The Ultimate Guide To Deep Work

Comprehensive analysis of Cal Newport’s Deep Work book, offering a framework for focused work aimed at boosting productivity and building a meaningful career.
productivity
book review
concentration
Author
Published

Oct 18, 2023

Through my career, I’ve been increasingly interested in productivity. Along my experimentations, I’ve discovered some factors that increased my efficiency in tackling hyper-complex knowledge work. Meditating before a long session of un-interrupted attention on difficult tasks, minimizing distraction and engaging in a healthy life-style has proved to produce promising results.

But I’ve never explicitly seen a formal definition nor a framework that explains these correlations. Until I’ve read Deep Work from Cal Newport.

In this article, I want to build a comprehensive guide to help you implement this framework in your life. Refer to this article as a synthesis of the main ideas of the book. It is meant to keep the same outline as the original book, so that you can easily jump to a specific part of the book. I sincerely hope that it will help you in your professional journey. Without further ado, let’s begin !

In the introduction, the Newport talks about Carl Jung, a psychiatrist that regularly retreated from his busy city life to a remote stone house he called the Tower. Jung isolated himself to fully dedicated himself to his research. In the first page, the author made a correlation between deep concentration and quality work.

From this very first page, the magic happened. I knew this was exactly what I was searching for: a framework that emphasizes the necessity of deep concentration instead of the highly distracted life most knowledge workers follow in our modern digital era.

The Idea of Deep Work

First, Newport makes a clear distinction between Deep Work and Shallow Work:

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.

Shallow Work: “Non-cognitively 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.”

Throughout the book, Cal dedicates a chapter to each fundamental characteristic of Deep Work: its value, rarity, and significance. Additionally, the author persuasively argues the many benefits that deep work can offer to the reader.

Deep Work is Valuable

Glowing diamond symbolizing the value of hard work.

The Groups of Success

The main idea of Deep Work is to offer readers ways to boost their efficiency and pave a path to a successful career. Newport mentions that in today’s tech-driven world, three categories of people are set to excel:

  1. The High-Skilled Workers: These individuals have the ability to work seamlessly with advanced machinery and digital tools. As technological evolution accelerates, there’s a growing need for those who can synergize with these innovations. Such professionals excel in harnessing complex abstractions to deliver noteworthy results.

  2. The Superstars: In many fields, especially those influenced by the digital landscape, a small percentage of workers get the majority of rewards. These superstars stand out in their respective domains and are often sought after for their exceptional skills and expertise. They dominate their industries and are often in positions where they can command high salaries and enjoy greater opportunities.

  3. The Owners: These are individuals with capital or access to it. In a global economy where returns on capital can be significant, those who can invest wisely can reap substantial rewards. Owners have the resources to invest in new technologies, businesses, or other ventures, positioning themselves to benefit from the increasing value generated by these investments

The author points out that while these groups have a higher chance of success, it doesn’t mean others can’t succeed. However, being in these groups can lead to bigger rewards for your efforts.

The encouraging aspect is that to become part of these groups, mastering deep work is essential, and fortunately, it’s a skill we can acquire.

Deep Work: The Key to Thrive

The Deep Work Hypothesis

Cal’s defines the following 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.”*

Newport emphasizes that as we progress in this technological epoch, the rarity of Deep Work grows, amplifying its value, especially in an environment where businesses are governed by highly complex systems.

Many of you are aware that AI is expanding its influence rapidly. To keep up with the constant changes, it’s essential to have the ability to learn at a high rate and crunch complex abstractions regularly. Deep Work enables us to do precisely that.

The secret formula

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

This formula encapsulates the essence of the deep work principle. It suggests that the value and quality of the work produced are not just a function of the time invested, but also the intensity with which one focuses during that time.

In a world filled with distractions, achieving a high level of concentration becomes a challenge. However, when one dedicates long, uninterrupted chunks of time to a task and pairs it with intense focus, the results are exponentially better.

This is why deep work is so potent. Short bursts of attention scattered throughout the day can’t match the output of sustained, undistracted effort. By understanding and applying this formula, individuals can harness the power of deep work to produce outcomes of the highest caliber, reaping significant rewards in their respective fields.

The Attention Residue

Sophie Leroy, a business professor, introduced the concept of Attention Residue in the realm of cognitive psychology.

The Attention Residue refers to the lingering cognitive effects that remain when an individual switches from one task to another. Even after moving on to a new task, a portion of our attention remains occupied by the previous activity, leading to reduced focus and diminished performance on the current task.

This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in multitasking environments where individuals frequently shift between tasks.

This discovery explains the recurrent practice of many high successful knowledge workers: allocating many hours of un-interrupted attention and minimizing distractive activities in daily life reduces or eradicates the attention residue and enable the worker to perform at incredible levels of productivity.

The Counter Example

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of both Twitter and Square, is known for his unique leadership style. He manages two major tech companies simultaneously, dedicating specific days to each.

Newport talks about Dorsey because he thrives without depth. In fact, a distracted life can lead to success. For example, Dorsey, being a CEO of two companies simultaneously, needs to be highly available all the time and regularly switches his attention to tackle decision problems.

