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Deep Work by Cal Newport.
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Principles

  • Deep work is focused, uninterrupted, undistracted work on a task that pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit.
  • The best ideas and the most meaningful progress come from deep work, not shallow work.
    • Shallow work answers emails, produces reports, and flits from meeting to meeting.
    • Deep work creates breakthrough business ideas, exposes new research questions, and solves complex problems.
  • Deep work is critical for your performance as a knowledge worker. It helps you develop new skills and employ those skills to produce output. If you can do both more effectively than others, you will take a leading position in the “information economy.”
  • You have two challenges:
    • Develop your ability to focus more intensely and for longer periods.
    • Develop your ability to resist distractions
  • The ability to concentrate must be trained like a muscle. You can’t use it if you haven’t trained it. But if you train it in a structured way and push yourself to your limit, it will get stronger.
  • Every time you get distracted and indulge the distraction, you weaken your ability to focus and to resist distractions. If you check your phone every time you get bored, you reinforce your brain’s rewiring to be addicted to distraction.
    • Furthermore, the switching cost is high (taking more time to get back on task), and you retain some mental residue from whatever distracted you.
  • Studies show that the capacity for intense deep work is about 4 hours per day, even for experts. Novices can do only about an hour per day.
  • Focus on the wildly important goals, ruthlessly. Exclude all the other frivolities that don’t add meaningfully to your life.
    • Resist the temptation to justify your distractions because they confer some mild benefit (eg “Facebook helps me keep in touch with my high school friends.”) It is very likely that the opportunity cost is high – you can put that time into something that more effectively accomplishes your goal (eg taking Facebook time to call a friend).
  • Don’t see focus as a special period in the day. See distraction as a break away from focus.

Strategies

  • Make deep work a ritual. Don’t make it about willpower.
    • The most common forms are to schedule regular blocks of deep work everyday (say, 8AM-11AM) or to take regular >1-day deep work sabbaticals every week.
  • Diagnose your current practices.
    • Articulate your major life goals, and the 2-3 key activities that will drive you toward them.
    • List your current time spend on tasks, and Internet usage. Examine the pros and cons of each major task, and whether they drive toward the goals above.
    • Experiment with completely shutting down your less important tasks above.
  • Create an environment conducive to deep work.
    • Choose a working space dedicated to deep work, like a meeting room or library. You will associate this space with deep work.
    • Reduce distractions – noise, hunger, thirst, novel information. (For best results I power down my phone and turn off my computer’s Internet).
  • Try to eliminate shallow work from your day. Say no to new tasks that are shallow work; confine shallow work like answering emails to specific blocks. Again, distraction is a break away from focus.
  • Create a beginning of day ritual:
    • Schedule 30-minute blocks of time for the entire day.
      • Set challenging deadlines for yourself. You need to barely be able to meet the deadline if you focus really intensely. This is a forcing function.
    • Quantify the complexity of tasks.
      • Heuristic: How long would it take a smart college grad with no experience to do what you’re doing? The longer this takes, the more complex it is, and the more deep work will help it.
    • Schedule when you’ll use your distraction of choice. Do not use it anytime else outside of this.
  • Cap your workday rigidly (eg stop hard at 6PM). You need time to relax, and because of the 4-hour daily limit to deep work, you’re not productive at the end of the day.
  • Create a work shutdown ritual for the end of the workday (this will close mental loops and prevent you from worrying about work outside of work):
    • Check your email one last time to make sure nothing urgent is missing.
    • Review your todo list and making sure they are handled in the upcoming days.
    • Make a todo list for the next day.
    • Say explicitly, “shutdown complete” or some similar phrase.
  • Have a conversation with your boss and team about reducing your shallow work time. Set expectations around your email reply time, your availability for meetings, and how to de-bottleneck people dependent on you.
  • Keep these continuous tasks in mind:
    • ...

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Deep Work Summary Introduction

“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:

  • Bill Gates takes think weeks twice a year, isolating himself to read and think big thoughts.
  • Woody Allen doesn’t own a computer, preferring to write on a manual typewriter instead. This avoids all the tempting distractions of the computer.
  • Nobel laureate and physicist Richard Feynman wanted to escape operational and bureaucratic tasks, so he invented a myth that he was...

