I first heard about the book Deep Work, by Cal Newport, while reading another book, The Book of Coaching. As the saying goes (or maybe not!), one good book deserves another. “I must add that to my reading list!” I said enthusiastically at the time.
Yet it was only when I found myself a bit overwhelmed with all that I had to do, all that I wanted to do and found myself not being as productive as I should have been that I remembered about Deep Work and thought it would be a good read to motivate me.
Having read it and put its teachings into practice, I thought I would do a review slash summary of it and share the core messages I took from it with you.
The first thing to realise is:
Deep Work is More a Tool than a Book
Its front cover promises to deliver “rules for focused success in a distracted world”.
As an entrepreneur, my greatest distraction is my brain. Focused work and discipline got me my school results, Law degree, Chartered Accountant qualification and Life Coach and Trainer certifications.
However…now that I work for myself, I certainly suffer from “Shiny Object Syndrome”. My head is bursting with creative ideas, ways to move my business forward and support my clients. There are so many opportunities and possibilities and I want to do them all! This feels exciting and dynamic but can mean that nothing gets done. Think of Dug the dog from the movie Up… he sees a squirrel and that’s it, he leaves what he’s doing and runs off to chase it!
I’m not alone in this entrepreneurial struggle.
Whether we work for ourselves or others, it’s wonderful to be ambitious and dream big. It’s a cliché, but if not acted on, dreams simply remain in our heads. Things don’t get done, not because of being lazy, but because of too much on the brain, resulting in overwhelm and “paralysis by analysis”.
This is why this book is powerful.
Combined with the “Shiny Object Syndrome” issue, in this modern age, it goes without saying we have endless distractions with pings, scrolls and screens lighting up- another factor in making it more difficult to focus than ever.
So, what do we do about it?
Well, first of all, let’s look at what deep work actually is.
Newport defines it as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.”
This contrasts with shallow work, which is:
“non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
We all want to create value, right? This is why deep work is essential.
Shallow work is still necessary. When used appropriately, it complements and supports the work that really matters and makes the most impact.
Benefits of Deep Work:
Let’s break down the reasons why we should all do more deep work.
1. Deep work helps you quickly learn hard things
To learn requires intense concentration. And the best way to do this is to clear time for yourself to make it happen.
2. Deep work prevents attention residue
As you move from one task to the next, from one meeting to another, you are often still focused on what you had just been working on, rather than mindfully working and concentrating on the current job. Practicing deep work builds up our focus muscle. When we are focussed we have the ability to develop our potential and quickly master new things.
3. Deep Work helps you produce work at an Elite Level
By “batching” difficult but necessary intellectual work into long, interrupted stints, we perform to a higher standard, producing better quality work.
4. Deep work supports us in feeling good
The distractions of the world make us feel restless and frustrated. We compare ourselves to others and this can have a de-motivating effect on us. We beat ourselves up because we are not as productive as we know we can be. Deep down, we know that we are not fulfilling our potential as we scroll on social media or watch reality TV.
What we pay attention to determines the quality of our life.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi speaks of the importance of having
“concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems”.
Deep work can really be seen as a way of practicing mindfulness. It’s good for mind and body, and certainly assists in reducing anxieties caused by dwelling on the past or worrying about the future as we invest quality time in being in the moment.
Embracing deep work in our career helps us to bring meaning to what we do. This supports us in feeling more fulfilled. We feel proud of what we have achieved and the progress made, rather than experiencing that empty feeling we get from “being busy being busy”.
Types of Deep Work
Newport identifies 4 “Deep Work Philosophies”, i.e. different ways to schedule and practice deep work.
Here’s an overview of each one:
What it is:
This style of working involves cutting yourself off from pretty much all distractions in professional life to really facilitate deep work.
Who it’s for:
This type of deep work is ideal for people who have a clear, defined goal and no other work obligations- for example, an individual who wishes to write a novel in a short timeframe and can take time out to shut themselves off from the world. It’s quite a radical way of working, usually involving zero email communication, yet can make all the difference between having a memorable and mediocre career.
What it is:
Bimodal working is switching between deep and non-deep work effectively. Like the monastic style, all distractions are removed, yet only for a short period of time. For example, Carl Jung used to take himself off on retreat for a few weeks throughout the year to his Bollingen Tower. During this time, he would lock himself away to write in the mornings, then meditate, walk and gather his thoughts for the next day’s writing. This elimination of all distractions was only done during these retreats. The rest of the year he was anything but monastic!
Working in this way, you split your time between working deeply on specific projects, leaving the rest free to work on other pursuits. There is no defined way to do it- you choose how to divide your time. Like Jung, it may be dedicating a few weeks at a time to deep work, or you may choose a season, or 3 days per week. It’s up to you.
