Book Notes: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Deep Work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (2016)

ISBN-13: 978-1455586691

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Book in 3 Sentences

  • Deep Work refers to activities in which you exercise sustained attention and focus, in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, build your skills, and set you apart from your competition.
  • In the modern, information-based economy of the 21st century, the capacity to conduct deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time as it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a result, people who can cultivate and prioritize this skill throughout their careers will flourish.
  • If you concentrate carefully and intensely for three to four hours a day, without distraction, for five days of the week, you can produce a lot of valuable output.

Five Key Takeaways

  1. The information economy is dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. Two key requirements for succeeding in this new economy are (1) The ability to quickly master complicated things and (2) the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. These two skills depend on your ability to perform deep work, to focus intensely without distraction, and without this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.
  2. You need to 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.
  3. A deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect. Divide the hours of your workday into 30-minute blocks and assign activities to the blocks. When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. The key is to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful and considered say in what you’re doing with your time.
  4. Once your mind is wired for distraction, such as social media, and incessant web browsing, you begin to crave it. It’s important to wean your mind from a dependence on distraction, and provide it with quality alternatives that provide the mind with a challenge.
  5. If you’re a knowledge worker wanting to cultivate a deep work habit, treat your tool selection with care and nuance. Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life, and adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Top 3 Quotes

  • 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 (pg. 13)
  • Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated. (pg. 164)
  • Schedule every minute of your day… When you’re done … every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now, as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you. (pg. 166)



Cal Newport is an MIT alumni, and professor of computer science at Georgetown University, who achieved tenure at a relatively young age (33), while writing books, publishing notable academic articles, raising a family, teaching, and more, all while rarely working past 5:30 PM. Newport’s incredible productivity relies on his ability to focus intensely, for long stretches of time, on important topics, an activity he labels as “deep work”.

Deep work refers to “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.” (pg. 2). Deep work stands in opposition to “shallow work”, which is 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” (pg. 5)

Many of us have spent our workdays in a blur of meetings, emails, phone calls, instant messages, social media distractions, casual chit chat with coworkers and so on, only to find ourselves with little to show as actual work accomplished at the end of the day. This book describes how to escape from the trap of shallow work, minimize distractions, and actually produce the deep and valuable work that drives tangible results in both our personal and professional lives.

The growth of knowledge work

The modern information economy is organized by complex machines and computers, with a corresponding need for highly specialized labor to operate and work with these machines. These complex systems and networks are constantly changing. In the information age, knowledge workers must be able to rapidly learn complicated things in order to remain competitive.This requires deep work, and people who do not master this skill will rapidly find themselves obsolete, their old skills useless as technology advances.

The Deep Work Hypothesis states that “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.” (pg. 12)

PART I: The Value:

The importance of deep work

Deep work is significant for three main reasons:

  1. Deep work is valuable

In the intelligent machine age, workers who can work with increasingly complex machines will succeed. These highly skilled workers must possess two important skills: (1) the ability to quickly learn and master hard things and (2) the ability to use those learnings to quickly produce at an elite level (in terms of both quality and speed).

The New Law of Productivity: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

And, because technological change is constantly and rapidly occurring, keeping up with the rate of change is a lifelong and constant process. This kind of learning involves deep concentration and the ability to focus intensely on acquiring these valuable skills and applying them to solve important problems. It is the kind of learning that cannot be done in a distracted state, but requires long periods of sustained effort and concentration. Outsize rewards come to those who can muster these concentration skills and engage in deep work.

  1. Deep work is rare

Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity. “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.” ****(pg. 47) It’s easier to attend a meeting to seem busy, rather than to spend time engaged in more valuable, productive deep work.

In the information economy, productivity is harder to measure, when compared to the prior industrial and manufacturing economy, where productivity could be easily measured in quantity of physical output per unit of time input. Today’s knowledge worker’s output is more intangible, and much harder to quantify. It is hard for a knowledge worker to demonstrate their value and justify their salary.

The Principle of Least Resistance states in an organizational context, without clear feedback on the impact of various actions on the bottom line, we will adopt the easiest behaviors without regard to whether they maximize value for the business. It’s easier to simply answer an email, than to do the harder work of determining what is most valuable for the organization.

In addition, the networked nature of the information economy has provided significant interruptions to the workday in the form of email, instant messaging, social media, the internet itself, and so on, as well as recent innovations such as open office plans meant to foster constant communication and collaboration.

The combination of these effects is a workday filled with interruptions. Modern workers are managed by their email inbox, responding to whatever emails come their way and using that to guide their daily tasks, rather than focusing on long-term projects that might prove more valuable. Many knowledge workers focus on appearing busy, being constantly available for emails, meetings, and other kinds of shallow work that signify busy-ness without necessarily generating significantly valuable work.

  1. Deep work is meaningful

A life engaged in deep work is not only financially lucrative, but one rich with meaning and satisfaction. Deep work is important work, and spending time engaged in deep work provides a sense of gravity. You begin to see the world as rich in meaning and importance, and appreciate the work for its craftsmanship and cognitive engagement. Being engaged in deep work also reduces the ability of the smaller, frivolous inconveniences of daily life to impose upon you.