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Deep Work Summary Idea #1: Deep Work is Important

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  • When you switch between tasks, the costs to attention are high. With every switch, you retain some mental residue from the previous task. It takes longer for you to adjust to the new task because of this residue - it might be minutes before you get into the groove of the new task. Even worse, if you’re switching between tasks every few minutes, you might have zero time in which you’re fully focused.
  • Distraction might even change your brain on a molecular level. Myelination, a process of modifying your neurons to make them more effective, is critical to training neural circuits and improving your skill. And in an environment of deep focus without distractions, myelination seems to be more effective.

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...

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Shortform Exercise: What’s Your Deep Work?

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.

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Deep Work Summary Idea #2: Deep Work is Difficult

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:

  • Open offices
    • At one point, open office floorplans had good intentions. They were meant to increase collaboration and cross-pollination between teams.
    • But nowadays, they cause a continuously distracting environment, where every conversation is heard, and one person can disrupt dozens of people.
  • Instant communication
    • Emails were distracting enough. Instant communication takes it to another level. With tools like Slack and texting, people can interrupt your work on-demand and expect help within seconds. We stop being deep thinkers and become human network routers.
    • Superficially, instant communication is preferred as the easy path. If you don’t know something, you can just ask someone. You don’t need to do the hard work of planning ahead, studying what you do or don’t know, and scheduling meetings thoughtfully.
  • Social media
    • On Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and other social apps, the conversations continue endlessly, 24/7. You can get stuck in an eternal state of dialogue.
    • The effects are insidious. The new content you see always seems novel and productive, but it doesn’t move you closer to the major things you really care about.

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:

  • The new information economy brought a new management challenge - how to measure output from individual workers.
    • In a factory, output was clear and quantitative - you produce so many widgets in an hour, and you can be compared on equal footing with other workers.
    • In information jobs, complex problems often require a larger team of people with different roles. It no longer becomes clear who contributes what. People’s jobs become more diffuse and vague - a “marketing manager” could be doing lots of different things with different projects.
  • So managers had to seek superficial proxies of progress – email response times, meetings conducted. As long as there was a lot of motion, surely people were being productive!
    • In contrast, deep work looks like slacking. Stepping away from email to think deep thoughts seems indulgent, when everyone else is buzzing around the office.
  • There is also a technological imperative that “any technology is likely good technology.” There’s pressure to look like you’re on the vanguard of technology (to press, potential employees, customers). This makes you adopt new tools like Slack, social media and open office plans without deeply considering their impact.

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Shortform Exercise: Your Greatest Distractions

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.

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Deep Work Summary Idea #3: Deep Work is Fulfilling

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.

  • Surprisingly, leisure time or pure consumption are not when people report feeling most satisfied. Free time is too unstructured and requires effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.
  • This seems to hit on universal behavior drivers, seeking mastery, autonomy, and purpose (for more on this, see our summary of Drive by Daniel Pink).

Second, deep work has a protective psychological effect. Deep work insulates our mind from many distracting, often negative psychic irritants.

  • We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances (what happens to us) when studies suggest our happiness is really dependent on what we pay attention to. Given the same situation, focus on positive things in a situation, and you will be happy; focus on negative things, and you will be sad.
  • When you lose focus, you tend to fixate on what’s wrong with your life, rather than what’s right. Problems tend to be more readily available than boons, and without something productive to concentrate on, you dwell on the little problems.
  • Checking email is psychologically harmful because it often represents unresolved tasks and complaining people. [Shortform note: furthermore, if you check your email often, recency and availability bias make these issues seem more important than they really are.]
  • Deep work protects your mind from mulling over these inconsequential irritants.
  • [The book doesn’t comment on why superficial work can’t have positive emotional valence – say, answering happy customer emails.]

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.

  • The craftsman does things that are superficially menial – sculpting marble or weaving blankets – but they find value in discovering beauty within preexisting objects. The description of their task is simple, but the skill is difficult. “We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals” - the creed of medieval quarry workers.
  • Knowledge workers face a more difficult challenge in finding meaning. Their tasks are less well-defined, and they...

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Deep Work Summary Rule #1: Practice Deep Work

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.

