Deep work – summary of the concept based on Cal Newport’s book

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Deep work – summary of the concept based on Cal Newport’s book

November 22, 2021

Deep work – summary of the concept based on Cal Newport's book

In a world full of distractions, with social media, ads popping up everywhere, ringing phones, and more, the ability to focus on essential things is becoming quite difficult. That’s why, in this article, we are presenting to you the concept of deep work. Read our deep work summary, based on Cal Newport’s book – a popular study of this topic.

Distracted world of 21st century

The habits of today’s employees constantly checking e-mails, running with their phone by ear from meeting to meeting and too often practicing multitasking, stand in the way of really worthwhile work.

To sharpen attention and dive deep into work, Cal Newport, author of the book Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, proposes rigorous training, which he presents in a series of rules and strategies.

Newport notes that we spend most of the day on autopilot not really thinking about what we’re doing with our time. Meanwhile, he believes in the principle: “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.”

Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love is the sum of what you focus on

Deep Work – book summary 

Deep Work – book summary 

Cal Newport’s book (PDF link), published in 2016, combines cultural criticism and practical advice. It takes a reader on a journey through unforgettable stories. Starting from Carl Jung building a stone tower in the forest to focus his mind; through a social media pioneer buying a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo to write a book in the air, free from distractions. And then, the finale reveals a surprising claim – the most serious professionals should give up social media and practice boredom.

The book introduces and guides readers through the intense concentration that results in fast, effective learning and productivity. Newport suggests that bad habits stand in the way of genuinely worthwhile work. He believes that the so-called shallow work can be eliminated only through a real commitment to work. That means also not wasting time on switching between tasks. As a result, a person will become more present in their home and personal life. Depth does not interfere with the fullness of life and even makes it more accessible. 

Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers. It’s instead a skill that has great value today, writes Newport. And he calls it “the superpower of the 21st century.” 

Deep work – definition

Deep work – definition

The author describes “deep work” as focusing on one cognitively demanding task for an extended period of time in a distraction-free environment.

Deep work is defined as professional activities performed while staying focused without distractions that push human cognitive abilities to the limit. These efforts add value, improve our skills, and are difficult to replicate. As he continues, “It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” 

Applying deep work can help you achieve better results at work, but it requires a good plan and regular practice. “To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction,” writes Newport.

In addition, deep work can bring you:

  • better results at what you do and fulfillment in your area of expertise;
  • a feeling of accomplishment that comes from mastering this skill. 

Time blocking

One of deep work methods is time blocking. In this method, you reserve blocks of time for deep work in your calendar. It requires conscious allocating your time to deep and to shallow tasks. To make it work, it’s helpful to ask your co-workers for no interruptions during your deep work time. You can also mark these hours as “do not disturb” mode in your calendar and messenger. This way, no one can schedule an appointment for you at that time or write you a message.

Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life. (Newport)

Deep work vs shallow work 

Deep work vs shallow work 

In contrast to deep work, in his book, Newport introduces the term of shallow work, defining the tasks from which it is composed.

Shallow work tasks:
  • are undemanding cognitively, relatively shallow, easy logistically; 
  • do not require deep thinking (e.g. replying to an e-mail or filling out forms); 
  • are often performed in a distracted manner; 
  • do not aim to create new value and are easy to duplicate; 
  • can be done simultaneously, in most cases. 

The key to developing the habit of deep working is to move from the willingness to procedures and rituals. To create a culture of deep work, you need to be able to distinguish between shallow and deep work. By understanding which tasks are shallow or non-priority, you can spend more time on deep work.

Therefore, assign your activities to the category of shallow or deep work. It will help you see which of them require more focus. The clarity of the amount of time assigned for both is very important (according to the Parkinson’s principle, which says “Work expands and contracts to fit the time available”). This way, you will minimize the willpower needed to concentrate and stay in that state for a long time.

When you spend too much time in “a state of frenetic shallowness,” you risk permanently losing the ability to focus on anything, Newport believes

How much deep work can you do in a day? 

How much deep work can you do in a day? – It's best if you organize it to your own rhythm

There is no single fixed schedule and time frame for deep work. It’s best if you organize it according to your own rhythm. This is closely related to creating a daily work ritual through a deep routine. Everyone individually creates it and enforces the consequences. Ask yourself these questions:

  • When, during a day or a week, is my most productive time?
  • Under what conditions do I concentrate the best?
  • How long am I able to focus on one thing?
  • Do I have any urgent or important commitments that I am unable to reschedule?

To create your own schedule, plan each part of the day to always know what and when you should do. Newport notes that “[…]the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration, Newport writes.

Deep work schedule – how to plan it? 

