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3 February 2021

Deep Work by Cal Newport

by Željko Filipin

Deep Work

I have already mentioned Deep Work in Books That Have Changed My Life post. It’s one of only three books in the post. I think that says enough about how much I like it. I’ve tried, but I couldn’t write a short summary of the entire book. In this post, I’ll give a short summary of each chapter with the most interesting quote from the chapter. Rarely, there will be more that one quote per chapter. Mostly because I wanted to quote all popular highlights. (Popular highlights are Amazon Kindle feature.)


There is high demand and low supply for people that can do deep work. Internet and our devices are more and more distracting, making deep work hard, if not almost impossible.

Deep Work: 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. (5544 highlights)

Shallow Work: 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 Deep Work Hypothesis: 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.

I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output. (5700 highlights)

Part 1: The Idea

Part one will try to convince you that investing in deep work is a very good investment.

From the introduction:

This book has two goals, pursued in two parts. The first, tackled in Part 1, is to convince you that the deep work hypothesis is true. The second, tackled in Part 2, is to teach you how to take advantage of this reality by training your brain and transforming your work habits to place deep work at the core of your professional life.

Chapter 1: Deep Work Is Valuable

You have to learn hard things quickly. That requires you to focus intensely, without distraction.


It might be very hard to become a superstar or to have a lot of money, but working with intelligent machines is in our reach.

In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital. (9014 highlights)

How to Become a Winner in the New Economy

Hard work is more valuable than talent.

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy

  • The ability to quickly master hard things.
  • The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. (7347 highlights)

If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are. (8800 highlights)

The two core abilities just described depend on your ability to perform deep work.

Deep Work Helps You Quickly Learn Hard Things

Learning is hard. Learning hard things is harder. Deep work to the rescue.

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. (8501 highlights)

Deep Work Helps You Produce at an Elite Level

The amount of high-quality work you can produce doesn’t only depend on the time spent, but also on focus.

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

What About Jack Dorsey?

There’s a small chance that your job is not compatible with deep work.

Jack Dorsey helped found Twitter. After stepping down as CEO, he then launched the payment-processing company Square.

Deep work is not the only skill valuable in our economy, and it’s possible to do well without fostering this ability, but the niches where this is advisable are increasingly rare.

Chapter 2: Deep Work Is Rare

Deep work is valuable and rare. Shallow work is easy and common. Develop the skill of deep work and the world is yours.


Trends in business increase shallow and decrease deep work.

… big trends in business today [open offices, instant messaging, social media] actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level).

The Metric Black Hole

We intuitively know the cost of distraction and the value of depth. It’s hard, if not impossible, to measure knowledge work.

Even though we abstractly accept that distraction has costs and depth has value, these impacts … are difficult to measure.

Generally speaking, as knowledge work makes more complex demands of the labor force, it becomes harder to measure the value of an individual’s efforts.

The Principle of Least Resistance

When we don’t know what’s the best thing do to next, we usually do the easy things first. Occurring meetings and bad email messages are easy. Write emails in a way that is not only easy to respond, but easy to resolve the thread.

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.

Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity

An easy way, but a wrong way, to show our value is to look busy.

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: … doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

The Cult of the Internet

We are not thinking about advantages and disadvantages of new technologies, but blindly accepting them. Deep work requires very careful selection of tools.

We were, he noted, no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiencies against the new problems introduced. If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed.

… to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech.

Bad for Business. Good for You.

Deep work is valuable and rare. Develop the skill of deep work and the world is yours.

… depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable. … develop your personal ability to go deep—and by doing so, reap great rewards.

Chapter 3: Deep Work Is Meaningful

Work deeply and you will enjoy life.


Deep work is good for both professional and private life.

… deep life is not just economically lucrative, but also a life well lived.

A Neurological Argument for Depth

Managing your attention is very important. Don’t let your inbox manage it.

… skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.

A Psychological Argument for Depth

We enjoy life the best when we work deeply on something that is meaningful and hard. We enjoy free time more when it’s structured.

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. (7272 highlights)

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction. (7288 highlights)

A Philosophical Argument for Depth

Deep work will transform your job from soul-crushing to enjoyable.

… to embrace deep work in your own career … is an effort that can transform a knowledge work job from a distracted, draining obligation into something satisfying …

Homo Sapiens Deepensis

Humans enjoy deep work.

A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.

Part 2: The Rules

Part two will give you the tools to go from good intentions to deep work.

From the introduction:

This book has two goals, pursued in two parts. The first, tackled in Part 1, is to convince you that the deep work hypothesis is true. The second, tackled in Part 2, is to teach you how to take advantage of this reality by training your brain and transforming your work habits to place deep work at the core of your professional life.

Rule #1: Work Deeply

How to do the deepest work you possibly can at the moment.

From rule #2:

Rule #1 taught you how to integrate deep work into your schedule and support it with routines and rituals designed to help you consistently reach the current limit of your concentration ability.


Your mind prefers distractions over depth. Additionally, it has be trained to do so.

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. (8563 highlights)

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration. (8267 highlights)

Decide on Your Depth Philosophy

Pick the way you do deep work depending on how much time (yearly, monthly, weekly, daily) you have available for it.

The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

Maximize deep work at all cost. Very rare.

…. maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.

The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

Pick months, weeks or days for deep and shallow work. More practical.

… divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. During the deep time, the bimodal worker will act monastically—seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration.

