Deep Work and So Good They Can't Ignore You

Work with intensity and find your passion.

Published on April 24, 2022 by Samuel Rivera

productivity books

5 min READ

“Deep Work” & “So good they can’t ignore you”

by Cal Newport


I went down the Cal Newport journey a several months ago. I hadn’t heard of him until recently, but he has been blogging and writing about productivity and life-hacks since college. He has lots of great stuff to say and is incredibly productive, so you may want to give his ideas a chance.

Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world

I started with “Deep Work”, which I strong recommend. The premise is that for thought workers like us, achieving your absolute best work and productivity requires getting into a very focused state of concentration and a bit of time. With cellphones and constant distractions about, it is quite difficult to really dig into any task for a meaningful amount of time. As a society, we have weak “focus muscles” for ignoring the phone, email, and other distractions that give you a quick dopamine boost from the lolz or the instant feeling of “productivity”.

This goes beyond just blocking off some time, but actually being intentional about getting into this kind of deep focus mode where the highest quality work gets done. Another concept that I think about is the “flow state” that you can achieve when you’re riding at the edge of your limits and get absorbed in the task.

Focus Exercises and Strategies

But he also offers some suggestions and tips.

Part of it is exercises for strengthening that focus muscle. For example, when you are going about your day and feel like you need to check your email or notifications, just don’t for 5-10 minutes. You don’t need the instant dopamine hit. He also goes through this more lengthy example about how to memorize a deck of cards that I thought was interesting, but didn’t bother to do.

Another part is strategies for getting into the deep work at all. When in your day or year can you do it? How can you make it work for your career and life? He talks about some guy who can just turn it off and on like a light switch. He gives an example of a write who will do the dip after dinner for an hour, then come back for air after getting an intense writing session in. There are professors who will use the summer months to go hard on research when they aren’t teaching classes. There are the parents who get up at 4 AM to crank out 2 hours before anyone else wakes up.

Why is it so effective?

By the time you are halfway through the book, you should all be convinced that getting into a focus state where you aren’t interrupted leads to high-level performance. And intuitively, it makes sense. Sure, if I spend 2 hours cranking out a report versus 2 hours where I’m checking email every 20 minutes, I’m going to be way more productive without the social interruptions.

But it’s not just a 1-1 minute breakdown when you check the email. Every time you check your email, your brain has to switch contexts between tasks. So you’re burning time and energy going from report mode to email mode to report mode. “What sentence was I writing again?”. It saps your momentum. This is one of the main reasons why I try to block all my meetings together, firehose style. If I have a half hour meeting every hour of my 8-hour workday, then those half hours non-meeting times are going to be worthless. Switch that up, however, where you have 4 hours of meetings followed by 4 hours of uninterrupted time and suddenly, you have a golden block of time for being ultra productive. And as argued in the book, 4 hours of true deep focus work is about all your brain can handle for the day. Win-win.

There are many more ideas in the book that I didn’t go over here, so I recommend you give it a read or listen yourself.

So Good they Can’t ignore you

I read this after “Deep Work”.

This one was an interesting read, and one of his earlier writings. The quality definitely wasn’t as good as “Deep Work”, but there was some great ideas here.

The book challenges the idea of “following your passion”. It talks about how people can quit their jobs to start a yoga business (or whatever their dream is), but fail and end up miserable very quickly. Instead, people should cultivate a spirit of excellence in whatever they do, which will naturally lead to passion arising for the work. It’s an interesting concept and he makes a strong case.

There’s this idea that most people start out at their jobs having the necessary prerequisite skills, grow until they are good at their jobs, then stop. They don’t continue to push to become great. So if you are spending just a tiny little bit of effort to keep growing and getting better, eventually you will be so far beyond all of your peers. It reminds me a bit of Atomic Habits and the idea of how spending that little bit of extra will take you so much further than you would expect.

There’s also this idea that when you become very good by putting in that extra, you will become highly valued and will have the leverage to gain increased flexibility and control over your work. That means opportunities with increased schedule flexibility and more direction over your projects and tasking. It makes sense. If you’re the best at what you do, then your employer would want to keep you happy.

The book gets a bit repetitive so you can get through it very quickly if you have the paper version and skim the paragraphs that you “get”. But give it a read and get inspired to be excellent and find the passion for whatever it is that you do.