Several studies have shown that people are usually happiest “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (pg. 61) Our minds do not enjoy being idle, and being engaged in cognitively demanding tasks provides a deep sense of satisfaction and meaning.

How to practice deep work

In light of the benefits derived from deep work, the second half of the book describes the four rules required to engage in it.

PART II: The Rules:

1. Work Deeply

A) The 4 Deep Work Philosophies:

First, you must choose the style of deep work you want to pursue:

  • Monastic: eliminate or drastically reduce shallow obligations. Spend most of your time engaged in deep work.
  • Bimodal: divide your time between shallow and deep work, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else (you spend at least one day a week in deep work)
  • Rhythmic: transform your deep work sessions into a simple, regular habit or routine (spend about 3-4 hours every day in deep work)
  • Journalistic: fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. You alternate between deep and shallow work as it fits into your schedule. This is not for the deep work novice, as it requires the ability to switch attention and focus on a dime!

B) Ritualize

  • Ignore inspiration and create rituals and routines to instigate deep work. Creating a schedule for deep work reduces the need for inspiration or waiting for creativity to strike. The act of creating a habit or schedule also removes the element of decision-making as to when and where deep work must occur. Our willpower is finite, and removing one level of choice or decision-making as to when or how to engage in deep work frees up the mind to make other, more valuable decisions that are actually related to deep work. Your rituals must address the following questions:
    • Where you’ll work and for how long
    • How you’ll work once you start to work.
    • How you’ll support your work

C) Execute Like a Business

  • Identify a few ambitious outcomes or goals in a particular area of life (work, wealth, fitness, health, family, etc) to pursue with your deep work hours
  • Identify and then set out to improve the behaviors you directly control in the near term that will then have a positive impact on these long-term goals.
    • The relevant metric is time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.
  • Track the hours spent in deep work with a simple tally of tick marks for a given week
  • Ensure accountability by implementing a weekly review in which you review the prior week, see what worked, what didn’t work, and make a plan for success for the week ahead.

D) Implement a Shutdown Ritual

  • Implement a strict shutdown ritual at the end of the workday.
  • To concentrate requires directed attention, which is a finite resource. If you exhaust your store of directed attention for the day, you’ll struggle to concentrate.
  • Regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done working, be done.
  • Your shut down procedure should ensure that everything incomplete is either (1) captured in a place where you can pick it up again, or (2) has a trusted plan for completion.

2. Embrace Boredom

To succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to get used to resisting distraction. You must resist the temptation to use the internet at the slightest onset of boredom. Once your brain is accustomed to on-demand distraction, or to use the internet to prevent boredom, it becomes a habit, and it’s difficult to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.

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

  • Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. Do it both at home and work to further improve your concentration skills.

B) Practice Productive Meditation.

  • This involves using a time period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally (e.g. walking, jogging, driving, showering) and focusing your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.
  • Productive meditation helps you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem.

C) Strengthen Your Ability to Maintain Focus

  • Give your mind a workout with intense study or memorization skills.
  • Spend time each day learning, for instance, to memorize a pack of cards or some other form of memorization exercise. These kinds of activities are a type of mental workout that help to strengthen our attention muscles, and improve our ability to focus and concentrate.

3. Quit Social Media

  • Social media or “network tools” like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc fragment our time and hurt our ability to focus. In order to conduct deep work, we must regain control over our time and attention.
  • Not all network tools are necessarily evil. Some network tools could be helpful in achieving your professional or personal goals. You must evaluate whether to adopt a network tool based on whether it enables you to achieve your own self-identified ambitious goals. One must choose your [network] tools with care.

Two Approaches to Selecting a Network Tool

  • Any-Benefit Approach: This method encourages you to adopt a network tool so long as you can identify any possible benefit to its use, no matter how slight, or so long as there’s a possibility that you might miss out on something if you don’t use it.
  • Craftsman Approach: This approach requires you to identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life, and to adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative effects.
  • The craftsman approach is the preferred method of tool selection; it fosters critical thinking instead of the blind adoption of any available tool.

The important thing is not to blindly adopt a network tool simply because it is trendy or it provides the slightest level of benefit. The point is to select the tool with care and nuance, and be in control of the choice to adopt that tool, with full insight into whether it enables you to achieve your own self-declared desired outcomes.

Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits

  • 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 (similar to the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 power law)
  • Identify the main high-level goals that are most important in both your professional and personal life
  • List the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal; it’s these activities that make most of the difference in whether or not you achieve the goal.
  • If a tool or task is not important in any of these activities, you’re better off not using that tool or engaging in that task.
  • If you mostly spend time on low-impact activities (like social media), you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game. For instance, you’re better off spending an hour having dinner with friends than spending that same hour browsing Instagram or Twitter, if your self-identified ambitious goal is to develop closer friendships.

