🪴 Vik's Notes


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Last updated Feb 9, 2023


# Chapter Notes

# Introduction

Newport suggests that the intense work practice of several people in history across multiple disciplines is responsible for their prolific contributions to their field. He attributes their success to what he defines as Deep Work, which is defined as:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Here are some examples of people who have had a tendency to go into deep focus modes when doing their work:

  1. Carl Jung, built a house for himself where he could isolate himself for work
  2. Mark Twain wrote in a shed away from the family, who had to blow a horn to alert him for meals
  3. Peter Higgs, physicist, was so isolated that people could not find him to tell him he had won the nobel prize
  4. Bill Gates stayed in his lakeside cottage for two “Think Weeks” in a year, from where he wrote the famous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo

But we live in a time where distraction is celebrated by being instantly responsive on communication platforms, and in contrast most knowledge workers perform Shallow Work, defined as,

“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

It appears that the modern world is permanently erasing our ability to perform Deep Work. Instead of nostalgically looking at our distraction-free past, deep work today has more meaning than ever before for two reasons:

  1. It is valuable to quickly learn complicated things
  2. In the digital age, creating valuable work has incredible reach- more than ever before In the internet age, more and more people are becoming knowledge workers, and those who have the ability to do deep work, will stand out above the others. This is called 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.”

It is notable that deep work does not mean long hours. It is a period of intense focus every for 3-4 hours a day, that is capable of producing valuable output. A deep life is a good life, as Newport says.

# Deep Work is Valuable

In this section, three “successful” people are provided as examples, and the reason for their success is considered. Our future economy looks increasingly divided where easy to replicate jobs will be automated away, and hard to replicate jobs will become more valuable. Let’s see who these people are and what makes them valuable.

  1. Nate Silver- a statistician who took his love of baseball to election predictions
    1. A highly skilled worker, who is capable of taking data and manipulating it with machines to successfully predict new outcomes
  2. David Hansson- a programmer who created Ruby on Rails, used a lot to build the internet
    1. A superstar whose skillset is clearly at a premium, and it often makes more economic sense to hire a superstar to get the job done instead of hiring a team of mediocre programmers not capable of that kind of output
    2. Everybody’s skill today is traded on a “universal bazaar” where the best will clearly dictate a premium over all others
  3. John Doerr- a venture capitalist who fueled many major and successful tech companies
    1. A wealthy individual with lots of investable capital, can fund a company like Instagram which sold for a billion dollars with only 13 people

Not everyone has capital to invest, but the first two are definitely worth looking at. Our interest essentially lies in how we develop the ability to:

  1. quickly master hard things
  2. produce at an elite level (quality and speed)

The contrary is also important to consider and Newport states:

“If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.”

Both of these skills essentially depends on our ability to do deep work.

To develop the ability to master hard things, we need to have

  1. Intense concentration where all our attention is solely focused on overcoming the challenge ahead of us, without distraction
  2. Deliberate practice to fail multiple times, use the feedback from the experience and correct your methods till you achieve success
  3. Neurological scaffolding called Myelin, which is a fatty tissue that develops around neurons when they are being used to do challenging tasks. Repeated work triggers oligodendrocytes to wrap myelin around neurons

Newport uses the example of Adam Grant, the youngest tenured prof at Wharton, who produced an absurdly high number of papers and a best selling book Give and Take. He takes the fall semester to do all his teaching and then all this research is batched into spring and summer. He also uses smaller batches to time to work deep, by putting out-of-office notices when he is working on a paper.

The reason you need long stretches of time to do deep work is due to attention residue. When you switch from one task to another, there is a residue left over from the previous task. This is entirely antithetical to the idea of multi-tasking where the semi-distracted state never lets you ultimately focus.

What about Jack Dorsey? The twitter ex-CEO famously spends time in meetings and conversations with people doing what we define here as shallow work. He is still an effective leader and has proven he can disrupt the industry. Why? Deep work is not always applicable to all kinds of people in all roles. But in most circumstances deep work is usually valuable. There are always exceptions to the rule.

