Deep work by Cal Newport

When a computer engineer (Cal Newport is the Provost’s Distinguished Professor at Georgetown University) writes six bestselling self-help books, you know there’s something in it that comes out of deep thought. Nothing about favoring him without reason, of course. Several authors have dealt with the topic of distractions and the ability to focus on tasks at hand but Cal’s work stands out because he deals it with a systematic stance, so typical of a computer engineer. He explains Deep Work thus


Author : Cal Newport
Originally Published : 2016
Publication : Grand Central Publishing
Pages : 304
Genre(s) : Non-Fiction, Self-Help, Time Management

“Deep Work: 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

Cal cites examples of Carl Jung, the famous Psychologist who took time off to his retreat to think and work alone, many times despite several of his patients waiting for him. So is also with Bill Gates who is famous for taking the ‘Think week’ off to a typical lakeside cottage. In the same vein, Cal also gives us an idea of what a shallow work is. He says about it-  “Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

Here are several anecdotes of people who found early on in their careers that all they were doing was something which could be easily automated. Some, like consultant Jason Benn, quit their repetitive jobs and set out to do something ‘deep’. But the problem was the mind never quite focused on what was supposedly ‘Deep work’. It kept shuttling between web surfing and shallow thoughts. Realizing that no great achievement is possible without Deep Work, someone like Benn learned to focus on the task at hand for several hours at a stretch without getting distracted.

What is focused work

Work without distraction of any kind, with complete concentration of what you’re doing. No emails, no news, no surfing the net and no chatting. No, not even your thoughts to disturb you. You are in that ‘zone’ and your attention is completely on the task you are performing.

Relevance of Deep Work in current times

Because the times, as they say, have really changed. It was a labor intensive economy earlier. People learned a skill by observation and hand eye coordination. They repeated the task so many times that they excelled at it with time. A tailor, carpenter, musician, mason or a goldsmith had to repeatedly do what they did to gain mastery over their craft. The same isn’t true today. It’s a knowledge economy and it’s based on knowledge which keeps changing, evolving every day. How can you keep pace, how can you master complex mathematical calculations, computer programming, data analytics and technology if not for deep work.

Mastering Deep Work

Cal talks about two core abilities for thriving in the New Economy

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Both these skills make a huge difference to the way we work and succeed in life. How does one achieve this? Cal also gives us the rules for it.

  1. Work deeply
  2. Philosophize the deep work regimen
  3. Ritualize it so that you follow it regularly
  4. Don’t work alone
  5. Keep a scoreboard
  6. Maintain accountability

These are some suggestions that come your way when you want to know the how and what of deep work. Cal does not fail to address the key culprit that prevents us from achieving Deep Work every time: Boredom and Laziness. So what does he say? Embrace them, he says, but don’t give up on what you’re doing.

Key takeaways

  1. What I liked the most is that the book addresses the biggest threat to our professional lives- distraction, inability to focus, boredom, laziness, too many things vying for our attention and at the same time, our work demanding depth. It is indeed a challenge to balance the two but Cal shows us how.
  2. Breaking down our work into small parts, focusing, or rather deciding on focusing is the key
  3. Cal shows us that in the absence of deep work, we will end up doing tasks that can be repetitive and hence replaceable. Adding to our skills through depth is the only way we can stay relevant and ahead of the crowd.

Why I recommend this book

Because it’s a subject few have handled the way Cal Newport has. He understands how the human mind works, better, being a computer programmer himself. Read this book if you, like me, nod your head when people say they can’t focus.

The book is not an easy read, mainly because it is in itself a deep work. Shallow thoughts will take you only so far, is what I understood from this book. And like all of us professionals, we need to stay ahead of the game at all times. If we’re into entrepreneurship, then it’s all the more important to ponder deeply. Disruptive ideas and innovation never comes out of shallowness, you get my point?

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