Book Notes – Deep Work by Cal Newport

Pretty good read overall – a lot of this is speaking to the choir with me in terms of the idea of working deeply on things, and applying focus. For someone not familiar with the benefits of something like deep work, it makes for a good explanation, and for someone already familiar, it provides some exercises and things to figure out the important things to work on.

By the time I read this, I was already doing a few of these things, like scheduling all of my time on a calendar, and weighing everything on a pro/con list. Some of the exercises (memorizing a deck of cards) seems extreme, and I think you can get a lot of this benefit with the calendar scheduling tactic alone.

I think the main theme I get from this book is the concept of deliberation, or being specific on how you use your time, alongside how you design your lifestyle.

The main thing I’m going to try is to cut down on social media even more than I already do. I already don’t use a lot of social media, but I’m going to try removing it completely for a month or two and see how I feel after.

Importance of Deep Work

We’re in a society that is grabbing shallow attention, and being able to work deeply will become a defining trait that will help make one valuable in the economy.

More focus on high-skilled workers being valuable (especially with automation on the horizon), and talents pools increasing with remote work capabilities.

Learning complex systems quickly is a deep work trait, which will become valuable over time.

Deliberation in Activity Selection

The book describes two approaches when selecting a new tool/process:

  • Any-Benefit – use the tool if any benefit can be found in use. Generally applies in cases where negatives of a behavior outweigh a smaller positive.
  • Craftsman – carefully deciding whether to incorporate a tool based on pros and cons.

To work with this, an exercise is provided to determine those activities:

  1. Identify the main high-level goals in life (family, career, friendships, etc.)
  2. Identify 2-3 most important activities for achieving said goals.

The important activities tend to provide in the 80/20 sense, in that they are much more productive uses of time, and should be focused on. Since your time and energy is a zero-sum game, it makes more sense to put as much time and effort as possible into those activities.

Planning Ahead

The book promotes a methodology of planning ahead, or scheduling every minute of your day (including leisure time) on your calendar which looks something like:

Schedule in blocks

This reinforces the zero-sum idea above, that you can really only do one thing at a time, and doing things bring an opportunity cost for other activities. It’s also recommended to do this with leisure time, meaning you choose ahead of time how you’ll spend your off-time.

Other Points of Interest

  • Attention residue – when switching between tasks, your mind will linger on the original task for some time. Optimize this by having a “shut-down” process and giving as long as possible uninterrupted blocks of time.
  • Deep work generally involves getting into the “flow” state, or losing track of time and feeling effortless in efforts put towards a task. The human mind thrives in this state.
  • Good intentions to work deeply are not enough – it’s important to set yourself up for success. “It’s not the will to win that matters-everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”
  • Important to expose yourself to hubs to gain new information, but then have spokes to be able to perform deep work as required.
  • To be able to perform deep work well, you’ll need to also have moments of disconnection – when you’re working, work. when you’re done, be done completely.
    • This issue with heightened with our ability to access stimuli at any moment, to make sure we never get bored. Put away your phone and just sit during moments of idleness.
  • Productive meditation – A period where you’re occupied physically but not mentally (walking), giving the opportunity to focus on a single problem.

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