Book: Deep Work (part 1)


March 2, 2021



I purchased Deep Work by Cal Newport a couple of years ago. Soon after, it must have strayed off the first page of my Kindle and I forgot about it. Recently, I was talking to a good friend about juggling many projects and priorities at work. He suggested this book and then I remembered I had already bought it.

In the book, Cal Newport explains the challenges many knowledge workers face and strategies we can apply to find time to do more meaningful work.

I’ve written this post to better learn and share what I’ve learned. I’ll summarize Newton’s book as a set of:

  • Insights: his astute observations
  • Examples: people or stories
  • Guidelines: tips, patterns or principles you can use to work more deeply

I have organized these insights, examples and guidelines within the framework and headings of the book. In a way, these are my detailed notes from the book.

Of course a summary is just a map, not the territory. I highly recommend you buy and read Newton’s book.


Insight: Newport defines deep work as

“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.”

Examples: he cites Carl Jung, Peter Higgs, JK Rowling, Bill Gates and Neal Stephenson as people who have leveraged deep work to accomplish extraordinary things.

Insight: modern communication tools have fragmented knowledge workers’ attention “into slivers” and 30% of their time is spent in email.

I have seen higher estimates in other places. In my previous role at Goshido, our mission was to redefine communication and replace email. Unfortunately we didn’t succeed, but that’s another story for another day.

Back to the book.

Insight: meaningful work that needs deep thinking, gets dispersed into “distracted dashes” and the quality of the outcomes suffer.

Insight: to be valuable in this fast moving economy you need to be able to learn hard things fast. This means you need the ability to do deep work but it’s becoming rarer and harder to do.

Newport neatly condenses his approach in one paragraph which I’ll break down as a guideline:

Summary: “I’ve invested significant effort to minimize the shallow in my life while making sure I get the most out of the time this frees up.”

How: “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.

When: “Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out…”

Why: “...can produce a lot of valuable output.”

First Newport describes the problem and explains how deep work is valuable, rare and meaningful. The rest of the book explains four high level “rules” for how to do deep work:

  • Work Deeply
  • Embrace Boredom
  • Quit Social Media
  • Drain the Shallows


My first draft of this post was 12 pages so I’ve decided to break it up into 3-4 parts. In the meantime here are all the guidelines I noticed in the rest of the book.

Out of context these guidelines might seem a bit abstract but I’ll go into more detail in future posts.

How Deep Work is Valuable, Rare and Meaningful

  • In a company or team, communicate best practices around use of chat applications.
  • Find the emotional “leverage point” to convert a negative event into a more positive outcome.
  • Redesign jobs so they resemble flow activities.
  • As an individual, seek opportunities for flow because that will lead to deep satisfaction.

Work Deeply

  • Develop rituals to minimize the amount of willpower needed to switch into and maintain concentration.
  • Decide your “depth philosophy”, how you will integrate deep work into your schedule. Options include: monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, or journalistic.
  • A deep work ritual decides: where, how long, how you’ll work, how you’ll support the work.
  • If designing an office space, make sure to include spaces for deep work.
  • Apply “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” (4DX): 1. focus on the wildly important, 2. act on the “lead” measures, 3. keep a compelling scoreboard & make it visible, 4. create a cadence of accountability.
  • Use a shutdown ritual at the end of the work day. Say a phrase to provide an explicit cue to your mind, for example “shutdown complete”.

Embrace Boredom

  • Take breaks from focus rather than work-breaks from distraction.
  • Work intensely like Teddy Roosevelt. Identify a difficult but important task and give yourself less time to do it than you’d normally take. Set a countdown timer.
  • Meditate productively. Focus on a problem you’re trying to solve while doing something else physically.
  • Practice focusing your attention.

Quit Social Media

  • Accept social media can be useful but set a threshold for using it.
  • Use a structured process to identify the communication tools you’ll use. Assess whether each tool’s benefits outweigh it’s drag on your attention.
  • Be deliberate in selecting your entertainment. Create lists of quality alternatives in advance.

Drain the Shallows

  • Schedule every minute of the day. Don’t spend the day on autopilot.
  • If you uncover a promising insight, rework the schedule.
  • Quantify the depth of each activity - how long would it take to train a recent college graduate to do this activity?
  • Ask your boss for a shallow work budget. For most knowledge workers this should be in the region of 30-50%.
  • Don’t work after 5:30pm.
  • Beware of saying “yes”, the most dangerous word in the knowledge worker’s vocabulary.
  • When saying “no” to a request, be clear in your refusal but ambiguous for the reason.
  • Become hard to reach.
  • Do more work when you send or reply to emails. Identify the process (or project) the email relates to then the current and next steps.
  • Don’t reply if: the email is ambiguous, it’s not a question that interests you, nothing good/useful would happen if you responded and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.

In future posts I’ll explain how to implement some of these guidelines and why they work.

Thanks for reading.

The bigger picture

This is an example of a guideline that we use in this blog/publication. Guidelines are also known as:

  • best-practices
  • patterns
  • principles
  • tips
  • hacks
  • mental models
  • directives

In future posts we’ll curate individual guidelines or glean collections of them from articles, books and other content. We’re planning posts on:

  • Productivity
  • Starting a business
  • Managing cash flow in a growing business

If you’d like to write for LearnShareDo, please send an email to (write at learnsharedo dot com).

Thanks again for reading! If you have any other examples or feedback please comment/follow/share below or on: twitter, medium or linkedin.

Credits: photo by @pascalvendel on Unsplash

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Welcome to Learn Share Do. Here we try to share and curate knowledge that you can use in life or business.

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