Make deep work a ritual. Don’t let it be a question of willpower.

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.

The Four Types of Deep Work Scheduling

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.

Monastic Schedule

  • Structure: Remove as many shallow work tasks from your life as possible. Outsource any necessary shallow work tasks to assistants. Spend nearly all your time on deep work. It’s called “monastic” because, like a monk, you spend your time somewhat isolated and in deep focus on your work.
  • Examples: Some authors go off the grid and aren’t contactable by email or through social media. All correspondence comes in by postal mail or through their editor.
  • Pros: You get extended periods of deep work – it becomes your default working style, not something you have to plan for.
  • Cons: This is too luxurious for most people to be able to do given the requirements of their career.

Bimodal/Periodic Schedule

  • Structure: Carve out regular periods each week, month, or entire parts of the year to focus on deep work. The book stresses that the period should be at least 1 full day to reach the maximum intensity of deep work (a few hours each morning is insufficient)
  • Examples: Professors often take semester-long sabbaticals to focus on deep research. Bill Gates takes "think weeks" twice a year. You might carve out a 3-day block of the week where you aren’t able to be contacted, while preserving the other 2 days for shallower work.
  • Pros: This is more realistic than the monastic schedule. Setting aside at least 1 full day of deep work produces the maximum concentration intensity.
  • Cons: Despite being more realistic, it’s still impractical for many workers, who are logistically required to perform certain tasks daily.

Rhythmic Schedule

  • Structure: Set aside a regular block of time each day to focus on deep work.
  • Examples: Set aside the morning (eg 8AM to 11AM) for deep work, before jumping into shallow work.
  • Pros: The regularity is conducive to forming a habit. It’s more realistic for most careers and lifestyle.
  • Cons: By being restricted to less than a full day, it doesn’t give the full day of deep work that the Monastic and Periodic schedules provide.

Ad hoc/Journalistic Schedule

  • Structure: Find time to do deep work when you get it.
  • Examples: When visiting your in-laws, carve out a few hours to do work, before meeting back up with your family.
  • Pros: This is the most flexible. You can conduct deep work at any point when it’s possible.
  • Cons: Because it’s irregular, it’s the least successful in setting up a habit. It requires the ability to switch on deep work instantaneously. Because it’s more variable, you’re more likely to run into distractions and thus more likely to consume willpower.

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.)

Building an Environment for Deep Work

In addition to scheduling time for deep work, you should also build your environment to be most supportive of deep work. Suggestions:

  • Choose where to do deep work
    • Ideally, choose a place that you go to ONLY for deep work (like a conference room, the library, or an office in your home). In this place, you will do only deep work and no shallow work. Keep your shallow work in another place dedicated only for shallow work. Compartmentalizing your location this way will cement the habit of deep work more strongly.
  • Create a distraction-free environment
    • Remove your most appealing distractions. Shut down Internet connectivity.
    • (Shortform suggestion: Shut off your phone and put it in a place that’s annoying to reach. If you must use the Internet, consider installing website blockers in your web browsers.)
  • Add supporting materials
    • Add things that will make your deep work more focused, like starting with coffee, having enough food, integrating light exercise.

Deep Work Practices

Once...

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Shortform Exercise: Create Your Deep Work

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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Deep Work Summary Rule #2: Improve Your Ability to Focus

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.

  • Neurologically, constant attention switching seems to have a lasting negative impact on brain effectiveness. People who switch tasks frequently and get distracted seem to be less able to filter out irrelevancy - they initiate larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand.
  • Behaviorally, if every moment of boredom in your life is relieved with reaching for your smartphone, your brain has likely been rewired to be addicted to distraction and novelty. You become hooked on discovering new information, and boredom becomes unbearable. This makes it harder to resist distractions.

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.

  • For example, some people take an Internet Sabbath (no Internet on Sunday) to avoid distraction for a day. But as an analogy to dieting, this is like eating well one day while eating terribly the rest of the week - you’re still going to gain weight.

Techniques to Increase Your Ability to 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.

