Deep Work

Author(s): Cal Newport
Published: 2016

Overall Thoughts & Roadmap

This was a game changer for me! I think the tips and tricks provided in this book can be used in most fields that you want to get better in.

This book summary is divided into three main sections: 

(1) Theory: What is deep work?

  • Shallow vs. deep work
  • How can you tell whether you're doing deep work?
  • Why do so few people do deep work?

(2) Practice: Four steps to working deeply

(3) Inspiration: Examples of deep work routines.

1. What is deep work?

2 core abilities to be successful in our modern economy

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. (Mastering relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You need to transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value.)

The core argument of this book is that to cultivate these core abilities, you need to work deeply.

Shallow vs. Deep work

Deep work can be measured by one's state of mind and the output resulting from one's effort.

  • State of mind: Deep work is professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
  • Output: Deep work efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Another term for deep work is "deliberate practice", introduced by psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson in the 1990s. Ericsson's key argument is that the difference between experts and normal adults is a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.

In contrast, shallow work is:

  • State of mind: Shallow work is non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.
  • Output: Shallow work efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

How can you tell whether you're doing deep work? 

Cal suggests using the following question to evaluate the depth of each activity: How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task? If the task is one that the hypothetical college grad can pick up quickly, then this task doesn't leverage expertise and doesn't constitute a deep work activity.

While asking this question can be a useful rule-of-thumb to categorize activities into deep and shallow bin, figuring out what constitutes deep work can be still challenging. My sense is that what counts as deep work differs across people and differs across time for each individual as one's skills and abilities change. Cal is known to have changed his mind on what constitutes deep work. For example, "social" activities like meetings and teaching may not be the first activities you associate with deep work, but these activities often do require a period of distraction-free concentration. Teaching young children, for example, requires putting yourself in the shoes of someone less cognitively developed and figuring out how best to introduce new concepts to someone in that position. Definitely not shallow work. So, rather than find some hard and fast rule that will enable us to categorize activities into deep and shallow bins, maybe the best we can do is to be reflective and honest about how cognitively demanding we find certain tasks and aim to spend more hours doing the demanding tasks.

Why do so few people/businesses do deep work?

  • The principle of least resistance: In a setting without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviours to the bottom line, we tend toward behaviours that are easiest in the moment (e.g. checking email, arranging your timetable).
  • Busyness as 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. This leads them to answer emails promptly/post on social media sites what they're working on.
  • Culture of connectivity: you're expected to read and respond to emails quickly. Switching between tasks is detrimental to deep work.

2. Four steps to working deeply

Step 1. Create your deep work routine

Key point: 

  • To support your deep work , you should 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.

An effective ritual must address the following:

  • Where you'll work and for how long: Your office with the room locked?
  • How you'll work once you start work: Ban on internet? Number of words produced per minute?
  • How you'll support your work: Do you need access to enough food to maintain energy?

Practical tips: 

  1. Make grand gestures - e.g. go to a library half way across town, rent a hotel room to finish that thesis/book.
  2. Use triggers to get you into deep work mode - e.g. always listen to the same piece of music before you start a deep work session.

Step 2. Get used to being bored

Key point: 

  • The ability to concentrate is a skill. You need to train it. To do so, you need to push past boredom and refrain from switching attention to other shallow tasks when bored.
  • The training must involve 2 goals: (a) improve your ability to concentrate intensely, (b) overcome your desire for distraction.

Practical tips: 

  1. Take breaks from focus, not breaks from distractions. 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. (E.g. Pomodoro method of 25 minutes work, and then schedule in 5 mins break after that.)
  2. Give yourself artificial deadlines. Identify a deep task that's high on your priority list. Estimate how long you'd normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. These artificial deadlines to help you systematically increase the work intensity level you can regularly achieve, providing interval training for the attention centers of your brain.

Step 3. Drop tools that don't help you

Key point: 

  • Consider which technological tools to use and only use tools (especially social media) if its positive impacts significantly outweigh its negative impacts. This list of tools will differ across people depending on their job and goals.

To do: (also see Cal's other book Digital Minimalism)

  • Identify the main high-level goals in your professional/personal life.
  • List 2/3 most important activities that help you satisfy the goal.
  • For each network tool you currently use, ask whether the tool has a (1) substantial positive impact, (2) substantial negative impact, or (3) little impact on your regular/successful participation in that activity.

Example: Should I use twitter?

  • Professional goal: To produce X number of peer-reviewed papers.
  • Activities supporting this goal: Research patiently and deeply; write carefully and with purpose.
  • Does twitter help me research patiently and deeply? Probably not. Deep research requires one to spend weeks and months getting to know a small number of sources. Careful writing requires freedom from distraction.

Step 4. Get rid of the shallow stuff

Key point: 

  • Identify and eliminate the shallow stuff from your day as much as possible.

Practical tips: 

  • Batching. Instead of having a unique small block for each small task (e.g. respond to boss's email, submit form), you can batch similar things into more generic task blocks.
  • Set quotas on shallow endeavours. E.g. decide to only travel 5 times per year for conferences (this type of shallow work requires things like making lodging arrangements to writing talks).
  • Write process-centric emails. When replying/writing to emails, ask yourself: What is the project represented by this message and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion? This approach is suppose to minimize both the number of emails you receive and the amount of mental clutter they generate. E.g. rather than say something like "Do you want to grab coffee?"; write something more "Let's meet at the Starbucks on campus. I am free on the following days and times. Let me know if any of those days work for you."

3. Examples of deep work routines

Cal Newport

  • How much deep work: 3-4 hours per day, 5 days a week. Stops working past 5.30pm.
  • Creating artificial constraints: Cal knew that as a grad student and postdoc, his time commitments were minimal. He wasn't confident about his ability to integrate enough deep work into the more demanding schedule as an assistant professor. So, during his last two years as a post-doc at MIT, he introduced artificial constraints on his schedule to better approximate the more limited free time he expected as a professor. The goal is to bolster his deep work muscles.

Teddy Roosevelt

  • Biographer Edmund Morris used Roosevelt's diary and letters to estimate that the future president was spending no more than a quarter of the typical studying while he was at Harvard. "The amount of time he spend at his desk was comparatively small but his concentration was so intense, and his reading so rapid, that he could afford more time off from schoolwork than most."

Bill Gates

  • Gates famously conducts "think weeks" during which he would isolate himself to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.

Charles Darwin

  • When working on On the Origin of Species, he would rise at 7 to take a short walk, retire to his study from 8-9.30, read letters from 9.30-10.30, return to study from 10.30-12.00. After this session, he would mull over challenging ideas while walking on his property.