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“Deep work” is focused, uninterrupted, undistracted work on a task that pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit.
In contrast, “shallow work” describes tasks that aren’t cognitively demanding - like answering email, filling out paperwork, and attending unproductive meetings. These tasks don’t create much value and are easy for others to replicate.
Groundbreaking ideas and meaningful progress come from deep work, not shallow work. Shallow work is incremental. Deep work can be transformational.
When founding Microsoft in 1974, Bill Gates was obsessive about creating the company’s first software product. He worked with incredible intensity, falling asleep on his keyboard while programming, then waking up a few hours later and resuming. Even among talented technologists, Gates was renowned for his concentration and deep work.
As our economy changes, deep work becomes more valuable. Over the past decades, the economy has moved away from brute force labor to information. The old economy – working in a manufacturing plant – didn’t require deep work for most workers. But now skills that succeed in the new economy – like complex problem solving, data analysis, and computer programming – require deep work to learn and execute. Your ability to do deep work will determine how much you thrive in this economy.
Ironically, the same technologies that caused the information economy are depleting our ability to conduct deep work. Phones, emails, and addictive apps pull us away every few minutes. Thus, the time when deep work is most important is when it is most difficult.
The ability to do deep work behaves like muscle strength. If your mind is at a basal level of distraction and anxiety all day, you can lose your ability to do deep work. It becomes harder to summon the skills to focus and remain undistracted.
Building deep work takes dedicated practice and focus. That’s why some famously productive people carve out dedicated time for deep work:
In the information economy, people who have the ability to master complex machines and solve complex problems are the ones who will be more valued.
Deep work allows you to do two things critical to your performance in this economy:
Learn and master new skills. Today’s economy changes so quickly that a technology or best practice that was hot 5 years ago might be obsolete today. This is true of fields as wide-ranging as computer programming, marketing, academic research, and financial investments. To continue staying relevant over decades, you must continue to learn new skills. And learning challenging new skills requires focused concentration.
Apply the skills to increase your output. Once you’ve learned a skill, you need to do something useful to it. Consider the simple rule: High-quality work produced = Time Spent x Intensity of Focus. And once again, the application of highly technical skills requires deep focus.
If you want to have a successful career lasting decades, you need to repeat these two practices over and over again. You’ll need to change skills as new technologies and practices arise, and you’ll need to produce real results with those skills.
Furthermore, the changing economy also increases competition for your job, making it more critical to update your skills. Technology is increasingly making remote work more commonplace, putting the greatest talent around the world in reach of companies. If you’re currently employed in an office, this means one of your competitive advantages – a warm body close to headquarters – will be diminished, and you will have to increase your skill to compensate and compete with remote talent.
Why, specifically, does deep work help you with learning and productivity? A major reason is that distractions are very costly.
Overall, you likely assume that your shallow work (fast email turnaround, meetings) are critical to productivity, and dropping them will lower your standing. Just try an experiment to take a break from email for a day or cancel all your meetings. You’ll likely find that the fires took care of themselves, and the building didn’t burn down.
(Minor point from the chapter: How can Jack Dorsey be so productive while managing two large companies (Twitter and Square)? (Shortform example: Similarly, Elon Musk manages both SpaceX and Tesla). Surely their days are full of distractions, filled with endless...
Think about what deep work means for you.
In your line of work, what are your most important deep work tasks? These are the tasks that most advance you toward your goals and can be transformational. List each task, and why each one is important.
If deep work is so valuable, why don’t we do it more often? Because we face constant distraction every few minutes.
The three major detractors from deep work that workers face daily are:
These distractions are ubiquitous in the corporate setting. This is confusing - companies usually aren’t dumb. If they know something is drastically lowering productivity and profits, they’ll usually move to stop it. But the reaction seems to be the opposite - distractions like open offices and real-time messaging are supported by companies.
How did these destructive distractions get adopted systematically as the right thing to do? Cal Newport explains:
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Think about what takes you away from deep work.
What shallow work fills up your schedule? What mindless tasks take up a lot of your time, but don’t move you meaningfully toward your goals? List each, and estimate how many hours per week they take.
Shallow work is deceptively bad because it feels productive and meaningful. Answering emails feels like you’re doing something. Staying on top of the office conversation in Slack makes you feel updated on what’s going on.
In contrast, deep work can often feel undirected and aimless. Complex problems take long periods of thinking and incur multiple dead ends. You produce fewer concrete results, and the results come unpredictably. This can feel like you’re being unproductive. Answering emails feels like a better place to spend your time.
To combat this perception, realize that deep work moves you more meaningfully to happiness and fulfillment.
As previously explained, deep work is when you’re most capable of tackling your thorniest problems. Because these problems often yield the largest rewards, deep work is often far more rewarding than shallow work.
