Summary of Deep Work – Focused Success in a Distracted World

August 9, 2017

This book is all about how you can leverage the concept of deep work to become a more prolific creator, create value and be more successful.

What is Deep Work?

Distraction free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to the limit.

It's based on the following formula:-​

High quality work produced = time spent x intensity of focus

To engage in deep work requires full concentration and immersive thought.  You're captivated and completely focused on the thing that you're working on without disruption.

An example of deep work is locking yourself in a distraction free environment on a regular basis to produce a creative work that you're fully engaged in.

The opposite to deep work is shallow work. Such activities involve:-

  • Operating reactively rather than proactively
  • Chatting, answering phone calls, instant messaging
  • Browsing the web
  • Doing menial day-to-day tasks
  • Answering emails
  • Formatting documents

Shallow work has no real value, is easy to replicate, noncognitively demanding, often distracted and makes us look busy.  It's also an incredibly common default state for most people in the modern day world.

The Arguments for Deep Work

​There are 3 main arguments for Deep Work:

1. Learn Faster - If you can engage in deep work when learning new skills then you'll learn faster.  Deliberate practice is arguably the best known method for getting good at anything and Deep Work is a mandatory component of deliberate practice.  

That's to say, if you're practicing something and you're not in a state of Deep Work, then you're not practicing deliberately and thus not to maximum efficiency.

2. Be Successful - deep work is a hard skill to attain and pretty rare.  Most people don't regularly engage in a state of deep work in their day to day lives yet those that do will thrive.

To thrive in the modern era, you need to be able to master hard things and produce at an elite level, in terms of quality and speed.  Both of the aforementioned qualities are a byproduct of doing regular periods of deep work.

3. Lead A Rich Life - ​the road to a meaningful and purposeful life is paved with regular periods of deep work.  

Deep work will amplify your ability to create something of value and contribute to the world.

Furthermore, deep work is one of the most enjoyable periods of engagement (otherwise known as "Flow") that humans can engage in. Studies show that people who regularly experience flow are happier and live more fulfilled lives.​

So, in summary, by engaging in deep work, you'll be able to pick up new skills faster, thrive in the modern day economy and live a life rich with productivity and meaning.

What it Requires

A conscious and deliberate decision to integrate deep work into your life.  

Regularly practicing deep work is difficult and should be ingrained as a habit so that you're consistently able to get into this state.

Method / Approaches to Deep Work

Decide on your depth philosophy - there are a number of different ways to integrate a deep work practice into your life, and you should decide which method works best for you.

  1. Monastic - basically involves cutting yourself off from the rest of the world indefinitely.  A few proponents of this approach are Neal Stephenson (the science fiction author) and Donald Knuth (the computer scientist)​ who are both pretty much uncontactable, even through the likes of email.  

    Their philosophy is that they have a choice: they can either spend their time being distracted by the various forms of communication, or spend their time focused on creating.   They commit themselves to the latter.
  2. Bimodal - an oscillation between periods of being isolated in monastery like conditions and periods of shallow work.  

    One example cited in the book include Carl Jung, the psychiatrist, who spent part of the year doing deep work in the woods and other parts of the year running his psychotherapy practice in the bustling city of Zurich.  

    Another example is ex Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates, who would schedule two "think weeks" for deep thinking and strategising during his busy tenure.

    The key point about the modal philosophy is that both periods of deep and shallow work are long and uninterrupted.
  3. Rhythmic - this involves scheduling part of your daily routine for periods of deep work and is probably more apt for most of the population. 

    One example given in the book is the author Anthony Trollope who created a daily ritual of getting up at 0530, had a coffee, read his previous day's work and then engaged in 2.5 hours of writing during which he aimed to complete 2,500 words.

    Another example is the prolific writer Stephen King who tried to write 2,000 words in the morning and spend his afternoons doing other things that needed to be done.

    This particular approach lends itself well to creating a daily habit of engaging in deep work.  The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you're going to go deep.
  4. Journalistic - this is all about just grabbing every moment that you can in order to engage in deep work.

    The example given is Walter Isaacson who would retreated up to the bedroom when the rest of his friends and family were relaxing on the patio.  "He'd pound away on his typewriter for twenty minutes or an hour and then come back down relaxed like the rest of us."

    This is the least reliable and most difficult of methods to jump straight into.  The ability to switch your mind from shallow to deep work mode doesn't come naturally and requires practice.  Therefore, this is probably not the best philosophy for someone who is need to working deep.

The Chain Method - Jerry Seinfeld made this technique, that's used to maintain discipline, famous.   It's since become popular among writers and fitness enthusiasts.

