Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★ (5/7)
Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)
Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | 263 pages ex-notes (304 official)
Blurb/Description: Cal Newport provides a much-needed antidote to the age of multitasking with a practical, insightful, engaging book about how to work more deeply.
Summary: I initially picked up Deep Work looking for some productivity tips after my first year of running Askeladden, when I’d more or less gotten everything done that I’d wanted to, but at the cost of a brutal schedule. Even though I’d read a number of other productivity books, Newport did provide some tangible, useful concepts that were thought-provoking.
Whether or not you take his advice to the letter, or just directionally / 80/20 like I did, I think this is a worthwhile read if you’re looking to get more out of your days/weeks… or trying to convince your boss not to move to an open-office format.
Highlights: Deep Work is one of those rare books that’s neither so long that it gets repetitive and pointlessly detailed, or so short that it leaves meat on the bone in terms of helping readers fully understand the concepts. Although Newport doesn’t really reference them explicitly, the book is also full of mental models that sharp readers will notice (see the notes below for some of the salient ones I noticed.) If nothing else, I think most people will find Deep Work to be pretty thought-provoking.
Lowlights: There’s not really a lot to not like here: I think Newport does a pretty good job of not being overly prescriptive, and realizing that different people have different circumstances and will likely need to apply the concepts in different ways.
I do disagree with a few minor points, such as his suggestion of engaging in pointless tasks such as memorization for the purpose of training unrelated skills, as well as his implicit acceptance / non-discussion of the mornings = productivity myth that is deeply engrained in our culture despite being empirically rejected by a substantial amount of research.
Nonetheless, these are relatively minor points, and I have no reservations about recommending Deep Work.
Mental Model / ART Thinking Points: multicausality, habit, structural problem solving, opportunity cost, local vs. global optimization, trait adaptivity, status quo bias, rationalization, base rates,hyperbolic discounting, product vs. packaging, humans vs. econs, consistency / commitment bias,scientific thinking, counterfactuals, salience, utility
Reading Tips: none in particular
“The 4 Disciplines of Execution” by Sean Covey, and
“The Five Choices to Extraordinary Productivity” by Merrill/Kogon/Rinne.
That’s a pretty thorough trifecta when it comes to productivity and personal effectiveness; each has its own value – 7 Habits is more of the overarching framework, 4DX is more about structural problem solving for organizational execution (Newport references it), and 5 Choices is more about day to day decisionmaking. (Disclosure – long FC.)
My #1 productivity secret is listening to my circadian rhythm and getting not only enough sleep, but sleep at the right time. I get more done than the vast majority of people I know… and I usually sleep from ~ 3 AM to ~ noon on weekdays.
“ Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. Newport references Pang’s previous book The Distraction Addiction. It’s a good book, but do beware Soojung-Kim Pang’s brutally wrong and completely unscientific discussion of mornings.
Reread Value: 3/5 (Medium)
More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):
IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK. Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive. It was primarily created for my own personal reference.
Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference. Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.” Do so at your own peril.
I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases. First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.
Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall. However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.
Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made. I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning. Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.
Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.
Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.
Page 3: Newport defines deep work as professional activities that, more or less, lead to a “flow” state (he later references Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.) They stretch your cognitive capacity, require “distraction-free concentration,” and create value.
Pages 5 – 6: Newport contrasts “deep work” to, unsurprisingly, “shallow work” – “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks” like emailing, putting cover pages on your TPS reports, etc…
Page 7: Referencing books including Alex Soojung-Kin Pang’s The Distraction Addiction (I’ve read Alex’s Rest, but not TDA), Newport alleges, reasonably enough, that shallow begets shallow — in other words, if you spend a lot of time doing shallow work, you reduce your capacity to do deep work, just as if you’d lose your capacity to run a fast mile if you spent a lot of time being a couch potato.
Pages 13 – 14: Newport makes the relatively common argument that the world is speeding up, and that the faster rate of change makes deep work more valuable. This isn’t particularly controversial or interesting, but it is a good place to point out that Geoffrey West’s “Scale” (SCALE review + notes) is one of the few books to address this topic (i.e., of the world speeding up) in a nuanced and quantitative way.
Page 16: Newport notes that he “build[s] [his] days around a core of carefully chosen deep work,” which allowed him to put together a stellar resume despite “rarely working past five or six p.m. during the workweek.”
