Rockstar Book Review: “Deep Work”

Deep Work book

This is part of our Rockstar Book Review series.
Be sure to check out all previous books we’ve covered!

“Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport

rockstar rating 5 stars
Who it’s for: Those of us who feel increasingly fragmented in our focus and attention, and/or who want to produce better and more meaningful work.

Readability: MEDIUM. Cal’s writing is refreshingly non-academic, despite the fact that he works at Georgetown University. The book is a hefty 263 pages but it’s well organized, which makes the author’s thought process and resulting recommendations easy to understand and put into practice.

What I liked about it: Wow. What did I not like about it! It’s a great book and one that is so necessary in this day and age of tech everything. Cal invites us to challenge every distraction in our lives (technology tools, outside demands, entertainment, social media, inconsequential “busyness”). He’s given me a great deal to think about and his insights and suggestions have had a material impact on both my productivity and the quality of what I produce. He convincingly proves that less (time working) is more (productive) and that more (focus) is less (effort overall).

What I didn’t like about it: I loved it all! This book was a delightful surprise as the last book of Cal’s I read “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” left me cold.  In “Deep Work”, Cal quotes so many books I consider to be top references and must reads in their own right (see suggested readings at the end of this review) that I’ve been recommending this book as a “gateway drug” of sorts.

Where to find it:

Amazon @ $16.80 || Free @ the library 🙂

“Deep Work” is the Gateway Drug of Productivity Books

Author Cal Newport uses top insights from highly-respected sources to drive home the point that deep concentration is going the way of the dodo bird in a society increasingly focused on immediacy, and that harnessing and developing this ability further leads to both a personal competitive advantage and a happier life.

First, Cal identifies why we should care about deep work by stating and expanding on its advantages:

  • Deep work is increasingly valuable in a society that seems to live in the shallows most of the time. It’s valuable to us as knowledge workers, and valuable to employers who want people who are able to learn difficult things quickly and apply them successfully, both of which requires the ability to focus for extended periods of time.
  • Deep work is growing increasingly rare, thanks to our ever more fragmented time and attention. Nearly everyone can relate to the “squirrel” phenomenon (see the movie “Up” for that reference if you’ve been living under a rock somewhere) and that’s not a good thing. By guarding and developing our ability to stay focused, we can create our best work and be generally more satisfied as a result.
  • Deep work leads to living a more meaningful life because there is something deeply satisfying, even meditative, about losing ourselves in deep work that is aligned with our strengths, abilities and preferences. To Cal, a shallow life is an unhappy life.

Having clearly explained the benefits of developing our ability to do deep work, the author then provides the tools and guidelines that can help us be successful in doing so.

Here are the rules:

  1. Work deeply
  2. Embrace boredom
  3. Quit social media
  4. Drain the shallows

#1. Work Deeply

This rule is by far the one Cal spends the most time delving into, spending nearly twice as long as any other section. (I’ll admit, at 60-pages long, that made me read it last and, in retrospect, that was a mistake because it serves as somewhat of a foundation for the other three, not to mention it’s overall importance.)

He states that we need to make a point of doing work in a deeply concentrated fashion (by focusing on what works best for us, including our work environment) and provides examples of how some very successful people go about reaching this state, which I found helpful.

He also says we can reinforce this behavior by paying attention to what outputs carry the biggest payoff toward our long-term goals, measuring the actions that are adding direct value to this work, and keeping score of the frequency and quality of these actions. For Cal, this means tracking the number of deep work hours in a given week (you can see more on this last point in Cal’s deep habits blog post).

This section, and the accompanying link, was pivotal in how I approach deep work and lead me to make some important changes, one of which was to start tracking my deep work on what I decided is my most important project this year.

Here’s a snapshot of my tracking (green indicates the days I did deep work on this particular project, and the number written in the center of each of these days are the number of hours).

One last thought from the author on this rule is that it is far easier to immerse ourselves in deep work when we pay attention to our need for regular rest and relaxation. No, we don’t have to be busy all the time. And no, we don’t have to work ridiculous hours to be successful, hence the formula, which states that the higher the intensity of our focus, the less time it takes to produce the same quality of work:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) X (Intensity of Focus) (pg. 5)

#2. Embrace Boredom

I’ll keep this one short and sweet: there’s a lot of power in the ability to resist the pull of instant gratification. Reaching for our device or any entertainment if we have even just a few minutes of idle time reinforces our trigger/payoff loop of seeking distractions at every opportunity. By learning to resist the impulse when we’re bored, we can more easily resist this impulse when we’re trying to improve our ability to take deep dives into our work.

#3. Quit Social Media

This rule is self-explanatory and likely rather scary for most of us. I won’t dig deeper into the pros of this rule. Instead, I point you to a TEDx Tyson talk that Cal delivered in 2016. I know he’ll be more convincing in his delivery than I possibly could here. If you watch the video, you’ll see how passionate he is on the subject. And, in his book, he offers examples of other well-known authors who also eschew social media.

#4. Drain the Shallows

The final rule flips conventional wisdom on its head. Question everything. Guard your time like a hawk in an attempt to do no work that is shallow in nature. We can do this successfully by:

  • scheduling your deep work before anything else
  • being less accessible
  • becoming better communicators
  • becoming better at saying “no”
  • delegating anything and everything that others could do that would free up more of our precious time for deep work.

Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction. (pg. 161)

Bottom Line

If you want to stop being so easily distracted and reach greater heights in meaningful personal productivity and new depths of insight that you’ve only dreamed of, you need to read this book! The short review and summary above do not begin to do it justice.

Where you can find the book: Amazon @ $16.80


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6 replies on “Rockstar Book Review: “Deep Work””

Thanks for highlighting this book! Lately I feel like I’ve just been going with the motions and avoiding “deep work” (checking out, oh I don’t know, cat videos instead). It’s really easy to get lazy when it comes to depth and focus on frantic breadth, but it’s not a great way to live.

You’re welcome! I agree that frantic mode is not great. This book has really made me look at my priorities and start to question what’s most important to achieve. It also lead to a serious social media diet (FB and Twitter are off my iPhone now and tabs are never left open on my computer now) that’s definitely not cat friendly :). I hope you find this book as useful as I have.

Props on the library book! This book looks like it’s right up my alley. Lately, I’ve been working in 25-minute segments with 5-minute breaks and have put my phone in airplane mode while I worked. Days when I don’t do that I can’t work as well. I can agree with the idea that more focused work is less effort overall. If I could spend a short time focusing or a long time always being distracted, I’ll take a short & focused period.
I’ve heard good things about “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” why did his last book “leave you cold?”

Throughout the book, I worried it would enable people to settle for some wish/belief that “it will get better”, which would do nothing more than feed our natural inclination toward loss aversion.

Also, there’s a skew in his definition of passion toward external validation and I disagree with it. I believe that if you have passion for a subject or a skill, you will do what might seem tedious to everyone else because you want to get just that much better. The idea that you grow into a role or set of responsibilities by keeping your nose to the grindstone just seems off to me. Following that advice would have kept me in a job I was very good at but did not love for another 20 years, along with the belief I should be grateful for what I had. Well, there’s my two-cents worth. I hope it answers your question.

Here’s another recommendation that I think is a better choice: “Peak” by Anders Ericsson. Ericsson digs deep into the concepts of deliberate practice and blow the reader away with 30 years of research on the subject.

The talk on “Quit Social Media” was quite a revelation!!!I’m actually having trouble to force my fragmented attention to believe Cal’s views.
Yo Facebook….we need to talk:)))

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