Who it’s for:
A multi-potentialist, entrepreneurial type who is working on many projects. In order to get what will make the most impact done, deep work is combined with more shallow endeavours that are also essential to drive business forward and pay the bills (meetings, emails, social media, networking events).
What it is:
This approach involves transforming deep work into a simple, regular every-day habit. It means setting the time for doing deep work each day. Bit by bit the work gets done by establishing a routine.
Who’s it for
Those in 9-5 jobs who need to focus deeply to complete an important project (personal or professional, perhaps working on a side hustle). More often than not, it’s not feasible to retreat and work monastically in this situation under the watchful eye of a boss.
What it is:
Just as journalists transition into writing mode at a moment’s notice, this philosophy is about fitting in deep work wherever you can. It takes practice to switch from shallow to deep styles quickly and because of this, requires a conviction that the work you are doing is impactful and must get done.
Who’s it for
People who, because of competing priorities, don’t have the luxury of dedicating set weeks, days or hours to their deep work. This type of individual (usually those writing a book, composing music) takes advantage of downtime to get the work done so that they can integrate deep work into their busy schedules.
The journalistic style is akin to the NET (No Extra Time) concept outlined by Tony Robbins, i.e., using any time that’s freed up to get some deep work in, for example when a meeting gets cancelled, someone is late, you’re travelling on a train etc.
My Deep Work Philosophy and How I Incorporate Deep Work into My Week
After reading Deep Work, I realised that my style was a combination of the bimodal and rhythmic deep work philosophies.
I both am and I amn’t a morning person (I know, it confuses me as well!). I could hit snooze and happily sleep forever. Yet, ever since I was at school I realised that once I was up and had a cup of tea, my ability to focus and be productive was at its peak at around 7am. I also love the satisfying feeling that comes when the clock strikes 12pm, having already achieved many hours’ work. This makes me continue to be motivated right into the afternoon.
This is what works for me on a typical, day-to-day basis:
Rise at 6am- wake up, journal, meditate, read, do some yoga (the routine doesn’t always stay the same but essentially it is about giving myself time for me to come gradually into the day on my terms and take control of my day instead of the other way around).
Between 7am and 9am I do deep work on my novel- other than a soundtrack playing, no other tabs are open on my browser. This is the best way for me to start my day as it expands my mind and puts me in a place of feeling good, as it’s work that really excites me.
After breakfast, it’s prime time for other creative deep work to drive my business forward- this includes preparing and developing training programmes/webinars, writing blogs, proposals, composing social media posts.
Most of my deep work is done before 12pm. Then I catch up with emails and meetings with more energy and focus because I know the previous hours have been well spent.
My coaching sessions are mostly done in the afternoons and evenings. Personally, I find that when I’m coaching it’s a process where I am fully present with the individual and focus comes naturally. I always ensure that I take 10-20 minutes to prepare before each client call by reviewing their notes, taking a moment to meditate and begin holding space for them so that I can show up and serve them whatever way they require in the session.
I plan to book myself in for a “Think Week” later this year. In Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about how Bill Gates takes two weeks out of each year, away from technology and society to retreat to a cabin in the woods and do nothing much other than read, rejuvenate and plan.
Deep Work Helps You Thrive
If you cultivate deep work, you will thrive.
Identify which style of deep work is best for you, bearing in mind that this may vary throughout the week, month, year. Then, take a look at your schedule and see when you can prioritise deep work, being mindful of the following:
We have 168 hours in a week.
Or 10,080 minutes.
Either way, that’s usually more than we first realise.
True, we spend a good chunk of that sleeping but we still have a good bit of time left over- plenty of time to incorporate deep work into our weeks if we choose to.
You can make Deep Work a sacred time for you, breathing deeply as you work, switching off from distractions.
When I’m tidying a room now, I consciously focus on each corner as I go, making sure it’s clean before I move on, unlike moving round the place creating more mess as I go! Likewise, this same principle can be used when we are doing other work- one thing at a time.
To quote Charles Dickens:
“I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.“.
When we do this, our work is more meaningful, no matter what we are doing and we experience greater happiness, enjoyment, fulfilment as we move away from that restless feeling and frustration that comes from being distracted.
Setting boundaries, respecting them (and your work and yourself in the process) means that others will realise you are inaccessible during these times and learn that your time is not their time.
Final Words on the Book, Deep Work
What I really liked about this book is that it provides the theory and the facts (this appeals to the research part of my brain) as well as the practical ways that individuals can go about practising deep work.
I’ve summarised key points that resonated with me here, so take what works for you and leave the rest.
I would also recommend taking a read of Deep Work yourself to form your own insights that you can include in your work… and life! You can purchase it from Amazon (as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases).
To me, part of deep work is just being, taking in the world around you, feeling happy in your own company, which has a knock on effect on your all of your endeavours.
The practice of this type of work certainly leads to a calmer, happier and ultimately more fulfilled life.
Have you read Deep Work? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!