The best way to eliminate shallow use of time is structurally, not on an instant-by-instant basis. For example, I find reading the news to be “shallow” activity with a short-cycle payoff, so I very rarely read news unless it’s related to my portfolio or some specific topic I’m researching. It would be much harder to, on an instance-by-instance basis, try to figure out the bright line.
Am I giving something up? Sure – but what I’m gaining (undistracted time to focus on long-form content, like this book and many others) has an NPV that far outweighs whatever I’m losing. Newport later references the “any-benefit” mindset people use to evaluate social media, which is basically opportunity cost in other words.
Pages 25 – 26: Newport mentions winner-take-all dynamics and applies them to talent. I think he way overstates his conclusions here, but I do think there are some local vs. global optimization dynamics going on, and the bar for talent certainly has been raised by globalization.
Pages 33 – 35: In three pages, Newport dispenses with the need for anyone to read Duckworth’s Grit or Gladwell’s Outliers. He discusses the salient points relating to deliberate practice: focus and feedback.
Page 37: He discusses myelination of neurons as one of the potential drivers of acquiring skill. I don’t know enough about the science here but plan to read about it at some point.
Pages 39 – 40: Newport suggests “batching” time, on either a macro (seasons) or micro (days/periods) scale, to avoid the pitfalls of fragmentation. I can’t remember if I was already doing this pre-Newport, but either way it’s one of the book’s more important / useful punchlines. Simply creating long spaces that aren’t filled with distraction can be helpful.
Pages 42 – 43: Newport discusses the idea of “attention residue,” citing interesting research by Sophie Leroy. In the conclusions section of that paper, Leroy provides another example of structural problem solving / human-centered design. She states:
“Making people manage only one task at a time is not likely to be a practical solution either. The issue is then to understand what can aid people in switching tasks, that is, what can help them temporarily close their minds to one task when they must concentrate on another.”
More questions than answers here, at least at the time that paper was written, but worth pondering more deeply than Newport goes into.
Pages 47 – 48: Two interesting insights here. First, he notes (implicitly) the idea of trait adaptivity, pointing out that just because some successful person does things in XYZ way, doesn’t mean that the circumstances making that the best approach are universal or specifically applicable in your situation.
(I bring this up later, as well as in my notes on Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s Rest, with regard to chronotypes and the myth of early morning equating to productivity.)
Second, Newport gives a brief (but impactful) mention of status quo bias, rationalization, and base rates: managers he talked to, including some at BCG, resisted the idea that they would do better with less client contact… but then they tried it and it turned out to work.
Pages 49 – 52: Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the viciousness with which Newport dismantles two stupid things: open offices and Twitter. (I have a little rant about social media coming in a little bit, when Newport gets to it in more depth…)
Importantly, Newport quotes a neuroscientist: “Even though you are not aware at the time, the brain responds to distractions.”
Page 54: A nice discussion of externalities or, again, opportunity costs: Newport cites Tom Cochran’s “Email is Not Free” piece in HBR. Cochran notes, after analyzing the cost of labor hours spent on email: “A “free and frictionless” method of communication had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet.”
Here’s what Newport doesn’t mention from this anecdote (amusingly, given his tirade against open offices): Cochran goes on, in the second subsequent paragraph, to say:
“ I’ve also found that an open office plan decreased overuse of email, since removing the physical barriers to communication dramatically lowers email reliance.”
… yeah no I’ll stick with email, thanks. That’s a bit like the classic sadistic football coach technique: your leg hurts? Here, let me hit your arm. See, now your leg doesn’t hurt as much!
Actually, excluding my direct family and about 2 – 3 close friends, I never accept unsolicited phone calls and often respond to voicemails with emails. I avoid phone calls unless they are absolutely necessary. Why? As inefficient as email may be per Cochran’s analysis, it has two advantages over what it replaces:
First, I read and write much faster than I hear; I’ve noticed, for example, that reading conference call transcripts is usually substantially faster than listening to conference calls.
Second, email can be asynchronous, whereas phone calls cannot be: if you call me, it interrupts whatever I’m working on. If you email me, I can get to it when I get to it.
Pages 57 – 60: Newport goes into the BCG case study referenced earlier, bringing up what he calls the “principle of least resistance,” i.e. that we do what seems easiest in the moment.
