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Deep Work by Cal Newport (11/18 - 2/19)

I thought that because I was listening on audible highlights and snippets would be rare. I was wrong.

My Summary:

Many workers in many fields can benefit from learning to work deeply. By limiting the sources of your urgency-addiction and training your ability to resist distraction, you can reap rewards personally and professionally.

I think this book has application for everyone... especially believers. The discussion on being able to focus and crowd out distraction, to be able to resist things that tug at your will has everyday application in the Christian life.

That concept that we have a finite pool of willpower... changes the way I parent and think about setting up an environment in my home.

This book's summary of the 4DX method really helped me understand goal-setting and lead measures. This alone was worth the listen.

Like a lot of self-help books, it appeals to your desire to be "special" and part of the inner circle. It also puts an almost religious meaning to working deeply, suggesting its the origin of the religious experience.

Chapter 1: The Idea

A little worried about the idea of retreating from noise to find signal indicating that deep work must occur outside our normal workspace.

I will absolutely agree that we are losing our ability to focus… network computing allows the cylons of distraction to win.

He just threw out the “inner ring” argument… you can be part of the secret ubermensch of focus warriors… beware the call of the inner ring!

Does the SSCodex story the Alchemist have implications on deep work? In the story, those who are the end of the knowledge chain spend most of their time absorbing, recategorizing and communicating knowledge rather than “deep work” pushing the boundary further. Is it less a factor of networked tools and more a factor that the cognitive load of the knowledge worker is closer to the end of the alchemist than the beginning?

I’m ok with defining learning as a deep work activity.

Deep work as a transferable skill between disciplines.

Reiterating the importance of a location and ritual for building deep work habits.

Part 1: arguing for deep work Part 2: how to cultivate deep work ability

people who benefit from deep work

Three groups that benefit from things as described by Race Against The Machines:

Are you ok with dancing with machines?

If you work in a field supporting remote work, superstars win.

Owners… people with capital to employ the prior two, venture capital.

Two abilities that empower people in these sectors: the ability to learn complex systems quickly, and the ability to produce at an elite level.

Deep Work: Learning Quickly

  • no prodigies, just discipline
  • deliberate practice (focus, feedback on performance, discipline)
  • myelin build up by repetition and exclusion… only coat the neurons you want to strengthen

Deep Work: Production

  • take it as a science problem to solve
  • chunk work into seasons of single purpose task seasons, even for months or days
  • intensity = results
  • problem: infowork often increases multiwork as you level up. context shift is fiercer for tasks with no end and low intensity (attention residue)
  • takeaway: the ability to delay or say no until the current task is done is critical… that counts for checking email and other busy work

There are distracted people who do well: Jack Dorsey… but that doesn’t distract from the point. An executive is a experience-based decision engine.


Distraction may not be apparent… you can lose focus without knowing about it. Phones ringing, IM, open spaces.

Emails arent free. it cost atlantic media .95 cents an email, millions a year.

The culture of connectivity… the lie you need to answer email within an hour.

Instant satisfaction to questions means I dont have to plan on waiting things I dont know… it allows me to crash around on things I dont know. This makes sense and seems huge.

Meetings as a simulacrum of progress.

principle of least resistance hidden by metric black holes.

busyness and “productivity”.

What is my H-index? What is my visible products?

Clarity about what matters means clarity about what does not.

Without an actual metric of progress… I’ll default to widgets per minute… visible busyness. Meetings. Emails. Lots of visible, depth-destroying behavior.

Managers who don’t understand the mixture of job ambiguity and busyness can judge harshly those who embrace deep work.

The Cult of the Internet

Why is twitter, social media, considered so normal?

Neil Postman argues “we are no longer considering the downside of new technology”… a technopoly. It gives us a Brave New World… that which is important slides into invisibility.

We forget that “internet” doesn’t contain wisdom… its made by 20 somethings making things up and working for profit. We just assume that internet = good.

Deep work is meaningful

(Blacksmith story) discipline and patience as a means towards excellence

“I don’t need a sword, but I have to make them.”

Depth brings meaning… like the joy and satisfactions we attribute to craftsmen. I like the phrase: attention management.

"Who you are… is the sum of what you focus on." — Gallagher

Very zen… setting mindset?

Idle minds tend to move towards focusing on problems. Any distraction permits our minds to get sidetracked. Content of our attention is important.

ESM flow reveals that work/challenge is a happy state. We should prioritize flow if possible. All Things Shiny argues Descartes -> enlightenment -> loss of sacredness and meaning.

Enlightenment created human rights? Yikes.

Argument that cynical life and humanism makes life empty and nihilistic is fascinating from my worldview.