However, Newport argues that the distracted lifestyle thrive only in a few specific jobs such as high-level executives. In other words, most jobs need depth and just a few can thrive without it.

Deep Work Is Rare

“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable.” - Cal Newport

If Deep Work is crucial for success in most modern jobs, why is Shallow Work prevalent among businesses ? In this section, we will discuss why does Shallow Work has taken over Deep Work

The Metric Black Hole

One might argue that if Deep Work were truly vital, we would have recognized its significance and actively reduced Shallow Work in favor of promoting Deep Work. However, the primary obstacle to this realization is the Metric Black Hole.

This phenomenon refers to the challenge of quantifying the tangible benefits of deep, focused tasks compared to the easily measurable outcomes of shallow tasks. In many professional settings, the immediate results of shallow tasks, such as responding to emails or attending meetings, are often mistaken for productivity.

In contrast, the long-term benefits and innovations stemming from deep work might not be immediately visible, making it harder to advocate for its importance in a data-driven world.

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”.

The Principle of Least Resistance refers to the natural human tendency to choose the path of least effort when faced with a decision or task.

In the context of work and productivity, it often means opting for tasks that are more straightforward, immediate, or familiar, rather than tackling more challenging, complex, or unfamiliar tasks that may require more effort and concentration.

While this approach can offer short-term satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, it might not always lead to long-term growth, innovation, or the completion of tasks that hold greater significance and value.

Busyness as 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.”

This mindset stems from the industrial age, where the number of items produced was a direct measure of one’s productivity.

In today’s knowledge economy, however, the quality of work, creativity, and innovation are more critical than sheer volume. Yet, without tangible metrics to gauge their output, many resort to being visibly busy—responding to emails immediately, attending back-to-back meetings, or juggling multiple tasks—as a way to demonstrate their worth.

This not only leads to burnout but also overlooks the importance of deep work, which requires undivided attention and focus.

The Cult of the Internet

Cal Newport posits that the modern “Cult of the Internet” has become a significant impediment to deep work. This pervasive culture glorifies constant connectivity, immediate responses, and a relentless influx of information, often at the cost of sustained, focused effort.

The internet, with its myriad of distractions, notifications, and endless streams of content, encourages a pattern of work that is fragmented and superficial. As a result, many individuals find themselves trapped in a cycle of shallow tasks, mistaking busyness for genuine productivity.

Newport argues that this digital environment not only dilutes the quality of work produced but also deprives individuals of the profound insights and innovations that arise from deep, uninterrupted thought.

Bad for Business. Good for You.

There is a paradox in the modern work environment: while the prevalence of shallow work and the scarcity of deep work might be detrimental to businesses, it presents a unique advantage for individuals.

Businesses suffer when they prioritize visible busyness over meaningful output, as it often leads to reduced innovation, lack of depth in projects, and a workforce that’s spread too thin. However, for individuals, this landscape offers a competitive edge.

Those who recognize the value of deep work and intentionally cultivate this skill set themselves apart in the professional arena. By producing high-quality work, diving deeper into problems, and offering innovative solutions, they become invaluable assets.

In a world where shallow tasks dominate, the ability to engage in deep work becomes a rare and sought-after trait, positioning those who master it for greater success and recognition.

Deep Work Is Meaningful

Meaning through an act of kindness.

Ric Furrer, a master blacksmith, embodies the essence of deep work through his meticulous and dedicated craftsmanship. In the rhythmic dance of hammer and anvil, Furrer immerses himself in hours of intense focus, forging metal with precision and artistry.

His work is not just about shaping metal; it’s a profound connection to an ancient craft, a testament to human capability and the beauty of creation. Furrer’s dedication mirrors the principles of deep work, illustrating that when one delves deeply into a task, it transcends mere productivity.

It becomes a source of meaning, a pursuit of excellence, and a reflection of one’s purpose. Just as Furrer finds profound satisfaction in his craft, deep work, in any field, offers individuals a sense of purpose and fulfillment that shallow tasks cannot provide. It’s a reminder that in depth, we often discover not just better results, but also a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

A Neurological Argument for Depth

Delving deep into tasks, immersing oneself in focused work, and shutting out distractions not only lead to better outcomes but also pave the way for genuine happiness. But why does depth resonate so profoundly with our sense of well-being?

The answer lies in the very nature of human cognition. When we engage deeply with a task, our minds enter a state of flow—a harmonious alignment of thought and action, where time seems to stand still, and we become one with the task at hand. This state of flow, characterized by deep attention, has been linked to heightened levels of happiness and satisfaction.

Interestingly, this concept of deep attention and its connection to happiness isn’t new. Newport doesn’t mention it but it echoes the multi-thousand-year-old practice of meditation. Meditation, at its core, is an exercise in deep attention, a practice of mindfulness and focus. By training the mind to concentrate on the present moment, meditation fosters a sense of peace, clarity, and contentment. This ancient practice underscores the idea that deep attention, whether in work or meditation, is a direct pathway to happiness.

