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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

Deep Work by Cal Newport

I finished this book in May 2024. I recommend this book 10/10.

Why you should read this book:

We are too distracted, too busy, too much on our plates. You are most likely paid for you using your brain to think. How will you do that if you are constantly checking e-mails, attending meetings, and never have a minute of quiet time to think? This book will get you to slow down, focus, use your brain, and add real value.

Get your copy here.

🚀 The book in three sentences

  1. You get paid to use your brain.

  2. You have to create strict guard rails.

  3. This is easier for us older generations.

📝 My notes and thoughts

  • P29. Two core abilities for thriving in the New Economy:

  • The ability to quickly master hard things

  • The ability to produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed.

  • P41. By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, Adam Grant minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from his other obligations, allowing him to maximize performance on this one task. When Grant is working for days in isolation on a paper, in other words, he's doing so at a higher level of effectiveness than the standard professor following a more distracted strategy in which the work is repeatedly interrupted by residue-slathering interruptions.

  • P44. If you're not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it'll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally. Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.

  • P48. Several manager I know tried to convince me that they're most valuable when they're able to respond quickly to their teams' problems, preventing project log jams. They see their role as enabling other's productivity, not necessarily protecting their own. Follow-up discussions, however, soon uncovered that this goal didn't really require attention-fracturing connectivity. Indeed, many software companies now deploy the Scrum project management methodology, which replaces a lot of this ad hoc messaging with regular, highly structured, and ruthlessly efficient status meetings (often held standing up to minimize the urge to bloviate). This approach frees up more managerial time for thinking deeply about the problems their teams are tackling, often improving the overall value of what they produce.

  • P59. Consider the common practice of setting up regular occurring meetings for projects. These meetings tend to pile up and fracture schedules to the point where sustained focus during the day becomes impossible. Why do they persist? They're easier. For many, these standing meetings become a simple (but blunt) form of personal organization. Instead of trying to manage their time and obligations themselves, they let the impending meeting each week force them to take some action on a given project and, more generally, provide a highly visible simulacrum of progress.

  • P64. Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

  • P64. In 2013, Yahoo's new CEO, Marissa Mayer, banned employees from working from home. She made this decision after checking the server logs for the virtual private network that Yahoo employees use to remotely log in to company servers. Mayer was upset because the employees working from home didn't sign in enough throughout the day. She was, in some sense, punishing her employees for not spending more time checking e-mail (one of the primary reasons to log in to the servers). "If you're not visibly busy," she signaled, "I'll assume you're not productive." Viewed objectively, however, this concept is anachronistic. Knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from information is an activity that's often at odds with busyness and is not supported by it. Remember, for example, Adam Grant, the academic from our last chapter who became the youngest full professor at Wharton by repeatedly shutting himself off from the outside world to concentrate on writing. Such behavior is the opposite of being publicly busy. If Grant worked for Yahoo, Marissa Mayer might have fired him. But this deep strategy turned out to produce a massive amount of value.

  • P76. The science writer Winifred Gallagher stumbled onto a connection between attention and happiness after an unexpected and terrifying event, a cancer diagnosis—"not just cancer," she clarifies, "but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind." As Gallagher recalls in her 2009 book Rapt, as she walked away from the hospital after the diagnosis, she formed a sudden and strong intuition: "This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead." The cancer treatment that followed was exhausting and terrible, but Gallagher couldn't help noticing, in that corner of her brain honed by a career in nonfiction writing, that her commitment to focus on what was good in her life—"movies, walks, and 6:30 martini"—worked surprisingly well. Her life during this period should have been mired in fear and pity, but it was instead, she noted, often quite pleasant.

  • P77. What is my 6:30 martini? Guitar playing? Guitar building?

  • P82. Gallagher reports. "[Among them is the notion that] 'the idle mind is the devil's workshop'...when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what's right." A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun. The implication of these findings is clear. In work (and especially knowledge work), to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that, for several different neurological reasons, maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you'll associate with your working life. "After running my tough experiment [with cancer]...I have a plan for living the rest of my life," Gallagher concludes in her book. "I'll choose my targets with care...then give them my rapt attention. In short, I'll live the focused life because it's the best kind there is." We'd be wise to follow her lead.

  • P85. The connection between deep work and flow should be clear: Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state (the phrases used by Csikszentmihalyi to describe what generates flow include notions of stretching your mind to its limits, concentrating, and losing yourself in an activity—all of which also describe deep work). And as we just learned, flow generates happiness. Combining these two ideas, we get a powerful argument from psychology in favor of depth.

