Deep Work Notes

The purpose of this post is to provide a comprehensive summary of my notes from the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. It’s not meant to critique or provide analysis.

What is Deep Work?

Newport defines deep work as dedicating high levels of attention to one specific task. Normally for long unbroken stretches of time.

Why Should You Care?

1. Deep Work is Valuable

The Great Restructuring, as per Brynjolfsson & McAfee in their book Race Against the Machine, claims three groups will benefit from the changing economy (while other groups will stagnate or lose out). Those who know how to use intelligent machines, are experts in their fields, and who have access to capital. Newport makes the claim that deep work can help you achieve the first two groups. He believes we should cull shallow work and cultivate deep work to enter the former two groups.

2. Deep Work is Scarce

As deep work is becoming more valuable, we are dedicating more and more time to shallow easily automate-able work. He states three reasons why this is happening. First, shallow work is usually mindless and easier than deep work. Second, shallow busy work can give the perception of generating value when there aren’t other clear metrics of generating value. Finally, we put technology on a pedestal and label technology skeptics as eccentrics.

3. The Deep Life is the Good Life

What we focus on dictates our mood and satisfaction. If we choose to focus on what is negative or meaningless we tend to feel that way. Instead, if we focus on the good and meaningful, we will feel that way. He describes an interesting study where younger and older people are shown positive or negative images. They connected electrodes to the the participants brains in order to measure brain activity.

Older people’s, relative to younger people’s, brains responded to positive images the same as younger people, while older people had less brain activity when seeing negative images compared to younger people. Older people are more positive, not because the have more things to be positive about than younger people, but because their brain has tempered their response to negative experiences.

Continually focusing on the good strengthens these mental connections. Conversely, the shallow work in our lives also makes us feel shallow, if that’s our focus. He states, “the world represented by your inbox isn’t a pleasant place to inhabit”. A state of flow or developing a craft can give us meaning and generate happiness.

How to Accomplish Deep Work?

Willpower is a renewable but limited resource. Practices that either limit the use of willpower or replenish it will help accomplish the discipline needed to do deep work. He has a few strategies to maximize willpower:


This strategy eliminates shallow work. It can be deployed by people who may have one high value aim. This strategy takes extreme steps to remove distractions like limiting communications, long multi-day stretches of interrupted work, and complete rejections of our interconnected world.


This strategy is way of mixing monastic with periods of shallow work. This works for people who have control over their schedules, but also need to participate in shallow work to accomplish their goals.

People who employ this strategy will have periods of intense focus and periods of shallow. One implementation is a day of deep work a week or a few more extended monastic periods like “think weeks” employed by Bill Gates. Another way to employ this strategy might be having a work block before the busy distracted work day begins.


This strategy depends on accomplishment as a reward. The example given was Seinfeld’s’ calendar with red exes everyday he wrote a new joke. Overtime you won’t want to break the streak. This is similar to tracking habits. I started a work out routine I almost religiously follow mainly to maintain the streak.


This is the most flexible strategy but not a beginner strategy. It’s for people who have the ability to start deep focus quickly in a moments notice and feel deeply convicted of the value of their work. They might steal away for almost any period of time and work deeply and intently. Another implementation would be to look at your upcoming week and schedule periods of varying sizes to do deep work.


This strategy creates rules and regulations that limit the need for you to dedicate mental energy to anything that isn’t deep work. The classic, and oft cited example, would be the “CEO” uniform, but there are many places and ways to generate rituals that limit mental strain.

Grand Gestures

Get a hotel room, book round trip 15 hour flights, have think week, or build a cabin in the woods. These grand gestures take advantage of the psychology of commitment to get you to deeply focus.

Quick Note: He talks a little bit about how the open office is a bad idea because it mixes deep work and collaboration. He believe firmly that collaboration is necessary in the knowledge economy, but the two shouldn’t mix. Have collaborative sessions and deep work sessions.


  1. Focus on the Wildly Important
  2. Act on Lead Measures
  3. Keep a Compelling Score Card
  4. Cadence of Accountability

Why Should You Incorporate Rest?

Idleness is good for deepwork. You should have regular and substantial leisure. Below are some reasons for why leisure is important for deep work.

