Deep Work is a best-seller and one of our top-three time management books. In it, author and academic Cal Newport marshalls compelling evidence from business, economics, and psychology that the modern working world isn’t set up to maximize productivity.
Here’s our Deep Work summary and concept guide.
Deep Work is split into two parts. Part one includes three chapters about deep work. Part two consists of four rules for deep work.
Using stories from real life, Newport uses Chapter 1 to introduce readers to “deep work” and explain why he thinks it will become more valuable and remain automation-proof.
Deep work is creative, focused, and deeply human. It’s not scheduling meetings, answering emails and Slack messages, coordinating materials, or any of the busywork that tends to occupy and fragment the modern knowledge worker’s day. Rather, it’s the stuff we get done when we have the chance to put distractions aside and focus in on a big, important challenge.
Chapter two argues that deep work is increasingly rare, using stories from Facebook, Twitter, and IBM. He lays the blame at the feet of several culprits, including open offices, instant messaging, email, and social media. Even though the evidence shows deep work is valuable, modern business leaders have deprioritized it relative to competing values.
One problem is that it’s difficult to measure the cost of serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and an active presence on social media. We lack accurate metrics to tell us which direction (more serendipity or solo deep work) will yield the best results.
The evidence we do have points in favor of prioritizing the deep work concept over being available for constant interruption. For example, it’s intuitive that a company where workers respond to emails within an hour will have a leg up over the competition. One study tested the theory by asking workers at one firm to not answer emails at all one day per week. The firm didn’t lose any clients or see any negative ramifications. Their employee satisfaction, communication, and learning did improve, however. Their client work also got better.
Newport put a ton of research into Chapter 3, which covers the ways in which deep work is meaningful, using evidence from neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. Anyone who’s finished a day having made significant progress on a discrete project knows it feels more meaningful than a day spent task-switching to make incremental progress across projects.
Part two is for the rules that can help you do more deep work.
Newport says we spend most of our time fighting desires to do anything other than deep work. So the key to getting deep work done is creating routines, habits, and environments that make it easier.
Newport lays out four philosophies of deep work to choose from:
Monastic - no email address, only snail mail and an assistant to sort it
Bimodal - retreat to your monastery for at least a full day periodically (No Meeting Day)
Rhythmic - set a rhythm for scheduling deep work (daily, weekly, etc.) and keep it
Journalistic - consistently take opportunities to do deep work when they arise
He then advises readers to make decisions about deep work ahead of time. This includes deciding when you’re going to get into deep work mode, what you’re going to do while there, and how long you’ll stay there. Deep work rituals reduce friction. They also help you develop habits that improve your skill when it comes to focus.
Having to go back-and-forth about when you’re going to start, what you’re going to do, or how long you’ll work just saps your mental energy and willpower. To save time and energy just make a plan and stick with it. Rituals also help ensure you’re productive even when you’re not particularly inspired. For more help setting up rituals that lead to success, I can’t recommend highly enough another of our top-three time management books: Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Newport advises readers that boredom is a craving for distraction. The key is to wean your mind from distraction. Newport warns that digital detoxes can’t cure a distracted brain any more than eating healthy one day every week can make up for six days of eating unhealthy. You’ll still crave distractions/junk. Instead, devote most of your working time to focus, but build in breaks for distraction. What Newport prescribes is basically the pomodoro technique.
You can then supercharge your pomodoros by using Roosevelt dashes. Set an audacious goal and a short period of time so you have the ability to concentrate intensely and exclusively on the task at hand.
He also recommends productive meditation. Take time when your body is occupied but your mind isn’t -- running, walking, biking, showering, driving, etc. -- and devote your thoughts to a hairy professional problem without getting distracted. He also describes using the memory palace memorization technique to train your brain to concentrate.
Here, Newport contrasts the any-benefit vs craftsman approaches to tool adoption. The any-benefit approach ignores the cost of adopting a new tool and only focuses on the benefits.
Certain tools offer value. But if they take up valuable time and energy, it might not be worth it overall. The craftsman approach carefully weighs the benefits and drawbacks of each potential new tool before incorporating it into their workflow. Everyone, especially knowledge workers, should treat time more like we already treat money.
When deciding what tools to adopt into your working life, start by making a list of three or so goals. These should be ongoing and long-term goals that are specific enough to measure progress against. For me one of these goals might be to publish two articles per week for the next quarter. Then, evaluate potential tools against the impact they’re likely to have on your ability to meet your goals. Only keep tools likely to have a substantial positive impact on your ability to reach your objectives. To help you measure the impact each tool has on your life, Newport recommends taking a 30-day break from certain tools. Then, ask yourself whether that time would have been better with the tool and whether anyone cared that you weren’t using it.
Newport advises workers to stop operating on autopilot and begin to be more intentional with your time to increase your ability to perform deep work. In fact, Newport recommends we schedule every minute of our day (aka time blocking). He also recommends negotiating with your boss for a shallow work budget, or the max percentage of your time you should have to spend on shallow work. Begin with an estimate of how much time you’re currently spending on shallow vs deep work. End your work day by 5:30 every day. When someone asks you to do something, the default answer should be no. Don’t give a reason they could try to work around. Just say no. Set up filters on your incoming communication channels asking people to only contact you if X, Y, or Z and to not expect a response. Say no to traveling, for example, because it requires a lot of shallow work, including demanding logistical style tasks.
Deep Work is a great introduction to the concept of deep work vs shallow work. Cal Newport makes a compelling case for prioritizing deep work in your calendar and offers practical tips for devoting more time to meaningful work.