Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport



“Deep Work” by Cal Newport is a great read! The book has two parts, the first part lays out evidence to persuade you that deep work is valuable, rare and meaningful, while the second lays out strategy and principles to improve the quality and quantity of your deep work.

I listened to a podcast giving advice on effectively extract more value from books. It was put eloquently:

  • Value extracted from fictional books grows exponentially, the story gets better and better as you read.
  • Value extracted from non-fiction books is linear with diminishing return, and not necessarily sequentially.
    • Takeaway: Don’t feel sorry to quit the book, especially if the author keep repeating him/herself.
    • Takeaway: Skip around, not necessary to read sequentially.

Cal did repeat himself a bit on the 1st half to persuade the reader and emphasize various points. However, the 2nd half is very efficient in presenting strategies that Cal had implemented in his own life. I suggest to skip around in part 1 unless you’re not convinced, and read the 2nd part in its entirety.

Highlights & Takeaways

Part 1: The Idea

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

  • I think we all have experienced flow and the power of Deep Work - where hours slipped by and we blissfully enjoyed and created brilliant results.

“I earlier quoted Winifred 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.”

  • This sums up part one pretty well.

Part 2: The Rules

“Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve… the problem with lag measures is that they come too late to change your behavior: “When you receive them, the performance that drove them is already in the past. Lead measures, on the other hand, “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.”

  • You are what you measure, that’s something that we know - you can’t manage what you don’t measure. So why don’t we live effectively in our personal lives? We have lag measures - goals we are trying to achieve - but we also need to measure lead measures - for deep work practitioners, that would be number of deep work hours worked.

“At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.”

“When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.”

  • The famous, quirky “Schedule Shut Down, Complete” that Cal Newport cleverly coined. In the book, Newport lays out 3 points:
    • Downtime aids insights
    • Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply
    • The work accomplished during evening downtime seldom generate tremendous value
  • Life is not just about deep work, but relationships - family, friends - are important.

“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.”

“The law of the vital few, however, reminds us that the most important 20 percent or so of these activities provide the bulk of the benefit… [t]hat 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 …”

“[The] 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 large benefits.””

“You should take this same care in deciding which tools you allow to claim your own limited time and attention.”

  • Cal picks on Social Media Networking tools. Social Media are tools that are suppose to add value to your life. But in your life and circumstance, does it really add value to your life, or are you just using it because you have fear of missing out (FOMO), thinking that on your next click - there would be something that you don’t want to miss out on?
  • Focus on the 20% that drives 80% of the value in your life. Do away with as much of the 80% low-value bulk as much as you can.

“Put more thought into your leisure time … when it comes to your relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead dedicate some advance thinking to the question of how you want to spend [your time]”

  • If we naively divide up our day, we have 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of free time. We have a lot of time, what a waste if we are not to take hold of the free time we have.

“We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work, and then adopt the habit of pausing before action and asking, “What makes the most sense right now?””

“It’s an idea that might seem extreme at first but will soon prove indispensable in your quest to take full advantage of the value of deep work: Schedule every minute of your day.”

“Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward—even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.”

  • Currently I use Todoist’s integration with Google Calendar, it used to be somewhat broken but no longer. It’s pretty great.
  • I need to improve in a better review routine (start of day and end of day) that I remain thoughtful with my time.

“incredibly cautious about my use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.””

  • I desire to passionately say “no” so that I can passionately say “yes” to things that matters. I agree, but difficult to execute.

Continuous Improvement - Reflection & Doing it.

Learning is great, and now how do I apply?:

  • Experiment and iterate on strategies to track and bring lead and lag measure to top of mind.
  • Solidify morning review routine
  • Shutdown Routine, review & plan next day.
  • Purge shallow work, tools and entertainment. (Less youtube, more books!)

Other resources:

Podcasts from Cal Newport that I like:

I’m a big fan of Art of Manliness, here’s a couple of podcast that Cal Newport is in, great perspectives and ideas presented here:

Thoughts, comments?:

Reach out on LinkedIn or email.