Book Club - Deep Work by Cal Newport

In this post, I will continue to talk about one of the most enriching productivity books that I have read in a long time – Deep Work by Cal Newport. It would be helpful to read the first part in order to relate to this post better.

While Rule #1, gave us 6 ways to work deeply, rules 2, 3 and 4 help us build our Deep Work muscle better, by doing supplemental activities be it embracing boredom, quitting social media or draining the shallows from our lives.

Rule #2 Embrace Boredom


This to me was really a revelation. While I have consciously been taking measures to de-addict myself from my mobile phone and the habit of turning to it as soon as I have even a minute free, Newport’s insistence of getting the brain used to the idea of boredom was enlightening.

The point made in this case is the fact that when the brain is used to having some or the other stimuli consistently, it is always so distracted that it is barely able to focus on just one thing at any given moment. Newport quotes Clifford Nass, the late Stanford communications professor known for his study of behavior in the digital age from an interview he gave to an NPR (National Public Radio) show, on the brain changes in people who do away with any boredom:


The people we talk with continually said, “look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused.” And unfortunately, they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.


Like with anything else in the book, here too Newport gives great pointers on what exactly he means by “Embrace Boredom”.

Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead, Take Breaks from Focus.

Most of us look at constant distraction as default, taking a break from it only to then focus on cognitively challenging work. However, as pointed out earlier, distraction then becomes the default mode for the brain and the habit of laser pointed focus is just never built.

The suggestion then is to designate Internet (synonymous with distractions in today’s digital age) blocks of time and trying to limit usage only in those chunks. Come to think of it, most of us have had a life before the Internet. Why then do we literally shudder at the idea of bringing some structure to a tool that can otherwise run amok in our life?

Like water or fire, the Internet is proving to be a great servant but a terrible master. Click To Tweet

Work Like Teddy Roosevelt

In this suggestion, Newport gives the example of former US President Teddy Roosevelt who was known to be a multi-faceted man with achievements in varied unrelated fields. A lot of anecdotal evidence points to the habit of Deep Work and the laser-sharp focus that Roosevelt employed.

Taking a leaf from his book, one of the strategies suggested is to pick a task that essentially requires Deep Work. In most cases, you would have an idea of how much time you might take to complete it (though I chronically seem to underestimate the time I would need to write blog posts). The idea is to set a hard deadline and then tackle the task with full force. Yes, the suggestion actually asks you to become your own version of a nightmarish boss.

Newport likens this strategy to the popular Interval training in fitness which requires short bursts of crazy energy levels followed by a breath of relaxation in a long loop. The objective of the strategy is to artificially push yourself to a higher level of Deep Work to get a better output in a shrunken time span.

Meditate Productively

Meditation is a personal Achilles Heel. Since the time I became interested in the productivity and the Self Development side of things, I have read multiple sources that talk about how beneficial mindful meditation is. However, try as I may I have not been particularly successful.

Newport puts forth a variant of mindful meditation – productive meditation. The idea is to be physically occupied while mentally trying to tackle “a single well-defined professional problem”. How is that meditation, you ask? Like it’s mindful variant, this exercise also involves efforts to continuously ensure that the brain goes back to the problem at hand.

While it has its’ productivity benefits of doing some fruitful multi-tasking, the author opines that a bigger benefit of the exercise is really to build a habit of being able to tenaciously keep going at the one sole identified problem at hand. Honestly, I have been trying it once a week for about an hour long chunks (though I have been sitting in one place without suggested physical activities like walking) and it is pretty darn tough. It really doesn’t take the mind long to wander even with a well-defined route.

Memorize a Deck of Cards

One really fun idea given by Newport to build a Deep Work muscle is the practice of memorizing a deck of cards. Research shows that people who have great memory skills have practiced it over time and are able to succeed because of a heightened skill of focussed deep work. So, for a lot of memory champions, a benefit of their training is the ability to think deeply.

Conversely, if you want to improve your Deep Working ability, Newport suggests working on memorizing a deck of cards in your free time. He even gives a challenging yet fun technique of visual memorizing.

Rule #3 Quit Social Media

Before you, my dear reader, go up in arms, read on. Newport is not suggesting the absolute extreme, unlike what the title of the rule seems to say. Instead, the idea is to take a deep look at the value that social media is bringing to your life. Remember, there were indeed days when there was no social media and life was good and maybe even more fulfilling?

