Deep Work - By Cal Newport

Date read: 
May 12, 2019
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My Thoughts

To do valuable work, you need to focus. Yet we're more distracted than ever. Great thoughts on the importance of deep, uninterrupted focus and how to make it a part of your life.

Summary Notes

Deep Work = Activities performed in 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 = Noncognitive demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate

Jung retreated to Bollingen, not to escape his professional life, but instead to advance it

Work, though a burden to prioritize, was crucial for his goal of changing the world.

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts

Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.

Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth

Your career is uncertain so long as your main professional skills could be captured in an Excel macro

Learning something complex like computer programming requires intense uninterrupted concentration on cognitively demanding concepts—the type of concentration that drove Carl Jung to the woods surrounding Lake Zurich.

His method was drastic but effective. “I locked myself in a room with no computer: just textbooks, notecards, and a highlighter.” He would highlight the computer programming textbooks, transfer the ideas to notecards, and then practice them out loud. These periods free from electronic distraction were hard at first, but Benn gave himself no other option: He had to learn this material, and he made sure there was nothing in that room to distract him

To remain valuable in our economy you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.

Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output

Those with the oracular ability to work with and tease valuable results out of increasingly complex machines will thrive. The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?

Once the talent market is made universally accessible, those at the peak of the market thrive while the rest suffer. Winner-take-all effects writ large.

“Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” Talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine. There’s a premium to being the best. Even if the talent advantage of the best is small compared to the next rung down on the skill ladder, the superstars still win the bulk of the market.

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
  • Those with access to capital.

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New 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.

If you want to become a superstar, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.

To master a cognitively demanding task requires this specific form of practice—there are few exceptions made for natural talent.

“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.”

Deliberate Practice requires that:

  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

By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons—effectively cementing the skill. The reason why it’s important to focus on the task is because this is the only way to isolate the neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you.

The reason Grant advanced so quickly in his corner of academia is simple: He produces. When Grant was awarded full professorship in 2014, he had already written more than sixty peer-reviewed publications in addition to his bestselling book.

Batch hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.

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

The very best students often studied less than the group of students right below them on the GPA rankings. The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration—radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers.

Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.

To ask a CEO to spend four hours thinking deeply about a single problem is a waste of what makes him or her valuable. It’s better to hire three smart subordinates to think deeply about the problem and then bring their solutions to the executive for a final decision.

The fact that Dorsey encourages interruption or Kerry Trainor checks his e-mail constantly doesn’t mean that you’ll share their success if you follow suit: Their behaviors are characteristic of their specific roles as corporate officers. If you’re a high-level executive at a major company, you probably don’t need the advice in the pages that follow. On the other hand, it also tells us that you cannot extrapolate the approach of these executives to other jobs.

Just because your current habits make deep work difficult doesn’t mean that this lack of depth is fundamental to doing your job well

Deep work is not the only skill valuable in our economy, and it’s possible to do well without fostering this ability, but the niches where this is advisable are increasingly rare.

Generally speaking, as knowledge work makes more complex demands of the labor force, it becomes harder to measure the value of an individual’s efforts.

The Principle of Least Resistance = In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment

Feynman was adamant in avoiding administrative duties because he knew they would only decrease his ability to do the one thing that mattered most in his professional life: “to do real good physics work.”

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.

We live in an era where anything Internet-related is understood by default to be innovative and necessary. Depth-destroying behaviors such as immediate e-mail responses and an active social media presence are lauded, while avoidance of these trends generates suspicion.

Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to

Cultivate “concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.”

“the idle mind is the devil’s workshop’… when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Also called Flow.

When measured empirically, people were happier at work and less happy relaxing than they suspected. Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.

The connection between deep work and flow should be clear: Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state. And Flow generates happiness.

obs should be redesigned so that they resemble as closely as possible flow activities.

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

“We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.”


A space designed for the sole purpose of enabling the deepest possible deep work. Create a setting where the users can get into a state of deep human flourishing - creating work that’s at the absolute extent of their personal abilities.

The structure is a narrow rectangle made up of five rooms, placed in a line.

You have to pass through one room to get to the next.

First the gallery, to inspire.

Next the salon, to debate, “brood,” and work through the ideas.

Beyond the salon you enter the library.

Next the office space, for low-intensity activity, to complete the shallow efforts required by your project.

The final room: deep work chambers. Each chamber is conceived to be six by ten feet and protected by thick soundproof walls for total focus and uninterrupted work flow. You spend ninety minutes inside, take a ninety-minute break, and repeat two or three times - at which point your brain will have achieved its limit of concentration for the day.

The Eudaimonia Machine exists only as a collection of architectural drawings, but even as a plan, its potential to support impactful work excites Dewane. “This design remains, in my mind, the most interesting piece of architecture I’ve ever produced,” he told me.

People fight desires all day long

Desire turned out to be the norm, not the exception.
The five most common desires people fight include eating, sleeping, and sex. But also included “taking a break, checking e-mail and social networking sites, surfing the web.” You can expect to be bombarded with the desire to do anything but work deeply throughout the day and these competing desires will often win out.