Make Better Use of Your Unstructured Time

  • Think more carefully about your leisure time, and put some effort into figuring out in advance how you want to spend your time outside of work, whether at the end of the workday or during the weekends.
  • Unstructured free time can easily devolve into mindless web surfing. You need a plan to fill your evenings and weekends with activities you have consciously chosen to do, and not fall back on mindless entertainment or web browsing.
  • Using your leisure time more productively helps you to rewire your brain to resist using network tools to relieve boredom, and conditions it to fill that time with more meaningful activities.

4. Drain the Shallows

  • “Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek. Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that’s a good thing. They don’t waste it on things that just don’t matter. When you have fewer hours you usually spend them more wisely” . [c.f. Jason Fried, CEO, Basecamp] pg. 161
  • For most knowledge workers, shallow work cannot be completely eliminated. There will always be emails to answer, coworkers to chat with, and meetings to attend. The goal is to reduce the footprint of shallow work in your schedule, not to eradicate it completely.
  • In addition, there is a cognitive limit to the ability to engage in deep work. Consensus is that the cognitive limit to deep work is around four hours, but rarely more than that. Once you’ve hit your deep work limit in a given day, you’ll experience diminishing rewards if you try to cram in more.
  • As a result, shallow work will remain a part of one’s personal and professional life. However, the best approach is to limit its impact on your schedule because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.

Schedule Every Minute of Your Day

  • A deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect. We spend much of our time on autopilot—not really thinking too much about what we’re doing with our time.
  • You need to give every minute of your workday a job. You should divide the hours of the workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks, with a 30-minute minimum length of a block. Every minute of a day should be assigned a purpose, and be part of a block.
  • Actions that are similar in nature can be batched into more generic task blocks. For instance, instead of checking your email every time the new mail notification pings, turn off the notification, and allocate 30 minutes twice a day to check and process all incoming emails.
  • Not all blocks need to be work blocks. You can block off time for lunch, for exercise, for lunch, etc. You can even block off small amounts of distraction.
  • The objective is to become more thoughtful about how you spend your time. Don’t just let the day happen to you. Have a conscious say in how your time is spent, and create the habit of asking “what makes sense for me to do with the time that remains?”
  • And, if your schedule is disrupted, simply create a new plan for the rest of the day going forward.
  • When you structure your day, you ensure that you have time to solve important problems, think about new ideas, work on something challenging, etc . It’s these kinds of activities that spur creativity, and generate valuable and meaningful work.

Set a Definite Time to Finish Your Work

  • Fixed-schedule productivity: Declare the firm goal of not working past a certain time. This forces you to work backward to find productivity strategies that allow you to satisfy this declaration.
  • For instance, you can decide not to work past five thirty. By setting a firm quitting time at the end of the workday, you do whatever it takes to make yourself stick to it. This might mean saying no to irrelevant meetings, or not responding to emails, or spending less time in casual conversation with coworkers.
  • A commitment to fixed-schedule productivity shifts you into a scarcity mind-set, and forces you to become incredibly thoughtful and well-organized so you can achieve your most important goals. It forces you to identify the most important things which have to be accomplished that day and to plan backwards from that fixed end time.
  • Any obligation that does not directly help to achieve your essential outcomes becomes a target to be eliminated, and your default answer to shallow obligations becomes no. The bar for obtaining your exclusive attention rises quickly, and you begin to prioritize the tasks and activities that clear this barrier with a ruthless efficiency.

Become Hard to Reach

Just because you cannot avoid [email] altogether doesn’t mean you have to cede all authority over its role in your mental landscape. A couple of ways to regain control over email include:

Make People Who Send You Email Do More Work: If possible, create sender filters that make it harder for people to send you email.

Do More Work When You Send or Reply to Emails

  • Be more thoughtful in your email responses. Rather than jotting off a quick response, reply with an email that is thoughtful and thorough.
  • For instance, if someone emails asking for a meeting, rather than simply answering yes, you could reply with a thoughtful email that specifies possible available times, proposes several points of discussion for the meeting, and includes additional reference materials.
  • By putting more thought upfront into what’s really being proposed by an e-mail message, you’ll greatly reduce the conversational clutter of back and forth emails, and cut to the heart of the matter at hand.

Don’t Respond

  • You don’t need to respond to every email. If an email sender does not make a convincing case for a response, in certain situations, feel free to not reply.
  • The current social etiquette for most people is to answer every email, regardless of its relevance or importance. Not replying to an email can feel uncomfortable at first; get comfortable with that feeling, and use your best judgment as to which emails can be safely ignored. This is especially true with emails where you’re merely copied, and not the primary recipient.
  • On occasion, not replying to an email might cause some bad things to happen. With practice, these will usually be minor in impact. And, as the author Tim Ferriss writes “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.”


To become a member of the focused few is a transformative experience. One gains the ability to concentrate, a skill that gets valuable things done, and a commitment to deep work generates a life rich with productivity, satisfaction, and meaning.

In essence, three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, can produce output that yields meaningful and valuable rewards (pg. 13).


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