Deep work

4 minute read

Deep Work by Cal Newport.


This book is talking about deep work, meaning the ability to intently focus on a task, without distractions, while pushing one’s cognitive capabilities to their limits. This type of work tends to create new value and often leads to skill improvement.

Cal points out that this ability to go deep is becoming increasingly rare - thus increasingly valuable - in today’s economy, and as a result those who master that skill will thrive.

Deep Work vs Shallow Work

Shallow work is the exact opposite of deep work: non-cognitively demanding, easy to replicate tasks, that can be performed even while distracted. Checking our emails, filling forms, reading the news, attending a meeting without providing / receiving any value - these can be all be classified as shallow work.

Cal explains that this is the default state of most knowledge workers - and that’s why going deep is so important. It is very common nowadays, with the plethora of network tools available, that people replace deep work with the shallow alternative, constantly switching from a shallow task to another. After all, it’s easier to send and receive e-mails ( Cal describes humans as acting like network routers :sweat_smile: ) while checking the news or social media, instead of doing the actual work involved.

He also describes the concept of attention residue, which is basically the fact that our attention remains stuck thinking about the previous task even when we moved onto the next task. This is why multitasking is not working in practice - by constantly switching between tasks we might think that we are doing more, but in fact we end up having poorer performance because of that attention residue.

How to practice Deep Work

After making the case why deep work is so important, Cal presents his four rules on how to practice it: work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media and drain the shallows.

Work deeply

Apparently, it’s not that easy to focus deeply on a single task. We need to be intentional in sitting down regularly in order to focus on something important, and employ strategies to assist us in doing exactly that.

Establish a Routine

Establishing routines, meaning rituals that automatically enable the deep work mode is really helpful. It has been proved that our willpower is limited, so struggling to go deep while being distracted ( watching TV for instance ) will eventually make us feel tired and will impede our ability to maintain that concentration. On the other hand, when we have a ritual in place, it means that we don’t have to decide about going deep - we just do it, cause that’s what happens next when the routine elements are in place. The less decisions we have to make, the better for our finite willpower!

Adopt the 4DX Framework

  • Focus on the widly important. Ah and by the way that’s usually what we avoid doing cause it makes us feel uncomfortable.
  • Act on lead - not lag metrics. The shorter the feedback loop, the better.
  • Keep a scoreboard. For example, we can use a postit note to write down how many hours we ‘re going deep each day.
  • Be accountable. When we know that someone else is expecting something from us - and the best way to produce that something is by doing deep work - that gives us an extra push. These commitments can exist naturally ( i.e. weekly report to our line manager ) or if they don’t, we can ourselves ask other people to oversee our progress towards a goal. There are even places like stickk where we can even put money on stake.

Embrace Boredom

It is very common that when we have a few minutes - for example while waiting for a friend or in a queue - we immediately grab our phone to check the news, our emails, our facebook profile etc, and this impairs our ability to focus. Cal proposes that we should improve our tolerance for boredom, as these moments present a great opportunity to think or productively meditate on a specific problem.

Quit Social Media

Social media platforms are known for their addictiveness - they ‘re designed to be like that. Cal suggests that we should only use those tools if they help us accomplish our goals. For example, some proffessionals depend on Facebook or Twitter for doing their work, but for the vast majority that’s not the case.

He is then talking about digital distractions in general, such as clickbait sites, notifications etc, and he argues that if we manage to eliminate those we won’t have to work evenings or weekends to finish our tasks. We need to put more thought into our free time and stop giving in to whatever catches our attention at the moment.

Drain the Shallows

Shallow tasks are inevitable, but we can plan for them and make sure that they don’t become the norm, thus reducing our ability to go deep. Another benefit of planning them in advance is that we can apply batching. For example, dedicating 20 minutes to go through the inbox is more effective than constantly interrupting the task at hand to check for new messages.

Plan every minute of your time

Cal suggests that we should time-block our day, and include not only blocks of deep and shallow work, but also things such as lunch and recreational activities. He ‘s talking about planning every minute of our day - not just work!


The deep work mindset requires willpower, hard work and changes to our habbits. We ‘re so used to being distracted that we feel comfortable in this artificial busyness that we live into. Unlearning that is not easy but Cal assures as that if we manage to do that then we will improve not only our performance at work, but our life in general.