The craftsman's appreciation for the "subtle virtues" as a source of meaning… doing things excellently, and discern the value and meaning in a (created and designed) world.

Connecting the sense of sacred to knowledge work:

  • Code can be like a poem, excellent code is concise and clear
  • Prag prog
  • Appreciating individuality and value
  • its an approach, not a task in and of itself.

A deep life is a good life.

Part 2: the rules

Rule 1: work deeply

The importance of having a different and dedicated space for deep work.

Availability and inbox checking is the enemy of depth. We live in a world that discourages deep work and encourages the shallow.

We have a finite pool of willpower. Regardless of our intentions, we will be worn down and distracted. (This has interesting implications and confirmations about temptations.)

Routines, rituals > good intentions

  • Location
  • Limitations

You have to choose a philosophy for integrating depth

Style: Monasticism

  • cuts out all email
  • Batches comms
  • Monks do one thing well.
Neal Stephenson
  • no email.
  • "all my time and attention is spoken for."
  • He recognized that you can choose between one excellent think or a thousand mediocre things
  • Anathem is all about monasticism and this philosophy!

Monasticism is only for a few people… who have one big product.

Others: Anthony Crumley?

Style: Bi-Modal Philosophy

Time divided between depth and shallowness. During focus, monasticism. Can occur at different scales of weeks and months. Requires time to reach flow… one full day at least. Good for those who need both.

Values connectedness and depth.

  • Special place/time
  • Not utter monasticism
  • Had a connected life outside his retreat
Adam Grant
  • stacked teaching into one semester
  • Takes a week or so for full monasticism

Requires work on weaning ourselves from our busywork/inbox addiction.

Style: Rhythmic Philosophy

Seinfeld story: To be a better comic, you need better jokes. To write better jokes, you have to write every day. (Chain/streak theory)

Works well for writing/exercise

Simple rhythm. Reduces the barrier to entry for depth by making decisions non existent.

Adhoc scheduling of depth will not work. You have to make a rule.

  • Jocko
  • Chappelle (medical student)

Not as effective as monastic or bimodal… but often spends more time in flow.

Some jobs don't allow you to disappear for days… therefore rhythmic.

Style: Journalistic

Isaacson… deeply productive.

Fitting deep work in whenever possible. This requires a dramatic and often difficult context switch to deep.

The switch requires confidence in your task and your power.

Time blocking ahead of time makes the switch easier.

Difficult to pull off. Requires practice and confidence.


Work habits are rarely haphazard.

Think of the structure and organization of a beautiful workshop.

For creative folk, systemization is better than inspiration.

Think like an artist, work like an accountant.

(See also, The War of Art)

Rituals contain where you work and how long you stay. Needs to have a discreet end.

You need some structure/metric. Do not touch the internet. No skipping music.

Support your work by preparing. Food/water. Light exercise. Systematic.

make grand gestures

Go all in… invest in your work dramatically. It increases your personal commitment and fights procrastination. It's the psychological commitment that unlocks a level of priority.

Bill Gates think retreats

Shenkman's Tokyo airplane trip.

Rowling's hotel stay.

Deep Work and collaboration

Argues that open office concept doesn't understand the full power of serendipitous creativity.

Building 20's flexibility allowed for a lot of discovery

Talks about the power of a "hub and spoke" model, with hubs for serendipity and spokes for deep work focus. Maintain a spoke in which to focus.

deep work collaboratively…

Building 20 and Bell Labs

An engineer and theoretician harmonizing disciplines back and forth.

"The white board effect" collaborating and waiting on each other can force you to deep work.

Isolation is not required.


  • Distraction is still a destroyer of depth.
  • when it's reasonable to pair, do it.

execute like a business

What is different than how…

Four disciplines for execution. 4dx

Works well for getting things done despite distractions.

1. Focus on the wildly important.

The more you try to do, the less you accomplish.

Identify actual, specific goals with highly desirable outcomes.

To put off distraction, you must put on higher goals.

2. Act on the lead measures

You must measure your success… lag measures and lead measures.

Lead measures measure behavior that drive success on the mag measures.

Customer service scores: lag measure Giving out free samples: lead measure

3. Keep a compelling scorecard

People play/work different when they are being scored/measured.

Keeping it visible helps perpetuate performance… encourage.

For deep work, hours spent in deep work is the lead measure.

In his scorecard, he measured both grind and result.

4. Create a cadence of accountability

A rhythm of meetings to confront their scoreboard, and scrum it up.

Review and plan how to improve on your lead measure.

Execution is harder than strategy.

Be Lazy (the power of downtime)

Idleness enables deep work, like a vitamin for thinking. Distancing from distraction, allowed to drift and explore.

