Deep Work: Summary & Key Takeaways

Deep Work by Cal Newport is about the value of and strategies for engaging in what he calls deep work. Deep work is cognitively demanding work that is done with high levels of concentration. Only through deep work can you create things of great value or radically improve your skills.

He contrasts this to shallow work, which can be (and often is) done while distracted, produces little value and is easy to replicate without extensive training.

Newport’s thesis is that in our modern knowledge economy, deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time as it is becoming increasingly important.

What follows is a brief summary of why deep work is important followed by more extensive notes on the strategies Newport outlines for achieving deep work.

The Value of Deep Work

Doing deep work allows you to:

  • Quickly produce valuable and high-quality output
  • Quickly master complicated things
  • Derive enjoyment and satisfaction
  • Find meaning in your work

Your productivity is a factor of how long you spend working on a task and your intensity of focus. By working deeply, you can often work fewer hours and produce more and better work.

High levels of concentration are essential for learning effectively because of how we learn. Learning happens by building connections between neurons, and connections are built when neurons repeatedly activate together. Or as it is usually summed up, neurons “that fire together wire together.” Given this, it’s easy to see how trying to learn while watching TV, talking to a friend or reading Twitter will fire extraneous neurons at the same time and the connections that you’re trying to build won’t be as strong.

While “deep work” is Newport’s own term, I think of it as synonymous with flow or as an approach that creates the conditions for achieving flow. Flow, a mental state identified by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, happens when someone becomes fully immersed in the task at hand. Studies have found that this state makes us perform better and enjoy the activity more; and regularly engaging in flow leads to more life satisfaction and greater success.

Having a deep work mindset helps you find meaning by focusing on producing high-quality output and on how you approach your work.

To be a blacksmith or a wheelwright wasn’t glamorous. But this doesn’t matter, as the specifics of the work are irrelevant. The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship — not the outcomes of their work. Put another way, a wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be. The same applies to knowledge work. You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.

To do deep work you need to be able to concentrate intensely without distraction for long stretches of time. The barriers to doing this are:

  • Having so many shallow work (low-value) obligations that you little or no time for deep work
  • A schedule that doesn’t have long stretches of time free to focus on one task
  • An environment full of external distractions such as noisy neighbors or email notifications
  • An inability to concentrate without interruption from internal distractions, such as the urge to check your phone

What follows are strategies to help you overcome these barriers.

Minimize Shallow Work Obligations

Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.

While most jobs will have some shallow work, these tasks don’t produce much value compared to deep work. So you should be focusing as much of your time as possible on the deep work versus shallow work.

Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.

Newport applies the lessons from 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals — a book aimed at companies and teams — to individuals trying to do deep work. The four disciplines are:

  • #1 Focus on the Wildly Important: Focus on a small number of wildly important goals. This focus makes it easier to identify the work you should be doing and that which you shouldn’t. This mindset applies equally well outside of your professional life. You can only focus on a small number of things at a time if you want to do them well, so you should focus on the things that are most important to you and will bring you the most success, happiness and fulfillment.
  • #2 Act on Lead Measures: Measure the amount of time you spend on doing deep work. Simply committing time to deep work (if it is indeed deep) will produce results. I use toggl track.
  • #3 Keep a Compelling Scoreboard and #4 Create a Cadence of Accountability: Check your progress regularly as a habit. I check my toggl reports weekly to see if I’m on track for the amount of deep work I want to do. It’s motivating when I am, and when I’m not, I am aware and can adjust.

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.

If you have a manager, come to an agreement with them on what your most important goals are. Agree about the types of work you do that produce the most value, and the types of work that don’t. Then agree about what percentage of your time you should be spending on the former and on the latter. After it’s laid out explicitly, most managers wouldn’t say they want you spending half your time in your inbox, even if that’s what you currently do. Once you’ve done this, it becomes easier to push back on shallow work when it starts to impede your ability to do important work.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.

- Donald Knuth

The average knowledge worker spends 30 percent of their work time on email and even spends 20–25 hours a week outside of the office monitoring their work email because they believe that it’s important to answer any email with one hour. It’s easy to see how this can impede the ability to do deep work. Not only is it eating up a lot of time, but constantly monitoring email prevents deep concentration.

Some jobs may require more email and faster turnaround times, but for many, these assumptions are baseless. One study had a group of consultants abstain from email for one day a week and found that it improved performance while not having any negative impact on their clients.

