Deep Work — Book Summary, Notes & Highlights 📚

Farhan Faiyaz
8 min readSep 12, 2023

This book helped me develop the practice of deep focus on cognitively demanding tasks and mastering hard things in terms of quality and speed.

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🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Cultivate concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant.
  2. Immersing oneself in deep work is the key to unlocking productivity, creativity and profound satisfaction.
  3. Setting strict boundaries on distractions, especially digital distractions can enable sustained periods of deep work and subsequently maximize a person’s cognitive abilities and output.

🕵️‍♂️ Who Should Read It?

The target group for Deep Work is vast since more or less everyone can benefit from focused concentration. Professionals to academics, entrepreneurs to creatives, everyone can reap benefits from this book. That being said, you’ll really enjoy the book if:

  • You are living a very distracted life and want to pull yourself together.
  • You are struggling to learn and perform difficult tasks.
  • You want to know how to form a strategy to do difficult tasks that 99% of people cannot do.

🍁 How the Book Changed Me

  • I became aware of attention residue (which will be discussed shortly) and made a deliberate practice of avoiding it in my daily life.
  • It helped me find clarity about what matters most in my life and channel my time and energy to those tasks.
  • It helped me quit my social media and mindless scrolling addiction, opening up time for meaningful work.
  • I picked up programming fundamentals by adopting a suitable depth philosophy.

✍️My Top 3 Quotes

📍Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.

📍When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.

📍You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.

📒 Summary + Notes

🧘🏽 What is Deep Work?

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.

On the contrary, shallow work is noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

In this fast-paced world, honing the ability to quickly master new skills is crucial, which, however, is becoming increasingly difficult due to living in a hyper-chaotic and distracted world. Deep work requires an elite level of focus which most people fail to attain only because of the distractions that surround them.

🏔️ People Who Will Thrive in the New Economy

  1. Those who can work well with intelligent machines.
  2. Those who are superstars in their field of work.
  3. Those who have access to capital.

Deep work can allow a person to join the first two groups of people mentioned above. To be a winner in this new economy, one must have the ability to master hard things quickly and produce at an elite level in terms of speed and quality.

⏳ Don’t Leave Attention Residues

Attention residue is the idea that there is a cognitive cost to shifting your attention from one task to another. When our attention is shifted, there is a “residue” that remains in the brain and impairs our cognitive performance on the new task.

We are often amazed by those who proudly claim to master the art of doing everything at once. It is very common to see colleagues who toggle between replying to emails, instant messaging, and a presentation, unfazed by anything around them. Multitasking, often signified as the hallmark of success, is nothing but an illusion. Yes, it allows you to do shallow work, but when it comes to cognitively challenging tasks, you will often realize that your brain is intercepting cues from multiple sources and that your attention is fragmented in various places.

Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work

I used to consider myself a ‘multitasker’ and strongly believed I was good at it. However, when I closely examined the true output that I was generating over a given period for any particular task, I realized the system was far from efficient. The takeaway is to focus on one task at a time and then move on to the next. Trying to fit seemingly harmless tasks such as sending an email or replying to a text in between a cognitively demanding task is a prime example of leaving attention residue. This is very common in the daily lives of students who sit at their study table for hours but indulge in instant messaging at regular intervals, hoping to master new formulas or write a paper that requires deep concentration. It’s like taking three steps forward, and two steps back since reacting to an incoming notification by even looking at or hearing it leaves a trace of your attention behind, and refocusing on your previous task will require you to redo the math or re-read an article which is straight-up inefficient. This is even more harmful when you are at a lecture and cannot possibly listen to it again in a class full of people. Once the focus is broken, it takes a while to regain it fully, and that’s why you should be very worried if you are addicted to giving in to distractions easily. Giving in to cheap cues from social media is possibly the most common distraction in today’s age.

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

Time spent on a task is indeed important, but if the intensity of focus is low or fragmented due to attention residues left here and there, the output generated will be slow and of low quality.

🧠 Know What to Focus on and What to Ignore

What we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore — plays in defining the quality of our lives.

The world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so cultivate concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop because you tend to think about what's wrong rather than what’s right. Even though the cues might seem harmless or enjoyable, a day spent driving by the shallows is likely to be exhausting and upsetting from a neurological standpoint. This implies that when you increase your time in a state of depth, the satisfaction you associate with your work life will be maximized.

Live a focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.