I think a slightly more technical/nuanced explanation is that it’s a case of local vs. global optimization combined with hyperbolic discounting: often, it’s not just a case of not knowing what’s valuable in the long-term, but simply choosing to prioritize the immediate short-term payoff (mmm, donut) over the longer-term payoff (huffing and puffing on the elliptical: I wish I hadn’t eaten that donut… and that other one… and those other ten.)
Pages 63 – 64: Newport discusses busyness vs. productivity, or product vs. packaging: in his words, many knowledge workers, to prove that they’re making progress, “do lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
Page 74: Newport goes further on the knowledge-work theme, citing a humans vs. econs problem: by doing work, we generally are creating value for the world, but the impact of that value can often be extremely vague and disparate relative to old-style work where you made something with your hands. (Not totally related, but see also the Peter Thiel X | Y example in disaggregation.)
Pages 77 – 78: Newport briefly discusses the idea of happiness being a choice (what we choose to focus on) – see also “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor (THA review + notes) and, to a lesser extent, “The Up Side of Down” by Megan McArdle ( UpD review + notes).
Page 85: Here, Newport brings up Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. Don’t ask me how I remember to spell Csikszentmihalyi’s last name…
Pages 99 – 100: I actually saw some contradictory research somewhere on the idea of willpower as a limited resource, but notwithstanding that, I generally do tend to believe in decision fatigue and willpower as a limited resource.
Like me, Newport interprets this as a reason to move away from the stupid and flawed mindset of “grit” where you slog your way through each decision with blood sweat and tears, and instead utilize the power of habit and structural problem solving.
To quote Newport directly, because he says it really well:
“Your will […] is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.
This is why the [studied subjects] had such a hard time fighting desires […] the same will happen to you, regardless of your intentions, unless, that is, you’re smart about your habits.”
Page 107: One of the things I like most about Newport’s book is that he doesn’t live in a bubble. He’s cognizant that while many of us would like to do nothing but deep work, the reality is that all of us have some “shallow work” that we have to do, or personal obligations that mean we can’t just go live in a hut without running water or electricity like CEO Jirka Rysavy (who I met once)…
Pages 112 – 113: Going through a variety of deep-work approaches, from “monastic” to “bimodal” to “rhythmic,” Newport notes that the rhythmic approach of scheduling blocks for deep work “works better with the reality of human nature.”
That said, be mindful/wary of the morning myth; see Internal Time by Roenneberg ( IntTm review + notes) as well as my takedown of Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s somewhere-between-misguided-and-blatantly-idiotic argument about mornings in the otherwise-good Rest.
Pages 118 – 119: Robert Caro (author of The Power Broker, which is on my reading list) is cited as an example here. So is Darwin. The point is that making it a habit is helpful, and I’ve found this to be true (though also found it to be true that real life often gets in the way.)
Pages 122 – 125XX: This is one of the few parts of the book I disagree with. Basically, Newport brings up the idea of a “grand gesture” – trying to utilize the psychological effect of consistency / commitment bias by spending a lot of money to create an opportunity for yourself to do something. His examples include Rowling writing Deathly Hallows out of a 5-star hotel in Scotland, and some dude buying a round-trip plane ticket to Japan to give himself time to think.
I don’t think Newport uses scientific thinking here, though – he ignores the counterfactuals. For every one of these stories, there’s a thousand parents who have hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of musical, athletic, or underwater basketweaving gear bought when kids were really into some hobby or other… and then (despite that “motivation”) left it. I’ve never found things like that to be helpful personally whatsoever.
Pages 129 – 132: This is also one of the more fascinating parts of the book: Newport bridges the gap between the good idea of “serendipitous creativity” and the abysmal, awful idea of “open offices.” He advocates a “hub and spoke” model that allows you to be exposed to new ideas and leaves room for interaction, but also provides plenty of room for quiet reflection. I try to follow this approach personally (in my own way) even as a solo practitioner: I interact and collaborate with others frequently, and expose myself to ideas out there in the world, but don’t fill up my schedule with so many calls and interactions that it impedes my ability to do great solo work.
Pages 136 – 141: Newport cites Franklin Covey’s 4DX methodology and provides a summary of their book The Four Disciplines of Execution. Some of the highlights include terminology I use on a daily basis, such as “lead” and “lag” measures. “Lag” measures are usually the ones everyone cares about – i.e., profit or sales – but “lead” measures are the ones you can actually drive that lead to the lag measures (i.e., new product development, or something like that.)
