Deep Work – Cal Newport

I have never put a book summary or notes on my website before. I hope to do many more as my reading focus shifts from reading lots of books, to reading fewer books and retaining more information. This is an idea inspired by Alex and Book’s 25 X 250 Challenge

Deep Work by Cal Newport is a book that aims to help a class of people that Cal classifies as “Knowledge Workers” shift from doing “Shallow work” to “Deep Work”. This book is definitely for you if you’d like to learn how to create more time to do meaningful work. Or, if you want get rid of distractions in life.

Disclaimer: 90% of the text below is NOT my own thoughts ideas. They belong solely to Cal Newport

What is Deep Work?

Firstly, we need to define shallow work. Shallow work are tasks that are “logistical” in style. They don’t achieve much other than having to just be done. These efforts are easy to replicate and don’t create additional value to our world. Examples being: Replying to emails, browsing social media, meetings, phone calls, retrieving analytics reports and other reports. These things are rampant in the corporate business world.

Deep Work: The ability to knuckle down and perform work is becoming more rare, but at the same time more valuable. The ability to perform this type of work will allow those you master it, to thrive.

People such as John Doerr are successful because of their ability to focus on very little, very well. Their focus is razor sharp.

“In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access capital.”

  1. The High Skilled Workers
  2. The Superstars
  3. The Owners

How to become a winner in the new Economy

Cultivate the ability to quickly master hard things

The ability to produce at an elite level with both speed and quality.

Deep Work will help you quickly learn hard things

To learn fast requires intense concentration

“Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.” – Ericson

Feedback loop of Deep Learning

  1. Your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master
  2. You receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
The Science

Myelin – a fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

Myelin is a neurological foundation for why effective deliberate practice actually works.

If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy.

Deep Work helps you produce at an Elite Level

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

Attention Residue: This occurs when you try to multitask.

  • People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task and the more intense the residue, the worse the performance.
  • By Working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, you can minimize the negative impact of attention residue from your other obligations, allowing you to maximize performance on a singular task.
  • The common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance
  • To produce at your peak level you need to work for extending periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way: the type of work that optimizes your performance is DEEP WORK.

Deep Work is Rare

We live in a society where everything is easy. We can order something and get it immediately. We can say “Hey google, what’s the weather tomorrow” and get an instant result. We can also take out our phone at any second to stave off boredom.

Busyness as a proxy for productivity:

  • In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Deep Work is:

  • Bad for business but good for you
  • Deep Work is hard and shallow work is easier.
  • Deep Work causes you to reap more rewards in the long term.

Deep Work Is Meaningful

Deep work can generate as much satisfaction in an information economy as it so clearly does in a craft economy.


  • Our brains build a world view based on what we pay attention to.
  • “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on” – Gallagher
  • “Concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems”
  • The implication of these findings is clear. In work (and especially knowledge work), to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.”


  • Our brains build a world view based on what we pay attention to.
  • “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on” – Gallagher
  • “Concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems”
  • In work (and especially knowledge work), to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.”


  • The specifics of the work are irrelevant. The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciate inherent in craftmanship – not the outcomes of their work. Put another way, a wood wheel is not noble, but it’s shaping can be. You don’t need a rarified job, you need a rarified approach to work.

The Rules of Deep Work

Rule #1: Work Deeply

  • You have a finite amount of will power that becomes depleted as you use it.
  • Be smart about your habits
  • Depth Philosophy
    • Monastic
      • The Extremist
      • Well defined goal to pursue
      • Look up Stephenson “Why I am a bad correspondent”
      • Very Radical
      • Complete deep work, constantly
    • Bimodal
      • Divide your time, some time is dedicated to deep work and some to shallow work.
      • typically a minimum of one day
      • The bimodal method is great for people who respect the value they recieve from shallow behaviors.
    • Rhythmic philosophy of deep work
      • One of the easiest ways to consistently deep work is to create a regular daily habit.
      • Give yourself adequate time to ease into deep work (90mins or more)
      • The Rythmic scheduler will often log a larger total number of deep hours every year.
    • The Journalistic Philosophy
      • Example Sir Walter Isaacson
      • Anytime you have time to go into deep work mode, do it
      • This is the method where you try fit deepwork hours wherever you can in your schedule
      • Definitely not for the deep work novice.
      • You need a conviction of what you’re doing is important.
    • Essentially you need to figure out what philosophy will work for you depending on your career and the type of work that you do.Ritualise
  • For these individuals, deep work isn’t soemthing that you just do when you have a big project. It’s something that they’re constantly doing on a almost daily basis*
  • Use a location as a trigger for deep work.
  • “There is a popular notion that artists work from inspirtation — that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where… but I hope my work makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.” – Mason Currey.
  • “Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants” – David Brooks
  • To make the most out of your deep work sessons, build rituals of the same leve of strictness and idiosyncrasy as the important thinkers mentioned previously.

3 Questions to ask yourself before doing deep work:

  • Where you” work and for how long.
  • how you’ll work once you start to work
  • How you’ll support your work
  • Make grand gestures: Example of JK Rowlling going to stay in a hotel until she finished her book.
    • Move your work station
    • Also think: “Think Weeks” – Bill gates would spend 2 weeks a year away from Microsoft a year.

What about collaboration?

  • Hub and spoke architecture
  • Expose yourself to idea hubs
  • Lock yourself off to work deeply

When working in a collaborative space keep this in mind:

  • Distraction is the destroyer of depth
  • When you retreat to a “Spoke” to work deeply, if you need to collaborate, you should.

