Deep Work by Cal Newport: Summary

Deep Work by Cal Newport: Summary

You can watch the YouTube video where I have shared 5 lessons from the book Deep Work.

What do you do when you are attending a boring lecture or standing in a queue? If you are like most people, you must be taking your phone out and using social media.

We all do it because there seems no harm, and it entertains us. But this simple activity can cause negative impacts, which most of us don’t know.

I, too, didn’t know about it until I read Deep Work by Cal Newport. This book is about productivity and holds many practical lessons which can help you succeed in this distracted world.

So, in this post, I would share five lessons from the book Deep Work that I found extremely valuable.

Deep Work: Summary

1. Deep work is precious

Newport says that cognitively demanding tasks such as solving complex math problems, writing blog articles, learning a new skill, or brainstorming ideas, when done with very high concentration, is simply deep Work. On the contrary, shallow work includes all the tasks that can be done with low concentration and hence doesn’t produce much value. These types of activities can be easily done by everyone and need no specific skill.

Examples of shallow work are- Checking emails, spending time on social media, watching TV shows, copying a college assignment, and all other tasks you can do while multitasking. Shallow work doesn’t help us create anything valuable, leads to wastage of time and a decrease in productivity.

In contrast, deep work helps us get more done in less time, increases our productivity, helps us do difficult things and get extraordinary results, and makes us more satisfied with our work.

A great example of deep work is think weeks, practiced by Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. For this, he would free himself one week, twice a year, and live in a secret cabin in a forest, leaving behind all other obligations. Here he would work 18 hours a day without any interruption. Because of deep work in these think weeks, Bill Gates got some great ideas for the development of Microsoft.

Another example is of Jk Rowling, the author of the famous Harry Potter series. While writing the last book, she couldn’t focus intensely on writing the book at her home because of distractions caused by children and pets. So, she retreated to a hotel to spend time in solitude and work with uninterrupted, deep focus. Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows is a result of deep work.

In fact, most of the great personalities who created extremely valuable results like writing a book, generating a business idea, or anything that requires a significant amount of brain activity, did by freeing themselves from all the distraction and practicing deep work in solitude. Hence deep work is precious, and the next four lessons would help you practice deep work in your career.


2. Identify the important work

According to The Productivity Institute, we spend only 20% of the average day on important things, while the rest 80% of the average day on things that have little or no value.

So, it becomes necessary to identify and prioritize those works that are important and can prove to be valuable instead of those that don’t produce much value. This is the first step of practicing deep work- you should know where you need to practice it.

You certainly can’t practice deep work on activities like replying to emails, or using Facebook, because they would produce you little or no value.

Now the work which is important can be different for different people. If you are a scientist, you can practice deep work in your experiments and researches. If you are an entrepreneur, you can practice deep work in brainstorming innovative ideas. If you are a poet, you can practice deep work in writing poems. And so on.

Our productivity is directly proportional to the intensity of focus and the time we spend at work. Here time is limited as we all have 24 hours in a day. But, the intensity of focus has no limit. A person with high intensity of focus can get more done than a person with low intensity of focus, spending the same amount of time.

So, identifying the work that is important for you and then practicing deep work would help you improve the quality and quantity of the work you do.


3. Redefine success

We saw that for engaging in deep work, you need to concentrate on the work that provides you the maximum value and do it in a distraction-free environment. But sometimes, it gets difficult to work when you don’t get any results or success. For example, you exercise every day to lose weight but don’t see any major changes in your weight. How would you feel? Most probably, you would get hopeless and stop exercising because you are not getting any results.

Well, this happens because we have defined success in the wrong way. Newport says that 4DX principles can help us engage in deep work. One of the principles says that for getting success at anything we do, instead of focusing on the goal, we should focus on the things which help us achieve our goal.

So, when you want to be fit and lose 5 kg of weight, most probably you would keep measuring your weight and see how much you have lost. Since you don’t lose weight instantly, most of the time, you get discouraged and stop putting effort into losing weight.

Whereas, if you focus on things which help you lose weight like dieting and exercising every day, you would easily lose weight. In other words, dieting and exercising every day should be the definition of success and not losing 5 kg of weight.

Similarly, when you want to read 40 books in a year and focus on 40 books, you would be discouraged because it would seem like a very big deal and may create mental pressure. But if you focus on reading at least 30 pages every day, then within a year, you might read more than 40 books. It means you should redefine success as reading 30 pages every day and forget about the 40 books a year.

Similarly, you need to redefine success for deep work and focus on things that will help you achieve your goal instead of focusing on the goal itself.


4. Recharge your limited attention

When I was preparing for my engineering entrance exams, I worked very hard, attended classes, and practiced solving Maths, Physics, and Chemistry problems. But still, I wasn’t satisfied with my work. I always felt tired, even in the morning, and wasn’t able to focus properly. This continued, and I couldn’t find any solution because I didn’t look for any, thinking that hard work is enough.

But after four years, after reading Deep Work, I realized what mistake I was making at that time. I was working hard without any rest, so using all of my limited attention every day, and hence my intensity of focus was always low. This made me less productive and not satisfied with my work instead of all those hard works.

According to Attention Restoration Theory (ART) by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, to concentrate on any work requires directed attention. And directed attention is limited. So, once it gets finished, you would struggle to concentrate.

Newport says that to preserve directed attention, you should shut down everything when the workday is finished until the next day. You shouldn’t try to get a little more by working at night. Because if you work at night, you will use all your directed attention and won’t focus properly the next day. The overall result will be that you will get less work done than having a shutdown and working will full attention the next day.

Hence, not doing any work after the evening is very helpful in increasing your productivity. While shut down, you may spend time with your family, meditate, exercise, or spend time with nature. All of these will help you to recharge your limited directed attention for the next day.


5. It is okay to get bored

As I said at the very beginning of this video, whenever we face boredom- in a lecture, zoom meeting, standing in a queue, or even at the washroom- we all have a habit of checking our phones. We may open Instagram and check the likes and follows; we then scroll through our feed and get lost in it. This programs our brain to check our phone whenever we get bored. We start craving for distraction and end up spending hours on social media.

Every time we allow ourselves to get distracted, our mind becomes weak at handling distraction. Newport says that the solution is to embrace boredom because feeling bored is not a bad thing. Whenever you feel bored, let it be. Don’t give in to the distractions, and your brain muscles will be stronger at handling them.

In other words, the more you give in to the distractions, the weaker you will be at handling them; the more you handle distractions without giving in, the stronger your mind will be and the better you will get at handling distractions.

So, whenever you feel bored and feel the urge to take out your phone and open social media, don’t do it. Let it be boring. Because if you do it, you will form a habit of checking your phone whenever you get bored.

Similarly, when you are engaged in deep work, always try to keep your phone away, or if you are working on your phone, mute the notification so that you can work without any distraction. And whenever you feel bored, remember that it’s okay to get bored.


So, these were the five lessons from the book Deep Work. This book can help you build one of the most valuable habits for thriving in this economy- the habit of working with great intensity of focus. The book would be best for all those who feel that they are not productive and waste a lot of time on social media, who are not satisfied with their work and want to spend their lives doing valuable things.

Deep Work has practical ways to increase your productivity and make your life meaningful. That’s all for the summary of Deep Work by Cal Newport. I hope you found it helpful. You can subscribe to my YouTube channel, where I keep talking about fiction and non-fiction books. And thanks for reading.

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