My personal meditation practice has been a transformative experience, teaching me the power of deep attention. By immersing myself in this practice, I’ve not only enhanced my professional pursuits but have also discovered a richer, more fulfilling dimension to life. This depth has brought clarity, purpose, and a profound sense of joy that I had never known before.

A Psychological Argument for Depth

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s quote, world’s best-known psychologist and the discoverer of the Flow state, resonated deeply with my own experiences:

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

Building one’s working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is not just about efficiency and productivity; it’s about tapping into a source of profound satisfaction and fulfillment. When we align our tasks with this state of flow, we not only achieve more but also find deeper meaning and joy in what we do.

A Philosophical Argument for Depth

Renowned philosophers Dreyfus and Kelly’s interpretation of craftsmanship offers a profound perspective on the pursuit of meaning. They posit that true craftsmanship transcends mere skill or technique; it’s an intimate dance between the craftsman and the craft, where the act of creation becomes a spiritual endeavor.

This deep engagement with one’s work provides a glimpse of the sacred, a momentary connection to something greater than oneself. Ric Furrer’s masterful blacksmithing exemplifies this idea. His deep work isn’t just about shaping metal; it’s a manifestation of passion, dedication, and a quest for transcendence through craftsmanship.

This nuanced understanding of craftsmanship isn’t limited to traditional arts. In the realm of modern technology, computer programming echoes similar sentiments.

Tech prodigy Santiago Gonzalez’s description of “beautiful code” resonates with the essence of craftsmanship:

“Beautiful code is short and concise, so if you were to give that code to another programmer they would say,”oh that’s well written code”. It’s much like as if you were writing a poem”.

Just as a well-crafted sword or a beautifully written poem evokes admiration, well-written code stands out as a testament to the programmer’s skill, artistry, and deep engagement with the craft. Gonzalez’s analogy of code to poetry underscores the universality of this quest for beauty and meaning, bridging the gap between ancient crafts and modern technology.

In both realms, deep work emerges as a path to the sacred, a journey towards creating something truly meaningful.

The Rules

“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” - Dalai Lama

In this section, we will review the main rules that Newport states in his book for successful deep work.

Deep work, however strong is your intention to pursue it, it not something easy to achieve. Working for extended time period with exclusive attention on a hard task consumes a lot of willpower: a resource that we have in limited amounts.

For this reason, Newport advises to build you life around deep work to minimize the resistance and friction to it. In other words, he emphasis the need to follow specific rules, build a routine and rituals that enables you to preserve your willpower and ease the transition to a deep work state.

Decide on your Depth Philosophy

Newport emphasis the importance to choose your own schedule for building your life around deep work. He defines four distinct philosophies on how to allocate time for it:

  1. The Monastic Philosophy: This approach involves eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations and distractions, dedicating oneself almost entirely to deep work. Those who follow this philosophy often have a clear and highly valued professional goal that they’re pursuing. They seek to maximize deep efforts by removing themselves from the noise of everyday life and distractions, much like monks in a monastery.
  2. The Bimodal Philosophy: This philosophy divides time into two modes: the deep and the shallow. Practitioners might dedicate certain clearly defined stretches of time to deep work (could be several days or even weeks) and leave the rest for shallow tasks. The key for success in deep mode: intense and undistracted focus. While shallow mode allows for more routine tasks.
  3. The Rhythmic Philosophy: Instead of long stretches of deep work, this approach promotes setting a specific time daily for such tasks, making it a regular habit. By setting aside dedicated time slots each day (like early mornings or late evenings), individuals create a rhythm for deep work, making it a consistent and ingrained part of their routine.
  4. The Journalistic Philosophy: Named for the ability of journalists to switch into deep writing mode on demand amidst a busy, interrupt-driven schedule. This approach requires fitting in deep work wherever and whenever you can, without a set routine. It demands the ability to quickly transition into a deep work state, even amidst potential distractions.

These schedules are sorted by order of effectiveness. Unfortunately, the more effective they are, the more constraints they impose.

For example, the Monastic Philosophy fits very well writers, or any other position that allows you to carry your project by yourself. On the other hand, a programmer would likely not be able to apply the monastic philosophy as he most certainly will need to integrate his work with his peers at some point.

That is when the Bimodal philosophy comes in. Through simple terms, the Bimodal Philosophy is the same as the monastic with the exception that the deep worker will dedicated full days to deep work and the rest for shallow work.

The rhythmic approach would fit most workers except ones with tight schedules that might need to use the journalistic philosophy.

Here are the main advises to support your deep work practice:

  • Isolate yourself as much as possible, ideally alone in a room.
  • Turn of all notifications from cellphone and computer that might distract you.

Rule #1: Work Deeply

“A deep life is a good life.” - Cal Newport

Optimize your sessions

Newport analyses the working schedule of highly successful workers such as Charles Darwin to warn the reader against the idealization of inspiration. The journalist Mason Currey, known for analysis the habits of famous thinkers and writers, states:

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where… but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.

