Deep work: a powerful concept – five takeaways from an inspiring book

I have read a few books that had a significant impact on my professional (and personal) life, maybe none more so than “Getting Things Done” by David Allen and  “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people” by Stephen Covey. However, a few months ago, I discovered the work of Cal Newport and read his book “Deep Work”. Its impact on my thinking was and is on par with the classics listed above.

The concepts within this book immediately resonated with me. So much so that I would like to share my thoughts. I will try to explain the concept of deep work, present the five main takeaways I took, and what tangible changes I made to my workday.

Let’s start with what it’s all about.

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The concept of deep work

Newport introduces the concepts of “deep work” and “shallow work” for modern knowledge workers.

Deep work is the act of working in full concentration without distraction on a cognitively demanding task (e.g. formulating a product vision, analyzing data, researching).

Shallow work is non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style work, often performed while distracted (e.g. answering emails, creating a status update presentation, updating a roadmap).

In its essence, the book is an argument as to why deep work is so important. It also gives advice on how to make distraction free work a part of one’s life. 

Why deep work?

The book focuses on two main reasons for deep work: gaining a competitive advantage and creating a sense of meaning in work.

Competitive advantage

Deep work is a skill that can be learned. Newport argues that being able to deeply work through a problem is actually one of the most important skills for knowledge workers in the 21st century. In an ever more rapidly changing environment it is and will be crucial to be able to quickly acquire knowledge of difficult concepts. Deep, uninterrupted work is the most efficient way to learn those complex and complicated subjects. 

At the same time, today we are living in an ever connected and always online world. Distraction is just one swipe away. This environment is making it increasingly difficult to actually work distraction free. The ability for working deeply is becoming rare right at the time when it is needed most. 

Thus, the skill of deep work will be a competitive advantage for any knowledge worker. 

Meaning in work

The book likens the ability to work deeply to craftsmanship. An expert craftsman needs to spend hours deeply concentrated on the task at hand. This is one of the reasons to find meaning in his or her profession.

Newport argues (neurologically, psychologically, and philosophically) that working deeply taps into the “same veins of meaning that drive craftsmen”. Thus, deep work creates meaning in work and in the end leads to more satisfaction in work.   

My main takeaways 

I found the book to be very impactful for my daily work. It includes many interesting thoughts. For me, five concepts stood out:

  • Scheduling distraction free time
  • Reducing obstacles
  • Busy does not mean productive 
  • Being unproductive and bored
  • Productive meditation

Let me try to put these into my own words.

Scheduling distraction free time

Particularly for anyone in a role that has many interfaces it can seem almost impossible to find distraction free time slots for truly deep work. It certainly feels that way for me working as a Product Owner. We jump from meeting to meeting and whenever we do have an hour of “free” time there are seemingly important slack messages, emails, and phone calls that need to be answered.

This reality means we are constantly context switching between different things. Similarly as it is with multitasking, every time we are interrupted our brain needs warm up time to get back into our original task. This leads to less efficiency and waste.

In such an environment it is almost impossible to deeply work on a problem. Therefore, we need to consciously make time for working uninterrupted. There are four different approaches or philosophies for scheduling deep work.

Monasteric → Completely eliminating any distractions and shallow work permanently (probably not possible for the vast majority of us)

Bimodal → Temporarily applying the monasteric philosophy for at least 1 entire day regularly

Rhythmic → Fixed daily rhythm of deep work (minimum 90 minutes)

Journalistic → Whenever possible, squeezing in deep work between shallow activities (very difficult, as you need the capability to focus right away) 

Regardless of the chosen method, the important thing is to schedule long periods of uninterrupted time for deep work. Besides not having meetings, this means no social media, no slack, no email, no notifications, no phone, no internet (if possible).

Reducing obstacles

Humans have a finite amount of mental energy to spend. You want to spend this on being productive instead of getting in the state of being able to be productive. Thus, we need to make it as easy as possible to get into the state of deep work. 

Rituals that are adapted to your personal situation are extremely important in that regard. They should include the place, the time, the duration, the rules (e.g. no phone), and the support (e.g. fresh coffee).  

(Communication) technology and offices with an open floor plan have benefits. However, in the context of deep work they are impediments. It is very important to consciously plan time for deep work, possibly without (communication) technology in an office where you don´t get interrupted. At the same time, it makes sense to plan time for deep collaboration – possibly in an open office or with communication software.

Busy does not mean productive

We are often busy for an entire day with meetings, emails, calls and other messages. Personally, I frequently have days where it feels like I don´t ever have time to take a breath. I am exhausted at the end of these days. However, this doesn’t mean that I was actually productive after a day like that.