# Deep work is rare

Today’s work culture is chock full of terms that are meant to keep people and ideas “connected” together; open workpaces, instant messaging, social media. Many organizations require their employees to respond instantly to emails and messages, and even to develop a social media presence, while not prioritizing deep work as a fundamental component of achieving productivity in a workplace.

The reason the companies do not see that the always-connected trend is detrimental to their business is due to the metric black hole, which is another way of saying that it is difficult to put a monetary value on the impact on the business causes by these office distractions which keep people away from deep work.

What are some of the mental models that cause people to embrace distractions instead of deep work?

With distractions from social media and the culture of connectivity in workplaces, deep work is becoming increasing rare, which is really bad for businesses. However, if everyone is always in a distracted state, those who are capable of deep work will suddenly find themselves in a fortunate position when they can produce at an elite level.

# Deep work is meaningful

Everything is not always about being successful and wealthy. Deep work is capable making a life meaningful and well worth living. The following arguments will prove that it is so, in a neurological, psychological and philosophical sense.

Neurological: Science writer, Winifred Gallagher, in her book Rapt, says that our quality of life depends on what we pay attention to and what we ignore. Most often, we look at it backwards, ie, what happens to us should dictate how we feel. (There are some fMRI experiement arguments trying to support the neurological origin for this argument that does not make much sense.)

Deep work allows your attention to focus on what is important, and ignore the minute stresses that are present in shallow work such as emails and instant messages. As such this results in an improved quality of life, because the small stuff does not stress us out throughout the day. A meaningful connection with your work can be very fulfilling.

Psychological: When humans are deeply immersed in a challeging activity, they engage the limits of the mental powers while achieving what Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state during which time takes on a different meaning, and a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness emerges.

Philosophical: Sacredness has always been connected to meaning in the course of human culture, but since the evolution of Descartes’ skepticism which put an individual over the importance of an all-knowing god, has led us to a life devoid of meaning. However, by dedicating ourselves to our craft, we can once again spark that connection to the sacredness and meaning. Cultivating craftsmanship is a deep task that requires a commitment to deep work. It can be argued that our daily job is much too mundane to be sacred. This is because we have been led to believe that rarified jobs (nonprofits, startups, unique roles) are the only ones with meaning. Newport refutes this with

You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work

# Rule 1: Work Deeply

David Dewane envisions what he calls The Eudaimonia Machine which is an architectural concept for a workspace whose sole purpose is to enable deep work. The structure is a one-storey narrow rectangle with five rooms placed in a line, but there are no shared hallways. You need to pass through each room to get to the next one. The five rooms are

  1. The Gallery: contains examples of deep work produced in the building, to create a healthy mix of stress and peer pressure
  2. The Salon: a place to create intense curiousity and arguments that you will later develop deeper in the machine
  3. The Library: has records of all work produced in the machine, and has copies and scanners that you can use to collect material for your own deep work
  4. The Office: place to complete all the shallow work needed for your projects, email notes, webpage clippings, note collections.
  5. The Chamber: room with sound proof wall for total focus. The intention is to spend 90 minutes at a time and take a 90 minute break, and repeat this a few times a day will the brain has reached it’s capacity for deep work.

We need to somehow emulate this process in our daily lives so that we can slip into deep work modes. We always have the urge to turn to something superficial, and this is the biggest obstacle to deep work. Roy Baumeister established that willpower is a finite resource that gets depleted as you use it. The key is to not rely on willpower to do deep work but instead develop a work habit that adds routines and rituals to put you in a state of intense concentration.

Decide on your depth philosophy

You must decide on a depth philosophy that best suites your lifestyle and commitments. Here are some options:


Completely ignore the need for inspiration to do deep work, and create idiosyncratic rituals to minimize all friction in getting to work. A ritual can be designed around the following considerations:

  1. Specify a location for your deep work, and decide how long you will work.
  2. Define rules and metrics, such as no internet, external communication, or words typed in a fixed time interval
  3. Minimize all friction required to do work. Use good stationary, appropriate computer peripherals, computer files ready to go, coffee if you need it.

These principles cement into your mind that your deep work is the highest priority and needs this kind of committment.

