An Argument for Focused Work

Cal Newport recently released his new book, “Deep Work”, which posits that our ability to engage in concentrated efforts on meaningful work will set us apart in today’s marketplace. I decided to read it based on all the glowing reviews on Amazon at the time of its release. Unfortunately, I was more than a little disappointed. I felt the entire book could be summed up in the following 3 sentences:

To thrive in today’s society, we need to be able to learn fast. In order to learn fast, we need to be able to focus. Focusing means eliminating distractions.

Of course, he wrote it more eloquently than that (despite the lack of content, his vocabulary was superb…yes, I tend to get excited by words I don’t see very often). He put effort into writing it and so I felt I should still share my notes on it:


Though I personally might not have gained anything valuable from it, this is a great read for busy, harried people who just don’t have enough time in the day. Because these are the individuals who feel guilty for standing still. Reading this book might help you realize that standing still sometimes can actually increase your efficiency (and make you happier while you do it).


Why do we avoid deep work if it leads to happiness and our well-being, not to mention immense success? 

Because it’s not easy. To get into the realm of deep work, you have to first trudge through dirt and mud and quicksand. You might also meet temptations that try to lure you away from your path. In short, your willpower will be tested severely before you get to “the promised land”, where you experience the blissful state of flow.

So how can you attain that state? 

By automation. You need to set rituals and routines.

What are some strategies you can use to attain a state of deep work?


Single-minded focus on one thing, to the exclusion of all else. For example, you’ve dedicated your life to achieving one thing and you focus all your efforts on that activity


You’re single-mindedly focused for a period of time (e.g., one half of the year), and for another period of time (the other half of the year), you’re open to “shallow” work (i.e., normal everyday activities).  Minimum amount of dedication to deep work would have to be at least a day to qualify for this approach. Meaning, if your day is split into deep work for a part of the day and then shallow work for another part, you would not qualify as a bimodal worker. It’s like living a double life. For example, Carl Jung used to go to a retreat for a couple of months of the year to work on his theories. Then he used to come back and work on his clinic for the rest of the year.


Where a certain portion of your day is dedicated to deep work. This is where automating deep work is useful. Have a set time everyday for deep work. Basically, make the decision ahead of time when, where, how you’re going to do the deep work and on what. So that when the time comes, you will automatically begin.


When you fit deep work into wherever you can in your schedule. Not for the novice. The ability to focus instantly is only achieved through practice and it’s also for those who have confidence in the work they do. They have a strong belief that their work is important and will succeed, which is based on prior professional accomplishments.

“Confidence goes a long way in motivating hard efforts.”

– Cal Newport

Why is it important to determine a strategy (that may not fall into the examples given above) that best suits your needs? 

Because if it doesn’t work out, it could seriously derail your efforts to achieve the state and therefore undermine its importance to you.

How long should a deep work session last and why?

90 minutes seems to be the consensus. This is because it takes time to ease into a state of concentration and once entered into, can be sustained only for a short period of time. You can have about 4 hours worth of deep work every day, before you start getting no returns on it.

Big insight in relation to this:

Don’t worry about forcing yourself to concentrate immediately at the start of your timer. Just get into the habit of redirecting your mind to the task at hand when it wanders off, until it stays on task.

For Example:

  1. It’s similar to when you’re playing ‘God’ in a game of Virtual Villagers where your villagers wander off when first assigned to a task. You need to repeatedly bring them back to the task, until they focus and start working on it on their own.
  2. Or you’re a parent constantly redirecting your child back to a task. It’s just a matter of outlasting them. Keep getting them back to where they’re supposed to be, until they give up and just do as you say.

You have 90 minutes of shut down time to get your mind to focus like your villagers or your child. So don’t worry if it’s not instanteous. What’s important is that you constantly direct your mind back to the task at hand any time it wanders. Eventually, it will focus and once it learns it’s not so bad, it will be easier to get to this point in the future.

LIGHT BULB! moment
– “the positivity thing”

I think this was the most important thing that I will take away from the book. I’m not a big believer in positivity, despite studies showing it to be a worthwhile outlook to pursue (with caveats of course). Mainly because it takes a lot of effort and seemed to have no end. I was of the belief that you would forever have to pick out the positive side of things in order to get that 10% happiness boost. And forever, my friend, is a long time.

But Newport shared a study that showed the amygdala (emotional center of the brain) of the elderly being less responsive to negative stimuli than youth. Positive stimuli response was normal. The hypothesis is that the more you direct your attention to the positives, the more your brain becomes responsive to the positives and oblivious to the negatives.

In other words, you don’t have to always and forever consciously direct your attention to the positives of every situation until the end of time. If you redirect your mind often enough, your brain will start seeing the good on its own. So there is an end in sight! Yay!


Get the book if you are a person who’s always on the run and someone who has a hard time actually finding the time to work on the things you think matter in life. This book will give you the reasons why and the ways to block time off for deep work. The results of which would actually take you to the next level, all the while making you a happier/more fulfilled person.

Good luck!


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