Senior editor David Brooks summarizes this reality more bluntly:

[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.

To truly excel in deep work, organization is paramount. It’s not merely about diving into a task; it’s about creating an environment and routine that fosters concentration.

Here are the key points to optimize your work style:

  • Where you’ll work and for how long: Opt for a secluded space, whether it’s a room with a closed door and a tidy desk or a tranquil corner in a library. Setting specific time frames not only structures your work but also mentally prepares you for the task ahead.
  • How you’ll work: Once you begin, ensure that distractions are at bay. This means silencing notifications, creating a barrier from potential interruptions, and fully immersing yourself in the task. Supporting your work is equally crucial. Consider starting with a cup of coffee or engaging in concentration meditation to sharpen your focus.
  • How you’ll support your work: Ensure you have nutritious food on hand to fuel your brain. And don’t forget the importance of physical movement; integrate brief stretches or short walks to rejuvenate and maintain a steady flow of ideas. Prepare your deep work sessions by performing any activity that might enhance your focus.

In essence, success in deep work isn’t just about the task at hand but the meticulous preparation that goes into making each session productive. For a simple reason: a deep worker is a mental athlete.

Execution is King

Newport emphasis the paramount difference between knowing what to do and how to do it. In other words, it is often straightforward to identify a strategy to reach a goal. Instead, knowing how to execute a strategy is the real problem.

The renown business consultant Clayton Christensen described the four “disciplines” (abbreviated 4DX) for helping companies implement high-level strategies. Newport found a parallel between his will to implement a deep work habit and 4DX:

Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important

Chirstensen states: “The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.

Identify the most important factors that will lead you to reach your goal, and focus all your attention to it.

For example, the author gave his own perspective. As a researcher his goal was to perform well at tenure review, so he identified that publishing the higher number of paper will increase his chances to success and focus solely on this goal.

Discipline 2: Act on the lead measures

There is two types of measures:

  • Lag Measure: a metric of performance regarding what you are ultimately trying to improve.
  • Lead Measure: measuring a new behavior that will drive success on the lag measure.

The issue with lag measures, is that once we realize the lack of performance, it is already too late. Instead lead measure can be tracked on the day-to-day basis to have a clear idea of what the lag measure would be.

Let’s consider the examples of a bakery: the lag measure would be customer satisfaction and the lead measure would be the number of customers receiving free samples.

For a deep work practitioner, it is difficult to relate day-to-day progress with a lag measure such as a company success. Instead by tracking and focusing on the number of hours in a state of deep work (lead measure), the worker can have a clear feedback on his performance and motivation.

Discipline 3: Keep a Scoreboard

4DX author explains: “People play differently when they’re keeping scores”.

As a deep worker, the metric you will track will be the number of deep work hours. To enhance your motivation to keep going, Newport advises to keep track of your hours and have it visible. On your desk for example.

Each week, he would track the number of hours he spent in a deep work state and highlight when he reached a milestone (like publishing a paper). This not only enhanced his motivation but also informed him of the number of hours to achieve a goal.

Discipline 4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

Perform a weekly review of your performance to:

  • celebrate good news
  • investigate what went wrong
  • make adjustment to improve the next week’s score

Be Lazy

Let’s be honest: deep work is taxing. The body is not an endless working machine. That is why Newport advises us not to push too hard and that idle times is the backbone of a productive mind.

You should find substantial free time from professional concern every single day to function well as a deep worker. In other words, after you scored a reasonable amount of deep work hours, shut yourself completely from any interaction with work until the next morning.

Newport investigates the science behind the value of downtime.

Shut off from Work Concerns

Downtime allows the brain to work on the residue of attention from deep work in the background. In fact, many times we find solution to our deepest problem during an “aha” moment while performing a completely unrelated activity such as showering, cooking or gardening.

Decisions that involve large amounts of informations are best tackled by the unconscious mind rather than the conscious one. Dijksterhuis’s Unconscious Thought Theory argues that the unconscious regions of the brain have more neuronal bandwidth available, enabling us to find more connections between ideas than the more centric conscious mind.

Shutdown time is not reducing our productivity but rather engages a different mechanism complementary to deep conscious work.

Recharge your batteries

Attention Restoration Theory (ART) claims that spending time in nature improve your ability to concentrate. In fact, two groups were given the same concentration intensive problem. One group was in an busy urban area and the other in the woods. The group in nature consistently performed 20% better a the task on average then the other group.

Concentration requires directed attention, a finite resource than can be exhausted. In a dense area, the subject need to sustain directed attention to make his way through the city. While in the woods for example, the subject is more likely to experience a “inherently fascinating stimuli” due to the beauty of nature. Moreover, directed attention is used to a minimum in this environment and is able to replenish.

Fortunately, walking in an idilic setting is not the only attention-replenishing activity. Taking with a good friend, stretching, going for a walk, meditating or any activity that calmly reconnects your mind with the present moment will restore our batteries.

Deep Work Hard Cap

The amount of deep work a person can score per day varies from his experience related to the practice of going deep. Science proved that a subject can very rarely exceed 4 hours of deep work per day.