Make Grand Gestures

Increase the perceived importance of a task by making a grand gesture that often involves significant effort or energy. Here are some fun examples:

Don’t Work Alone

So far in the book, it seems that going solo is the only way to work deeply at all. However, collaboration and interaction with others is an important aspect in creative work. The whiteboard effect, a term coined by Newport to describe the phenomenon where your collaborator pushes you into deeper work, than when you were working alone. This is the basis of the “open-workspace” concept applied in offices today, and it seems to have it’s origins in Building 20, in MIT, where this lab produced an enormous amount of work ranging from the first solar cell, to fiber optics. This hastily constructed lab in MIT housed people of multiple unrelated disciplies working together, and this is the often cited reasons for why open workspaces work.

However, Newport argues that even Building 20 has a “hub-and-spoke” architecture, where people congregated in hubs to discuss ideas and then retreated to their spoke to work deeply. I recommend reading this chapter for more reasoning of why this is so, and how it works. In contrast, our open workspace offices provide nothing but constant distraction. The key to successful collaboration is treat interaction and deep work as two separate entities, and therefore need to be optimized separately. Do collaborate when necessary, but be cautious to not overdo it, at the cost of your own ability to do deep work.

Execute like a business

In this section, Newport explains how he adapted a book titled “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” - a book about corporate strategy - to how to spend more time working deeply. The four “adapted” disciplines as related to deep work are:

  1. Focus on the wildly important: Identify and work on a small number of ambitious outcomes
  2. Act on Lead Measures: Lag measures are metrics evaluated after a relevant span of time, but lead measures are metrics that can be evaluated immediately towards a goal. Instead of defining a lag measure like, “I will write X papers this year”, adopt a lead measure like, “I will spend 4 hours in deep work everyday.”
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard: Setup a real scoreboard that measures the amount of time spent in deep work. A simple way is to write down deep work hours in a calendar, and mark off important milestones achieved to indicate how many deep work hours were required to achieve that goal.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability: Setup a weekly review with yourself to go over your deep work count, identify wins and losses, and make course corrections for the next week.

Be Lazy

Giving yourself time to recover from deep work, so that you can attack the next day with the same intensity is vitally important. To ensure this happens, Newport suggests that one invents a shutdown routine you go through to tell your mind that the work for the day is done, and from that point on, you do not apply your mind to any work activity. Here are some reasons why shutting down is important:

  1. Downtime aids insights: A well rested mind is capable of making much better connections between ideas, and improves creativity and problem solving.
  2. Downtime helps recharge: Directed attention, like willpower, is finite, and is easily exhausted. To replenish our reserves, we need downtime where our mind is put at ease by engaging in relaxing activities.
  3. Working during downtimes results in poor quality: Our capacity for deep work in a day is limited to about 4 hours, which you should fit into your workday. Any work done outside of that is usually of poor quality.

The need for a shutdown ritual is important when considering the Zeigernik effect- which points out that incomplete tasks will dominate our attention. Note that the task need not actually be completed, but we need to devise a way to trick the brain into thinking that it’s completed, at least for now. This is where a strict shutdown ritual helps, and it can be something like this:

  1. Review all incomplete tasks, goals and projects
  2. Make sure you have a plan for it’s completion
  3. Capture all the details in a place you will revisit when the time is right
  4. Verbally declare the day complete (“Shutdown complete” or “That’s enough for the day”)

Now, your obligations has been released from your brain, and your recovery period begins.

When you work, work hard. When you’re done, you’re done.

# Rule 2: Embrace Boredom

Like most skills, the ability to work deeply and concentrate intensely cannot be gained overnight. Much like anything else, it requires repeated and deliberate practice. However, it is not sufficient to simply practice concentrating on a task. We must actively work on minimizing our distractions.

With the ubiquity of smart phones, we have the ability to distract ourselves at a moments notice, when we are standing in line at the grocery store, or when we are waiting for a friend to arrive, by getting on social media or checking news and email. Unless we work on staving off the need to distract ourselves, there is no way our ability to concentrate will improve. We must embrace boredom. This chapter outlines some strategeies to minimize distraction and practise focus.