It is known that there are morning people, others whose productiveness peaks around noon, and those who reach a state of deep concentration when it gets dark.

Addressing them all, Newport writes, “You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life.” And adds, “Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.”

Consequently, he has developed four deep work planning philosophies

Deep work – Scheduling philosophies

Monastic scheduling philosophy 

This philosophy may not be the most conducive to an office working environment. But it is perfectly possible in remote work and freelance jobs. It is the best choice for working purists who want to dive deep into their tasks, doing nothing else. To avoid distractions, they often choose to work in a quiet, isolated place for weeks or months.

Monastic schedulling is intended for people who have the possibility to put aside diffusers for a long time. “This philosophy tries to maximize deep effort by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow commitments,” writes Newport. 

Deep work – Monastic scheduling philosophy 

Bimodal scheduling philosophy 

Due to all-day limitations, this philosophy requires a great deal of flexibility from the traditional work environment. It divides the week into periods of deep work where you should eliminate disruptions entirely and periods of shallow work where disorders are welcome.

To provide an example, let’s create a week where Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays are devoted to concentrated work; whereas Wednesdays and Thursdays are open to meetings, e-mails, social media and the like.

“[Carl] Jung’s approach is what I call a bimodal philosophy of deep work. This philosophy requires you to divide your time, dedicating certain clearly defined areas to deep exploration and leaving the rest open to everything else,” writes Newport. 

Deep work – Bimodal scheduling philosophy 

Rhythmic scheduling philosophy 

This philosophy focuses more on organizing deep work over the course of one day. It adapts deep work to our daily habits.

The idea is to manage constant, uninterrupted three to four hours of deep work, separated by blocks of shallow work periods, on a daily basis. You can plan the deep work in the morning and shallow work in the afternoon, or vice versa. 

Deep work – Rhythmic scheduling philosophy 

Journalistic scheduling philosophy 

This philosophy proposes to fit deep work where possible, changing it from day to day. It is a planning philosophy that most follow when schedules are unpredictable

It allows shallow work to dominate, with periods of concentrated work when needed. However, most importantly it requires the ability to enter deep work in moments of respite from distraction immediately.

Deep work – Journalistic scheduling philosophy 

What are the four rules of deep work according to Newport? 

Rule 1: Work Deeply 

What are the four rules of deep work according to Newport? – Rule 1: Work Deeply 

When you allow distraction to impact your concentration, you constantly force your brain to jump between heavy and light tasks. It tires your brain and ultimately drains your creativity. Newport’s advice: do one thing for as long as you can, then turn it off entirely and move on to the next. To do it, one way is to schedule breaks in focus instead of scheduling focused time.

Most people do it the other way around. When there’s a project they need to focus on, they work intensely for, let’ say, an hour, but get distracted the rest of the time. Newport suggests allowing access to the Internet and even your phone at a predetermined time. This method will allow your brain to reset and gather strength to focus.

This work style achieves a short-term increase in productivity that becomes part of a long-term increase in the ability to concentrate. 

Rule 2: Embrace Boredom 

What are the four rules of deep work according to Newport? – Rule 2: Embrace Boredom 

Focusing on a cognitively tricky task for a long time is quite exhausting. For the brain to work this way, it needs downtime to recharge itself. This principle is based on the premise that the human mind needs aimless wandering. Distracting by using digital devices give us immediate stimulation, but it doesn’t let the brain rest.

The easiest and best for your mind is to quiet your senses and not fill up every empty slot of the day. Instead, let your mind wander and create for itself, rather than rely on distractions. 

Rule 3: Quit Social Media 

What are the four rules of deep work according to Newport? – Rule 3: Quit Social Media 

Think of social media as a tool. If spending time on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is necessary for your work or valuable for your personal life, schedule time for it. But if it drains your energy and serves no real purpose, cut the ties and find a new social platform that meets your needs.

Rule 4: Drain the Shallows 

What are the four rules of deep work according to Newport? – Rule 4: Drain the Shallows 

This principle advocates a thoughtful organization of tasks and prioritization. You should ensure that you focus on rewarding work that really matters. It is about categorizing deeper tasks as more significant and avoiding shallow work classified as ministerial.

Shallow activities require very little thinking, focus, or skill, and you can usually do them while multitasking. A common idea in this case is to “eat that frog”. It refers to solving the most demanding and inconvenient tasks first, before you get consumed by distractions or less meaningful work. 

Deep work quotes 

Deep work quotes 

Below, we’ve highlighted some other, previously unmentioned deep work quotes from Cal Newport’s book:

  • Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. There
  • 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.
  • Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges; all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed. 
  • To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.
  • Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.
  • This, ultimately, is the lesson to come away with from our brief foray into the world of experimental psychology: To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

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