He keeps a calendar on his wall.  Every day that he writes jokes he crossed out the date on the calendar with a big red X.  

"After a few days you will have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt.  your only job is to not break the chain".  (This technique is also a part of my habit system)

Create your Ritual - "Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants" - David Brooks.

Build rituals to support your goal of going deep often.  Your ritual should address:-

  1. Where you'll work and for how long
  2. How you'll work once you start to work
  3. How you'll support your work (food, coffee, walking, organisation).  This needs to be systemized so that you don't waste mental energy figuring out what you need in the moment.

Finding a ritual that sticks might require experimentation, so be willing to work at it.

Make Grand Gestures - this technique leverages the psychology of serious committing to the task at hand and involves putting yourself in a new location, sometimes at great expense, for the sole purpose of deep work.  By doing this, you increase the perceived importance of the task, which will reduce your mind's instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.

Some examples include:-​

  1.  JK Rowling, the famous author, checked into the five star Balmoral hotel near Edinburgh Castle​ when she struggled to finish "The Deathly Hallows".
  2. Bill Gates - famous for taking "Think Weeks" during his time as Microsoft CEO during which he would retire to a cabin for the sole purpose of reading papers and books
  3. Alan Lightman, MIT physician and novelist, retreats to a tiny island in Maine to think deeply and recharge for 2 and a half months each summer.  The island doesn't even have an internet connection or phone line.
  4. Peter Shankman, entrepreneur and social media pioneer, noticed that he was extremely productive while flying so booked a round trip business class flight to Tokyo and wrote during the whole voyage.

Don't work alone - for many types of work, collaborative deep work can yield better results - it can push your results to a new level.

The 4DX Framework - planning and big goals is one thing, but execution is another.  A framework called the 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) can help us execute efficiently.  The four principles are as follows:-

  1. ​Focus on the Wildly important - the implication is that you should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours
  2. Act on the Lead Measures - focus on the points of high leverage that will cascade down into other areas.  

    Lag measures are those that are influenced by lead measures.  

    For example, if you're trying to improve customer service, a lead measure might be "the time it takes for a customer to receive a response" and a lag measure might be "customer satisfaction scores".
  3. Keep a Compelling Scorecard - people play different when keeping score. Example- scorecard of how many deep hours people do on a daily basis.
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability - public meetings where team members must confront their scoreboard, commit to specific actions to help improve the score before the next meeting, and describe what happened with the commitments they made at the last meeting.

Embrace Boredom - Clifford Nass, Stanford communication professor, did some research that revealed that people who multitask all the time can't manage working memory, are chronically distracted and initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand...they're pretty much mental wrecks.

If every moment of potential boredom in your life is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the "mental wrecks", it's not ready for deep work.

In short: when you have those moments where you don't have anything specific to be getting on with, embrace them and stop yourself from switching your focus onto the nearest distraction.

Quit Social Media ​- identify your personal and professional goals and determine if social media is giving a substantive positive impact on you reaching them.

Consider quitting social media for 30 days and asking yourself the following questions afterwards:-

  1. ​Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn't using this service?

To master the art of deep work, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.

Drain the Shallows - ​treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.

  1. ​Try scheduling every minute of every day to show that your estimates will prove wrong and to show how often you'll be interrupted with new obligations.  Will help you appreciate that a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect
  2. Ask your boss for a shallow work budget
  3. Finish your work by five thirty.  Adopt fixed schedule productivity.  
  4. Say yes less - "Yes" is the most dangerous word in one's productivity vocabulary.
  5. Become hard to reach - create a sender filter and set expectations of response low
  6. Do more work when replying to emails - limit the amount of back and forth required to get things done.
  7. Don't respond - don't feel bad about it.


The main challenges of deep work are:-

  1. Fighting desires and distractions - especially if your brain has already been primed to engage in shallow work for many years
  2. Willpower fatigue - our willpower is like a muscle so pushing it to hard can lead to burnout.

My Concluding Thoughts

This book helps shine a light into the mindsets and approach of people that are prolific creators.  

We all know we should focus is important, but it's become a bit of a cliche in productivity circles.  "You should focus" is overused and doesn't really mean anything, but Deep Work brings a whole new level of clarity to the term.

I like how Deep Work is complementary to other extremely important concepts for high performance: habit building and deliberate practice.  Those three, together, seem to be the ultimate cocktail for high performance.

The book also inspired me to create a script for putting my computer into "deep work" mode.

My full set of notes can be found here.

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