Take breaks from focus, instead of breaks from distraction

A popular strategy to break away from distracton addiction is to take an Internet Sabbath, a day devoid of any digital devices, once every week. Newport suggests an alternative, where instead of taking a break from distraction so you can focus, you instead take a break from focus for distraction.

For example, schedule in advance when you will use the internet by writing down on a notepad the exact time you will allowed to browse the internet. This will force ourselves not to reach for distraction at the slightest hint of boredom.

To reiterate, the key strategy is to avoid going online at the slightest hint of boredom. This is something to be practiced mindfully, and one must take every opportunity to do so - for exapmle, when waiting in line at the grocery store.

Work like Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt had an amazing array of interests ranging from body building to naturalism, but he still did well in his classes at Harvard. He was not at the top of his class but he did quite well. His interests left him very little time to actually focus on academics and therefore he worked on school work for only short periods of time but with blistering intensity.

Here is how we can adopt this strategy: identify a deep work, high priority task and give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces the time usually taken to do such a task. Make it even harder by publicly proclaiming that deadline, and set a countdown timer and set to work on it. Newport calls such work periods Roosevelt Dashes.

Always make sure you keep Roosevelt dashes on the edge of feasibility, where the successful completion of the task will require levels of concentration higher than usual. It provides interval training for the brain.

Meditate Productively

Productive meditation is when you focus your attention on a mental task such as outlining an article, or solving a hard problem, while walking, jogging or showering. And whenever you mind starts to wander from the topic you intended to meditate on, you forcibly bring your attention back to the topic at hand.

Newport suggests that two or three such sessions in a week is sufficient, and finding such time blocks is usually easy because it is usually easy to occupy between chores and other tasks on which time would otherwise be spent without thinking anyway.

Here are some potential pitfalls to watch out for:

Memorize a deck of cards

In this section, Newport goes fairly into depth about strategies for memorizing a deck of cards, and the details are best read from the book itself and are not worth repeating here unless you intend to memorize a deck of cards (which I don’t).

The key takeaway here is that training your memory often leads to an increase in concentration, and any kind of mental training you can undertake to improve memory will result in concentration gains.

# Rule 3: Quit Social Media

In this chapter, Newport argues that Social Media has its place in society and the level of adoption in your personal life should be considered with care. The binary nature of the title of this chapter is not what he actually suggests, knowing that many people could either not stick to completely quitting social media, or that some walks of life actually do benefit from social media. So he offers a more nuaced approach.

Social media is a tool. Like any craftsman, the tool should be adopted only if it’s positive impacts substantially outweights its negative impacts. Before adopting every social media platform, ask yourself what the impact is, and then evaluate carefully.

Even if these tools do positively contribute, but only to a small extent, consider not adopting the tool at all. High impact activities that contribute heavily to the overall outcome should be prioritized instead.

Actually do try quitting social media for a month and see how it goes. Do you miss people? Do people miss you? What impact does it have on your life? Based on the outcome, you can always get back into it. But if your life has improved as a result of quitting, consider keeping it that way.

Arnold Bennett, an English writer, suggests in his self-help classic - How to live on 24 hours a day - that there is plenty of time outside of the 8 hour work period where one can focus on self-improvement of various kinds. What this means today is - you can and should make deliberate use of your time outside work. Avoid using the internet as a source of entertainment at all time. By no means should you avoid watching a movie or show on TV, but do so with intention. Put more thought into your leisure time. For this, structured hobbies such as reading, music or woodworking are an excellent way to spend free time with intention.

The argument that working eight hours in the day will tire your mental faculties so much that you will not be able to spend leisure time with intention is a myth. Arnold Bennett writes-

“What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.”

In summary, give your brain a quality alternative to relaxation other than social media and online entertainment. Learn to live, not just exist.

# Rule 4: Drain the Shallows

Find ways to tame shallow work in your day to day life because it is usually not as important as it seems. It has a habit of dangerously eating into your deep work time. Sadly, most knowledge work has some amount of shallow work. It is prudent to schedule shallow work after we have exhausted our capacity for deep work.

Newport suggests three main strategies to minimize shallow work.

Schedule Every Minute

Quantify the depth of every activity

Ask your boss for a shallow work budget

Finish your work by 5:30pm

Become hard to reach