Set a schedule to check email and communicate. Don’t check your email outside of those times: keep your email client and chat apps closed, and turn off notifications.

People will usually respect your right to become inaccessible if these periods are well defined and well advertised, and outside these stretches, you’re once again easy to find.

How to Schedule Deep Work

There are different philosophies around scheduling deep work, but they all revolve around batching similar work into consecutive blocks of time. For example, instead of working on on a presentation while constantly checking and processing email, spend a longer block of time on email, then spend a block of time working on your presentation, and then spend a block processing any new email.

The reason that batching works is that it minimizes attention residue — the part of your brain that keeps thinking about task A when you switch to task B. By switching less often, you reduce this cost.

The different philosophies differ in the time frames they use to batch deep work and shallow work.

Newport presents four, but the two that will work for most people are:

  • Bimodal: Have prolonged periods of time dedicated to each type of work. For example, a professor teaching one semester and doing research during another.
  • Rhythmic: Consistently schedule deep work blocks each day. For example, spending two hours every morning on deep work before getting to the rest of your obligations.

These two can often blur together or be used in combination. For example, it may be impractical for most people to have long stretches where they have no shallow work obligations, but it may be possible to have a couple of deep-work-only days a week, while fitting in shorter deep work blocks the other days.

This type of scheduling isn’t about constraint — it’s instead about thoughtfulness.

Newport recommends breaking up your entire day into 30 minute or 1 hour blocks on a piece of paper and then writing down what you’ll be doing during each and every block. He does this at the beginning of his day. The goal isn’t to stick exactly to your original schedule; it’s to create a habit of being thoughtful about how you spend your time.

If you reach the end of your email block without finishing, it might be correct to extend it so you can finish and decrease the attention residue when you do switch tasks; or it might be that the work you scheduled was more important and you should switch to it as planned.

When you decide to deviate from your original schedule, actually go back and modify it. It’s okay if you need to rework your schedule dozens of times in a day.

If you reach the end of a deep work block but are still in a flow state, assuming you don’t have any external commitments, it’s valid to keep focusing until you run out of steam and then rebuild your schedule for the rest of the day.

This practice does incur some overhead — both in terms of extra time scheduling and attention residue created by the rescheduling process. But by doing this, you build a habit of making conscious decisions about what is the most important thing for you to do.

Without structure, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow — e-mail, social media, Web surfing.

Improving your Concentration and Overcoming your Desire for Distraction

Simply scheduling time for deep work isn’t enough if your brain isn’t ready to maximize that time.

For example, people who are used to are used to multitasking “all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.” Or, if you’re used to taking out your phone at the slightest hint of boredom, such as waiting on line at the grocery store, “Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, [Clifford] Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.”

Getting the most out of your deep work habit requires training to address two goals: improving your ability to concentrate intensely and overcoming your desire for distraction.

The following methods help to train your brain to concentrate more deeply and to eliminate the ability of distracting behaviors from hijacking your attention.

Newport treats distraction and the internet/smartphones as synonymous. When he talks about distraction he’s usually talking about these two technologies and all of their associated websites, apps, social media, and the like, but you could easily substitute other types of distraction in the advice below.

Following on the strategy of scheduling every part of your day, include internet blocks in your schedule. Strictly avoid using the internet outside of these blocks.

Newport gives two options if you find that you need to use the internet to complete the current task:

  • Make a note of where you left off and then switch to another task that doesn’t require the internet until the remainder of the current deep work block.
  • Change your schedule so that your next internet block is sooner, but at least five minutes away.

This gap is minor, so it won’t excessively impede your progress, but from a behavioralist perspective, it’s substantial because it separates the sensation of wanting to go online from the reward of actually doing so.

As a software engineer, I find this advice difficult to follow. I work with browser-based tools and need constant access to documentation. If I’m in a flow state and following a particular train of thought that requires outside knowledge, would it not be better to stick with it instead of either context-switching to a new task and accruing attention residue or doing nothing for five minutes while holding the thought?

And I suspect this isn’t unique to software engineers. For instance, even in writing this blog post I find myself in a similar dilemma when needing to fact check or look up that synonym that’s on the tip of my tongue.

My modified version of this rule is that if I have a tangential train of thought, whether it requires the internet or not, I write it down to come back to later. But if I have a question or blocker on the task at hand, I allow myself immediate access to search and knowledge resources (Google, API documentation, Wikipedia, shared documents, dictionaries, etc.).