  • P90. Whether you're a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is a 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.

  • P92. I earlier quoted Winfred Gallagher, the converted disciple of depth, saying, "I'll live the focused life because it's the best kind there is." This is perhaps the best way to sum up the argument of this chapter and of Part 1 more broadly: A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.

  • P105. Stephenson sees two mutually exclusive options: He can write good novels at a regular rate, or he can answer a lot of individual e-mails and attend conferences and, as a result, produce lower-quality novels at a slower rate. He chose the former option, and this choice requires him to avoid as much as possible any source of shallow work in his professional life.

  • P119. "[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants."

  • P123. Bill Gates was famous during his time as Microsoft CEO for taking Think Weeks during which he would leave behind his normal work and family obligations to retreat to a cabin with a stack of papers and books. His goal was to think deeply, without distractions, about the big issues relevant to his company. It was during one of these weeks, for example, that he famously came to the conclusion that the Internet was going to be a major force in the industry. There was nothing physically stopping Gates from thinking deeply in his office in Microsoft's Seattle headquarters, but the novelty of his weeklong retreat helped him achieve the desired level of concentration.

  • P125. Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur and social media pioneer. As a popular speaker, Shankman spends much of his time flying. He eventually realized that thirty thousand feet was an ideal environment for him to focus. As he explained in a blog post, "Locked in a seat with nothing in front of me, nothing to distract me, nothing to set off my 'Ooh!Shiny!' DNA, I have nothing to do but be at one with my thoughts." It was sometime after this realization that Shankman signed a book contract that gave him only two weeks to finish the entire manuscript. Meeting this deadline would require incredible concentration. To achieve this state, Shankman did something unconventional. He booked a round-trip business-class ticket to Tokyo. He wrote during the whole flight to Japan, drank an espresso in the business class lounge once he arrived in Japan, then turned around and flew back once again, writing the whole way—arriving back in the States only thirty hours after he first left with a completed manuscript now in hand. "The trip cost $4,000 and was worth every penny," he explained.

  • P135. Grove asked him during a break in this meeting, "How do I do this?" Christensen responded with a discussion of business strategy, explaining how Grove could set up a new business unit and so on. Grove cut him off with a gruff reply: "You are such a naive academic. I asked you how to do it, and you told me what I should do. I know what I need to do. I just don't know how to do it." As Christensen later explained, this division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world. It's often straightforward to identify a strategy needed to achieve a goal, but what trips up companies is figuring out how to execute the strategy once identified.

  • P136. Execute Like a Business.

  • Discipline #1: Focus on the wildly important. For an individual focused on deep work, the implication is that you should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours.

  • Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measure. Once you've identified a wildly important goal, you need to measure your success. There are lag measures and lead measures. Lag measure describes the thing you're ultimately trying to improve. Lead measure, "measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures."

  • Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard. Lead measure can be deep work hours, so ensure those hours are displayed somewhere.

  • Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability. A rhythm of regular and frequent deep work on the wildly important goal.

  • P149. If you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you're robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration. Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur. Only the confidence that you're done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow. Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness to the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.

  • P154. Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they're necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness summarized previously. From my experience, it should take a week or two before the shutdown habit sticks—that is, until your mind trusts your ritual enough to actually begin to release work-related thoughts in the evening. But once it does stick, the ritual that skipping the routine will fill you with a sense of unease.

  • P165. To Summarize, to succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. This doesn't mean that you have to eliminate distracting behaviors; it's sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviors to hijack your attention. The simple strategy proposed here of scheduling Internet blocks goes a long way toward helping you regain this attention autonomy.

  • P166. Work Like Teddy Roosevelt.

  • P169. Meditate Productively: The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you're occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.

  • P172. Suggestion #1: Be Wary of Distractions and Looping. As a novice, when you begin a productive meditation session, your mind's first act of rebellion will be to offer unrelated but seemingly more interesting thoughts. My mind, for example, was often successful at derailing my attention by beginning to compose an e-mail that I knew I needed to write. Objectively speaking, this train of thought sounds exceedingly dull, but in the moment it can become impossibly tantalizing. When you notice your attention slipping away from the problem at hand, gently remind yourself that you can return to that thought later, then redirect your attention back.

