence toward this problem, and the book offers us examples from influential thinkers from the past century, including famous people like Bill Gates. Although it doesn’t seem to be summarized correctly, it is still a worthwhile read if you need to gain some motivation. This kind of motivation is necessary for us to discover that there are lots of moments in our lives where we are idle. This might push us to get real work done and make a difference.

The next half of the book is filled with compelling and actionable suggestions for us to shift into deep work. You can find practical advice, including ways to get rid of bad habits and learn sound practices, along with implementing quick achievements and training or improving your attention. 

Fighting to get more deep work done in our life means that we must keep doing things that are important to us. We need to do extraordinary things and let go of the many actions that aren’t as important, bit by bit. At the book’s core, it tries to convey that our days should not consist of just getting things done, but also create valuable progress.

In other words, you need to be efficient in carrying out things that are meaningful in life, so that you make your day productive and fill the whole world with energy and balance.

Below are some of my brief notes on the book’s main points and quick tips.


Drowning In The Pool of Information

We have access to network tools, like meetings, social media, productivity boards, etc. All these have significantly increased, but our ability to select which ones can be effectively used has not.

Instead, we start adopting tools that offer a little bit of benefit to us without weighing those benefits against the costs. It could end up costing us time in unnecessary activities.

Moreover, we are surrounded by many distractions that are ongoing competitions, and it has become useful in catching our attention. (Whatsapp, Android TV, iPad Videos etc.) Willpower is a great resource that’ll allow us to avoid these distractions, allowing us to create healthy habits instead of indulging in instant gratification.

An inclination for immediate gratification is deadly to productivity because shallow work is more comfortable compared to deep work. You attend meetings and reply idly to each email, basically tick off the shallow work one by one. It provides temporary satisfaction and a self-illusion of doing business, but this only results in losing the chance of doing real, deep work.

We have come to view the free time only as something that we need to do so we can spend more time working. However, this doesn’t mean that we are productive.

Getting Into The Deep Pool

Try three to four hours of deep work each day and see whether it produces a significant transformational effect on our productivity and our lives.

Creating new habits and getting them to stick, takes time and effort. If you are creating a systematic action plan, during in-depth work sessions, you are getting in your own way. To those that hope that these habits are incorporated into everyday practice, they should learn to focus on one initiative at the time and be patient in doing so. You do not try to run a marathon on your first run, so you need to build a commitment to do more productive deep work and work hard on it. It is a slow procedure of forming habits and making you mentally fit.

All different types of personal changes require time and effort, as well as some discomfort. It should change the way we think and also the way of thinking of the people around us.

Learn how to categorize tasks as shallow or deep

The author devotes some pages to offer good examples that work through the following processes:

  1. Identify a significant picture outcome on the part of your life ( family, health, wealth, etc.?
  2. Pick up two or three activities that contribute towards this result.
  3. For each task that takes up a lot of energy in each aspect of life, ask yourself if this tool or job is integral to the activities that will allow me to progress towards my personal goals.
  4. If the answer is no, quit what you are doing right away.

Although all our goals are personal, a lot of us will find that most of the tools we use and activities we engage in fail to pass this test. Using deep work, we need to focus on something important and set a few goals that maximize your efforts in doing deep work. These objectives should feel challenging and might seem intimidating, giving you the motivation to work deeper and deeper.

For example, is it better to spend a few hours scrolling on Facebook reading about the latest friend updates or go out with a few close friends for dinner? Unless our career needs us to maintain a secure network online, having personal communications is more important.

Giving up all tasks might seem extreme, but you need to remember that willpower is finite, and there is danger in allowing these distractions to go on for too long.

For a proper guideline on how deep a piece of work is, you need to ask yourself – How many months would it require to train a smart graduate student that has no working experience to handle the job in my business? A rule of thumb and keep us honest on whether we prioritize work, separating what works from what doesn’t.

Make structural changes that turn into deep work

Breaking habits or forming new ones can be made easier if we also add small, structural changes that help us avoid distractions.

These changes are essential to creating new habits while resisting wasting energy on old ones.

Here are a few structural changes that the author suggests that we need to simplify our lives and be able to work more deeply.

  1. Disable all mobile notifications.

In the past decade, including two years as working as an analyst, I have never missed a single professional or personal call that can’t wait.

  1. Becomes hard to get a grasp on

Set filter emails with proper rules and use auto-responders to reply to non-urgent emails. Make sure to get people to respect your time and energy, and they definitely will.

  1. Do Not Use Social Media

Experiment with a secret, one-month social media fast if it helps. I have not used social media in 8 years, and my life has been much better without it.

  1. Work in a quiet environment

Plan to work in a private room or a library is good for working in a calm environment and make sure that you turn off the music while you work.

Limit internet access when having a deep work time

  • Gather the things that you need before a deep work session.
  • Use a Pomodoro technique to alternate between online and offline work time.
  • Block websites that offer distractions during work time.

3. Understanding how much time you spend daily on Deep and Shallow work

The first thing you need to do to change a task is to measure it accurately. Keep a proper record on paper on how you spend your time each day.

Go through the daily record to figure out how much time you spent on deep and shallow work, and make adjustments.

4. Determine a fixed endpoint on a proper workday and stick to the routine

The author ends his work at 5.30 PM. each day. He states in his blog that he has been implementing this for a long time, and has learned to plan work correctly, so he has free time right after.

The brain needs some space every night to wind down, so you don’t need to have a new work ethic. You need to stop working for the rest of the day and enjoy free time to recuperate.

  1. Reframe the day towards free time 

We need to know that we work to earn money, but it’s a dead-end if you fail to reach your goals.

  1. Commit to a fix time end of the day

Make some commitments to the family or your friend meetings.

  1. Plan backward

Find the things that have to be done every day and plan back.

  1. Say no to any commitments that are not important

View all the requests coming up and pick the ones that are related to real work and get rid of the rest.

Train Your Attention

As well as we get rid of shallow work and focus on deep work, we need to get some exercises to strengthen our ability to focus our attention. Exercises like meditation and concentration on a single object.

  1. Make friends with boredom

When standing in line, practice being in the moment and do not let your mind wander off.

  1. Practice thinking while walking

Try to focus on one single topic that is important to you, but make sure that it doesn’t require too much mental exertion. Start a ‘productive’ meditation when you are entirely free.

  1. Memorizing activity to train the brain

Use visual memory to remember a pack of cards. There are useful tricks to impress friends when you go drinking at a pub. This kind of gymnastics forces us to properly exercise our attention muscles while giving us a positive effect throughout our whole lives.

Author Biography

Calvin Newport is a well-known computer science expert and a graduate from Georgetown University.

He has authored several self-improvement books. If you wish to learn more about cognitive abilities, and start improving your mental powers, read his books thoroughly. 

Newport’s books focus on career success. After reading his writing, apply the techniques learned, and you will soon be able to improve your attention span and cognitive abilities.

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