Any work that will be performed above the 4 hours cap will likely be less effective and fall into a slow-paced, stubborned, fatigued obstination. This fact is another reason to maintain a strict endpoint to your workday.

Build a Shutdown Ritual

Newport advises to build a shutdown ritual to your routine that explicitly cues your mind into letting go of professional concerns.

For example, Cal states that before affirming that his workday is off, he:

  • checks is inbox for any urgent concern
  • move any task in his mind to his formal todo list
  • check his calendar along side his todo list to ensure he didn’t miss any task
  • to end the ritual, he pronounced out loud “Shutdown complete”.

This ritual can seem out of place. But there’s a scientific explanation favoring this behavior. When interrupting a task, it is very likely that the mind will come back to it.

Instead, if we come with a clear and steady plan for the next morning, the feeling of incompleteness is drastically reduced and we can rip the benefits of professional shutdowns.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

“To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.” - Cal Newport

Concentration is a skill that can be honed through consistent training and practice, much like athletes strengthen their muscles. However, the effectiveness of this training is compromised if we don’t actively reduce distractions in our daily lives.

The modern convenience of on-demand distractions, especially through smartphones and other digital devices, not only interrupts our focus but also rewires our brain, making it increasingly challenging to engage in deep work. It’s crucial to recognize and mitigate these distractions to truly harness the power of deep concentration.

Distraction is not the Norm

In today’s digital age, many juggle multiple tasks, thinking multitasking boosts efficiency. However, this constant task-switching hinders deep concentration. Prioritizing focused work over multitasking is essential.

Newport affirms that many believe they can easily switch between distraction and focus. This belief overlooks the cognitive toll of constant distractions on our concentration abilities.

The main idea is the following: distraction should not be your default way of functioning. Instead, it’s more effective to schedule specific periods for distractions. Outside these times, one should remain entirely focused.

There’s a really good reason for that, our habits shape our brain’s wiring. Constantly oscillating between high and low-stimuli activities trains our brains to seek distractions. Limiting distractions can retrain our brains to focus better.

Maintaining clear boundaries between internet use and offline work is crucial. Even a brief lapse can disrupt concentration. Adherence to these boundaries ensures commitment to tasks.

To sum up, embracing boredom and resisting distractions shouldn’t be limited to work. Applying these strategies at home reinforces our ability to concentrate and enhances overall well-being.

Harnessing Intensity

Just as athletes train to enhance their physical prowess, our minds require regular exercise to achieve peak performance. Practicing intensity means deliberately setting aside dedicated periods where we challenge ourselves to work with unwavering focus. During the Deep Work sessions, try to focus as intensely as you can.

As we consistently prioritize deep work and shun distractions, our perception of focus undergoes a transformation. What once seemed like an arduous task becomes second nature. This heightened focus becomes a powerful tool, enabling us to tackle complex challenges with ease and confidence.

One of the unexpected rewards of harnessing intensity is the gift of time. By working with greater efficiency and purpose, we often complete tasks in shorter durations. This newfound free time can then be repurposed for leisure, personal growth, or exploring new interests, enriching our lives in a multifaceted ways.

Productive Meditation

The practice of “productive meditation” involves using periods of physical activity, such as walking or jogging, to focus deeply on a professional problem, turning these otherwise mundane activities into opportunities for deep work.

This method requires one to choose a specific professional problem and concentrate on it during physical activities. The aim is to continually redirect the mind to the problem whenever it wanders, much like mindfulness meditation.

Productive meditation, like any skill, requires practice. Initial attempts might be filled with distractions, but with persistence, one can achieve deeper levels of concentration and problem-solving.

Two common challenges faced during productive meditation are unrelated distractions and looping (repeatedly mulling over known information). It’s essential to recognize them and gently redirect the mind when it veers off course.

Deep thinking becomes more accessible when you break it down into stages. Start by listing the primary aspects of your challenge. Then, tackle each one sequentially. After arriving at a solution, pause to reflect and internalize your insights. This structured approach ensures you tackle problems layer by layer, reaching the heart of the matter.

Memorize a Deck of Cards

Newport introduces that mental gymnastic of card memorization. This intensive training requires unwavering attention and the continuous redirection of the mind to a specific task, thereby strengthening cognitive muscles. He advises to practice such activity (or similar ones) regularly.

Here how to practice it in 5 simple steps:

  1. Visual Memory Over Rote Memorization: Avoid simply repeating information. Instead, leverage the brain’s ability to remember vivid scenes and images.
  2. Mental Walkthrough of Familiar Locations: Cement a mental image of walking through five rooms in your home, visualizing 10 specific items in each room in a set order (plus two additional items).
  3. Associate Cards with Memorable Images: Link each of the fifty-two cards in a deck to a unique, memorable person or thing, making the association logical where possible.
  4. Memorizing a Shuffled Deck: As you mentally walk through your house, associate each card’s image with an item in your home, imagining the card’s corresponding memorable person or thing interacting with that item.
  5. Practice for Speed and Accuracy: With practice, one can internalize the order of a shuffled deck in just minutes, reinforcing the ability to focus and concentrate.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

In today’s hyper-connected world, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have become ubiquitous. However, their constant pull for attention can fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate.

