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Deep Work by Cal Newport.
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Cal Newport defines “deep work” as focused, uninterrupted, undistracted work on a task that pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit. In contrast, “shallow work” describes tasks that aren’t as cognitively demanding—like answering emails and attending unproductive meetings. These tasks don’t create much value and anyone can do them.

(Shortform note: Some of Newport’s contemporaries refer to deep work and shallow work as reflective work and reactive work. However, regarding some tasks, the boundary between “reflective” and “reactive” can be confusing. For example, you may think that because emails require you to reflect on an adequate response, they count as reflective work—though they’re shallow work, by Newport’s definition.)

Over the past decades, the economy has moved away from brute force labor to analyzing and applying information. Newport explains that skills that succeed in the modern economy—like complex problem solving, data analysis, and computer programming—require deep work to learn and execute. He argues that your ability to do deep work will determine how much you thrive in the information economy. Ironically, the same technologies that built the information economy are depleting our ability to do deep work. Phones, emails, and addictive apps pull us away every few minutes. Thus, at a time when deep work is most important, it’s also most difficult.

(Shortform note: These ideas aren’t new—Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive, published in 1966, discusses the rising “knowledge economy.” Drucker’s best practices for standing out in the knowledge economy align closely with several deep work practices we’ll explore later in this guide, such as cutting out time-wasting activities, scheduling tasks into uninterrupted blocks of time, and focusing on one task at a time.)

This guide is divided into two parts. First, we’ll cover the three foundational ideas of deep work and learn about its benefits. Then, we’ll explore practices that will help you create a supportive environment for engaging in deep work.

Idea #1: Deep Work Is Important

Newport argues that deep work allows you to do two things critical to your performance in the information economy:

  1. Learn and master new skills: Newport explains that technology and best practices become obsolete quickly in the information economy. In order to stay relevant over decades, you must continue to learn challenging new skills—which requires focus. (Shortform note: Experts have pinpointed several actions that usually lead to skill mastery: First, determine if your goal is attainable and ensure that the skill is relevant to your career. Then, find a method that aligns with your learning style and allows you to take on the skill bit by bit, instead of all at once. Finally, rely on others—find a mentor who can coach you and help you reflect on your progress.)
  2. Apply the skills to increase your output: Once you’ve learned a skill, you need to do something useful with it. Consider the simple rule: High-quality work produced = Time Spent x Intensity of Focus. (Shortform note: The key here is that what you do with your skill must be useful. In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker explains how to determine if your work is effective—useful work that improves your performance and comes with application of Newport’s rule—or just efficient—productivity for the sake of increasing output that’s not necessarily useful or high-quality.)

Idea #2: Deep Work Is Difficult

Newport explains that deep work is difficult because our world bombards us with near-constant distractions. He outlines three major ways that modern workplaces derail knowledge workers’ ability to engage in deep work.

  1. Open floor plans: Open floor plans were meant to increase collaboration. But Newport explains that they're a continuously distracting environment, where every conversation is heard, and one person can disrupt dozens of people. (Shortform note: Before the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies were already starting to rethink their open floor plans, finding that putting so many employees in a shared space was creating too much distraction. For these companies, the pandemic highlighted the heightened risk of disease transmission in open shared spaces and accelerated their decision to leave open floor plans behind.)
  2. Instant communication: With instant-messaging tools like Slack and texting, people can interrupt your work on-demand. According to Newport, as a result of this, we stop being deep thinkers and become human network routers. (Shortform note: We’ll look at actionable steps to make instant messaging less distracting in the section on building your deep work environment, for instance using the platform’s features to notify senders that you won’t be responding immediately.)
  3. Social media: On social media platforms, conversations continue endlessly, 24/7. 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. (Shortform note: The addictive quality of social media is due to our attraction to variable rewards: rewards that happen at random times, rather than in a predictable pattern. You can’t predict which refresh of your newsfeed will reward you with interesting information or likes, so the action never loses its appeal.)

Idea #3: Deep Work Is Fulfilling

Shallow work is deceptively bad because it feels productive and...

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Deep Work Summary Deep Work Guide Shortform Introduction

“Deep work”—totally focused, undistracted work—is the way to thrive in today’s information economy, explains professor Cal Newport in Deep Work. His method of blocking off chunks of time to focus intensely on a single task strengthens your ability to learn difficult things quickly and optimize your output—both of which are key skills for knowledge workers, or those who work with information. He explains why deep work is so valuable and then helps you design your life to allow more time for deep work.

About the Author

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He’s published eight books. His first three books focus on advice for students: How to Win at College, How to Become a Straight-A Student, and How to Be a High School Superstar. In 2007, in tandem with his work on these books, he started his popular blog, _[Study...

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Deep Work Summary Deep Work Guide Introduction: What Is Deep Work?

Cal Newport defines “deep work” as 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 emails, filling out paperwork, and attending unproductive meetings. These tasks don’t create much value and anyone can do them.

Newport asserts that groundbreaking ideas and meaningful progress come from deep work, not shallow work. Shallow work is incremental. Deep work can be transformational.