Unfortunately, being visibly busy and stressed is often and often mistakenly perceived as a measure of productivity. There are certainly those among us for whom there is no alternative than having a fully scheduled day (CEOs come to mind). However, for the vast majority of us it’s simply easier to answer emails and define the workday through standing meetings than to actually and actively plan our work. 

Those that are able to be conscious about their work and work deeply will be more productive. They will stand out. 

Being unproductive and bored

To improve the deep work skills, we need to not only improve our concentration skills, but also our skill to endure boredom. Our brain needs to be able to not be distracted at all times. When we are not distracted and bored our subconsciousness starts to work. There is a reason why some of the best ideas occur when we are bored.

Moreover, the brain of most of us only has the capacity to work deeply for a maximum of four hours per day. So, once we are done with our deep work for the day, it makes sense to give the brain a break and let the unconscious do its thing. Newport himself states that he quits work every day at 5.30 because anything later is not productive for him.

(Side note: the above paragraph implies that in an eight hour work day we spend four hours on shallow work – if we have four full hours of deep work. For most of us, it’s probably more like six hours of shallow work. That is, I believe, the explanation why you are hearing about more and more companies switching to four day workweeks without really noticing a difference in productivity. The employees simply decrease the amount of shallow work by half an hour in those four days and voilá, you have already compensated the missing two hours of productive work on the fifth day.)

Productive meditation

Productive meditation is a concept that I find highly interesting, although I haven’t really been able to figure out how to make it work for myself. 

Productive meditation is done during a physically exhausting but mentally not demanding activity, e.g. walking, running, or riding a bike. During this activity a single difficult mental problem is solved. This could be determining a business strategy, coming up with a product vision, outlining a chapter in a book, or any other well defined professional problem.

As it is during mediation, whenever the thoughts start wandering, we come back to the problem at hand and methodically try to solve it. 

Impacts of deep work on myself

Having read the book I immediately implemented some changes in my day. 

I now have a 3 hour no meeting block in my calendar from 9am to noon. Most days, I am actually able to keep the morning meeting free and spend my time working deeply. It doesn’t always work. There are some standing meetings that I wasn’t able to move and every once in a while a meeting will be scheduled before lunch. Overall, it works well and I feel that I have been much more productive (and happy) on the days that are meeting free in the mornings.

Related to the last point, I cram all meetings after one another in the afternoons. In an Ideal week I am able to create two to three afternoons full of meetings and the others stay free as well. I either keep five to ten minute breaks between meetings or breaks that are longer than 90 minutes. 

I avoid having 30-60 minute breaks between meetings, since less than 60 minutes is not enough time for me to really get deep. If it happens, I use that time to answer emails or do other forms of shallow work.

Speaking of email, and the following is true for Slack as well, I no longer answer every email right away. I used to be very proud of being on top of all chats and not keeping people waiting on answers. With the book, I realized that this was actually extremely distracting to the really important work. 

Thus, I have turned off email and Slack notifications on my PC. I no longer have the apps on my phone (I also deleted all social media apps on my phone). When I am really focused on a task, I exit the applications so that I am not tempted to check. If it is really urgent, I am still reachable by phone. So far, since I implemented this change roughly six months ago, I can’t recall five instances where I received an urgent phone call.

I now use a ritual to get into the deep work state of mind. For me, this is going to a desk with a cup of coffee and putting on headphones with an ocean waves soundscape. Then I start. Whenever I hear the waves, it takes me about five minutes to truly get into the mindset. Most of the time, I can then concentrate really well for one to two hours. 

Finally, I have accepted that you cannot be productive at all times. Therefore, when I feel like I am not making any more progress and my brain doesn’t work anymore I stop for the day or at least take a break for a few hours. 

I have actually felt the impact of the work the subconscious does in the downtime. More often than not, the thought that solves whatever problem I was stuck with will pop up during some random other activity.

Deep work makes me happier

As I extensively present above, I thoroughly enjoyed the book “Deep Work” and it had immediate, tangible effects on my daily work. I believe especially anyone that is constantly busy, usually people in roles that have many interfaces, can benefit from regular periods of deep work.

I am convinced it will lead to more meaningful output and overall increase productivity. Even if that weren’t the case, I would still recommend trying blocking time slots for distraction free time regularly. I can attest that at the very least it leads to more satisfaction in work. It makes me happier.

If you don’t believe me, feel free to ask my wife. She is always able to tell if my workday included deep work or not by my mood at the end of the day.

Coverphoto by Saurav Thapa Shrestha on Unsplash