Shallow dredging of social media doesn't count.

Leave work at work. Don't plan or prepare in the time after and before work. Smell the roses, consider the stars.

Downtime allows your subconscious time to analyze and sift through available information… useful for big gnarly problems like constraint analysis rather than specific execution like a math problem.

Downtime allows you to recharge your willpower to work deeply. You need directed attention. Overuse this and you get attention fatigue.

Walking through a city requires directed attention. Walking through nature actually recharges through interesting stimuli.

The core mechanic: you can recharge by putting your deep activity at rest, and finding an activity that doesn't require directed attention. A healthy worklife balance is intended to be part of this. Deliberate practice theory shows us that even as an expert, deep work capacity is limited… 4 hours max at a stretch. If you push your efforts in the evening you'll damage your ability to focus the next day.

A strict endpoint to your workday is critical.

An algorithmic shut down process can help you put work to bed until the next day.

  • Review
  • Organize
  • Record
  • Shut down spoken out loud

There's a real issue with the "zeigarnik effect"… incomplete tasks looming over us. Having a plan for how to finish it can free our minds to move on.

A shut down habit allows us to benefit from that downtime.

Rule #2: Be Bored.

The mental strain required in the morning practice of comprehending the Talmud.

The morning practice over years and years as a sort of cognitive workout.

The ability to focus is a skill that must be trained. It's not a habit. It's not merely a natural tendency.

Multitasking or constant distraction from the internet are rewired. They can't tell what is important and what is irrelevant. It's like an addiction.

If you can't wait five minutes of boredom without hitting your smartphone, you might be a mental wreck.

How to train

You must improve your ability to concentrate, and remove distraction. Here are some strategies for increasing your focus.

Dont take breaks from distractions, take breaks from focus

A one day a week Sabbath away from connectedness will not help you regain focus anymore than eating healthy one day a week.

Scheduling a break from focus to distraction puts the emphasis on focus… and strengthens your mental focus muscle. Like the breaks in a Pomodoro.

Schedule in advance when you will use the Internet… Avoid it at all other times. Write it down. Be regimented.

It's the auto switching to distraction when we are stuck on a difficult problem or in a moment of boredom that is an issue.

It's sort of like intermittent fasting for your brain.

This strategy reminds me of a reverse Pomodoro more and more.

You must not use the internet in the focus block… even if you need to look up a single email from your inbox. Try to remember, learn to set up your workspace headed into a work session. Switch to another activity or even spend this time relaxing.

Enforce at least a five minute gap just to teach your mind to resist the urge to scratch the internet itch.

Schedule your internet use at home as well as work. Maintain this strategy at home. But schedule the internet to be intentional.

This becomes hard especially when you are forced to wait.

Roosevelt dashes

Roosevelt's study habits: intense concentration and reading in the gaps in your schedule.

Identify a task. Estimate the time requirement. Set a public and tight deadline. Work with intensity.

It's like interval training for your mind.

Meditate productively

Take time while doing a physical but non-mental activity (walking, jogging, showering) and focus intently on a work/spiritual problem.

This builds our ability to think deeply by giving us the ability to reject distraction and return our attention to the problem at hand.

Be careful of distractions and loops in your productive meditation. Instead of diving deeper, you'll tend to rehash known facts.

Be structured in meditation
  • commit variables and facts to memory
  • Identify the next step in terms of the Variables
  • consolidating your gains and reviewing
  • Repeat

It's possible to train memory

Memory powers is based partly on attention control, not memory. Concentration = memory and vice versa.

Memory athletes do not attempt rote memorization. (Repetition) We use scenes.

He's talking about building a memory palace, Dancing with Einstein.

Rule 3: quit social media

It fragments your attention.

Willpower is limited. The more shiny distractions you permit near you, the harder it is to work.

While quitting altogether is tempting, but it's not possible if you want to run a business. You have to find a better way.

Use less. Reject hyper connectedness. Find a middle ground.

Understand the default decision making process of internet users: any benefit mindset. If you can find any benefit to a network tool, it outweighs any level of consequence. Avoid this faulty thinking.

When you view New technology as a tool… And not as an Almighty God to send, then you are able to critically analyze its usefulness in your life.

Craftsman throughout history have used critical analysis to decide whether a tool is useful… Whether benefits more than detracts. We only now in the golden age of technology except all Innovation as good without measuring its downsides. Beware.

The story about the organic gardener's decision on the hay baker underscores the nuance and care with which we should take care when choosing tools.

The craftsmen approach to tool selection

  • identify the core factors that make an impact on our professional life: happiness and success.
  • A tool should have outsized benefits compared to their cons.

