Deep Work by Cal Newport — Personal Review and Sharing

R.chow
6 min readMay 5, 2021

Why did you pick up Deep Work by Cal Newport?

The book title — Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World — caught my attention once I was browsing through book recommendation. I believed (and hoped) that it would provide some tips to help me address at least one of the two bullet points below.

  1. My attention is constantly being pulled to multi-direction, e.g. social media, texts, office email, office chat, etc. and I am not in control of what I want to focus on easily.
  2. Striving for producing good and eventually great impact no matter what work I am given, I don’t want to waste the gift(s) that God has planted in me. Yet, I subconsciously squander the limited-precious time in non-essential areas but not in discovering or leveraging my gift(s). (Gifts here can be thought of as ability or desire/passion)

Distilled tips (hopefully to be proved helpful) and interesting phenomena (worth to be kept in mind) from Deep Work

FormulaProduced High Quality Work (Deep work) = time spent X intensity of focus
P.S. The maximum of deep work time is average 4 hrs/day. It is hard to go beyond. For new-bee at deep work, 1 hr/day of deep work time is a good start.

Based on this formula, I personally have a desire of increasing the intensity of my focus and decreasing the amount of time that is needed to produce the quality of work that meets my bar. (Assuming that there is a method that one use to evaluate where the bar should be already — we can chat about how to set aspiring yet realistic bar later on once I have more experience and insights to share.) Such that, I can have more time to be with my family/friends, to grow in other areas that are not purely related to my current professional career.

Distilled tips to achieve deep work —

Deep work philosophy (There are four of them of the book but I chose these two as they could be more applicable for workers whose schedule are more determined by the team and less by the individual)

  1. Rythmic philosophy — Essentially this is where you spent time to decide what to do regularly at certain time frame in each day so you will have the built-up habit and muscle of conducting such activity (i.e. deep work) w/o exerting much effort to decide what to do, which is another way of letting time pass through. NOTE: Take baby step at a time to figure out the rythm that will suit for you. E.g. I decided to do reading/exercising/breakfast in the time frame of 6am — 8am. For the remaining time after work hours, I haven’t planned out yet. This will help me to not suddenly feel overwhelmed and bad when I am not able to keep up with the rythm I design. It is a trial and error process.
  2. Journalistic philosophy (as indicated by the author, this is more advanced) — A person can use any free time that he or she has and jump into deep work immediately. Why this is advanced? As the free time can be short and the free time can be multiple chunks through out the day. If following the schedule exactly, a person who is not well-versed in entering/exiting deep work yet can easily be spending a lot of attention and time of task switching instead on the actual task. I personally am also combining another recommendation from the author — extend the finished time till you complete current task before moving to the next task — with journalistic philosophy to reduce the affect of task switching (attention residue — remaining focus from previous task).

Be intentional about how your time is spent

We are surrounded by a lot of distractions through out the day such that sometimes we may even have the thought of “how come a day has gone by that fast yet I don’t know what I had completed today” (Classic me). One of the reasons is that we are paying attention at too many things sporadically (i.e. a text message/email arrive, I will reply right away. Searching for info on internet, and easily get carried away by other content on the web) vs intentionally paying attention to the matters that we ought to or want to focus on.

Here is the tip offered by the author — Before the next day arrives, spend time in blocking through your next day calendar. Please be aware of not blocking time for each task, you can group similar tasks in one block of time so you won’t feel overwhelmed by the crazy calendar. And, don’t forget to block time for focus time (label what you will do in that chuck of focus time so you won’t need to spend effort on thinking what to do) which I considered that time to do deep work for my job if it is a work day.

Combat distraction during deep work

This article will really not be completed if we do not touch upon how to combat various tempting inputs that will lead us to distracting path :D.

  1. Turn off notifications or close the applications for a period of time while you are working on a task that requires intense focus.
  2. In the process of building deep work muscle, it is easy to have a wandering mind. When you detect yourself wandering that is non-related to the work on your hand, snap yourself out of it. If the item that catches your attention is critical and you haven’t allocated time to do it in the future, jog it down on a list and so you can review it after you complete the deep work session. The list will help free up your mind as now you have a list and you won’t forget that critical but not urgent item.

Interesting revealed phenomena —

Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity — Busyness DOESN’T equal to productivity. I realized that I was doing a lot of busy work, i.e. replying email and messages right away, throughout the day of my work automatically ,such that I always felt that I didn’t have enough time to do actual work — product research, problem investigation, persona research, etc.

But, WHY did I do so much busy work?

First — I assume that people need my response right away and it is the right thing to do to be prompt. This is false assumption — At work, it has been communicated over again that if it is urgent, it will be communicated, and if the requestor really needs it, he/she will reach out again soon. I personally also practice allocating email time for each day, and if the email item takes more time to respond or I currently don’t have the bandwidth, I will communicate to the person to set the right expectation.

Second — (I guess) It gives me sense of achievement that I can easily measure (# of emails) what I had done today at work vs I am only half way through my customer research work. This is short term vision for short term satisfaction — To combat this habit, I have been practicing this great advice from my managers — Ask yourself “What is the impact of this work?”. Be impact driven (i.e. identify critical customer needs) instead of output driven (i.e reply email that does’t need soon attention) to decide how your should use your time.

Black-Hole Metric — You may hear this before that if it can’t be measured how you know the impact from this activity? Hence, because you can’t proved it, let’s keep moving as planned. Be mindful that not everything can be easily measured (i.e. individual productivity) and we won’t be able to measure everything, we as knowledge workers/decision makers need to take this factor into equation and also leverage other inputs, e.g. experience, qualitative data, to determine whether a decision should be revised or continue as it is but not solely based on measurable data.

Conclusion

Hope this can give you a glimpse on what the book offers and if you are really busy, hope this article can give you a good kick start for your deep work journey! Please feel free to leave any (respectful :) ) comments. I look forward to producing better quality content in the future by learning from your comments.

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