Deep Work

Deep Work: Notes on Focus


I didn’t realize how long it had been since I posted about a book that I had read and taken notes on. I had this book by Cal Newport on order from the library for probably…2 months before I ever ended up getting it because the waitlist for it was SO long. But once it arrived at my door, I had sat down and read it within 2 days.

I decided I wanted to take notes on this one immediately for this blog, simply because it’s right up my alley and that even from the title I felt that it was blasphemous to NOT read it with a critical eye. Before we begin, I picked this book up because of a podcast I listened to from College Info Geek.

You can find that particular Podcast HERE.

Thomas also had an interview with Cal way back in episode 35 which I listened to long ago which you can find HERE.



There was a lot of great info in this book, but the beginning really dives into what Deep Work actually is. I took a few notes here as an overview of what was to come.

Busyness is a proxy for productivity: This is pretty clear when you look at it. We all say that we are SO busy when so many minutes and hours of our time are taken up by shallow tasks or social media. Checking emails, facebook, reorganizing things, sitting in meetings. They aren’t deep tasks and don’t really accomplish a lot, if anything, but they make it look as though we are “busy” when we’re not actually getting anything done.

Deleting Social Media: This will come into play as a rule later on so I won’t go deep into this one yet.

Shallow Activities: As I mentioned above, a lot of our time is taken up with shallow activities, even if it just seems a few minutes at a time. Watching tv, checking emails, sitting in meetings, moments when we think we’re busy but it’s with non-important task.

The Idle Mind is the Devil’s Workshop: I’m combining this with a next point that Cal mentions which is that most people are actually happier at work and less happy when relaxing because jobs are usually structured with a specific goal in mind. While on your days off, it’s completely unstructured and hard to focus on what to do. When we sit with no goal in mind, we waste a lot of time on shallow tasks, maybe because we think that is what relaxing means, but in most cases we prefer to be deeply immersed in a challenging task to feel successful and happy.

Flow State: The last thing I’ll touch on is the idea of Flow State. This is a state where one is completely immersed in their work that any outside distractions are invalid and there is a good rhythm. For me, this occurs when I’m editing photos, videos, or designing a graphic. I could sit for hours working on something in a flow state and not realize I haven’t ate or done anything else.

Rule #1: Work Deeply

Work Deeply

Next, Cal lists a couple of rules and ways to become more productive and successful with your time. The first one is pretty obvious, which is: work deeply.

Set up Rules and Rituals:

  • What time of day (Mornings)
  • What tasks are you accomplishing? (Read 50 pages every morning)
  • Methodic Deep Work: Anytime you have free time (a journalistic style)
  • Where and how long will you work? (Desk, no computer, no phone)
  • How you’ll work? (No Internet?)
  • How you’ll support your work. (Have snacks and drinks ready)

Make grand gestures: The example Cal gives here is the one of JK Rowling as she finished writing her final Harry Potter book. She found with all her commitments and people stopping by at her home, she simply couldn’t focus where she was, so she stayed at a hotel for many nights for $1,000 a night to motivate herself and seclude herself to finish her book.

Cal also talks about author Peter Shankman who booked a flight from the US to Japan. The airplane had no wifi and Peter wrote his book all the way to Japan, got off his flight and bought an espresso, before getting on a flight right back to America.

Obviously, most of us don’t have the kind of money for these grand gestures, but a good one might be to turn off your internet for a day, confine yourself to a library for a week, or some other idea that dedicates you to your work.

Disciplines: Cal talks here about a few disciplines for learning how to work deeply.

  1. Focus on the wildly important.
  2. Act on the lead measures. (Measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the ultimate goal (lag measure)).
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard. (Hours spent in deep work)
  4. Create a cadence of accountability. (Tell friends, have a group meeting).

Downtime aids insight: Be Lazy.

In this section, Cal talks about how taking a break and focusing on shallow tasks every so often, or allowing yourself to just relax, can help your subconscious brain make decisions on other tasks. If you’re having trouble writing, find a stopping point for a day, and be lazy for the rest. Take a walk, play with your dog. He also states that there is only a certain amount of time a person can be immersed in Deep Work for it to be effective and for you to stay focused. He states that there should be a certain point of the workday, when deep work ends.

