On Deep Work by Cal Newport

Disclaimer I didn't read the whole thing. I skipped the entire part 1 since I don't need to be sold on the value of deep work. Second disclaimer, I skimmed part 2 because frankly, there isn't that much actual content. I'd estimate it was at least 30% anecdotes that added length and flavor but didn't really add to the clarity of the concepts. I often take this approach with self-help books because I've found it uses my time well to extract the most value. Some might call it irony that I skimmed a book aimed at people who are easily distracted (ha! yeah you're right) but I'm told by actually smart people that skimming is a valuable skill for extracting information. I can always re-read something in depth if it's warranted and this genre is famously fluffy.


First of all, the author is stuck in some kind of bubble. More than once I laughed out loud at the examples of how to put the ideas into practice because they were so far removed from actual work experience. I fear his coworkers would hate working with him. I know I would.

Second, the way deep work is lauded as "creating real value" is problematic. There is an awful lot of so-called shallow work that creates real value. Was the sandwich I ate for lunch not real? Someone made it and folks did rather a lot of manual work growing, processing, shipping, and cooking the ingredients that went into it. By the author's definition all that work was "shallow" and not worthy of his time and that's baloney.

As a parent, caregiver, and the guy who usually cleans the lab at work, it's important to me to ascribe value to all forms of work. I think if we do so we also become more whole.

That said, knowledge workers like myself, to whom the author is writing, are intimately familiar with distractions and time wasters and I regularly need to put effort into taming those distractions.

What is Deep Work?

As a self described creative thinker I like to think deeply about things and come up with new ideas but if we try to assign value to that work in relation to other work, that's just inflated self importance. The guy who takes out the trash performs as much a vital service as the artist in her studio. Let's not denigrate one versus the other.

If you want a non-knowledge worker example, nobody drives a forklift (I hope) while scrolling facebook. Their concentration must be 100% on performing the task. Similarly, writing an academic paper or a computer program, requires intense concentration.

The author flirts with a much better characterization of what we could mean when we call work deep or shallow: Deep work is that work which requires intense concentration over time to produce results and does not have associated physical activity that helps focus the mind.

I'm going to use the word concentration frequently where the author used the term Deep Work because I find concentration to be more accurate and descriptive.

Smartphones and the internet have made this kind of concentration extremely difficult for people whose job entails sitting at a computer all day. I found real value in the author's suggestions for how to tame the effects of trying to use a distraction machine for work.

How do we do it?

With that in mind I'm going to summarize the ways Newport says we should cultivate our capacity for Deep Work. I am genuinely excited by the idea of training my concentration and want to put some of these ideas into practice. Sentences in italics are my commentary.

  1. Budget your Willpower

    1. Philosophy: personal time management

      1. Monastic: become a hermit

      2. Bimodal: take whole days away from distractions to intensely focus

      3. Rythmic: schedule 90min blocks during the week to intensely focus

      4. Journalistic: shift into deep concentration anytime you have a free hour. This is really hard. It requires training and ahead of time planning. Most of use are only going to be able to choose a mix of Rythmic and Journalistic with maybe a dash of Bimodal so this discussion is less helpful than it might be. But Newport's suggestion to schedule blocks of focus time and generally structure your schedule so that you have as few decisions to make as possible is both operative and effective.

    2. Use rituals, even weird ones, to prepare your brain for concentration. I don't know about going out and searching for rituals. Maybe just observe what you're already doing and lean into that.

    3. Collaborate: but not too much

      1. use a back and forth cadence

      2. find someone who has complementary skills

      3. harness the sense of obligation.

      4. hub (serendipitous meetings) and spoke (solitary place) This passage was revelatory for me. On reflection, my most productive and enjoyable seasons of work involved close collaboration with someone who had complementary skills and we felt an obligation to each other that created a racheting effect. We accomplished a lot and solved difficult problems. It's tempting to believe I could generate my best work in total monastic isolation but I think that's just vanity.