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

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

You must be careful to choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances

The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
The monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling: maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.

Donald Knuth on email and distraction:
Persons who wish to interfere with my concentration are politely requested not to do so, and warned that I don’t answer e-mail… lest [my communication policy’s] key message get lost in the verbiage, I will put it here succinctly: All of my time and attention are spoken for—several times over. Please do not ask for them

Stephenson sees two mutually exclusive options: He can write good novels at a regular rate, or he can answer a lot of individual e-mails and attend conferences, and as a result produce lower-quality novels at a slower rate.

The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

Jung did not deploy a monastic approach to deep work. Jung, by contrast, sought this elimination only during the periods he spent at his retreat

The bimodal philosophy is typically deployed by people who cannot succeed in the absence of substantial commitments to non-deep pursuits

The bimodal philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. During the deep time, the bimodal worker will act monastically—seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration. During the shallow time, such focus is not prioritized. On the scale of a week, you might dedicate a four-day weekend to depth and the rest to open time. Similarly, on the scale of a year, you might dedicate one season to contain most of your deep stretches.

The minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy tends to be at least one full day. To put aside a few hours in the morning, for example, is too short to count as a deep work stretch.

people will usually respect your right to become inaccessible if these periods are well defined and well advertised.

The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

“the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes,” and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. "Your only job is to not break the chain"

The easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. Generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in starting your work.

He would wake up and start working by five thirty every morning. He would then work until seven thirty, make breakfast, and go to work already done with his dissertation obligations for the day. This approach works better with the reality of human nature.

The journalistic philosophy:

Fit deep work in wherever you can. Journalists are trained to shift into a writing mode on a moment’s notice.

It was always amazing… he could retreat up to the bedroom for a while, when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book… he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us… the work never seemed to faze him, he just happily went up to work when he had the spare time.

Any time he could find some free time, he would switch into a deep work mode and hammer away at his book. This is how, it turns out, one can write a nine-hundred-page book on the side while spending the bulk of one’s day becoming one of the country’s best magazine writers.

This approach is not for the deep work novice. The ability to rapidly switch your mind from shallow to deep mode doesn’t come naturally. Without practice, such switches can seriously deplete your finite willpower reserves. This habit also requires a sense of confidence in your abilities— a conviction that what you’re doing is important and will succeed.

An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.

"The single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration."

Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.

  • Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts
  • Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured.
  • Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth.

By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.

But it’s not the amenities of cabins that generate their value; it’s instead the grand gesture represented in the design and building of the cabin for the sole purpose of enabling better writing.

Meeting this deadline would require incredible concentration. To achieve this state, Shankman did something unconventional. He booked a round-trip business-class ticket to Tokyo. He wrote during the whole flight to Japan, drank an espresso in the business class lounge once he arrived in Japan, then turned around and flew back, once again writing the whole way—arriving back in the States only thirty hours after he first left with a completed manuscript now in hand. “The trip cost $4,000 and was worth every penny,” he explained.

The professors at MIT—some of the most innovative technologists in the world—wanted nothing to do with an open-office-style workspace.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution for successfully implementing high-level strategies. By Clayton Christensen.

Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important

Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue. "try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”

Discipline #2: Act on the Lead 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.

I used to focus on lag measures, such as papers published per year. These measures, however, lacked influence on my day-to-day behavior because there was nothing I could do in the short term that could immediately generate a noticeable change to this long-term metric. When I shifted to tracking deep work hours, suddenly these measures became relevant to my day-to-day: Every hour extra of deep work was immediately reflected in my tally.

Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

“People play differently when they’re keeping score,” Keeping track of the number of hours I spent in deep work helped calibrate my expectations for how many hours of deep work were needed per result.

Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

Have a weekly review in which you make a plan for the workweek ahead. Celebrate good weeks,  understand what led to bad weeks, and  figure out how to ensure a good score for the days ahead

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

Providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges. A shutdown habit diversifies the type of work you deploy.

Walking in nature provides a mental respite as can most other relaxing activities so long as they provide freedom from directed concentration.

Trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done.

For a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours—but rarely more.

Elite players average around three and a half hours per day in a state of deliberate practice, usually separated into two distinct periods. The less accomplished players spent less time in a state of depth.

Your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited. It follows, therefore, that by evening, you’re beyond the point where you can continue to effectively work deeply. By deferring evening  work, you’re not missing out on much.

Once your workday shuts down, refuse the intrusion of any professional concern.

Support your commitment with a strict shutdown ritual at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you succeed. Ensure that every task has been reviewed and that you have a plan you trust for its completion. It should be a series of steps you always conduct, one after another.

When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.

Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate

Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus
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 in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. Until the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed.

The use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from high-value activities to entertaining low-value activities that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty

It’s crucial in this situation, therefore, that you don’t immediately abandon an offline block, even when stuck. If it’s possible, switch to another offline activity for the remainder of the current block

Whenever you're tempted: enforce at least a five-minute gap between the current moment and the next time you can go online.

