My Notes on Deep Work Book


I decided to spend year-end holiday time reading a couple of books. I like to read books that in some way help me solve problems that I face in professional and personal life. At work because of my title and circumstances I have to play three different roles – maker, manager, multiplier. 

  • Maker: Create stuff (software, powerpoint, design document, etc).
  • Manager: Talk to people about their concerns and hopefully resolve them or at least guide them in the direction that takes them on the resolution path. Keep the stuff moving.
  • Multiplier. Enabling people by helping them in software design, code reviews, estimates, hiring right people, etc.

I am fortunate that I get to work on many tasks that are cognitively demanding. At the same time, I also have to work on tasks that don’t demand such cognitive skills.

Over the last few months I am looking for ways to improve the quality of my work. 

Questioning oneself is a good thing but you don’t have to become so critical that you end up demotivating yourself to the level that you can’t make any progress.

Like most people I get distracted by a call or email, social media, election news, or mindless browsing.  These things eat up more time than we think. 

To bring more focus and quality to my work I decided to read the Deep Work book. I recommend all professional to read this book. This book will help bring depth to your work.

Defining Deep Work and Shallow Work

Deep Work by Cal Newport is a book on personal productivity. 

Deep work: A professional activity performed in a state of distraction free concentration that pushes your cognitive limits to their limits.  

This is the kind of work most software engineers have to do. The irony is that most open office workspaces do not provide distraction free environment. But, since most of us are not working from the office these days due to COVID-19 we can create such distraction free environment at home. It is easier to change your home setup than to change your office setup. 

Shallow work: Any task that is non-cognitively demanding, logistical style, often performed while distracted. 

All jobs have some shallow work aspect. There are very few people in the world who do less than 10% of shallow work. 

Key Points

  1. Schedule your day in such a manner that you have long uninterrupted hours and shallow work planned into smaller bursts at the peripheries of the schedule. The author makes the point that rather than scheduling deep work in a shallow work schedule do the opposite. Schedule shallow work in your deep work schedule.
  2. In the knowledge economy two core abilities will distinguish winners from the average Joe. These two core abilities are:
    1. The ability to quickly master hard things
    2. The ability to produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed
  3. The formula to produce high quality work

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

  1. The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment. 
  2. Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.
  3. There are four philosophies on how to do Deep work:
    1. The Monastic Philosophy: This philosophy attempts to maximize deep effort by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. 
    2. The Bimodal Philosophy: This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open for everything else.
    3. The Rhythmic Philosophy: This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start a deep work session is to transform them into a single regular habit. Set a time every day for your deep work.
    4. The Journalistic Philosophy: In this philosophy you switch to deep work whenever you have time.
  4. Waiting for inspiration is a terrible idea. You have to create a system that pushes you to work each day.
  5. The four discipline of execution – 4DX
    1. Focus on the wildly important
    2. Act of the Lead Measures
    3. Keep a compelling scoreboard
    4. Create a cadence of accountability
  6. The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.
  7. Schedule in advance when you’ll use internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times
  8. Put more thought in your leisure time. It can’t just be mindless browsing.
  9. The constant switching of mind from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.
  10. Use productive meditation. The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally — walking, jogging, driving, showering — and focus on a single well-defined professional problem.
  11. The craftsman approach to tool selection. Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your profession and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
  12. The law of vital few. In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to 20 percent of the possible causes.
  13. Schedule every minute of your work day. Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday.
  14. Define your shallow budget. You can ask your boss for a shallow work budget
  15. Follow fixed schedule productivity
  16. Tips to handle emails
    1. Make people do more work
    2. Don’t reply to the emails that are not aligned with your goals. You are not required to reply.

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