Unlocking Deep Work: The 21st Century Superpower for Success

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I just finished reading "Deep Work" by Cal Newport, one of the top self-help books of our era. This book felt like a compass guiding me through the many distractions I face every day. In my quest to be more productive as I age along with a long yearning to develop a daily reading habit, this book not just gave me helpful insights to improve the latter goal but also kept me engaged to the end. It gave me actionable insights to add to my toolkit as I hunt for focus while I juggle between my duties as a dad of two wonderful kids, a software engineer, and an aspiring entrepreneur. The following are the thoughts inspired by the book.

The book starts by making clear the definition of deep work and how it differentiates from shallow work:

Deep Work, to rephrase the author is the work tasks done with full focus and no distractions, as we push ourselves to our brain power to the maximum; the result of these tasks is often hard to replicate. Shallow work, on the other hand, are simple tasks often performed while distracted; the result of which are easy to replicate.

Looking at the definitions above it is quite clear that deep work is the work we should be mostly involved in, to create meaningful and impactful work in our professions. However, shallow work and even shallower distractions (like social media) are becoming increasingly common and stealing away from people their ability to go deeper in their efforts. If we were to spend time with a high intensity of focus on a single valuable task we surely will be able to produce high-quality results, which is essential to thrive in our respective fields. The question is how do we get into this deep state of work?

The author does not offer impractical advice to abandon all aspects of our lives and settle in the mountains, what it does is lay out four rules to incorporate deep work in our lives.

Rule #1: Work Deeply

Newport asserts that deep work is invaluable in today's fast-paced world, where the shallow and the superficial often reign. He emphasizes the importance of immersing ourselves in intense, distraction-free work. As he puts it, "To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth."

We've all had the time when we felt most productive in our lives, for me, it was when I was in my senior year of high school preparing for the finals when I used to sit in our living room a couple of hours every evening and engage in studying. I would study with complete focus during these hours with no one or thing to distract me. This year I was among the top performers in my class. After reading this book, I realized the effort put in by me was deep instead of hard and how much less effort it took for me to reach the top.

By dedicating just three to four hours of focused, uninterrupted concentration, we can generate a substantial amount of valuable output. As suggested by Newport, I now also plan on having a physical counter of the number of deep work sessions I have put in daily. I expect this to be not more than three one-hour sessions per day.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Embracing, rather than fighting with moments of boredom is an essential aspect of cultivating deep work. The attention restoration theory (ART), claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. Nature calms the mind by reducing the stimuli sent to the brain which gives it enough rest to come back stronger the next time we are working deep.

We do not have to be productive all of our waking hours, instead, Newport suggests that constant connectivity and stimuli hinder our ability to focus on complex tasks in the long term. Therefore, we must enforce a work shutdown during the evening when we can reach deeper levels of relaxation so that attention restoration occurs.

To do this, I've decided to work until 6 and start my wind-down routine fifteen minutes before 6, where I take a piece of paper and dump all work-related items and tasks still running in my brain. This helps me in two ways; first, it frees up my brain by giving me the comfort that I do not have to remember everything and the paper on my desk has it all; and second, I use this same piece of paper to plan my day the next morning.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

Newport boldly challenges the allure of social media, asserting that it can erode our capacity for deep work. If there is anything I can change in this book (not that I think I am qualified enough) I would put rule number three on the top. I loved how concisely and accurately social media was described in the book:

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 and 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.

The book recommends we eliminate the use of social media as it can potentially fragment our time and attention to a point where our brain is wired to these bursts of dopamine where our brain is no longer ready to do deeper work; this sounds scary. I, therefore, have now pre-decided activities that I'd like to do in my evenings, the first of which is to make progress on a book I am currently reading, the second to design and work on my personal iPhone apps, and the third exercise. If I find myself in the realm of doing anything apart from these three items, I have made myself understand it is better to go to sleep earlier.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

The fourth rule calls for a strategic approach to managing shallow tasks that can easily consume our time and energy. Let's face it, shallow work cannot completely be eliminated, and neither I can work 8 hours deeply. However, we fail to realize how much of our attention gets caught up in this fragmented regular shallow work that approaches us. It might be a needlessly long thread of emails that doesn't seem to end or that random phone call you're receiving from an unknown marketer or just an array of Slack messages that don't seem to move any of your current projects forward.

The solution is to have a Fixed Schedule Commitment, saying to yourself that I will stop working at X PM and then working our way backward to select only those tasks that will move our projects (I use the term project for all short-term and long-term goals I may have) forward and scheduling deep-work sessions for them and doing the shallow work in the gaps that remain. This countdown timer to the end of our work day makes our minds believe that we have very limited time to work and makes it stingy where we spend our time, hence time is now spent wisely.


Before closing out, I'd like to mention that too much of anything is bad, the same stands for deep work. Even though, some people are trapped in the cycle of "living to work and working to live" with no greater purpose in life. We need to direct our attention toward the greater purpose in our life and get closer to our Creator before we pass away, hence, the principles laid out in this book not just help me be better professionally but also spiritually.

I am now also trying to build a deeper connection in my Salah (prayers) as I stand in front of Allah by keeping shallow thoughts out of my mind, not wasting my time browsing mindlessly on social media, and avoiding shallow conversations that don't benefit me in this world or the next.

In conclusion, deep work is a powerful skill that can significantly improve our productivity and overall well-being in the 21st century. By following the four rules outlined by Cal Newport, we can effectively incorporate deep work into our lives, enhance our focus, and achieve greater success in both our professional, spiritual, and personal endeavors. Embracing these principles can lead not only to professional growth but also to a more meaningful and fulfilling life.