Deep Work

Author: Cal Newport

Rating: 2.5 / 5.0

Cal Newport’s years of experience as a blogger shine through in this wonderfully cogent, clear, minimalist and well-structured blog post that lies at the heart of the book. It’s a powerful argument against the perma-connected, perma-distracted state of the world. Needlessly fattened by (occasionally breathless Tom Friedman-esque) name-dropping and anecdotes that suggest a minimal page count required by the book contract, it left me with the thought “Shoulda been a blog post.” To this I add, now, “Woulda been unforgettable as a blog post or pamphlet.”

The Argument

  1. Influential leaders have realized the power of focused retreat amid a hurried world of responsibilities for years e.g. Jung, Bill Gates, de Montaigne, Mark Twain, et al. (2-8)
  2. We live in a high-distraction wold that promotes “shallow work” defined as “Noncognitively 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.”(9)
  3. When knowledge workers feel the ache of friction (“this is hard”) they turn to their ubiquitous distraction providers (phones, web sites, [etc.] etc.) to alleviate the stress or they resort to an easier, less-valuable task that makes them look “busy.” They thus never grow.
  4. “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.” (10)
  5. Deep Work, in opposition, is a new skill that has great value today because:
    1. the rate of innovation requires constant learning (17)
    2. Quality work’s reach is limitless because of technology therefore the good, once extant, has low-friction in capturing value (18)
  6. “Deep work” can be defined as: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
  7. Using supply and demand: “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
  8. “By doing Deep Work I do things that matter and that provides me with satisfaction, I did some epic stuff at MIT and in life because I cut distraction and just do Deep Work 3-4 days, 5 days a week.”
  9. As a corollary, when I’m home, I feel relaxation, welcome boredom, and focused time with my family. My life feels peaceful and this is good. You should do the same.
  10. A deep life is a happy / meaningful / fulfilled life

Part 1 Corollaries

Newport’s blogging pedigree is clear, the side-effects of the argument are the chapter headings:

  • Deep Work is valuable
  • Deep Work is rare
  • Deep Work is meaningful

Against Deep Work we have a culture that praises, obscures scrutiny of, and suggests as the ideal model of work, distracted connectivity. Or as Covey called it, we are praised for being caught in the “thick of thin things” or as Newport said: “Busyness as a proxy for productivity.”

Part 1 Personal Reactions

A subtle thing that caught my eye as a manager was a funny neologism called “the metric black hole:” “bottom-line impact of depth-destroying behaviors [are not] easily detected (67).” Many mangers have angst about “micro-managing” their staff, but it strikes me that a crucial help is to ask staff “How much deep work are you getting done, how can we track it, and how can I help?” In fact, I want to bring this topic up with my staff soon.

Also, am I doing things as a manager which signals that Busyness is more important than productivity? I think I need to dig on that one at work.

Lastly, can I ensure my staff are aware of “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.” — have I helped delineate between the low- and high-value work well?

Part 1 Beautiful Passages

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy,” explains Matthew Crawford”

“No one would fault Ric Furrer [blacksmith artisan] for not using Facebook, but if a knowledge worker makes this same decision, then he’s labeled an eccentric”

“After running my tough experiment [with cancer]… I have a plan for living the rest of my life,” Gallagher concludes in her book. “I’ll choose my targets with care… then give them my rapt attention. In short, I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” “

“Craftsmanship, Dreyfus and Kelly argue in their book’s conclusion, provides a key to reopening a sense of sacredness in a responsible manner”

“Returning to the question of professional satisfaction, Dreyfus and Kelly’s interpretation of craftsmanship as a path to meaning provides a nuanced understanding of why the work of those like Ric Furrer resonates with so many of us”

Part 2

Part 2 describes some “life hacks” to help get and preserve Deep Work, in other prior works called “flow.”

  1. Work Deeply
    1. Choose a depth philosophy
      1. Monastic: You avoid all distraction as a daily life program
      2. Bimodal: You have distinct times with rigid walls for deep or shallow work
      3. Rhythmic: Variant of bimodal
      4. Journalistic: (Experts only!) You grab depth as you can
    2. Build a Ritual to help you stay in your depth window
      1. Place and duration
      2. The rules (where’s the phone, internet access, which apps are open)
      3. Food / drink energy (“psychological condition”)
    3. Splurge to create these islands, it pays off!
    4. Collaborate with the right depth-oriented collaborators
    5. Maximize you depth window: Execute like a Business
      1. Focus on the priority items
      2. Focus on “leading indicators:” time in deep work, number of sketch ideas, etc.
      3. Keep a compelling scoreboard
      4. Surface accountability
  2. Maximize relaxation (“be lazy”) so that cognitive need for repair doesn’t try to seep in
    1. It aids insights
    2. Helps recharge
    3. Conscious downtime bumps bad distraction
    4. “Don’t take breaks from distraction, take breaks from focus”: schedule work, let incidentals fall in
    5. Try cutting a deadline to grow your ability to focus intensely (Teddy Roosevelt Method)
    6. Leverage times of physical occupation (commute walking, time on treadmill) to mull a problem
    7. Build your memorization muscle: deck of cards; method of loci (Talmud, Latin vocab, shorthand symbols, etc.)
  3. Quit Social Media
  4. Drain the Shallows
    1. You are far less deep than you think thanks to shallows (37Signals, et al.)
    2. Schedule every minute and be stingy
    3. Quantify the depth of every activity
  5. Finish on time


Well, that’s pretty much the meat of the book. Supply and demand mean people who can do Deep Work are going to be valuable. Be one by practicing. I think it’s a neat idea, but there’s really nowhere to go from beyond the, “Well, OK, sure” moment. I think a future direction that might be worth exploring is the “Deep Working Manager: Strategies for Helping Employees Work Optimally by Working Deeply.”