Newport states two approach to decide on whether or not to integrate a tool into our lives:

  • The any-benefit approach: justifies the use of a tool if it offers any benefit, regardless of its potential drawbacks. This mindset can lead to over-reliance on tools that may not necessarily align with one’s core objectives.
  • The craftsman approach: emphasizes careful tool selection based on its impact on one’s primary goals. It suggests adopting a tool only if its benefits significantly outweigh its negatives, ensuring that the tool genuinely aids in achieving one’s objectives.

Most people use the any-benefit approach and end up with a plethora of tools. As you might expect, it is much harder to live a focused life surrounded by tools that constantly pulls our attention.

In the digital age, where numerous tools vie for our attention, it’s crucial to adopt the craftsman approach to tool selection. This approach emphasizes understanding the core factors that determine success and happiness and choosing tools that align with these factors. By being selective and intentional about the tools we use, we can ensure that they genuinely aid us in our professional and personal endeavors, rather than becoming sources of distraction.

The Law of the Vital Few

The Law of the Vital Few, often referred to as the 80/20 rule, posits that in many situations, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. For instance, 80% of a business’s profits might come from 20% of its clients.

This principle is observed in diverse areas, from business profitability to social wealth distribution. It suggests that contributions to an outcome are not evenly distributed.

When applied to the goal of improving concentration to promote deep work, it’s crucial to identify and prioritize the top 20% of activities that provide the most significant benefits. These high-impact activities are the ones that will drive the majority of the results.

Engaging in low-impact activities consumes time and attention that could be better spent on high-impact tasks. It’s a zero-sum game; time spent on less important tasks detracts from time that could be invested in more valuable ones.

By reallocating time from low-impact to high-impact activities, individuals can achieve more significant benefits. For instance, regarding the goal of creating deeper connections, rather than spending time on social media, one might achieve more by deepening real-life relationships.

Here a simple example: Alex, a software developer, struggles with distractions during work. He identifies that uninterrupted coding sessions lead to 80% of his productivity. He sets specific times for emails and social media, avoiding constant interruptions in his day-to-day life. Alex uses noise-cancelling headphones and website blockers during deep work hours. The result: Alex’s concentration improves, solving problems faster and achieving more in less time.

Quit Social Media

A shattering phone, its notifications vanished into oblivion.
The Illusion of Importance on Social Media

Social media often creates a deceptive sense of importance. Likes, shares, and comments can give a fleeting sense of validation. Yet, much of this engagement is superficial. Recognizing this allows individuals to shift focus from digital validation to more meaningful tasks. In deep work, discerning and navigating this illusion is vital.

Abstain for a fix period

For those seeking to cultivate a habit of deep work, these platforms might be more of a hindrance than a help.

Newport advises to stop using social media for thirty days so that one can assess whether their absence genuinely affects productivity and well-being. More often than not, many find that these platforms, while entertaining, are not essential for their professional or personal growth.

Re-evaluating the Role of Social Media

Periodically assessing the role of social media is crucial. Are these platforms provide clear benefits or are merely distracting? Understanding their true impact can guide usage decisions, often leading to minimized screen time and enhanced focus.

Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself

The Value of Time

Arnold Bennett, a prolific novelist of the 20th century, emphasized the potential of the sixteen free hours outside of work. He criticized the tendency to see only the work hours as “the day,” deeming it illogical and unhealthy.

The Dangers of Digital Distractions

Modern leisure often revolves around attention-grabbing websites, leading to fragmented attention. These sites, with their catchy content, exploit human psychology to keep users engaged, often at the expense of meaningful leisure.

Intentional Leisure

Bennett’s solution, relevant even today, is to be deliberate about leisure time. Instead of defaulting to mindless browsing, plan your free time. Engaging in structured hobbies, reading, physical activities or meeting good friend (in-person) can be more fulfilling.

The Energizing Effect of Meaningful Leisure

Contrary to the belief that structured leisure can be tiring, Bennett argued that the mind thrives on continuous, varied activity. Meaningful engagement during leisure can lead to a more fulfilled day and a refreshed start the next morning.

Conclusion

To truly benefit from leisure and support deep work, one should offer the brain quality alternatives to digital distractions. This not only enhances concentration but also elevates the overall quality of life.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallow

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” - James Clear, Atomic Habits

Shallow work, often characterized by tasks that seem urgent but are ultimately non-essential, can dominate our schedules, leaving little room for deep, meaningful work.

Most individuals, even those highly disciplined, find it challenging to sustain more than 4 hours of deep work each day. In this settings, shallow work performed after scoring several hours of deep for is harmless.

While it’s acceptable to indulge in shallow tasks after such intensive work, Newport warns against letting these tasks dominate. His advice is to minimize the shallow, ensuring deep work remains a priority.

