7 Things to takeaway from Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”

I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” and I loved it. Potentially due to of its timing, but this book was nothing short of life changing for me — yes, I know it’s an overused cliche at this point but at least hear me out. It helped transform how I viewed deep work as a whole. And honestly, I can confidently say that it has changed for the better.

If you’re like me, this book probably isn’t going to be your first rodeo of books that are classified under ‘productivity’/self-help. As with most, I started out with conventional ‘international best sellers’ such as — Atomic Habits, 4-Hour work week, The 7 habits of highly effective people… you get the idea. So when I first stumbled onto this book, you could imagine the hesitation I felt to pick up something which wasn’t already some kind of best seller (what was I to gain from something not internationally recognised??). But, oh boy, I’m infinitely glad I did. I’m hoping to share a couple of the takeaways I had from this book, and hopefully convince you to give it a chance as well!

** A small disclaimer: some of the takeaways might not be drawn directly from what was written in the book, but rather the lessons inferred from it.

Is this a book for you?

TLDR; For the most part, this book isn’t going to blow you away with novel ideas on our approach towards deep work. I believe that intrinsically, most of us are already familiar with the core concepts highlighted in the book. But what this book does really well in, is to make a case for the value of Deep Work. So if you’re looking for a book which emphasises it’s merits and practical steps to building a routine, I highly recommend it — actually, it’s a great read either way, so go for it!

Lesson #1: Deep work is valuable

Before we go any further, I think it only makes sense that we first answer the question — what is deep work?

‘Deep work’ is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.

For the most part, we live in a knowledge based economy. The shift from a labour-based workforce to one which emphasises the importance of knowledge based skills has placed significantly more value on deep work than ever before. Whether we like it or not, this has been further emphasised by the fact that we are competing in an increasingly globalised market. Cultivating the skill of deep work is almost a must to stay competitive — I know, I don’t want to accept this either. But hey, who wouldn’t want to kick-ass at what they’re doing? And deep work gets you there.

Lesson #2: Don’t settle for shallow work.

I guess the next question to answer here is — what is shallow work?

“Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted”

We are often easily distracted by the smokescreen of shallow work which can mislead us to believe in its importance. Of course, some of us don’t have the luxury of simply casting aside these things. Dealing with shallow work is also an essential part of our lives, not only because it keeps us connected, but it also allows us breaks in between our bouts of deeper work.

If you’re in a knowledge based job, you probably know that giving a task your undivided attention is key to getting the ball moving. While you might not necessarily be able to tackle whatever it is you’re working on that day itself, deliberate focus is an irreplaceable part of the process. To borrow a header from the book — “Deep work is key to learning hard things”. Don’t settle for performing deep work in a shallow manner. Be strict with yourself. It’s better to simply take a break and come back later.

Lesson #3: Willpower is overrated, the less you need the better

Unless you’ve taken the limitless pill, you’d probably have realised that as the day wears on, you’re more likely to give into bad habits. I’m sure many can attest that keeping a healthy diet during the first half of the day is far easier than doing so in the evening. Whether we’d care to admit or not, we’re all mortals. And unfortunately, sometimes the boring stuff is precisely what we need to hear. I’m sure it doesn’t come as a surprise to us that distraction is the enemy of deep work, but for some reason we allow ourselves to get distracted daily. And if we’re being really honest, maybe a part of us seeks for it, because deciding not to requires us to confront the discomfort that comes with working on challenging work. But if we are to reap the benefits of deep work, minimising such occurrences is a requisite.

Newport emphasises the importance of being conscious of our distractions and actively removing them from our work environment. It is not simply to be treated as a trivial task. With limited fuel in the tank each day, we should strive to use it as sparingly as possible. Consciously taking efforts in minimising the distractions we are exposed to daily will go a long way in developing our skill of deep work. I mean, why make your life harder than it needs to be?

Lesson #4: If you’re going to be distracted, at least be intentional about it

“Ericsson notes that for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours — but rarely more”

We’re all going to give into distraction at some point and it’s completely fine. We’re not robots and shouldn’t try to be, it is good enough that we’re able to control when and how we get distracted.