Zeigarnik Effect: The idea that people remember uncompleted or uninterrupted tasks better than completed tasks. This really just means that we should not be multi-tasking or interrupting our deep work. The exmaple here is that you can take a break from your deep work to check an email and you’ll see that you have 4 or 5 that you need to respond to. You don’t have time now, so you go back to your other work, but in the back of your head your mind still knows these are tasks that need to be completed. Otherwise: You lose your focus because now these other tasks that aren’t that important are interrupting you.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Embrace Boredom

This section of the book is mostly about how our brains are wired to find entertainment and suppress boredom at every possible second and how boredom is required for learning how to work deeply. I have a lot of bits of information here, so I’ll just make a list.

  • Multitaskers can’t filter irrelevancy.
  • Don’t take a digital detox — take a break from focus
    • Minimize the times you give in to distraction
  • Make more internet block times
    • Other times must be free of internet which includes no glancing at information
  • Schedule internet use at home AND at work
    • Resist switching distractions from boredom
    • High focus means you get work done in a shorter time

Productive Meditation: This is an interesting idea of using time where you are physically busy but mentally free as a way to solve problems or resolve issues or be creative. When you’re driving to work, walking to the store, cleaning the house. Use this time to mentally make decisions or solve an issue, maybe take a book around in case you need to make notes.

Be wary of distractions, looping, and structure your deep thinking. 

Distractions are generally small problems that don’t need your attention, looping is when you keep rehashing the same issues of a specific problem. When writing an email you may keep going over and the same portion even though there is nothing to fix instead of focusing on the bigger issue. Pay attention to relevant variables to your issue and target and consolidate your gains.

One of the ways Cal talks about being better at deep thinking is to cultivate your memorization and learning how to think deeply by memorizing a deck of cards. The idea is to associate an item and person to each card, and that memorization and learning isn’t just about retaining facts but putting important or memorable ideas or pictures to each thing.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

Quit Social Media

I’ve gone over this idea before I even read this book but I’ll list a few things Cal mentions in this chapter.

  • There is a threshold for social media use, and they should be used as tools, not entertainment.
  • Any-benefit mindset: The idea that social media is justified no matter how small. Ex. I can connect with Highschool friends on facebook, or find the funniest memes on Tumblr. (That last one was my example).
  • Craftsman Approach: What are the core factors that determine success. Only adapt a tool if the positive of it outweighs the negative.

Cal also states that you should set 2-3 goals in your life right now and apply those goals to social media to see if they were really useful tools. I’ll list my examples that I wrote down.

2 Goals:

  • Lifelong Learner
    • Read Fiction & Nonfiction often
    • Watch educational videos on a variety of topics
    • Enforce good and healthy habits
  • Great Photographer
    • Post and take many photos and videos of travel
    • Research and learn new skills.

Now with your two goals you should take each of your social medias and see if the effect of their use is overly positive, negative, or semi-positive. For me: 

  • Youtube: Overly Positive (Post & watch videos)
  • Twitter: Negative (Don’t post photos, up to date on friends)
  • Instagram: Overly Positive (Inspiration + Post Photos)
  • Facebook: Semi-Positive (Post SOME photos and video, mostly to talk to friends)
  • Facebook Chat: Overly Positive (Only way I talk with friends and family outside of call/text daily.)
  • Email: N/A. (I don’t use it for anything other than confirmations.)
  • Goodreads: Overly positive (Helps me find new books to read)
  • Snapchat: Semi-positive (Can post creative photos)

The idea of this is that you should delete all social media that doesn’t provide an overly positive experience. For me that means I’d only keep Goodreads, Instagram, Youtube, and Facebook Chat. Obviously you don’t have to follow this rule hard, but it’s an interesting one.

Law of Vital Few: 80% of given effect is due to 20% of possible causes.

30 Day Social Media Ban: This is an idea that Cal mentions to see whether you want to keep your social accounts for good. You completely take yourself away from social media without telling anyone and at the end of the 30 days you consult a few questions.

  1. Would life have been better with that account?
  2. Did people care that you left? Did they message asking where you went?

If no to both, then you don’t need it. The idea on the second question is that people think that the world wants to hear what they have to say.

For that point I actually have a relevant story. I had a friend that I worked with for 6 months a few years ago. We were still FB friends, but I didn’t ever talk to her. Suddenly one week she posted that she was deleting her FB and anybody that still wanted to be her friend should text her. Everyday she would post this same thing, stating that she had outgrown FB and was leaving. It all felt very overdramatic and this idea of leaving without anyone knowing really struck me. Had she left without posting, I would not have known. She was a nice person, but I didn’t ever read what she posted and that would probably be the same for many of us.