37signals’ Experiment

Four-Day Workweek Experiment

The software company 37signals (now Basecamp) shifted to a four-day workweek and found that employees accomplished the same amount of work in less time. This change emphasized the value of focused work over extended hours.

Critics believed that the four-day workweek meant cramming 40 hours into four days. However, the actual intent was to work fewer, more productive hours.

Shallow Work’s Reality

Most workdays are filled with shallow tasks that seem urgent but are dispensable. 37signals’ experiment highlighted this, showing that when given limited work hours, employees prioritized deep work over trivial tasks, and the outcomes were evident!

The Month-Off Experiment

37signals gave employees a month off from regular tasks to focus on deep work projects. This wasn’t a vacation, but rather an opportunity for employees to delve deep into self-directed projects without the constant interruptions of daily tasks, meetings, or emails.

After a month-long experiment, 37signals held a “pitch day” where employees presented their projects. Unveiling two groundbreaking tools for customer support and data visualization, both of which were swiftly implemented. An achievement that wouldn’t have been possible with a regular work month.

Conclusion

While such work is unavoidable, it’s crucial to limit its influence so it doesn’t hinder the profound work that truly defines your contributions. Newport provides strategies to navigate this balance effectively in the next sections.

Schedule Every Minute of your Time

Time Misestimation

People often misjudge how they spend their time, with many overestimating or underestimating the hours they dedicate to certain tasks. This lack of awareness can hinder productivity and deep work.

Scheduling Every Minute

Newport suggests starting each workday by allocating specific blocks of time (30 minutes minimum) for each task on a dedicated notebook page. This method ensures every minute has a purpose, promoting deep work and minimizing distractions. If disruptions occur or tasks take longer than anticipated, revising the schedule throughout the day is encouraged.

Notebook Block Design

Newport utilizes the lines on a notebook page to create time blocks. He marks every other line with an hour of the day, covering his typical working hours. He then divides these hours into blocks, drawing boxes on the lines corresponding to specific tasks or activities, effectively allocating every minute of his workday.

Balance Between Structure and Spontaneity

While a structured schedule is crucial, Newport emphasizes the importance of spontaneity. If an unexpected insight or important task arises, it’s valid to deviate from the plan. Follow your insight until they run off of steam. Then re-design your planning.

The goal isn’t rigidity but thoughtful allocation of time. This combination of structured planning and adaptability can foster more creative insights than an entirely spontaneous approach.

Treat your Time with Respect

Embracing a deep work habit means treating your time with utmost respect. Planning every minute of your workday in advance can seem daunting, but it’s essential for maximizing productivity and ensuring that time is spent on meaningful tasks.

Quantify the Depth of Every Activity

Ambiguity in Classification

Not all tasks are straightforward to classify as shallow or deep. For instance, editing an academic article, creating a PowerPoint presentation, or attending a project status meeting can be ambiguous in terms of depth.

Evaluative Question for Depth

To determine the depth of a task, ask: “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?”

  • Editing an academic paper might take 50-75 months for a recent graduate.
  • Creating a PowerPoint on quarterly sales might take around 2 months.
  • Participating in a planning meeting might take around 3 months.
Purpose of the Evaluative Question

This thought experiment helps objectively quantify the depth of various activities. Tasks that require significant training leverage expertise and are considered deep, providing more value for the time spent.

Once you’ve classified your tasks, prioritize deep work as it offers higher returns on time investment. Minimize shallow tasks, even if they feel productive, as their actual value is limited.

Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget

Shallow Work Budgeting

Determine the percentage of your time that should be allocated to shallow work. This helps in understanding and managing the balance between deep and shallow tasks. Initiate a conversation with your superior about the division between shallow and deep work. This ensures clarity and sets expectations.

For many knowledge workers, 30 to 50 percent of their time is often spent on shallow tasks. It’s essential to be aware of this range and adjust accordingly.

Benefits of Budgeting

By setting a limit on shallow work:

  • You can prioritize deep tasks that add more value.
  • It helps in reducing unnecessary meetings and excessive communication.
  • It ensures that while you fulfill core shallow obligations, you also maintain a consistent focus on deep work.
Value-Driven Approach

Businesses aim to generate value. Recognizing and emphasizing deep work significantly contributes to this goal, especially for entrepreneurs who need to discern between value-producing activities and time-consuming shallow tasks.

Re-evaluating Job Roles

If your boss answers to the previous question with something similar to: “as much shallow work as is needed” then your role doesn’t support deep work or is heavily skewed towards shallow tasks, it might not be conducive to success in the modern information economy. Consider roles that prioritize and value depth.

Finish Your Work by Five Thirty

“Understanding what it means to focus, […] you can then repurpose the extra free time toward the finer pleasures in life.” - Cal Newport
Fixed-Schedule Productivity

Commit to a specific end time for your workday, such as 5:30 p.m., and avoid working beyond that time. This approach forces you to prioritize deep work and find productivity strategies that fit within this time frame.

