Book Review – Deep Work By Cal Newport

I watched this video on Youtube that had a list of 10 books that every student should read. The first one, Deep Work by Cal Newport, was of particular interest to me, and I decided to read it. The reason? I’m a distraction junkie.


On the highest possible level, the book is divided into two parts. The first part is where the author tries to convince us that deep work is valuable, that it results in a greater degree of productivity, that many successful people who create value embrace a state of hyper-focused concentration towards the work they’re doing. The book illustrates how an obligation by employers (especially in knowledge work) to respond to emails quickly, be active on social media websites and to work in a common work space full of noise, interruptions and shallow tasks (like frequent meetings) has resulted in a generation of knowledge workers who have accepted distractions as a way to life.

The second part assumes that we’ve accepted that the deep life is a good life, a life well lived and gives us a set of guidelines that we can follow to get the most out of our work hours. The reason for this part is quite clear. If I was asked to switch off my email for 3 days straight, or if an employee decides that he/she will not participate in their team’s daily meetings, that will have adverse effects on our careers. Best case, people will be upset with your delayed responses to their messages, worst case, you lose your job. Now how does one strike a balance between the two parts of their work life, the immediate part (shallow work) and the important part (deep work), without sacrificing a hand and a leg in exchange.

Following are a few key takeaways for me from the book. I’ll try to summarize each point in a line or two. The quotes are from the book itself.

Need for Deep Work

The author mentions the three groups of people who will thrive in the current economy, where most of the jobs are getting replaced by computer code.

  • those who can work with intelligent machines
  • those who are the best at what they do
  • those with the capital to invest

Now unless you belong to the last category, you’ll need to produce high quality work at an elite level. A lot of people can write computer code. But the few who create something of value with code that the masses then use is elite work. Deep work isn’t for those who wish to live an ordinary life. You can be a good engineer who does what the job expects from you and never need deep work. Deep work comes in when you want to push the abilities of your concentration muscle to its limits and produce high value in your profession.

Now depending on how we look at it, due to the social media / distraction media outburst, the number of knowledge workers who can work deeply has reduced significantly. It opens up a whole new opportunity for people who still have the ability (or can train themselves) to do deep work. And deep work is still valuable. Look at all the various artists, painters, musicians and other creative workers. It is common to see deep work in their profession because of it’s immediate effects. Deep work gives these people a sense of meaning in their work. But in case of knowledge workers, Internet (and the associated distractions) is an inevitable part of their lives, and that is why deep work is becoming increasingly rare here.

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. – Donald Knuth

Embrace Boredom

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

My personal problem right here. When I get 10 minutes of free time, I look into my phone. I have tonnes of applications that then keep me engaged (“updated”). I have content aggregators like Reddit which make sure I’m never short of content that can quench my thirst for distractions. And this is while I actively realize that the stuff I’m reading isn’t of much value to my future. To use an analogy, it is like having street side “Chinese” food. You know it isn’t good for your health, but you end up giving in to the temptations. Now, the obvious demerit to this is an adverse effect to your health. But what about the effect it has on your will power. Giving in to temptations and desires weakens your “mental muscle” for will power. It becomes harder and harder to resist the temptation when you keep giving in over and over again. The only way to train this muscle is to actively resist the temptation for distractions.

And apart from this, giving in to easy distractions keep your mind busy and dries it off its ability to work on value generating problems. It does not let quality thoughts come into your mind for subconscious processing, and as a result, you slowly but steadily lose the power to focus and do deep work altogether.

(Quit) Social Media

The author talks about all the adverse effects social media has on our productivity. Having a “presence” on websites like Facebook and Twitter, posting regular updates to keep your “audience” engaged and thus boosting whatever business you’re in, is not only a very misinformed thought, but also something that has become quite common in the information age. Here the author makes some great counterpoints on why, even if social networking has some benefits to it for some people, most people are better off spending the same time on work that can earn them the respect and reputation that can outweigh any benefits of a social media presence in the first place. Not to mention, this can save you the thoughts about “what your friends might be doing in their life right now?” when you’re working on something important.

Miscellaneous and Conclusion

The author talks about (surprisingly) detailed ways to get back your time from shallow activities. From talking to your boss explicitly about the ratio of your shallow to deep work, to answering an email such that it does not generate follow-ups that will take more of your time, to simply filtering what emails to actually answer. These are some real life tips that can be embraced by many knowledge workers.

I think this was one of the best self help books that I’ve read (I’ve not read a lot of them, to be honest), just as useful as “How to win friends and influence people” was for building relationships. The author’s use of simple language, of logical arguments (that most of us think about, but never question or go a step further into researching), examples of strategies, real world case studies and how to practically apply them into our “busy” schedules are some of the reasons that make reading this book truly worthwhile. I would highly recommend it to all those who feel “busy” all day, but don’t get a lot done. Who feel the need to check emails, messengers, social networks every 30 minutes to not miss out on the important stuff. Who want to overcome their addiction to shallow irrelevant “news articles” and memes. I’ll leave you with this…

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.