This book belongs in my “motivational” bucket. I have a bias to add one additional star to the rating of motivational books because of the “can’t wait to change my life” impetus. 

Every few months, some people (like me) create a Monday to Sunday schedule with 30-minute intervals in which every second of the day has a corresponding productive activity. The schedule is followed with fiery precision for two to four weeks, then randomness sneaks in and detonates it. A new schedule is then created to build more buffer for randomness or to reorient us to new enterprises. 

And then it breaks down again.

My own takeaway

The most important and comforting idea that I’m taking away from this book is that the daily limit of deep work is approximately four hours. Efforts to stay in deep work territory past the fourth hour will likely fail due to exhausted concentration and willpower (both finite resources). There’s no reason, however, to feel disheartened: a couple of hours per day of deep work leads to unbelievable output in the long run.

One can use the remaining time to attend to some shallow work and, importantly, to rest and recover the mind. Being in nature does wonders for resting and recovering the mind. (This is why I love you, California: hiking, camping, trail running, surfing 🙂)

One (big) aspiration

If we think of concentration and willpower as trainable skills, then the holy grail is what Newport calls the “journalistic philosophy” of deep work. More than a philosophy, it is a skill: the ability to turn the deep work switch on at any moment, just like journalists are trained to shift into writing mode as needed.

The other ideas in the book

The book can be divided in two sections. Section 1 defines “deep work” and demonstrates why it is important. Section 2 provides useful tools, techniques, and suggestions to increase the amount of deep work that we do at work and in our non-working time.

Section 1

My proposed shortcut to Section 1 is to exchange the word “deep” with “important”, and “shallow” with “unimportant”. With this, we remove the necessity to prove that deep work is more important than shallow work. The more interesting (but still intuitive) point is that important work requires a higher level of concentration because it is harder and, of course, it also produces more important outputs.

This makes good common sense, however, when we look at our typical workday in the office, we spend the majority of the time in the shallows, completing busy, easy, and low-impact tasks. A possible explanation is comprised of two ideas: 1) easy is easier than hard ;-), 2) the marginal contribution of any particular task to the bottom line of a company is impossible to measure. Therefore, on any given day, if spending time doing deep or shallow work feels the same, why choose the harder one?

Section 2

Some of the tools and techniques presented in this section, in order of recollection:

  • Quit, pause, or be ruthlessly thoughtful about your use of social media
  • Define the duration of your workday (for example, 8am to 5pm) and have boot up and shutdown routines
    • It’s very important to have a shutdown routine that eliminates the possibility of stressing out about work stuff after hours
  • At the beginning of the day (boot up routine), sketch how you will use each hour of the day
    • Course correct when necessary, the point is to be deliberate about the use of your precious time
  • Consider and define periods of isolation to do deep work
    • Could be months, weeks, days, or certain hours of a day
  • Recognize that not all email messages need an immediate reply and that some emails do not need a reply at all

A quote from the author

“[Commitment to deep work is] a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.”