So give yourself a break, ours mind can’t focus on deep work indefinitely (and even if we could, theres probably a good case not to). Theres only so much we can take on cognitively before feeling completely burnt out for the day. And trust me, repeating this daily will only result in a bad end. Intentionally scheduling time out to get distracted can give us the much needed respite we need to rest our minds and reconnect with others. Let’s use distractions to our advantage. Take planned breaks from focus, give your mind a little break, go out and smell the roses 🌹.

My lesson: don’t get caught up being too dogmatic, understand that it’s always a give and take. And as Jordon Peterson puts it — you have to negotiate with yourself and not tyrannise yourself.

Lesson #5: Take great efforts to be deliberate and clear in your communication

We interact with others on a daily basis, with some of us even needing to respond to hundreds of emails and messages a day — just the thought of this scares me. While completely avoiding this is near impossible, we can definitely apply some of these techniques to give ourselves more opportunity for deep work.

For example, when arranging to meet others, suggest a couple of specific dates and times that works instead of the ‘zero effort’ — what’s the best time for you? — opener. Or when reaching out to ask questions, be as comprehensive as possible — does the receiver have all the details they need to answer your question? Has sufficient context been provided? Sparing the extra effort to craft out a well thought out response now could save your future self tremendous efforts required to switch between deep work and responding to open-ended messages. So be clear with your words, treat your future self with respect! I’m sure the people on the receiving end would greatly appreciate it as well.

Lesson #6: Your time is the only thing you have, treat it with extraordinary care

I’m sure everyone has been in this situation before, we blow through a day and at the end of it when we finally slow down we think to ourselves — what did I even do? And if we’re being honest, a lot of our time is simply lost to the ether, we blink once and the next moment we find ourselves on the way home from a long day at work. And if you’ve read a couple of books or stumbled upon some time management videos of youtube (yes, I’m speaking from experience) you might then be half-tempted to fall into a system of dogmatism by religiously scheduling your week into 15 minute blocks — luckily for us, the future needn’t look so bleak. This isn’t the takeaway we should gather from this.

Instead we need to understand the importance of having control over our time. If we are unsure where our time is being spent, how can we ever hope to take control of it? Internalising this doesn’t all of a sudden mean replacing all your ‘lost’ time with ‘productive’ work, far from it actually. But by simply understanding where how it is being spent, we can then take the step to be deliberate with it. Want to spend the next hour before you sleep bingeing on the new episode of your current favourite k-drama on Netflix? Sure, but at least make the conscious decision to. As I became increasingly aware of this, I found myself deciding to spend less time on social media platforms and more engaged with ‘offline’ activities (I would like to note, that one isn’t necessarily better than the other, this is simply what I observed with my own behaviour). So build systems which protect your time, so you have more time for yourself to decide on how you want to use it. Because ultimately, if we don’t respect our own time, how can we expect anyone else to?

Lesson #7: Learning to enjoy deep work

I think if all of us searched deep enough, we’d find ourselves feeling a little hesitation, some niggling fear towards fully embracing the notion of deep work. The idea of detaching from whats already in front of us in exchange for an un-guaranteed outcome is scary. Even those among us who pride ourselves on being “introverts” are not immune to the feeling of FOMO.

But for me personally, even if I casted aside the primary gains of deep work touted by productivity evangelists such as — “training your concentration” or “getting more work done”, embracing deep work has still done wonders for me mentally. It allowed me to experience a greater sense of flow. It’s a strange but also awesome feeling to have when you get completely absorbed in your work, only to realise that a couple hours passed in what felt like 20 minutes. I also catch myself being more invested in my work day to day, it’s almost as if deliberately prioritising deep work has given me a green light to explore more deeply into problems I was working on, giving me a deeper sense of appreciation towards them.

Now, deep work isn’t going to be a one-shot cure to whatever frustration you might have towards your work, but if you’re willing to take the chance, it’s definitely worth giving it a shot.

“I’ll live a focused life, because it’s the best kind there is” — Winifred Gallagher

I first picked up this book when I was struggling with my work and if I’m being honest, I was in a slump. While these problems have not all resolved after adopting some of my takeaways from this book, it has really helped me in changing how I viewed and approached my work day to day. I can confidently say I feel more engaged and rejuvenated after adopting some of these lessons in my own life.

If you wish to pick up a copy for yourself — which I genuinely highly recommend if you’re working in a knowledge based role, you can find it here. And if you enjoyed the read, please give leave a tasty clap 👏

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