1. Conscious + Unconscious Decision Making

He describes two types of decision making, logical, and high information (I might call free association). Logical decision need conscious focus while the types of decisions that need high information are better suited to the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is unlocked in leisure pursuits–think shower thoughts. To accomplish this you need a shutdown habit between work and your personal life.

2. Attention Restoration Theory

Researchers found that walking in nature vs. city walking had cognitive improvement. The researchers believe that walking in nature serves the purpose of providing light stimulus with low cognitive load (compared to walking in the city). To disprove another theory that it was mood, created by walking in nature, they had participants walk in uncomfortably cold weather. They still found the same result.

3. Deliberate Practice

That as the day wears on the quality of your work does too. Researchers have found that elite musicians at the top of their craft can only deliberately practice for up to about 4 hours while those who are in the earlier stages can only do it for about 1 hour. They found as deliberate practices increased the musicians had higher levels of accomplishments.

He also provides some useful insights on the Zeigarnik effect. Uncompleted tasks stay on the top of our minds despite moving on to new tasks. A practice of reviewing your current task list, scheduling your next work day, and then providing a trigger for your mind to shut down helps wipe the Zeigarnik effect. He even goes as far to use the phrase “shutdown complete” at the end of his workday.

Embrace Boredom

Research has found that frequent multitaskers, watch tv, work, check instagram, have decreased ability to focus on relevant tasks than single taskers–people who perform one task at a time. Being constantly distracted is actually wrecking your mind.

Tips to Create Focused Time

  • Create focus blocks in you calendar
  • Limit internet and phone use
  • Work with great intensity by setting yourself difficult, if not impossible, restrictions (i.e. 5pm deadline to leave work)
  • Meditate on one thought while walking. Pick a difficult problem and focus on it while taking a stroll.
  • Structure your thinking by identifying relevant variables deciding on the next step.
  • Memory champions have high levels of attentional control. Consider a practice of memorization or deep introspection of texts. Anything that improves attentional control.

Quit Social Media

You have limited willpower and social media is designed to deplete your self-control. They hire “attention engineers” who borrow from gaming and habit formation research to maximize keeping your attention. Although he is staunchly against social media in his own life, he does believe in approaching it pragmatically.

First stop assuming that social media and technology are generally beneficial. It certainly has benefits, but we must also consider the costs. For social media the benefit is constant and frictionless connection with a large number of friends. The cost is the time it takes away from in person or more focused human connection. The increase depression and anxiety that researchers have linked to it.

Newport suggest considering three things when incorporating a tool:

  1. What are your high level personal goals or work goals 2.What are the top level activities to achieve those goals
  2. What is the best tool to use for each activity (considering the positive and negatives of each)

Drain the Shallows

The team at 37 Signals experimented with the 4-day work week. The result was people were stingy with their time. They didn’t go to meetings or spend time on anything they didn’t think was high value.

He suggest that we plan every minute of our day. We shouldn’t ruthlessly follow this plan but it creates a certain thoughtfulness and awareness of where our time is going. He provides a heuristic for measuring shallow tasks vs. deep: “How long would it take to train a recent college graduate?” Additionally, you could then set a shallow budget: 30%-50% of your time is spent on shallow task or 12-20 hours a week. It’s up to what you feel is reasonable.

He make a point to leave at 5pm everyday. He calls this fixed schedule productivity. If you have constraint on your time, then you have to be productive in the time allotted to complete your tasks. This he believes will shift you to a scarcity mindset with your time.

He even suggest making it hard to reach yourself. John Freeman wrote an entire book on the “Tyranny of Email”. How can you do this?

  1. Add more friction to the sender by letting people you only respond to certain types of requests. ** Another possible solution is to have detailed format you want certain email requests to come.
  2. Add more friction to your responses by sending “interrogative emails”. Ensure that your response generates action items for you or the other party to complete.
  3. Don’t respond to emails. Its incumbent on the sender to make the case for your time.

I appreciated this quote from Tim Ferriss “develop the habit of letting small bad things happen.” With communication I often feel a lot of pressure to be responsive. In the scheme of things missing an “important” communique every once in awhile is far outweighed by the peace of mind and focus that comes from avoiding constant communication.


He ends concluding that we should avoid the “comfort of artificial busyness” because “the focused life is the best life there is.” – Winifred Gallagher.

Written on September 27, 2018