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Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Rating: 5/5
Date read: January, 2016

Note: I purchased this book and took these notes to further my own learning. If you enjoy these notes, go buy the book!


The first ⅓ of the book makes the argument that deep work is both rare and valuable in today’s economy, and the rest is practical advice on how to pursue deep work. Some of the advice is common sense or things I’ve read before, but it’s written in such a compelling way that I’ve substantially changed parts of my daily routine. I’ve given the book 5 stars because of how important I think the topic is and how likely it is to affect my day to day work.

Book Notes

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.

Deep work: 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.

Shallow work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Deep life is not for everybody. Requires hard work and drastic changes in habits.

Reason we are losing familiarity with deep work: network tools. Email, SMS, social media, etc.

2012 McKinsey study found average knowledge work spends 60% of work week engaged in electronic communication and internet searching – 30% to reading/answering email alone.

Spend enough time in a state of shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.

Deep work is so important that we might consider it, to use the phrasing of business writer Eric Barker, “the superpower of the 21st century.”

3-4 hours a day, 5 days a week, of uninterrupted and directed concentration can produce a lot of valuable output.

The internet/remote working movement means we’re competing with the “superstars” of our industry. To become a superstar, mastering specific skills is necessary but not enough.

Two core abilities for thriving:

  1. ability to quickly master hard things
  2. ability to produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed

If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.

Building layers of myelin around neurons cements a skill. Triggering useful myelination for deep work requires intense focus on the task at hand while avoiding distraction.

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: Knowledge works tending towards “busyness” because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value. Doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Our culture has developed a belief that if a behaviour is related to “the Internet”, then it’s good, regardless of impact on our ability to produce valuable things.

Large-scale outcomes (whether you got a promotion, move to nicer apartment) matter less to how we feel than we think. Instead, our worldview is based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on cancer diagnosis, life becomes unhappy and dark. If you instead focus on an evening martini, life becomes more pleasant, even though both scenarios are the same.

Winifred Gallagher: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”

fMRI scan showed amygdala fired for positive and negatives images for younger people, but only for positive images for the elderly. Elderly were happier because they had rewired their brain to ignore the negative. By managing attention, they improved their world without changing anything concrete about it.

Stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality all construct our mind’s world view. Therefore, a world represented by your email inbox isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.

Shallow work, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day.

When you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right

People assume relaxation makes them happy (want to work less and spend more time in the hammock). Deep satisfaction comes from building your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work.

Switching from distracted state to a cognitively demanding task depletes from your finite willpower. Therefore, need routines in place and not rely on willpower.

Different approaches to deep work, must pick a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances.

Monastic: Extreme approach by eliminating or radically minimising shallow obligations.

Bimodal: Dedicate clearly defined stretches of deep work and leaving the rest open to everything else. Seeks intense and uninterrupted concentration during certain periods, and focus is not prioritised during shallow time.

Rhythmic: Daily scheduled time for deep work. Fails to achieve the most intense levels of deep thinking sought in the day-long concentration sessions favoured by the bimodalist. Trade-off is it works better for reality of human nature.

Journalistic: Fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. Nod to journalists like Walter Isaacson who are trained to shift into writing mode at a moments notice. Not for the novice, switching from shallow to deep work doesn’t come naturally.

Advice to anyone trying to do creative work: ignore inspiration. Waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible plan.

Things to consider as you build your deep work ritual:

4DX framework (taken from the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution):

  1. Focus on the wildly important (author set goal on 5 published high quality papers)
  2. Act on lead measures (lag measures, such as papers published per year.. when author shifted to tracking deep work hours – lead measures – instead, it improved lag measures)
  3. Keep a compelling score card (kept a calendar with a tally of hours worked)
  4. Accountability (weekly review to understand what led to good and bad weeks)

When you work late in the evening, you reduce your effectiveness the next day. It prevents you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation where restoration can occur.

Capacity for deep work in a given day in limited. Therefore, by evening, you’re beyond the point where you can work deeply.

Shutdown ritual: ensure every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and has a plan or a place where it can be revisited.

Purpose of shutdown ritual is to clear your mind from professional issues. If there’s obligations left unresolved, you’re mind will continue thinking about them in the evening. Committing to specific plan for a task helps free cognitive resources for other pursuits.

When the shutdown ritual is done, say a phrase that indicates competition (“shutdown complete”). Mind then knows it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the day.

Resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.

Embrace boredom. Use of distracting service does not reduce your brains ability to focus, it’s the constant switching from deep/shallow work. Slightest hint of boredom and we switch task and this weakens the mental muscles for staying on task.

When working in an ‘offline’ block, you may be tempted to online to look up information. You must resist this temptation! Work on something else, come back to it. Work hard not to weaken the mental muscle for staying on task.

Productive meditation: when you’re occupied physically but not mentally (walking, jogging, showering), focus on a problem. Bring your attention back to the problem when it wanders. This strengthens your distraction-resisting muscles and sharpens your concentration.

Many employ the Any-Benefit Approach to network tool selection: you’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.

Instead, we should employ the Craftsman’s Approach to Tool Selection: identify facts that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life and then adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Social media experiment: quit social media for 30 days, without informing anyone you’re doing so, and then ask the following two questions:

Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?

Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

If answer is “no”, quit the service. If the answer is a clear “yes”, then return to the service.

A deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect.

Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your work day. Divide your day into blocks. This type of scheduling isn’t about restraint, it’s about thoughtfulness. If something important comes in, or an idea pops up, that can override the schedule. Allows you to control the amount of shallow behaviour.

Fixed-schedule productivity: fix firm goal of finishing the day at a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that help you meet that goal. Example: 4 day work week at Basecamp, found they actually get more done in less time because the constraint forces them to minimise shallow work.