The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

Divide your work day into blocks of deep and shallow work. Even more practical. The most common. Deep work blocks can’t be too short. It takes time to reach deep work state.

… the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.

The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

If you can’t plan your day in advance, work deeply whenever you can. Not recommended if you’re new to deep work.

… you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule …


Rituals help you do more deep work with less spending of your limited amount of willpower.

Where you’ll work and for how long

I have a lot of fun with creative “do not disturb” signs.

… give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.

How you’ll work once you start to work

Limit yourself to only the most essential tools during deep work.

… you might institute a ban on any Internet use …

How you’ll support your work

If something helps you work deeply, do it.

… start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear.

Make Grand Gestures

If working at a special place helps, do it. Special place might be expensive or hard to reach.

By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.

Don’t Work Alone

Deep work doesn’t mean you always work in isolation.

This combination of soundproofed offices connected to large common areas yields a hub-and-spoke architecture of innovation in which both serendipitous encounter and isolated deep thinking are supported. It’s a setup that straddles a spectrum where on one extreme we find the solo thinker, isolated from inspiration but free from distraction, and on the other extreme, we find the fully collaborative thinker in an open office, flush with inspiration but struggling to support the deep thinking needed to build on it.

Execute Like a Business

Manage your deep work like you would manage a big company.


A book focused on big business proved to be useful for deep work.

The 4DX [4 Disciplines of Execution] framework is based on the fundamental premise that execution is more difficult than strategizing.

Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important

Start less, finish more. Work only on the important things.

“The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.”

… you should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours.

Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures

Measure the time you work deeply towards a goal.

Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve. … the problem … is that they come too late to change your behavior… Lead measures … “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.” … the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.

Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

Put deep wok hours on big visible charts.

“People play differently when they’re keeping score” … I kept track of the hours spent in deep work that week …

Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

Review the scoreboard weekly and learn from it.

I used a weekly review to look over my scoreboard to celebrate good weeks, help understand what led to bad weeks, and most important, figure out how to ensure a good score for the days ahead.

Be Lazy

It is not only important to work hard. It is also important to rest well.


Work hard. Rest harder.

At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free

Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights

Some problems are solved by not actively thinking about them.

some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle.

Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply

When you work, work deeply. When you rest, rest deeply.

Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow.

Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important

You are both not working on anything important and not resting well.

… for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours—but rarely more.

Shutdown rituals

A short review at the end of work day will clear your mind and give a signal to your brain that it’s time to relax.

… regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Learning how to do deep work is not the end. You can always improve.

Rule #1 taught you how to integrate deep work into your schedule and support it with routines and rituals designed to help you consistently reach the current limit of your concentration ability. Rule #2 will help you significantly improve this limit.


Being bored is a great exercise for avoiding distractions and staying concentrated.

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

Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.

Schedule your day around focus with breaks for distractions, not vice versa.

  • This strategy works even if your job requires lots of Internet use and/or prompt e-mail replies.
  • Regardless of how you schedule your Internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use.
  • Scheduling Internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training.

Work Like Teddy Roosevelt

Maximize concentration by very short deadlines.

… identify a deep task … that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time.

Meditate Productively

Think hard about a problem while doing something else.

… take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.

  • Be Wary of Distractions and Looping
  • Structure Your Deep Thinking

Memorize a Deck of Cards

If memory training is not your thing, I would recommend any serious board game, like chess or Go.

A side effect of memory training, in other words, is an improvement in your general ability to concentrate. … there’s nothing special about card memorization. Any structured thought process that requires unwavering attention can have a similar effect …

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

Social media promises much but delivers little. It is very bad for your attention. Use it with caution.


Pick the tools you use with a lot of thought.

The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits

Use only a few carefully selected tools that have substantial positive impact on your life.

… ask whether the use of the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact … Keep using this tool only if you concluded that it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts.

The Law of the Vital Few*: In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes.

Quit Social Media

Quit social media for a while and see what happens.

Don’t formally deactivate these services, and (this is important) don’t mention online that you’ll be signing off… After thirty days … ask yourself … :

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

If your answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service permanently. If your answer was a clear “yes,” then return to using the service.

Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself

Instead of internet junk food, think about healthy alternatives.

… if you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Estimate the deepness of your projects. Estimate how much time you can spend on deep work. Avoid shallow work.


Try to avoid as much shallow work as possible, so you could spend more time on deep work.

… treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.

Schedule Every Minute of Your Day

It’s important to have a plan. It’s less important to stick to it.

Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday.

Quantify the Depth of Every Activity

Deep and shallow work are not black and white. There’s a lot of gray.

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task? … Once you know where your activities fall on the deep-to-shallow scale, bias your time toward the former.

Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget

Talk to your boss about your deep/shallow work ratio.

… somewhere in the 30 to 50 percent range …

Finish Your Work by Five Thirty

Strict deadlines will help you make decisions on what needs to be done and how.

I call this commitment fixed-schedule productivity, as 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.

Become Hard to Reach
Tip #1: Make People Who Send You Email Do More Work

This could help if you receive a lot of unsolicited mail.

I call this approach a sender filter, as I’m asking my correspondents to filter themselves before attempting to contact me.

Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to Emails

Put more work in each email message and the total amount of messages will decrease.

What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?

Tip #3: Don’t Respond

It’s not as bad not to reply as you think it is.

Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies:

  • It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
  • It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
  • Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.


Deep work is hard and powerful.

Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand.

The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.

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