Today, most of us seem to have what Newport calls the “The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection” whereby we try to look for any possible benefit or any possible loss from its use. In fact, the term, FOMO or Fear of Missing Out is a real thing and I see it all around me. That fear also drives us to go on to any and every social network.

Hey, Snapchat has some fun filters which Instagram probably doesn’t and all my friends seem to be hanging out there and having fun. I need to be there. Is it helpful or productive? Not exactly.

On the other hand, Newport advocates we replace it with “The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection”. The foundation of this approach rests on an identification of base qualities or tasks that feed into your personal or professional success. Then while analyzing any network tool or social media, check whether the positives of being on the medium outweigh the negatives. If you are still under the illusion that there are no negatives to social media usage, then you have quite a path to traverse. While logical, this approach is obviously far tougher and requires far more self-restraint.

Taking forward from this approach, I have been meticulously reducing my social media usage. So, while I am still on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Instagram, I have only the Twitter and Linkedin apps on my phone. I mostly tend to log in to these networks more so when I have a new post to broadcast.

I found this excerpt from the book very helpful:

These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers. They can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they’re a lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper.

Using the Internet for Entertainment

As mentioned in some of the earlier posts, my day job involves meeting a lot of consumers for research. The one thing that comes out is just how many people depend on the Internet for their leisure, be it sites like BuzzFeed or funny videos on Youtube or the new trend of on-demand entertainment on portals like NetFlix and Amazon Prime.

Newport suggests structuring your leisure time in a far better manner. The fact remains that time is precious. While we most of us have a pre-requisite number of hours that we have to be at work, we can choose to use our leisure time far more productively, than what we do otherwise. For me, my blog provides one of the major outlets to use this leisure time productively.

If you think your brain desires to fill up with sheerly brainless things to do like watching silly videos, then Arnold Bennett has the answer for you in the below excerpt from his book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day:

What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.

If this aspect fascinates you, read up some more on what Newport has to say about Bennett’s views on using your leisure time more productively and in a structured manner.

Rule #4 Drain the shallows


When the author recommends you to focus more on deep work, one of the big ideas is also to reduce the quantum of shallow work in your day. Being specific the way he has been throughout the book, he puts forth the following 5 pointers to help you drain the shallows and be left with the gold of deep work.


Schedule Every Minute of Your Day

Most of us live our lives on autopilot, misjudging most of the things on which we spend time. We barely keep track of how much time we spend on TV or even the Internet. While Newport’s idea of scheduling every minute of your day is quite extreme and in most cases impractical, it makes more sense when you think about the below stated objective for suggesting this:

It’s the habit of asking that returns results, not your unyielding fidelity to the answer.


With this statement, the idea is that you start out with the objective of spending every minute as pre-decided at the start. However, when you slip, you make sure the schedule remains dynamic and not a rigid fixed presence in your life.

Quantify the Depth of Every Activity

When we are loaded with work, the day is generally dotted with way too many activities. How do you then prioritise which tasks deserve more focussed attention or time and which one can be outsourced?

Newport suggests a quick depth check for each task by asking a simple question: How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?

The higher the number, deeper the task. However, I think the answer to this can be way too subjective and personally, I am not sure how to make this work. Even the examples given by the author left me a little confused.

Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget

In this point, Newport suggests you explain to your boss the difference between deep and shallow work and ask them point blank as to the expectation of the time to be devoted to shallow work. I can vouch for the fact that this strategy is not the most practical in the Indian workplace where most employees are not in a bargaining position.

Finish Your Work by Five Thirty

With this idea, Newport urges us to consider the idea of fixed-schedule productivity, whereby we assume forced scarcity of time and work as per that. When we know that time is so limited and we make plans or commitments on that time that we must adhere to, the probability of diving into deep work is far higher. I like this idea because, it also helps with a work-life balance of devoting enough time to things that matter and gives enough down time to the brain.

Become Hard to Reach

With this point, Newport talks about email and how if not tamed, it can become a nuisance and an important time suck. He urges you to not fall for the trap that each and every email has to be replied to (if you are in corporate, might not work very well). He gives examples and ways in which successfully productive people build barriers to being contactable. If email is a menace that you are looking to limit, then this section is a must read.

A lot of things in life are like a muscle – the more you do it, the better you get at it, be it savings, strength training, will power or Deep Work. For me, this book was an eye-opener which gave me a lots of food for thought and actions to be applied.

If any of this has made sense to you or made you sit up and urged you to take note of your working style, then do check out the book as it provides far richer content and more value. In my head, it’s a must-read for anyone who wants to lead a richer and more productive life.