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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...

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Deep Work Summary Deep Work Guide 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,...

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Deep Work Summary Deep Work Guide 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...

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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 Deep Work Guide 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...

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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 Deep Work Guide 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...

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Deep Work Summary Deep Work Guide 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...

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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 Deep Work Guide 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...

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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 Deep Work Guide 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...

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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 Deep Work Guide 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...

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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 Deep Work Guide 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...

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Deep Work Summary Deep Work Guide 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...

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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