Beyond this, the book offers three other ways deep work leads to fulfillment.
First, deep work has been found to be the state in which people feel most fulfilled. Mizani Chifdksalti’s research on flow shows that when people concentrate on a worthwhile task and are pushed to their cognitive limit (not too hard, not too easy), they feel most satisfied.
Second, deep work has a protective psychological effect. Deep work insulates our mind from many distracting, often negative psychic irritants.
The third point is most abstract. Philosophically, the rise of secularism and the Enlightenment removed a religious and faith-based source of meaning to many. This easily leads to nihilism. Yet the craftsman has found a source of meaning in work – “by cultivating the skill of discerning the meaning that is already there” – for instance, by finding the value in wood transformed into a table.
Now that you understand what deep work is and why it’s important, you’ll learn how to fill your schedule with deep work and reduce your time on shallow work.
To be more productive, the first step is to spend more of your time in deep work. But it’s not enough to just will yourself to do deep work on demand. The more effective approach is to approach deep work with structure, habit, and discipline.
While you know in our heads that you should be spending time on deep work, distractions get in the way. Distractions are things that you’d rather be doing than deep work - like eating food, sleeping, or browsing the Internet.
When you try to overcome your distractions, you use willpower to get back on task. But you have a finite amount of willpower each day. If you have to continuously force yourself to switch back from distractions, you’ll deplete this willpower, at which point you’ll be more vulnerable to distractions. This limits you from reaching the maximum of your deep work potential.
Instead, if you make deep work a ritual or habit, you no longer have to employ your willpower. Deep work happens automatically as a routine, and there are no distractions that you have to will yourself to overcome. In turn, this lengthens the time in which you’re doing deep work, and it reduces the rate of failure.
An effective way to build a habit of deep work is to set a deep work schedule - setting aside time in advance to focus on deep work.
The book offers four types of deep work schedules, with different time requirements and efficacy. To be successful at doing deep work in the long term, you have to find the deep work schedule that best fits your lifestyle and work needs.
Ad hoc/Journalistic Schedule
As a side note, Anders Ericsson, author of Peak, notes that a novice can do only about an hour a day of intense concentration. Experts who have extensive practice can expand to up to 4 hours, but rarely are able to exceed this. (Shortform note: Read our summary of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise here.)
In addition to scheduling time for deep work, you should also build your environment to be most supportive of deep work. Suggestions:
Now that you know what enables effective deep work, let’s create your own deep work plan.
Write down your specific personal schedule for deep work. (This could be specific blocks of time on specific days throughout the week, or multiple days each week/month. These should also be times when you have the greatest ability to focus.)
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While the previous chapter takes you to the limit of your deep work potential, this chapter aims to increase your potential.
In short, the ability to concentrate is a skill that must be trained. Some people incorrectly think about focus as simply a voluntary action, like flossing - anyone knows how to do it and can do it at any time. In reality, focus is more like a mental muscle - you can’t use it if you don’t train it. The more time you spend in deep work, the better you’ll get at it.
Conversely, habitually indulging your distractions reduces your ability to concentrate.
If you want to build your deep work ability, you’ll need to learn to focus better.
One mindset suggestion: it’s common for people to see focus as a specialized dedicated period, and distraction as the default. Instead, invert this – focus is your default state, and distraction is a break away from focus.
Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet. Avoid it completely outside these times.
Rationale: It’s not just the Internet use that cripples your focus – it’s the frequent switching from low-stimuli to high-stimuli activities that trains your mind never to tolerate boredom. By segregating Internet time, you reduce the number of times you give in to distraction.
Set intense deadlines for yourself in which you must concentrate at the limit of your ability to make the deadline.
Rationale: Setting an aggressive deadline will force you to focus. There’s no way you can give in to distraction and still make your deadline.
Practice productive meditation – think about a problem while you do a low-intensity physical activity, like walking or showering.
Rationale: This environment helps problem-solving in two ways: 1) you’re typically away from distractions, and 2) you train your ability to focus on the problem at hand, rather than daydream.
Practice memorization techniques.
Rationale: Cal Newport argues that if you learn to memorize effectively, you train the concentration muscle so that it spills over into the rest of your work. Memory competition champions seem to do well not because of any innate brain capability, but rather because of their memorization technique and their ability to focus.
If you increase your ability to focus, you’ll get more done in your deep work time. Here are three exercises to train your focus.
Is it possible for you to schedule time blocks when you’re allowed to use the Internet, then stay offline the rest of the time? If no, why not, and how can you get around these problems?
A key to spending more time in deep work is to avoid distractions that take you out of deep work.
