Deep Work

One of the best books I read last year was Deep Work by Cal Newport. Here’s a breakdown of the book with takeaways and favorite quotes. All of the quotes are from Cal Newport unless noted.

What is Deep Work?

Deep Work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Deep work is contrasted with shallow work which is described as 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.

The Importance of Deep Work

Deep work is valuable

There are 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.

Deep work is required for learning hard things fast. Acquiring rare and valuable skills isn’t enough though. You need to produce tangible results that people value.

Deep work is rare

Knowledge workers in particular are prone to business because it’s harder to show the value you are producing otherwise. Cal coins the term: 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.

Instead of accomplishing meaningful work, we want to look busy, and feel accomplished.

Deep work is meaningful

No matter your profession, approach your work is a craft and push your mind to its limits.

You don’t need a rarified job you need instead a rarified approach to your work.

The Modes of Deep Work

Cal outlines 4 modes of deep work.

The Monastic Philosophy involves significantly removing yourself from the masses in order to devote yourself to a significant project. Donald Knuth is a CS professor at Stanford who got rid of his email address and had this great quote:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. 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. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

This mode isn’t for most people, but if you are in academia or a field that requires significant output, it’s something to consider.

The Bimodal Philosophy is the Monastic Philosophy but for people who value the non deep pursuits in their life, like relational commitments.

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 for an adherent of this approach.

The Rhythmic Philosophy is about building habits into your day. This approval generally works best for most people. If you can build time into your day for focused work, it will become second nature, like brushing your teeth.

The goal is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.

If you decide on this approach, you should decide in advance:

  1. Where you’ll work and for how long (e.g. Home office at 5:00am).
  2. How you’ll work once you start to work (e.g. Internet ban).

The Journalistic Philosophy is not for the deep work novice. This approach is where you fit time for Deep Work wherever you can. People with young children often employ this philosophy.

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. This type of conviction is typically built on a foundation of existing professional accomplishment.

Focus on the Wildly Important

The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish. execution should be aimed at a small number of wildly important goals.

You don’t need many goals. You need goals of extreme significance.

Things worth doing require endurance. If you want to accomplish something difficult, it better be important to you. You won’t finish it otherwise. David Brooks says it well:

if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.

Build a Daily Schedule

Your goal is not to stick to a given 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 purpose of a daily schedule is to approach your day with intentionality. It’s not to force yourself into a rigid system. By asking yourself, “What are the most important things I need to accomplish today” and then writing an hour by hour breakdown of what you’ll do, you’re more likely to accomplish meaningful work.

Without structure, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow—e-mail, social media, Web surfing. This type of shallow behavior, though satisfying in the moment, is not conducive to creativity.

It’s also important to put more thought into your leisure time. Cal warns of using the internet to entertain yourself, and suggests structured hobbies. Deciding in advance what you’ll do with your free time is the big idea here. Give your time the respect it deserves.

Embrace Boredom and Quit Social Media

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

What happens when you get stuck on a difficult problem, do you turn to Facebook? If you want to stretch your brain you need to have the ability to say no to highly stimulating activities. You can improve at this by getting comfortable with boredom.

to succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli

Social media does provide value for people, but that doesn’t mean it’s enough value to warrant its negative effects. By leaving a social platform for 30 days you’re in a better position to determine whether or not it should be in your life.

End your work at 5:30

I fix the firm goal of not working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow me to satisfy this declaration.

Give your work boundaries. Most people can only sustain 1-4 hours of deep work in a given day. There are serious diminishing returns on the time you spend in deep work after 4 hours.

When you have fewer hours you usually spend them more wisely

Saying no to people is important. A helpful tactic that Cal recommends is to be clear in your refusal, but ambiguous in your reasons for refusing. Also, he tells people to avoid offering a consolation prize to people when you say no.

Become Hard to Reach

Sending e-mails generates more e-mails

You probably can’t avoid email altogether, but you can mitigate the effects it has on you. Generally, you don’t need to respond to emails immediately, and you can tackle them in bulk. Also, a lot of emails don’t need responses. It’s the senders responsibility to convince you that you need to respond.

Tim Ferris has a good quote here:

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


The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind.

This book is extremely practical. Personally, it the reason I was able to finish Learning D3 last year. I’ve implemented many of the strategies to great effect with side projects and my full time job. I hope you’re able to read it yourself.