Book: Deep Work (part 3)


April 2, 2021

Book, Guidelines


In post 1 and post 2 of this series, I outlined earlier sections of this book Deep Work by Cal Newport. In this post, I complete the series by outlining Newport’s Rules 2-4:

  • Embrace Boredom
  • Quit Social Media
  • Drain the Shallows

As before, 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.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Example: Orthodox Jews spend time every weekday studying the religious texts such as the Talmud. Some read alone. Others discuss the text in pairs or bigger groups.

Insight: concentration is something that must be trained.

Insight: Clifford Nass a behavior and communications researcher, discovered attention switching has negative effects on the brain. People who multitask find it hard to filter irrelevance.

While Rule #1 (Work Deeply) helps one reach the peak of concentration, this rule helps extend that peak or limit.

Guideline: take breaks from focus rather than breaks from distraction. Taking a whole day, an Internet or technology “sabbath” won’t help. Schedule your breaks in advance and deep work until then. As I write this, my iPad is disconnected from the internet. I’ll take a short break in 19 minutes. I usually work in pomodoros, but that’s another story for another post.

Guideline: 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. I now have 15 minutes to my next break and I hope to have this section finished by then.

Insight: artificial deadlines are like interval training for the attention centers of your brain.

Guideline: meditate productively. Focus on a problem you’re trying to solve while doing something else physically (walking, driving, showering). When your attention wanders, gently bring it back to the problem you’re trying to solve. This requires practice.

Example: Daniel Kilov is a memory athlete. He wasn’t born with a strong memory but he worked on it and over time this training helped his general abilities.

Insight: memory researchers discovered the elite memorizers direct their attention. They don’t use rote memorization. They’ll use techniques like representing a card as a person then imagining that person in a place in their house.

Guideline: practice focusing your attention. Memorization, meditation, playing music and reading the Talmud are all examples of attention training.

I finished this section with 90 seconds to spare so I’m going to go back and check spelling before a 5 minute break when I’ll stretch my left achilles and make a cup of tea.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

Right, I’m back for another 25 minutes.

Insight: electronic communication and social media, fragment our attention and erode our ability to concentrate. Social media is designed to keep our attention and get us to consume things.

Guideline: accept social media can be useful but set a threshold for using them.

Insight: throughout history, craft workers carefully selected the tools they worked with.

Guideline: use a structured process to identify the communication tools you’ll use.

  • Identify your top level goals
  • List 2-3 activities that help you achieve each goal
  • Assess each network tool for it’s positive and negative impacts

Example: Newton mentions Twitter and the author Michael Lewis.

Guideline: assess whether the tool’s benefits outweigh it’s drag on your attention.

Insight: the “law of the vital few” (or Pareto principle), 80% of an effect is due to 20% of the possible causes.

Insight: social media services are products from private companies that have massive funding & revenues. They employ talented people who capture and sell your attention (and personal details) to advertisers.

Guideline: be deliberate in selecting your entertainment. Modern humans have access to so much good content. Don’t use social media or the auto suggestions of an algorithm to decide what to consume in the moment. Create lists of quality alternatives in advance.

Insight: Newton quotes Arnold Bennett discussing structured relaxation:

“the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.

My 25-minute timer just went off. Time to take a break and check the news (I have notifications turned off).

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Insight: most knowledge work needs some amount of shallow work (checking email, meetings).

Insight: deep work is exhausting. It pushes you to the limit of your cognitive abilities. Researchers like Anders Ericsson (of deliberate practice fame) have estimated the upper limit to be four hours a day.

Guideline: schedule every minute of the day. Don’t spend the day on autopilot. I work in half hour blocks of time (pomodoros) and move things around as I work through the day (because no day runs perfectly to plan).

I just realized I forgot to restart my pomodoro timer after that “news break”.

Insight: on some days you’ll rewrite the schedule multiple times. The goal is not to stick to a rigid schedule but to be thoughtful and deliberate about what you’ll do with the time remaining.

Guideline: if you uncover a promising insight, rework the schedule.

Guideline: quantify the depth of each activity. This can be hard to do. Newton recommends asking yourself - how long would it take to train a recent college graduate to do this activity?

Guideline: ask your boss for a shallow work budget. For most knowledge workers this should be in the region of 30-50%. Below 30% you could become a hermit who thinks big thoughts but doesn’t communicate.

Insight: this limit frees up time for more important activities and stops shallow work from filling up your day. We tend to fall into shallow work moment by moment and not see the cumulative impact.

Guideline: don’t work after 5:30pm. Newton calls this fixed-schedule-productivity.

Guideline: beware of saying “yes”, the most dangerous word in the knowledge worker’s vocabulary. When saying no, be clear in your refusal but ambiguous for the reason. For example, “that sounds interesting but I can’t do that because of scheduling conflicts”.

Insight: fixed-schedule-productivity is a meta-habit that switches you into a scarcity mindset and attunes you to disruptive requests for shallow work. It makes the default answer “no”.

Guideline: become hard to reach. Email is impossible to avoid but anyone with your address can send a message that consumes more time than it took to write. Newton has some specific guidelines for those who want to be open to contact from the general public like a form or FAQ with checklists.

Guideline: do more work when you send or reply to emails. Newton calls this the process-centric approach to email. Identify the process (or project) the email relates to then the current and next steps. This can reduce the number of responses and time spent rereading the thread in future, saving time in the long run.

Guideline: 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.

On the latter, Newton quotes Tim Ferris: “develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things, whether important tasks or true peak experiences.”

Personally it drives me crazy when I receive a long email and the key information or the important action I’m expected to take, is hidden in the second sentence of the third last paragraph. I have developed some standard replies like…

“Thank you for your detailed email. It’s not clear what action you expect me to take, so I’m assuming none is required. If some action is required, please reply to let me know.”

I’m a big believer in action-based communication but that’s yet another story for another day.

Insight: deep work can be intense and cause uneasiness. It’s easier to be artificially busy and swim in the shallows. As you get closer to producing your best work you can become nervous that your best is not yet good enough.

Insight: deep work can generate a life rich with productivity and meaning. Newton finishes the book with a quote from Winifred Gallagher, “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”


In the time since reading the book I’ve been finding some of Newport’s rules or guidelines have made their way into my daily work. I’m using a work-shutdown ritual and scheduling the day with tasks from my GTD projects. In some cases I’ve modified guidelines I’ve been using for years. I schedule deep work for 2-3 hours every second day. I’ve started using the Pomodoro technique again because it seems to resonate with some of Newton’s ideas.

Thanks for reading!

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

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

Credits: photo by Devin Lyster on Unsplash

Disclosure: some links in this post may use Amazon affiliate links.

Related Posts

The Dip: how to stick with the right projects and quit the rest


January 30, 2022


Seth Godin’s small book explores ”the Dip”, the crucial low point that happens in most projects. It could be a temporary setback or a dead end. Successful people (and organizations) get better at being able to tell the difference. They persist in dips and quit dead ends. This article will summarize the key insights and […]

Read More

Guideline: Reimagine your Temperament


June 16, 2021


I’m reading Eyal Nir’s book Indistractible and Chapter 8 floored me. Eyal debunks the sort of truths we all pick up along the way, and holds them up to the light. In this way I found myself looking at long buried assumptions and realised that they were driving some of my subconscious behaviour. I think […]

Read More


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

This knowledge can be in the form of:

  • Guidelines / Patterns / Principles / Tips – individual morsels of knowledge you can apply
  • Content Summaries – collections of guidelines from books, articles and other long-form content

We’re still trying to figure things out.

If you’d like to write for us, please contact us via email at