Pages 143 – 144, 146, 150: Newport goes, briefly, into the idea of rest and idleness rather than being “on” 100% of the time. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, on the whole, does a solid job of this in his book Rest.
One of the best takeaways here is his rebuttal to the implicit notion of losing out if you work less: he notes that “you’re not missing out on much of importance.” (Again, I disagree with his workday/evening dichotomy, but that’s besides the point here.)
I think he actually could’ve brought up the social-media “any-benefit” opportunity cost notion here. When evaluating “work more time” vs. “work less time,” people usually focus solely on local vs. global optimization. Empirical research tends to show that beyond a certain point, working more doesn’t help (see Pang’s book Rest for some of this), and we all know it to be true on some level – but we also tend to focus more on the near-term benefit of working another few hours vs. the less tangible drop-off in productivity in the future from being exhausted.
Page 173: a nice little productivity tool here: Newport suggests starting with the “variables” on a given problem, and then figure out the “next-step question.”
Pages 174 – 179XX: Okay, here’s the second major flaw in the book (there aren’t many). Newport cites Moonwalking with Einstein (MwE review + notes) and offers up training yourself to memorize a deck of cards using a memory palace as a way to practice “attentional control.”
He states that it will “strengthen your general ability to concentrate – allowing you to go deeper with more ease.” He also references (earlier) the idea of studying the Talmud, noting that memorization is a nonspecific way to gain these skills.
As South Park might say, “dumb, dumb, dumb.” This is misguided to the point of being idiotic. I’m really, really, really bearish on stuff like this. For a few reasons.
First, specifically to the memorization thing, I don’t think Newport has read enough about memory: Moonwalking with Einstein itself, as well as the more scientific Seven Sins of Memory by Schacter ( 7SOM review + notes) and other books on the topic like Norman’s Design of Everyday Things ( DOET review + notes) and Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Tavris and Aronson ( mwm review + notes), all do a good job of demonstrating the structural and permanent / mostly unimprovable design of the human memory. Even national memory champions can’t remember where to put their car keys, and here like everything else, structural problem solving is the way to go.
That leaves memory-palace memorization as a completely useless functional skill (go read the books above if you disagree with me) relative to its opportunity cost, which is noted by Schacter to be high to the point of being cumbersome.
So, essentially, what Newport is advocating here, whether via memorization or reading the Talmud or whatever, is improving your ability to focus deeply by doing a bunch of pointless stuff that has no intrinsic value but helps you learn how to focus deeply. It’s like the “make your bed to get a small win” advice – great, but making your bed is useless. Why not take the Shawn Achor approach and write a kind email to a friend, or pay for a stranger’s toll, which actually has some utility for the world?
(Note that I’m not denigrating Talmudic scholarship here – I have plenty of Jewish friends, many of whom live in Israel – I’m simply stating that in context, what Newport is recommending is to do something with no point to gain a transferable skill.)
In my personal experience, this is a complete and utter waste of time. A surprisingly large number of readers are aware that I competed in the National Spelling Bee for five years, coming in 2nd and 3rd among other finishes; behind the pretty media interviews is an ugly reality: I gave up four years of my childhood (I didn’t study seriously the first year) and what I got in return wasn’t worth it (and would’ve have been if I’d won, either).
Sure, I learned the value of perseverance and dedication and whatever… but that fails Newport’s own any-benefit test from later: I could just as easily have learned those skills in the context of doing something useful with my life rather than memorizing obscure and pointless words that have provided no future value to me through my years as a college student and now a working professional.
If, instead, I’d devoted that much effort to, say, MathCounts (which I competed in as well, winning the local tournament and not doing very well at state, but barely dedicated any time to), I’d have ended up with a deeper ability to think mathematically that would probably be serving me well to this day. If there’s anything at all I learned from the spelling bee, it’s to not waste my time on stuff like that ever again, and focus heavily on utility.
The best way to practice doing deep work is, unsurprisingly, by doing deep work. If you want to run faster, spend more time running quickly; if you want to become a better investor, read stuff that makes you a better investor, and practice applying it. The idea of doing pointless things for some proxy side-benefit is dumb when you can just do useful things and get the same benefit, plus a lot more.