Schedule Internet use at home as well as at work.

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.

Work Like Teddy Roosevelt: “The amount of time he spent at his desk was comparatively small,” explained Morris, “but his concentration was so intense, and his reading so rapid, that he could afford more time off [from schoolwork] than most.

Always keep your self-imposed deadlines right at the edge of feasibility. You should be able to consistently beat the buzzer, but to do so should require teeth-gritting concentration.

Productive meditation = to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus on a single well-defined professional problem. Continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.

Start with a careful review of the relevant variables, define the specific next-step question, and use deep thinking to consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified.

“We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention,”

Why visualization works: We’re not wired to quickly internalize abstract information. We are, however, really good at remembering scenes

Willpower is limited, and therefore the more enticing tools you have pulling at your attention, the harder it’ll be to maintain focus on something important.

The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection

You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify a single possible benefit to its use.

If you’re a knowledge worker, you should treat your tool selection with the same level of care as other skilled workers, such as farmers. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts

Tool Selection:

  1. Identify factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life.
  2. List for each the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal.
  3. For each tool you currently use, ask if it has a positive, negative or neutral impact on those factors.
  4. Keep only the tools that where the positive impact outweighs the negative one.

Whereas the any-benefit mind-set identifies any potential positive impact as justification for using a tool, the craftsman variant requires that these positive impacts affect factors at the core of what’s important to you and that they outweigh the negatives.

Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits

The first step of this strategy is to identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life.

20% of social activities provide the bulk of the benefit.

Stuff accumulates in people’s lives,because when faced with elimination it’s easy to worry, “What if I need this one day?,”

Earning people’s attention online is hard, hard work. Except now it’s not.

Put more thought into your leisure time. When it comes to your relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead dedicate some advance thinking to the question of how you want to spend the 16 hours outside of your working life.

Figure out what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific actions with specific goals to fill your time.

Very few people work even 8 hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday.

37Signals gave its employees the entire month of June off to work deeply on their own projects. This month would be a period free of any shallow work obligations—no status meetings, no memos, and, blessedly, no PowerPoint. At the end of the month, the company held a “pitch day” in which employees pitched the ideas they’d been working on “How can we afford to put our business on hold for a month to ‘mess around’ with new ideas?” Fried asked rhetorically. “How can we afford not to?”

A nontrivial amount of shallow work is needed to maintain most knowledge work jobs. You might be able to avoid checking your e-mail every ten minutes, but you won’t likely last long if you never respond to important messages.

For someone new to deep focus, an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigors of such activities, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more

Once you’ve hit your deep work limit in a given day, you’ll experience diminishing rewards if you try to cram in more.

We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule

Two things can go wrong:

  • Our estimates will prove wrong.
  • You'll be interrupted. Constantly

At the next available moment create a revised schedule for the time that remains in the day.

You’re going to underestimate at first how much time you require for most things

Block off the expected time for a task, then follow with an additional block with a split purpose. If you need more time, use this additional block to keep working. If you finish on time, work on the other assigned task

I maintain a rule that if I stumble onto an important insight, then this is a perfectly valid reason to ignore the rest of my schedule for the day (with the exception, of course, of things that cannot be skipped).

Shallow Work = Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. Email, paperwork, conversations, meetings, etc.

Evaluate activities by asking: 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?

Once you know where your activities fall on the deep-to-shallow scale, bias your time toward the former

I, too, am incredibly cautious about my use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.” It takes a lot to convince me to agree to something that yields shallow work.

Because my time is limited each day, I cannot afford to allow a large deadline to creep up on me, or a morning to be wasted on something trivial, because I didn’t take a moment to craft a smart plan. The Damoclean cap on the workday enforced by fixed-schedule productivity has a way of keeping my organization efforts sharp.

the fact that your boss happens to be clearing her inbox at night doesn’t mean that she expects an immediate response

Become Hard to Reach
Have correspondents filter themselves before contacting you: If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting [at] For the reasons stated above, I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.

The most crucial line is: “I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.” The inbox is now a collection of opportunities that you can glance at when you have the free time. There's no expectation of you replying immediately.

Most are okay to not receive a response if they don’t expect one

Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies:

  • It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
  • It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
  • Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t

“Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.”

Gates worked with such intensity for such lengths during this two-month stretch that he would often collapse into sleep on his keyboard in the middle of writing a line of code. He would then sleep for an hour or two, wake up, and pick up right where he left off.

“The one trait that differentiated [Gates from Allen] was focus. Allen’s mind would flit between many ideas and passions, but Gates was a serial obsessor.

A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement —it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.

My main tactic was to introduce artificial constraints on my schedule. I started to take extended lunch breaks in the middle of the day to go for a run and then eat lunch back at my apartment

I became ruthless in turning down time-consuming commitments and began to work more in isolated locations outside my office. I placed a tally of my deep work hours in a prominent position near my desk and got upset when it failed to grow at a fast enough rate.

To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few is a transformative experience

“I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”

Related Notes

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