For many people, the greatest distraction is the Internet, and particularly social media. The book dedicates a chapter to ridding yourself of social media as a distraction. If social media isn’t a big problem for you, some of these principles can be generalized to your personal distraction demon.
Social media, and much of the Internet in general, is designed to get you addicted to its content. These are lightweight whimsies, unimportant distractions derailing you from meeting your true goals.
Like shallow work, social media is insidious in that it seems like you’re doing productive things, when really the gains are minor. For example, people believe that Facebook connects them to people or surfaces relevant news. This sounds good in principle, but the real result is superficial. The acquaintances you’re making are shallow and unlikely to be the center of your social life - for people you really care about, you’ll arrange to see them outside of Facebook. Similarly, the news you’re digesting may be fun to read, but they mostly don’t move you closer to your major life goals.
To counteract this, some people have declared Internet sabbaticals, where they go completely off the grid for a month. Cal Newport thinks this is missing the point – it’s not necessary to be a Luddite, just like artisans don’t forego all tools made of metal. Social media has its uses - they just need to be carefully considered.
When deciding whether to use a tool like social media, many people use the “any benefit” argument - a technology tool is justified if it conveys “any benefit at all” from its use.
But this dilutes your focus, since concentrating your time on the most effective tools will make you more productive.
In contrast to the “any benefit” justification, make a well-reasoned argument about the tool’s benefits, cost, and the opportunity cost. This will maximize your output.
Adopt the tool only if the benefits substantially outweigh the negative impact and the opportunity cost. Consider whether you should put that time into the alternate activities.
Most likely, you’ll find that a few significant activities drive most of the progress toward your most important goals. Once you discover this, you’ll be able to discard the numerous tasks that aren’t actually productive.
The book suggests two ways to reduce your addiction to the Internet or social media.
1) Take an experiment and quit using your Internet drug of choice. Quit for 30 days and see what happens. Afterward, consider whether your life would have been notably better if you had been able to use that service.
2) Instead of the Internet, plan another way to spend your time.
Try to align where you spend your time with your life’s most important goals.
What is one of your most important goals? It can be professional or personal. (Choose just one. You can redo this exercise for other goals.)
So far, we’ve covered practical strategies on how to set up deep work, how to increase your ability to do deep work, and how to avoid critical distractions.
The final chapter of Deep Work covers the last major component of our work life - shallow work. Even if you learn how to engage in deep work, your schedule might still be inundated with shallow work. Eliminating shallow work from your work requirements will let you spend more time in deep work.
If you’re ambitious and aiming to be productive, you may be tempted to work endless hours each day and week, without much rest.
The pitfall to this mindset is that you can’t spend all those hours on very productive tasks. The most important work is done during deep work, but your capacity is capped at 4 hours per day - and for beginners, even less time.
This means the marginal hour you spend after deep work is necessarily shallower work. You can always find more tasks to fill your time with - work expands to fill your time capacity. This doesn’t mean those extra tasks are important.
By the 80-20 rule, you might still achieve most of your daily potential output even if you constrain your work time per day. (Shortform suggestion: you might ask yourself, “if I could only work 4 hours a day, how much could I get done? If I added 2 more hours to this, how much more could I get done? Are these extra tasks important?”)
On the other hand, confining your workday will make you happier – you’ll have more time to relax, and you’ll spend less time on unimportant shallow work.
So set a stopping point for each day when you’ll start your shutdown ritual (see rule #1). Then work backwards to figure out productivity strategies to get stuff done.
(Business software company Basecamp took this to the extreme by having only 4 workdays during the summer, and allowing a hackathon month where people were free to work on their own projects. “How can we afford to put our business on hold for a month to mess around with new ideas? How can we afford not to?”)
Now within your fixed workday, plan out your entire day in half-hour blocks.
Rationale: When you plan out what you’ll work on in advance, you’ll have a specific goal that will reduce switching to other tasks. You also carve out time for focus, which will train your mental muscles for focus.
First, plan your schedule in half-hour blocks:
Then, for each task:
To wrap up the day:
A common barrier to getting more deep work in is the fear that your employer has expectations requiring shallow work (eg email response times).
So have a conversation with your boss about your schedule.
Once people know that you’ll be spending more of your time in deep work, they’ll adjust their expectations in kind.
You’ll be invited/coerced into doing work that...
Take command of your schedule and reduce meaningless shallow work.
If you were to constrain your worktime each day, when would you start, and when would you stop? Would you be able to get what you need done within this time?
The book suggests planning out your day in half-hour blocks. This will 1) help you focus on a single task without switching, 2) carve out time for deep work, 3) confine distraction time to specific periods. You can complete this checklist with your favorite calendar app.
Try to end each workday with a shutdown procedure like this one. By clearly stopping work, you’ll free your mind to relax.