  • Schedule internet use times explicitly in your schedule.
  • Keep a notepad nearby where you record the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet.
  • If your Internet time is thirty minutes away, but you have a craving, then resisting the craving will train your muscle to be stronger at resisting. It will get easier and easier to focus for longer periods of time without the itch.
  • Plan your work so you don’t need the Internet to make progress. If you get stuck by not being able to access the Internet, then move on to another task. Plan better next time.
  • If you do this primarily at work, then don’t stop this practice at home after work. This will undo the training you did at work.

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.

  • Estimate how long you’d normally schedule for the task. Then cut down the time drastically, and set it as 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.

  • Preload the problem in your head so you have enough to mull over. Remember what variables to consider, and what the desired output or the important question is. Don’t just go in empty-headed because you won’t have enough content to work with.
    • Example: if you’re working on a book chapter, the variables are the main points you want to make in the chapter. You can then work through how you want to flesh out the main points and sequence them in the chapter.
  • Like mindfulness meditation, notice when you have lost focus and bring it gently back to the problem. This too trains your mental muscles to focus and resist distraction.
  • Beware of “looping” endlessly at a superficial level you understand, without diving deep into areas that you’re not sure about. This is a sign that you’re just doing things that are comfortable for you, not making progress on the really difficult and meaningful parts.

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.

  • For example, if you train yourself to memorize the order of 52 shuffled playing cards, you will develop a level of focus that will improve your focus in work.
  • Suggested technique: people memorize images far more easily than an abstract string of characters. Therefore, one memory technique for memorizing a pack of cards is to associate each card with an image, then memorize the images in order. Specifically:
    • Picture 5 rooms in a house. Imagine walking through that house.
    • Picture 10 objects in each of these rooms, then 2 in the basement. Memorize their location and look as you walk through the house.
    • Associate each of the 52 cards with a person or thing. For...

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Shortform Exercise: Increase Your 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?

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Deep Work Summary Rule #3: Constrain Your Distractions

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.

The Problem with Social Media

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.

Justify Your Internet Usage

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.

Here’s how:

  • Make a list of the most important goals to you – professionally and personally.
  • Then list the two or three most important activities that help you progress toward the goal.
    • These activities should be specific enough to know what to do, but general enough that they’re not a one-time outcome.
    • “Do good research” is too vague, “Finish paper A” is too one-time and doesn’t suggest a repeatable practice to keep moving you forward. Instead, “regularly read the cutting-edge papers in the field” is better.
  • For each of your major tools (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc), describe whether/how they contribute meaningfully to your important goals.
    • If your personal goal is to develop meaningful relationships with those close to you, Facebook is likely inferior to calling old friends and scheduling outings.
    • If your professional goal is to develop innovative products that solve people’s problems, then spending time on Reddit or marketing yourself on Twitter may be less effective than focusing on the problem area and talking to experts in the field.
  • Tally up the time you spend on the distraction. Propose alternative activities that would get you closer to your major goals. These more meaningful activities are the true opportunity cost - if you spend time on unproductive tools, you have less time to spend on more productive activities.
  • 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.

Tactics for Better Internet Usage

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.

  • What holds people back from quitting is the conceit that people care what you have to say. In reality, much of social media for most people is a mutual exchange: “like my stuff and I’ll like yours too.” It’s not a genuine interaction, and it can be easily replaced by other people. If you quit social media, you may find that you weren’t missed at all.
  • Don’t announce that you’re leaving – this nurtures the conceit that people will miss you. Just drop off and see what happens. If anyone cares, they’ll get in touch with you another way.
  • If you quit reading news or participating in online flame wars, you may find yourself being more content and that you didn’t miss out on hearing a big announcement a few hours late.

2) Instead of the Internet, plan another way to spend your time.

  • ...

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Shortform Exercise: Reflect on Your Distractions

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.)

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Deep Work Summary Rule #4: Cut Out Shallow Work

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.

Constrain Your Worktime Each Day and Week

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.

  • This will effectively set a deadline for yourself. If you work only 8 hours a day, you have no choice but to get all the important things done.
  • This will also push frivolities out of the way, and you’ll realize unimportant tasks have a way of taking care of themselves.

(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?”)