As long as your internet use is on task, it may not create attention residue the same way switching tasks or trying to do multiple different things at once does. Clifford Nass, whose research Newport cites elsewhere, says of multitasking “It’s extremely healthy for your brain to do integrative [related] things. It’s extremely destructive for your brain to do non-integrative things.”

My rule does come with tradeoffs — you expose yourself to potential distraction when looking at any of these; and you’re reinforcing your brain’s need to have immediate gratification — but for me these tradeoffs are worth it.

Your behavior outside of work is undoing many of your attempts during the workday to rewire your brain.

Scheduling internet time should extend into your personal life as well because it isn’t just about making your deep work time more productive, it’s about training your ability to concentrate.

Newport allows for time-sensitive communication (texting with a friend about dinner plans) and time-sensitive information retrieval (getting directions to the restaurant on your phone) but outside of these types of uses, refrain from the internet during your personal offline blocks — no casually texting with your friends, scrolling on Instagram or giving in to the urge to immediately know the life expectancy of a hadrosaurus by Googling it. If the internet plays an important role in your entertainment, that’s fine — make a conscious decision to schedule many or long internet blocks.

The key here isn’t to avoid or even to reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.

Be thoughtful about how you want to spend your leisure time. It doesn’t suffice to schedule offline blocks if you haven’t planned on what you’ll do with them. By planning in advance, you won’t get lost in whatever catches your attention in the moment, which is usually some form of distraction.

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.

The downsides of many network tools can outweigh the benefits. You should evaluate whether any particular tool is harmful or beneficial for you by going back to your professional and personal wildly important goals. Newport describes two approaches to thoughtfully choosing your tools:

  • The Craftsman Approach (The Good Way): Adopt a tool only if its benefits support your goals more than its downsides detract or distract from them. Different people may come to different conclusions about the same tool. For example, a new author may decide that the benefit of growing their audience on Twitter outweighs the distraction that it creates. While an established author may decide the opposite because their success depends on delivering high-quality books to their existing fans.
  • The Any-Benefit Approach (The Bad Way): You use a tool because it provides any benefit and you don’t consider the costs that come with it. For example, even if one of your goals is to be a good friend, all of the time that you end up sinking into Facebook may have been better spent seeing one good friend.

In general, you should approach network tools with caution and be thoughtful about which ones you let into your life. Keep in mind that they are engineered to be addictive and tug at your emotions.

Two Exercises to Improve your Ability to Concentrate Intensely

This is Newport’s take on mindfulness meditation. Instead of focusing on something in your body or your environment, focus on a single well-defined problem. When you find yourself distracted, gently bring your mind back to the problem at hand. This technique can be done while physically but not otherwise mentally engaged (walking, showering, etc.).

By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration.

Take an important task, estimate how long it would take, and then give yourself a hard deadline that is drastically shorter than you expect. To make this work better, commit publicly to this extreme deadline, such as to your boss.

With much less time to finish a task than you expect it should take, it creates a sense of urgency and you can’t help but concentrate deeply and resist distractions. This is similar to the urgency that a procrastinator might feel as the deadline looms closer, but your fabricating it to force yourself into a heightened state of concentration where one might otherwise not exist.

If you made it this far, I assume you’re at least convinced that deep work is important. Deep work is essential for creativity, problem solving, and learning complex skills. Without these abilities, we won’t be able to solve the world’s biggest problems such as climate change, global health and inequality.

The key takeaways for me are to:

  • Be intentional about how I spend my time
  • Schedule deep work in advance
  • Batch communication
  • Understand how technology impacts my ability to focus and therefore being selective about when, how and what technology I use

Depending on your profession and life circumstances, some of these strategies may be easier or harder to do, and some may work better than others with your lifestyle and personality. But we can all find ways to do more deep work.

If you enjoyed this, I also wrote a whole blog post about how office design impacts deep work and what this means for hybrid work (working part-time in the office; and part-time at home).

Further Reading (Listening)

Deep Work | Cal Newport

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise | K. Anders Ericsson

Email | Donald Knuth

The Myth Of Multitasking | Talk of the Nation

Four Light Bulbs | Hello Internet

If you thought this was all a bunch of hogwash and want to waste your time with pointless, unrelated things, look no further than my website: http://jeremyneiman.com/

Thanks to Abigail Pope-Brooks for editing and feedback.

Coder of random things. Software engineer at Sidewalk Labs. http://jeremyneiman.com