🌸 Decide on Your Depth Philosophy

Choose a philosophy carefully that fits your specific circumstances, since adopting the wrong philosophy might derail your deep work habit before it has the opportunity to solidify. These are the four philosophies for depth:

  1. Monastic Philosophy: Isolate yourself for long periods of time without distractions. No shallow work is allowed. It’s akin to a monk’s lifestyle in seclusion.
  2. Bimodal Philosophy: Divide your time between long stretches of deep work and equally long periods of shallow work or relaxation. For instance, you might dedicate a few days or even weeks to deep work and then switch to a period of more shallow, administrative tasks (minimum unit of time for deep work is one whole day). During the deep time, a bimodal worker will act monastically.
  3. Rhythmic Philosophy: The rhythmic approach involves setting a fixed schedule for deep work. You allocate specific hours each day for focused, uninterrupted work. This approach helps train your brain to enter deep work mode consistently.
  4. Journalistic Philosophy: Fit deep work sessions into the gaps between other commitments, making the most of the available time.

💸 Execute Like a Business

People often know “what” to do, but it is the “how” that they struggle with. The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) that help companies implement successful high-level strategies can be applied to Deep Work:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important: Specify goals that would yield tangible results and notable professional or personal benefits. Make the tasks ambitious and require deep work for them to be completed.
  2. Act on Lead Measures: Track deep work hours based on the depth philosophy that you choose. It will act as the lead measure, where you can track your behavior that will drive your success on the lag measures, i.e., what you are trying to achieve.
  3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: Keep a physical scorecard and track deep work hours. Also, keep tabs on the time required for the goal to be achieved. This will set a benchmark for similar goals in the future.
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability: Use weekly reviews to celebrate good weeks, understand what led to bad weeks, and figure out how to ensure a good score for the days ahead.

👣 Attention Restoration Theory

Spending time in nature, going for a walk, or doing nothing outdoors can improve your ability to concentrate. Direct attention is the attention you require while doing cognitively demanding tasks. Over time, attention fatigue occurs since concentration is like a muscle that tires.

If you spend your breaks doing tasks like watching movies or reels, replying to emails, or playing video games that require your direct attention, your ability to concentrate will not replenish. When you go for a walk, just enjoy nature, meditate, or take a shower, you are freed from having to direct your attention, as there are few challenges to navigate. If, however, you went out to a busy place where you had to redirect your attention to aspects such as crossing the street or being cautious about not bumping into anyone, this is similar to the previously stated activities that don't help replenish your attention.

I spent my free time during quarantine playing competitive video games like Valorant which required immense concentration and continuous communication. I struggled with mastering complex mechanical engineering concepts during that time, unaware of what was going wrong.

Downtime is important, since it recharges your energy to work deeply.

⏰ Don’t Take Breaks from Distractions. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.

Today, we get distracted very easily when we either experience difficulty or boredom. This leads to switching attention to shallow tasks, preventing deep work from being done.

In my case, social media and surfing the internet served as key distractions which will be the case for most readers out there. According to the theory discussed in the book, I tried to break this habit of looking at my phone whenever I was bored or exhausted by:

  1. Scheduling occasional breaks from focus by making internet blocks and not touching my phone during that period. I used some ideas from Atomic Habit as well by making the cues invisible (keeping the phone in a different room). This will act as a session of concentration calisthenics. If your task is finished or you are tired before the time block ends, just relax or do practically nothing.
  2. Execute these time blocks at home, outside or even waiting in queues. This will build your tolerance to avoid distractions.

❌ Quit Social Media

Social Media fragments our time and attention and reduces our ability to concentrate, making it increasingly difficult to effectively carry out cognitively demanding tasks.

Do a trial run: deactivate one social media app for a long stretch of time, preferably 30 days. After 30 days, evaluate:

  • Was it impossible for you to stay away or were you massively inconvenienced?
  • Did anyone care?

I started off with TikTok and then Facebook and it seemed weird for the first few days, but afterwards, I completely forgot about these two apps. No one noticed, and quitting these two apps freed at least an hour of my day from shallow work. Instagram has been a little challenging, but I feel like I can live without the app, I might check the feed and messages once in a while using the browser.

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection identifies the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal lives. Adopt tools only if their positive impacts on these factors outweigh their negative impacts.

Thank you if you've made it this far. I’d love some feedback, and if you want to chat send me an invite on LinkedIn!

More book notes coming soon! ✨

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