This was the last point that Cal makes in this chapter. He states that we should plan our free time outside of the internet and this recently has been a really interesting idea to me, simply because ALL of my free time was spent on the computer. I’ll talk more about this in my personal plan at the bottom.

rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Drain the Shallows

This chapter was mostly relevant to those with 9-5 office jobs and less relatable for those with a random or more creative schedule so I didn’t take as many notes here.

The main ones were about a 4-day work week to put the pressure to get more work done rather than shallow work while in the office. He talks about a Pitch Day at 37Signals, but this is also an idea at Pixar where employees are allowed to work on personal projects for a few weeks and showcase them at work.

Cal also talks here that most beginners should be able to work deeply for at least 1 hour a day and work up to 4 hours after some practice and that with Deep Work you have to schedule every minute but be liberal with how your days play out.

Quantify the Depth of Every Activity: Is this activity shallow or a part of deep work. For me, shallow activities include checking my email, facebook, twitter, the weather app, disney shopping apps, and snapchat. Obviously there can be a place for shallow work but it should be scheduled.

Finish your work by 5:30: Fixed-schedule productivity.

Become hard to reach: Make people who send you email do more work.

Making it relatable

Notes Sleep Cycle

There is definitely a lot here that seems to be similar to books that I have read previously, but anything that reinforces those ideas are really important to me. When I started reading this book, I decided that I would only use my desk and that I would take notes specifically on paper. I had my phone playing some studying music, but my laptop was put away in my closet.

After reading it, I decided to give some of it a shot. My main issue is that I focus a lot of shallow work or finding inspiration but not doing a lot with it. It’s easy to be inspired, but hard to see it into some kind of creation.

I had deleted twitter and facebook off my phone awhile back, but had recently reinstalled facebook due to shift exchanges and the like. I found that I sometimes forgot I had it mobile, but eventually I started looking at it everytime I was waiting to clock in or out so I had to delete it once again.

My only issue with this book is so much of it is focused on a 9-5 office work day. For me, I’m a photographer at a theme park with very little downtime. Even though my job is essentially the same each day, I always have to be focused on my characters or approaching families which doesn’t really allow the productive meditation kind of mentality.

I already listen to podcasts on the way to work and read on my breaks, but I’ve essentially tried to eliminate using my phone at those times. It also means that my work is never finished, and I’m not allowed to do anything other than interact and take photos with guests while at work. In disguise this is really a blessing because it essentially gives me some relaxation and a LOT of exercise. My schedules are also always random so it’s hard to schedule consistent Deep Work Time.


But for sure, the biggest takeaway I had from this is to stop multitasking. I was always the Queen at doing everything at once, and now I realize that it does mentally drain me. This week when I’ve woken up, I’ve not used my phone until after I’ve gotten ready for the day. I’ll usually wake up and read for 30 minutes and do whatever small tasks need to be done before work but I always do them one at a time.

Today I managed to wake up to a schedule I had laid out. I read the rest of my library book and then sat down immediately to write this entire post, which surprisingly, only took an hour. If I had been using social media inbetween, it would have taken much longer and probably would not have been as precise.

Using it in the future:

One of my most harrowing and really annoying goals has been to learn Spanish. I have a few books, but I was mostly using Duolingo for studying. I realized that I was barely paying attention to my study and would only use it until I filled up my bar for the day which was, essentially 10 minutes. I’ve realized that if I’m ever going to be fluent, I’m going to have to find a way to learn languages using books and staying off the computer. There is too much distraction and I’m never paying attention to being coherent with what I’m learning.

Another idea that struck me was not using the internet for entertainment. To be fair, my main source of entertainment comes from youtube and nothing else. However, I know that once I’m on the computer and on facebook, eventually I start clicking at other social medias. Youtube gives me joy but nothing else really does, so anytime I want my entertainment I have to make sure and cancel out all the social media variables that distract me. A great way I’ve been doing this is to keep my laptop in the closet. If it’s out of my sight, it’s out of my mind, really. It frees up my desk for other work or reading.

Obviously I have to use my laptop for a lot, taking videos and photos, but it’s only at specific moments do I really need the computer.

In the end, this is a great book that I’d recommend anyone to read if they want to further their education or work. It has a lot of great tips and examples that I’ll definitely be implementing in my future. If I find anything to be completely life changing, I’ll definitely post an update about it!



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