  • P173. Suggestion #2: Structure Your Deep Thinking. "Thinking deeply" about a problem seems like a self-evident activity, but in reality, it's not. When faced with a distraction-free mental landscape, a hard problem, and time to think, the next steps can become surprisingly non-obvious. In my experience, it helps to have some structure for this deep thinking process. I suggest starting with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem and then storing these values in your working memory. For example, if you're working on the outline for a book chapter, the relevant variables might be the main points you want to make in the chapter.

  • P174. Memorize a Deck of Cards (Use for presentations)

  • P191. I propose that if you're a knowledge worker—especially one interested in cultivating a deep work habit—you should treat your tool selection with the same level of care as other skilled workers, such as farmers. Following is my attempt to generalize this assessment strategy. I call it the craftsman approach to tool selection, a name that emphasizes that tools are ultimately aids to the larger goals of one's craft.

  • P202. The business world understands this math. This is why it's not uncommon to see a company fire unproductive clients. If 80 percent of their profits come from 20 percent of their clients, then they make more money by redirecting the energy from low-revenue clients to better service the small number of lucrative contracts—each hour spent on the latter returns more revenue than each hour spent on the former. By taking the time consumed by low-impact activities—like finding old friends on Facebook—and reinvesting in high-impact activities—like taking a good friend out to lunch—you end up more successful in your goal. To abandon a network tool using this logic, therefore, is not to miss out on its potential small benefits, but is instead to get more out of the activities you already know to yield larger benefits,

  • P204. Once the packing was done, Nicodemus then spent the next week going through his normal routine. If he needed something that was packed, he would unpack it and put it back where it used to go. At the end of the week, he noticed that the vast majority of his stuff remained untouched in its boxes. So he got rid of it.

  • P204. In more detail, this strategy asks that you perform the equivalent of a packing party on the social media services that you currently use. Instead of "packing" however, you'll instead ban yourself from using them for thirty days. All of them: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat—or whatever other services have risen to popularity since I first wrote these words. Don't formally deactivate these services, and (this is important) don't mention online that you'll be signing off: Just stop using them, cold turkey. If someone reaches out to you by other means and asks why your activity on a particular service has fallen off, you can explain but don't go out of your way to tell people. After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit:

  • 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?

  • P213. It's crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you're going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific actions with specific goals to fill your time. A set of program reading, à la Bennett, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is also a good option, as is, of course, exercise or the enjoyment of good (in-person) company.

  • P227. To summarize, the motivation for this strategy is the recognition that a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect. A good first step toward this respectful handling is to advice outlined here: Decide in advance what you're going to do with every minute of your workday. It's natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it's undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter.

  • P232. Here's an important question that's rarely asked: What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work? This strategy suggests that you ask it. For most people in most non-entry-level knowledge work jobs, the answer to the questions will be somewhere in the 30 to 50 percent range (there's a psychological distaste surrounding the idea of spending the majority of your time on unskilled tasks, so 50 percent is a natural upper limit, while at the same time most bosses will begin to worry that if this percentage gets too much lower than 30 percent you'll be reduced to a knowledge work hermit who things bog thoughts by never responds to e-mails).

  • P239. I turn down a time-consuming speaking invitation with the excuse that I have other trips scheduled for around the same time, I don't provide details—which might leave the requester the ability to suggest a way to fit his or her event into my existing obligations—but instead just say, "Sounds interesting, but I can't make it due to schedule conflicts." In turning down obligations, I also resist the urge to offer a consolation prize that ends up devouring almost as much of my schedule (e.g., "Sorry I can't join your committee, but I'm happy to take a look at some of your proposals as they come together and offer my thoughts"). A clean break is best.

  • P241. It's common, for example, to receive e-mails from your boss after hours. Fixed-schedule productivity would have you ignore these messages until the next morning. Many suspect that this would cause problems, as such responses are expected, but in many cases, the fact that your boss happens to be clearing her inbox at night doesn't mean that she expects an immediate response—a lesson this strategy would soon help you discover.

  • P255. Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies:

  • It's ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.

  • It's not a question or proposal that interests you.

  • Nothing really good would happen if you did respond, and nothing really bad would happen if you didn't.

  • P255. As the author Tim Ferriss once wrote: "Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don't, you'll never find time for the life-changing big things." It should comfort you to realize that, as the professor at MIT discovered, people are quick to adjust their expectations to the specifics of your communication habits. The fact you didn't respond to their hastily scribed messages is probably not a central event in their lives.

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