When it comes to deep work, consider the use of collaboration when appropriate. Don’t abuse collaboration if it’s not needed. Execute like a business:

  • Focus on the Wildly Important
  • The more projects you try to do, the less you actually accomplish (I KNOW THE STRUGGLE)
  • Act on lead measures
  • Lag measures and lead measures
    • Lag measures describe what you’re trying to improve
    • Lead measures measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.
    • For an individual focused on deep work, it’s easy to identify the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.
  • Keep a compelling scoreboard
    • Hours spent working deeply should be the lead measure

Create cadence accountability: A good way to do this is to implement a weekly review and on a weekly basis review if you are hitting your goals and ultimately driving the needle towards success.

Be Lazy

Have a distaste for frenetic work:

“I am not busy, I am the laziest ambitious person I know” – Tim Kreider

At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning— no after dinner email check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.

Reasons for downtime:

#1: Downtime Aids Insights

  • The unconscious theory says that down time allows ideas to percolate. These ideas are brewing subconsciously.
  • A shutdown habit, therefore, is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you’re engaged in productive work, but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy.

#2: Downtime Helps Recharge the energy needed to work deeply

  • Spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate
  • Concentration requires “Directed attention”: Directed attention is finite. You can exhaust it over the course of a day. Navigating a busy street requires directed attention. Walking in nature requires less directed attention.

#3: The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important.

  • Because our ability to produce good quality decreases as the day goes on, the work that you’re doing later in the evening is usually not that good quality.
  • Therefor, if you rest, you’ll ultimately produce better work in the long run.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitaks all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. they initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand… They’re pretty much mental wrecks. – Clifford Nass

We need to improve our ability to concentrate intensely and overcome our desire for distraction.

Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead, take breaks from focus.

  • Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it.
  • We can rewire our brains to being better staying on task.
  • Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.
    • Schedule social media if you need to.
  • Then, we start to slowly minimise the amount of times in a day that we give into distraction.

Point #1: This strategy works even if your job requires lots of Internet use and/or prompt email replies.

  • Schedule Internet and offline blocks.

Point #2: Regardless of how you schedule your Internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from internet use.

Point #3: Scheduling Internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training.

  • To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.

Meditate Productively

Productive Meditation: 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.

I’m not however, suggesting this practice for its productivity benefits (though they’re nice_. I’m instead interested in its ability to rapidly improve your ability to think deeply.

By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeated to a well defined problem, it helps you develop your distraction resisting muscles.

Two Suggestions:

#1: Be wary of distractions and looping

#2: Structure deep thinking

Memorise a deck of cards

  • This is a great task to develop the skill of concentration and memorization
  1. Find a familiar place, preferably with rooms and many familar items. Your home or child hood home is the best example.
  2. Associate a memorable person with each card.
  3. Begin the mental walk through of your house and assign “people” to items and rooms. Obviously you’ll need 52 items in your rooms.

Your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

The Any-Benefit Approach to network tool selection:

You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.

  • The problem is that it ignores all the negatives of a tool

Apply the law of the vital few to your internet habits

Step One: identify the main high level goals in your professional and personal life.

Step Two: List for each goal two or three of the most important activities to achieve these goals.


Professional Goal: To create well-written, narrative-driven stories that change the way people understand the world

Key Activities:

  • Research patiently and deeply
  • Write carefully and with purpose

Quit Social Media

Quit social media for 30 days then ask:

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself

You should and can make deliberate use of your time outside work.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Many people can’t actually work for 40 hours a week or 8 hours a day. Truly you’re not acutally working all that time. It’s filled with fluff.

Schedule Every Minute of your day

Assign actual time to every task that you need to complete.

On some days you might rewrite your schedule half a dozen times. Don’t despair if this happens. Your goal is not to stick to a give schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward — even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.

The third tactic I suggest is to be liberal with your use of task blocks. Deploy many throughout your day and make them longer than required to handle the tasks you plan in the morning. Lots of things come during the typical knowledge worker’s day: Having regularly occurring blocks of time to address these surprises keeps things running smoothly.

Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your work day.

Ask your boss for a shallow work budget

This is a conversation you would need to have with your boss. Ask him what your most important function is at work. He will most likely say something related to your job function. Then, ask him as a percentage what amount of time you should spend doing that task. He will most likely say something like 90% of your time. Compromise and say you’ll do it for 70 – 80% of the time. Make it clear that Shallow work will only take 20% of your time.

Finish your work by 5

This is called fixed schedule productivity. You’re only productive during a set period of hours. But, you’re super productive because you’re resting well and getting to do exactly what you need to do.

Become hard to reach

Tip #1 Make people who send you email or messages do more work.

  • Many people add disclaimers or make it difficult to find their email addresses.
  • Tim Ferris as an autoresponder that sends the sender a word document of frequently asked questions.

Tip #2 Do more work when you send or reply to emails.

  • Avoid long email chains, be the means to and end.
  • Ask: What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient )in terms of messages generated) process for brining this project o a successful conclusion.

Tip #3 Don’t respond

  • It’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worth while.

Final Thoughts

Cal Newport’s ideas are extreme. They are definitely not for everyone. I do believe that he has a lot of valuable advice. The 3 top principles that I have applied almost religiously to my life are:

  1. Finish work by 5: I’ll never work past five. I find that I am more productive during the day because I am more rested.
  2. Schedule every minute of the day: I use a method called time blocking which you can read more about.
  3. Delete Social Media: The Only social media network that I am active on is twitter and that’s because it contributes directly to a professional goal of mine. You can read more about how to resist the urge to use your phone here.

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