Deep Work by Cal Newport: Lessons

“Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.”

Rating: 10/10

Finished: 08/2016

Related: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

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Get the full index of lessons here

Short Summary

Deep Work is a guide on how to develop the superpower of deep focus on cognitively-demanding tasks in a distracted world. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. It covers many examples from real-world experiences and actionable items make implementing these ideas quite straightforward.


The author divides our professional work into two categories: deep work and shallow work.

He calls the ability to perform Deep Work the “superpower of the 21st century”. He defines it as:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Shallow work consists of tasks that you can be performed while being distracted, like emails, meetings and other rituals of the modern workplace. Some are unavoidable, but we should tame them so we have more time for Deep Work.

If you engage most of your time in shallow work activities, you permanently reduce your capacity to perform Deep Work. This ability is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly valuable in our economy.

Only the few who cultivate this skill will thrive.

The Deep Work Hypothesis

In the future of humanity, there will be three types of people who will survive and prosper:

  • Owners of capital, or those with access to it
  • Anyone who can work with intelligent machines and technology
  • Superstars in their field of work

The book focuses on the third kind. To become one, you need to develop two skills: the ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Deep Work is the concept that interlinks these two skills. Hard things are complex and you need to give them all of your attention and focus (also called deliberate practice). Without Deep Work, these things will take time to learn, and mistakes will be made.

The batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches is key to high productivity. When you switch tasks, your attention doesn’t immediately follow — a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.

The new law of productivity is:

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

So why aren’t we all performing Deep Work?

“Deep work is hard and shallow work is easier and in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving.”

The ultimate goal of the book is to systematically develop your personal ability to go deep — and by doing so, reap great rewards.

How to Perform Deep Work

To achieve deep work, you will need to follow four principles:

  1. You must engage in deep work itself
  2. Learn how to embrace, rather than avoid “boredom”
  3. Have a plan to “quit social media”
  4. You should definitely have a plan to “drain the shallows”

#1 Work Deeply

Our willpower gets depleted as we use it. In an environment and culture that makes deep work difficult, we have to add smart routines and rituals to our working life. Design them to minimize the amount of our limited willpower necessary in transitions and maintain unbroken concentration.

There are four strategies that introduce rituals and routines to enable us to do deep work on a sustained basis:

  • Monastic: isolate yourself for long periods of time without distractions; no shallow work allowed
  • Bimodal: reserve a few consecutive days when you will be working like a monastic. You need at least one day a week
  • Rhythmic: take three to four hours every day to perform deep work on your project
  • Journalistic: alternate your day between deep and shallow work and it fits your blocks of time. Not recommended to try out first

#2 Transition to Deep Work

Use rituals and set routines to minimize friction in your transition to depth:

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

After you decide on your working philosophy, you must ruthlessly commit to scheduling deep work blocks into your calendar and sticking to them. Scheduling a specific time of the day in advance takes away the need to use willpower. Moreover, know where you’ll work and for how long and create a zone specifically to perform Deep Work.

Once you decide on your preferred style and set up your ritual to get to work, you need to develop four disciplines:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important: have a small number of really critical goals
  2. Act on Lead Measures: track the new behaviors that will drive success on things that you are ultimately trying to improve
  3. Keep a Scoreboard: align everyone around the progress
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability: a continual process where you are held accountable for your own productivity.

#3 Embrace Boredom

Due to our fast-paced lives, our brains have been re-wired and expect and request distraction. As a result, we check our smartphones at any moment of “potential boredom”. Start scheduling breaks from focus, to give in to those distractions:

“To succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.”

You should use a technique called productive meditation, which means using your “unproductive” time to do deep thinking:

“The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally — walking, jogging, driving, showering — and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.”

The key to successful productive meditation is repeatedly returning your attention to the problem at hand and doing this whenever your mind wanders. You have to continually practice this in order to reap the benefits.

#4 Quit Social Media

Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Cal offers a simple way of doing a test run: without deactivating, stay off consciously from your social media of choice for 30 days. After 30 days, evaluate:

  1. Was it impossible for you to stay away or were you greatly inconvenienced?
  2. Did anyone care?

After reading the book, I started logging off every time I use Facebook on my computer and banned social media from my phone. Weeks later, I deleted Instagram. And yes, the world didn’t come to an end.

#5 Drain the Shallows

“Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated. This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact.”

Schedule every minute of your day by using time blocking.

Batch tasks together into a specific synergistic time block — such as emailing, printing, ticket booking, etc.

However, don’t despair if you have to rewrite your schedule multiple times. Your goal is not so much to stick to a specific schedule as it is to maintain a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your schedule going forward, even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.

Use fixed-schedule productivity and don’t work beyond a certain time. Work backward to find productivity strategies that allow you to satisfy this constraint.

Get my full guide on how to Work Smarter and get back control of your time (it’s free) ->

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