Here are the benefits of a fixed-schedule:

  • Avoiding overwork: Despite the common belief in many professions that long hours are necessary, it’s possible to be highly productive without working into the night or on weekends.
  • Prioritizing Deep Work: By setting a strict end time, you’re more likely to focus on tasks that provide significant value and reduce shallow work.
  • Effective time management: The constraint of a fixed schedule encourages better organization and planning, ensuring that time is used efficiently.
Reducing Shallow Commitments

Be selective about the commitments you take on. If possible, say “no” more often and avoid tasks that don’t contribute significantly to your goals. This approach helps in preserving time for deep work. Embracing a scarcity mindset towards time can lead to more deliberate choices about work commitments.

Become Hard to Reach

E-mail, a prevalent form of shallow work, constantly diverts our attention with personalized distractions, making us feel powerless over its influence. However, it’s essential to challenge this sense of inevitability. While it might be challenging to eliminate e-mail entirely, we can still dictate its role in our lives. By implementing the following strategies, we can regain control over our digital communication and resist its pervasive grip.

Tip #1: Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work

Use a Sender Filter approach: Instead of providing a general-purpose email address, offer specific contacts for different purposes. This approach requires senders to filter themselves before reaching out, reducing unnecessary communication.

Clearly state that responses will only be given to emails that align with one’s schedule and interests. This shifts the email dynamic from an obligation to a collection of opportunities, alleviating the psychological burden of an overflowing inbox.

While there might be concerns about appearing pretentious, most people respect and appreciate clarity in communication expectations. In fact, when you do respond, it can be seen as a pleasant surprise.

Examples of Sender Filters:

  • The author provides distinct contacts for specific inquiries, such as his literary agent for rights requests or his speaking agent for speaking engagements.
  • Clay Herbert uses an FAQ to filter out common questions, followed by a survey to screen relevant queries. A small fee is charged to ensure the sender’s seriousness.
  • Antonio Centeno directs users to post questions publicly to avoid repetitive queries and requires users to make three promises before sending a message.
Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails

Newport introduces the “Process-Centric Approach” to e-mail communication. Instead of giving quick, reactive responses to emails, individuals should take a moment to identify the underlying project or goal of the message and then craft a comprehensive response that outlines a clear process to reach a conclusion.

This approach not only reduces the number of follow-up emails but also minimizes mental clutter, allowing for more focused and deep thinking. While it might require more initial time and may seem formal, the long-term benefits in terms of time saved and clarity achieved make it a valuable strategy.

Here’s a clear example of a email in your inbox: “It was great to meet you last week. I’d love to follow up on some of those issues we discussed. Do you want to grab coffee?”.

Process-Centric Response: “I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I listed two days next week when I’m free. For each day, I listed three times. If any of those day and time combinations work for you, let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation for the meeting. If none of those date and time combinations work, give me a call at the number below and we’ll hash out a time that works. Looking forward to it.”

This response effectively reduces the bouncing tendency of emails to just one.

Tip #3: Don’t Respond

Many renowned academics approach the email problem differently. They operate on the principle that the sender should clearly justify the need for a response. If the email lacks clarity, isn’t engaging, or has no major repercussions if left unanswered, it’s deemed okay not to reply.

This method might deviate from typical email norms and might not sit well with all recipients, but it’s a strategy to combat the overwhelming influx of emails and the stress they bring, ensuring focus on more pivotal tasks and messages.

Conclusion

The legendary foundation of Microsoft by Bill Gates is often celebrated for its visionary insight. However, a lesser-known but equally significant aspect of this success story is Gates’s exceptional ability to engage in deep work. His unparalleled concentration allowed him to work with such fervor that he would often fall asleep amidst coding, only to wake up and continue from where he left off. This intense focus set Gates apart from his peers, making him a “serial obsessor.”

The essence of deep work is not merely a philosophical or moral stance; it’s a pragmatic recognition of the power of concentrated effort. In the midst of our rapidly evolving digital age, where distractions are abundant, the value of deep work stands out. It’s not about labeling distractions as evil, but about understanding that deep work is the tool that enabled monumental achievements like Gates’s creation of a billion-dollar industry in a short span.

Personal experiences further underscore the transformative power of deep work. Even with increasing responsibilities and constraints, a commitment to deep work can lead to surprising productivity boosts.

Embracing a life of depth might not be everyone’s choice. It demands significant changes in habits, stepping away from the comforting but superficial busyness of constant connectivity. It also requires confronting one’s own limitations and striving for excellence. Yet, for those who choose this path, the rewards are profound. A life dedicated to deep work is not only productive but also meaningful. As history and personal experiences have shown, the focused life, championed by individuals like Bill Gates, is indeed the most enriching.

As Winifred Gallagher said, “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.


Stay in touch

I hope you enjoyed this article as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Feel free to support my work by interacting with me on LinkedIn 👀

Subscribe to get the latest articles from my blog delivered straight to your inbox!


About the author

Axel Mendoza

Senior MLOps Engineer

I'm a Senior MLOps Engineer with 5+ years of experience in building end-to-end Machine Learning products. From my industry experience, I write long-form articles on MLOps to help you build real-world AI systems.