    4. What vs. How: We know what we want to do but how do we do it?

      1. Focus on the Wildly Important

      2. Act on leading (not lagging) measures, ie time spent on goal #1

      3. Keep a compelling scoreboard

      4. Create a cadence of accountability Newport is leaning heavily on 4DX from Franklin Covey which many folks in the business world will already be familiar with. These are valuable practices. I've seen organizations both fail to define wildly important goals narrowly enough and fail to execute on the practices.

    5. Idleness: it's more important than you think

      1. Aids insight

      2. Recharges your Willpower

      3. Our energy for concentration is finite I'm 100% onboard with the importance of idleness. The key is to be idle without reaching for a distraction.

    6. Have a shutdown ritual

      1. Primes the mind to set the work down and start recharging

      2. Plan out (briefly) next steps This has been my practice for a long time. Super valuable to me.

  2. Embrace Boredom

    1. Take breaks from focus, ie. schedule times for distractions. Not the other way round. I really like this mind shift.

    2. Make a deadline and practice (occasional) fast work A novel idea to me. I would use it sparingly but maybe valuable. Analogous to a distance runner training sprints once in a while.

    3. Meditate Productively 2-3 times per week

      1. Be physically occupied, eg running

      2. Focus on a singular problem

      3. Avoid distractions or looping

      4. Structure deep thinking. This is a great technique I've used and will use more. I want to investigate specific practices for structured thinking.

    4. Memorize a deck of cards.

      1. Specific memory training techniques. Certainly, a good working memory is a valuable asset to thinking deeply and memory can be trained but I'm skeptical the specific techniques presented have general applications.
  3. Quit Social Media

    1. Use cost-benefit (what Newport calls craftsman) thinking, not any-benefit. This is a great point.

    2. Identify core functions that enhance productivity and happiness and choose tools that benefits those factors enough to outweigh the costs. Really pleased that productivity and happiness are called out here. Both metrics are important and intertwined.

    3. Law of the vital few (ie 80/20 law)

      1. Identify few activities that most positively impact goals. Was I just tired or was this section unfocused?
    4. Don't use the internet for entertainment. The point Newport makes is that if you use the addictive parts of the internet in your down time you're undoing the work you did training your brain not to rely on that dopamine feed. Fair point but I felt more nuance would have helped.

  4. Drain the shallows. See my critiques above. I reallly didn't like parts of this section.

    1. Schedule every minute of the day.

      1. Use half hour blocks.

      2. Don't worry about sticking to it. If something comes up just rewrite it.

      3. The goal is to maintain a thoughtful say in who you use your time. At first I recoiled in horror but on closer reading I really like the goal of maintaining a thoughtful say in how you spend time. It's also weirdly helpful to make decisions ahead of time.

    2. Quantify the depth of every activity

      1. How long would it take to train someone else to do this activity? I think the earlier metric of how much an activity furthers your goals is a better one.
    3. Ask your boss for a shallow work budget. HA! HAHAHA! Don't ever do this. You first need to make sure you and your boss are in alignment around your goals AND what tasks further those goals. Then you could have a discussion about cutting back on work that does not further those goals.

    4. Finish your work by 5:30. If this one shocks you, you need to read this section. I agree with Newport here 100%.

    5. Become hard to reach

      1. Make people who email you do more work. Some of his examples are authors and those make sense but if your job is to be available, like say a professor to his students, don't do this one.

      2. Do more work when you send or reply to emails. Use process-centric emails. This is a genuinely good suggestion but the examples given are TERRIBLE. You can do this without being a jerk.

      3. Don't respond. Actually good advice for the examples given.


It should be noted that procrastination and distraction can be coping mechanisms for real mental illnesses or just plain stress. Unless you deal with those issues, perhaps in concert with the above practices I don't think you'll see much success. I am speaking from experience here. It's important to me to strive for balance in my life and so I always approach books on productivity with a sense of caution. But taken with a grain of salt, Newport actually presents the case for a fairly balanced life. I'm dealing with a troubling tendency to distraction and it makes me feel bad about my work. In addition to addressing physical and emotional health, and generally cutting myself some slack, I am excited about the possibility that concentration is something that can be trained. In the same way I train my physical endurance I want to train my mental endurance.