Apply the law of vital few to internet tools

Pick some small and vital goals. (Run an organized home.)

Identify activities that build that goal. (Stay up to date with cutting edge stories in my field. Write carefully and succinctly. Perform chores on time)

Determine whether a tool has any substantial positive impacts on your goals. If it doesnt, don't use it.

The law succinctly stated: 80% of a given effect is due to 20% of the possible causes.

The top 2 or 3 activities for a life goal make up the bulk of the momentum.

All activities use the same currency… time. Since time invested in your top activities, the more time you shift towards productive activity and away from less helpful activities, the more gain.

This is why companies fire time suck clients.

The logic goes: if you give up Facebook and spend that time meeting people for coffee, you aren't missing out on your social life, you are investing in a more impactful manner. Perform a "packing party" on your social network… just stop using them for 30 days.

  1. Would my life have been better if I had it during the previous 30 days?
  2. Did people care that I was absent?

Then just quit the useless ones.

While arguing about the value of our commentary on social media, he makes an interesting point.

Blogs are capitalist… You work hard and earn value in the attention of your readers.

Social media is collectivist… I'll pay attention to what you were saying if you will pay attention to what I am saying.

It's a simulacrum of importance without giving anything in return.

Don't use the internet to entertain yourself

Bennet wrote "How to Live on 24 Hours". View your time outside of the work day as still part of your day. Your work hours aren't your day, they are just part of your day.

Modern media is designed to be addictive.

Make deliberate use of your time outside of work. To avoid the allure of the easy entertainment… Plan out your leisure time. Set yourself a schedule, goal, anything.

Drain the shallows

37signals decision for four day work week… doing less work.

Most of your work day is shallow work. If you have less time to spend… You are a better steward of it.

They also gave their company a whole month off to focus on deep work. Remove shallowness from your personal work life. You don't have to remove all… just enough. Four hours a day is about the max for deep. Even though it's hard to spend more than four hours, it is voracious.

Schedule every minute of your day

We underestimate our wasted time by like 2x

The autopilot makes it hard to avoid the shallow.

Actually block off the time. Blocking by 30 minutes. This forces you to batch like tasks. This is zero minute time budgeting.

Don't panic. Just revise your schedule. It's not about sticking to the decisions, it's about accountability.

You can use intentional buffer, or conditional blocks for overflow. Give yourself permission for spontaneous thinking… when it's important.

When you budget your time like this… You suddenly put yourself in a scarcity mindset when it comes to time. Every hour becomes precious… And you value yours and others time.

I think this is the biggest Takeaway… I treat every hour like I’m going to get it back… I don’t think about investing my hours. I guess that’s what Bennett was getting around to.

Quantify the depth of your every activity

I’m doing this one!

To tell the difference, ask yourself how many months it would take to train a recent college graduate in your field to do this task…

Ask your boss for a shallow work budget

Settle on a reasonable answer, stick to the budget.

It'll be around 30-50%. This reminds me of the 8 blocks bulletjournal spread Matt Hammick? posted.

This agreement is protection for your decision making.

Each shallow request seems reasonable… until you apply a budget. This is huge.

By restricting shallow to shallow work time blocks, you find yourself using they time well.

Don't work past 5:30

By having a cut off… you will use your time well.

Most of our stress is self imposed.

Set a limit, work backward. Fixed schedule productivity.

Set quotas on shallow tasks. (She set limits on her travel from 20 to 5.) The example protected her main efforts… writing papers.

Guard your time with ferocity. Don't offer escape clauses or consolation prizes to those who ask you for shallow favors. Just say no.

Become hard to reach

Don't be ubiquitously available.

Tip 1. Make people who send you messages work harder. Construct some kind of structure that causes people communicating with you to filter the kinds of things they sent to you… For instance: in the email where you only except certain kinds of input. (Sender filter)

Set expectations around response time.

Spend more work on your outgoing messages

Short interrogative emails can be landmines to your productivity… They often hide complex back-and-forth needs.

Take a moment, ask yourself: what is the project represented by this email, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages back-and-forth) next step for this project?

Process centric emails

  • Identify the project
  • Consider what is the next desired state…
  • Craft an email that gets us as closest possible to an end state with as few back-and-forth messages as possible.

You are trying to close the loop.

Don't respond

Don't even respond if:

  • it's ambiguous
  • It's too much work to properly respond
  • Nothing good will happen if you don't respond
  • Nothing bad will happen if you don't respond

Give yourself permission for small bad things to happen… otherwise you won't have time for big good things.

The author concludes with his personal testimony of training his deep work habit.

Transformative deep work will make you face the resistance of War of Art, but it's worth it.

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