Plan Out Every Minute of Your Day, and Quantify Depth

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:

  • Per your shutdown procedure, you ideally already know what you should be working on the day before.
  • Schedule some overrun blocks for tasks you suspect might run over, and buffer blocks to handle emergencies that arise.
  • As suggested above, schedule time in advance for when you’ll use the Internet. Avoid it completely outside these times.

Then, for each task:

  • Estimate the amount of time each task should take. Be realistic so you don’t break the time deadline significantly, but also give yourself time pressure so you have to work intensely.
  • Estimate the “deep work” complexity of the task. As a rule of thumb, imagine how long it would take to train a smart college graduate to do the task – the more time, the deeper the work.
    • Example: Executing a simpler operational task like an analytics report may just take a week for the college graduate to learn. In contrast, the complex task of researching an industry to find a new business opportunity may take months or years for a graduate to get up to your ability on.
    • (Shortform caveat: This heuristic doesn’t always work if you’ve built up a skill so strongly that it becomes routine. For instance, a surgeon operating may not consider a procedure deep work.)
  • Look over your schedule. If your task is full of shallow tasks, consider how you can replace those with deeper work.
    • How much of your schedule should be shallow work? The book suggests a guideline of 30-50% to start. It certainly shouldn’t be the majority of your time, but in most careers you can’t get away with lower.
    • For beginners to deep work, it’s not surprising for an 8-hour workday to have only 1 hour of real deep work.

To wrap up the day:

  • If time runs out on a task but you have momentum and inspiration, then keep going. After you finish, restructure your day by moving blocks around.
    • This addresses the complaint that too much structure decreases serendipity. And in reality, structuring time to get into deep work should increase the quantity of good ideas.
  • After each day, review the accuracy of your time blocks. This will help you set more accurate days in the future.

Set a Budget with Your Boss for Shallow Work

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.

  • Start with the high-level goal – the deep work components of your time generate the most value for the company. Does the boss agree? It’s important that deep work not be seen as an indulgent luxury, but rather as the best place to spend time.
  • Does it make sense to restructure your time to focus on deep work?
  • What are the expectations around shallow work (chats, emails, meetings)? Can you restructure your time to minimize those while still servicing the rest of the team?

Once people know that you’ll be spending more of your time in deep work, they’ll adjust their expectations in kind.

Learn to Say No to Shallow Work

You’ll be invited/coerced into doing work that...

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Shortform Exercise: Reducing Shallow Work

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?

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Deep Work Summary Checklist: Planning Your Day in 30-Minute Chunks

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.

  • Make a list of tasks you need to finish in the day.
  • Schedule time for each task to the nearest half-hour. Be realistic, but also set a challenging deadline to force focus.
  • Schedule time in advance for when you'll use the Internet. Avoid it completely outside these times.
  • Schedule overrun blocks for tasks you suspect might run overtime.
  • Look over your schedule. If you have lots of shallow tasks (more than 30-50% time), consider how you can replace these with deeper work.
  • During the day, if you have momentum on a task or feel particularly inspired, keep going. After you're done, reorganize your schedule.
  • At the end of the day, review the accuracy of...

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Deep Work Summary Checklist: End-of-Day Shutdown

Try to end each workday with a shutdown procedure like this one. By clearly stopping work, you’ll free your mind to relax.


  • Check your emails for any last urgent items.
  • Update your todo list of unfinished items.
  • Make sure every item in your todo list is scheduled to be done at some point.
  • Look through your calendar to make sure there aren’t important deadlines you forgot.
  • Make a todo list of tasks tomorrow.
  • Say...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Introduction
  • Idea #1: Deep Work is Important
  • Exercise: What’s Your Deep Work?
  • Idea #2: Deep Work is Difficult
  • Exercise: Your Greatest Distractions
  • Idea #3: Deep Work is Fulfilling
  • Rule #1: Practice Deep Work
  • Exercise: Create Your Deep Work
  • Rule #2: Improve Your Ability to Focus
  • Exercise: Increase Your Focus
  • Rule #3: Constrain Your Distractions
  • Exercise: Reflect on Your Distractions
  • Rule #4: Cut Out Shallow Work
  • Exercise: Reducing Shallow Work
  • Checklist: Planning Your Day in 30-Minute Chunks
  • Checklist: End-of-Day Shutdown