Page 181: Newport brings up the idea of quitting Facebook. I did this for several years and didn’t miss it very much at all; my quality of life improved, and I certainly recognize (in retrospect) phenomena such as those discussed in this HBR piece (which is excellent).
Unfortunately, it’s sort of become a generational must-have, and Messenger is the easiest way to keep in touch with all my friends. There are some positives to Facebook if used modestly. Nonetheless, his points on social media are well-worth considering.
Page 186: I love love love Newport’s discussion of “technocracy” and the “any-benefit” mindset people use to justify social media. He (briefly, subsequently) discusses opportunity costs, but basically the idea is that you can’t just think about the benefits of using social media, but also the costs.
Also, I’m going to go on a little rant here, to complement Newport’s discussion of social media. Not only is social media bad, but I think (directionally) it’s getting worse.
Why? “Older” social media platforms like Facebook at least offer the potential for meaningful, sustained interaction, and provide a relatively easy way to go back in time and reminisce over old photos, etc. There’s no time limit or wordcount limit. You can actually create lasting social-interaction value on Facebook.
“Newer” social media platforms like Snapchat and Twitter are the opposite: their content either literally self-destructs, or can’t be longer than a certain number of characters, inherently incentivizing short-cycle, low-value content. I’m going to sound like a crotchety old man here, but one of the most concerning parts is that it’s toxic and can infect people who are otherwise brilliant: I more or less quit being friends with someone I was previously very close to, who had a lot of potential as a human being but chose not to exploit it, because (among other reasons) they refused to prioritize real, high-quality interaction and thoughtful discourse over negative-utility, transactional usage of Snapchat and other social media, insisting they were too busy for real interaction when they found plenty of time to waste.
Part of this is likely driven by the fact that social media is engineered to be addictive even if/when it makes you feel bad. A bit like casinos… see, for example, Nate Silver’s discussion of “tilt” in The Signal And The Noise. (SigN review + notes)
Pages 189 – 190: a nice practical example of opportunity costs in farming.
Page 193: responding to a positive portrayal of Twitter, writer George Packer apparently called it “the most frightening picture of the future that I’ve read thus far in the new decade.” Although I do think there are some uses for Twitter (I enjoy following the Twitter feed of Bryan Broaddus and David Helman, two of the Dallas Cowboys’ in-house journalists), I think that generally, Twitter is pretty terrible.
Pages 194 – 195: Newport talks about goal-setting here; he doesn’t mention “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” ( 7H review + notes) despite mentioning 4DX, but I think the “having a personal mission statement” and other portions of 7 Habits are a more thorough discussion here.
Page 204: Translating the argument about “shallow work” to physical possessions, Newport (via someone else) comes up with a somewhat similar end-result to The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which I (surprisingly) liked. Although I have to admit Marie Kondo is a bit kooky at times.
Pages 207 – 208: again, see the HBR piece on the psychological impacts of social media. I’m not sure Newport goes far enough into the actual negative costs of social media that outweigh what is, in many cases, “no benefit” (Snapchat, much of Twitter) and not even “any benefit.”
Pages 216 – 217: back to 37Signals again, which used a four-day, eight-hour work week for part of the year. In Fried’s words: “very few people work even 8 hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday. Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek.”
I totally agree. I’ve found Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time available for its completion) to be true in my own life. I don’t really make “New Year’s Resolutions” but one thing I’ve focused on year after year is reducing rather than increasing the number of hours I spend on work… and because (rather than in spite of) that, I continue to get more done every year.
Pages 225 – 226: I do disagree a bit with Newport here, but it doesn’t rise to the level of “serious flaw.” I do find that the best-laid plans often go by the wayside, and that, at least in my line of work, scheduling stuff down to the hour doesn’t really help. However, what I do is different from what most people do, so I’m willing to run with the notion that this might be helpful for someone else, even if not for me.
Page 234: Kind of a nice technique: explicitly ask your boss how much time they want to spend on shallow work. (only problem is that unfortunately, many people don’t see “shallow activity” as shallow – back to my friend, for example, who thought snapchat was one of the best and highest uses of their time.)
Pages 239 – 240: some good advice on saying no.
First Read: 2017
Last Read: spring 2018
Number of Times Read: three
Review Date: spring 2018
Notes Date: spring 2018