(Shortform note: Newport discusses an early iteration of deep work and its transformational effect in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. He says that many people, when looking for work, make the mistake of looking for a job they love. While this may feel good in the short term, it won’t pan out into a career you love in the long term. He says that what really sets you apart and guarantees success is developing scarce, prized skills—which he calls “career capital”—that let you choose among scarce, prized careers. In Deep Work, he expands on this idea by...

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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 Part 1: Why Deep Work Matters | Chapters 1-3: It’s Important, Difficult, and Fulfilling

Newport outlines three foundational ideas to keep in mind as you learn to commit yourself to deep work:

  • It’s important, and therefore necessary.
  • It’s difficult, and therefore rare.
  • It’s fulfilling, and therefore worth your time.

Idea #1: Why Deep Work Is Important

Newport says that in our current information economy, those who have the ability to master technology and solve complex problems are the most valuable types of people. He argues that 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 five years ago might be obsolete today. Newport notes that this is true of fields as wide-ranging as computer programming, marketing, academic research, and financial investments. He explains that, to stay relevant over decades, you must continue to learn challenging new skills—which requires focused concentration.

(Shortform note: Experts have pinpointed several actions that usually lead to skill mastery: First, determine if your goal is attainable and...

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Deep Work Summary Deep Work Guide Part 2: Deep Work Practices | Chapter 4: Plan Out Time for Deep Work

After establishing what deep work is and why it’s important in Part 1, Newport moves on to explain different ways to make deep work practices part of your life. The first step he outlines is carving out time that you’ll dedicate to deep work. He warns that it’s very difficult to simply will yourself to do deep work on demand. It’s much more effective to approach deep work with structure, habit, and discipline—in other words, to make deep work a practiced ritual.

Ritualizing deep work is important because, without a ritual’s structure, distractions quickly get in the way. According to Newport, distractions are anything that you’d rather be doing than deep work—such as scrolling social media, taking a nap, or hanging out with friends. You use willpower to overcome these distractions and get back on task. Newport argues that you have a finite amount of willpower each day. If you have to continuously force yourself to switch from distractions back to deep work, you’ll deplete your willpower and more easily give in to distraction. This limits you from reaching the maximum of your deep work potential.

The Debate Around “Willpower Depletion”

Recent research has...

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Shortform Exercise: Determine Your Deep Work Schedule

Deep work doesn’t just happen—you need to make time for it in your schedule.


Think about your goals. To achieve them, how much of your day should be dedicated to deep work tasks? (For example, you may only be spending one hour per day in deep work, but should be spending at least two hours.)

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Deep Work Summary Deep Work Guide Chapter 5: Build Your Deep Work Environment

In addition to scheduling time for deep work, Newport encourages you to build an environment that supports deep work by reducing distraction triggers.

(Shortform note: This chapter focuses on external triggers that might prevent you from focusing on your work. We’ll explore internal triggers that drive you to distraction in Chapter 6.)

Step 1: Create a Deep-Work-Only Environment

There are several ways that you can create an environment that lends itself to undistracted focus:

Designate a Deep Work Space

Newport says you should choose a place that you go to only for deep work (like a conference room, the library, or an office in your home)—you won’t do any shallow work in this place. Save it for another place dedicated only to shallow work. Compartmentalizing your location this way will cement the habit of deep work more strongly.

Once you have a location for your deep work, Newport urges you to add support in ways that allow for more focused deep work—like starting with coffee, having enough food, and integrating light exercise into your routine.

(Shortform note: In Atomic Habits, James...

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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 Chapter 6: Train Your Focus

As we said earlier, most beginners can only do about an hour of deep work at a time, but you can train your brain to focus for longer and longer stretches of time. Newport offers several techniques for this.

1) Let Boredom Happen

Newport points out that most people, in idle moments like waiting in line or waiting for the oven to preheat, reflexively pull out their phones for a quick scroll through social media or their texts. He points out that by always filling in these low-stimuli moments with a high-stimuli activity, you deplete your brain’s ability to tolerate boredom.

Even if you set aside time for deep work, you won’t be able to do the work during that time unless you strengthen your brain’s “focus muscles.” Newport suggests consciously letting yourself be bored in these low-stimuli moments.

  • For example, if you’re waiting outside of a bar for your friend, consciously resist taking your phone out. Instead, just sit still and take in whatever’s going on around you.

Over time, your brain will be able to go for longer periods of time without seeking high-stimulus activities like scrolling the Internet or looking at your phone.

(Shortform note: Comedian...

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Shortform Exercise: Reflect on Your Feelings of Distraction

A helpful practice in training your brain to focus is paying attention to what internal triggers are driving you to distraction.


What are the feelings that usually precede a distracted behavior? (For example, you experience feelings of anxiety, boredom, or anger.)

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Deep Work Summary Deep Work Guide Chapter 7: Make the Most of Your Focused Time

Once you have the schedule and the environment, you must actually do deep work. Newport offers several suggestions to make the most of your focused time and environment.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Newport outlines four principles of deep work that come from the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution. During deep work sessions, use these principles to optimize your time and focus on the right things.

Principle 1: Focus On What’s Important

When choosing what to work on, figure out what things have the largest impact. Then, instead of trying to say no to trivial distractions, simply say yes to the most important task or goal. This process helps crowd out shallow tasks that don’t support your goals.

Newport recommends choosing only a small number of such goals so that you only have to focus on keeping trivial tasks out rather than maintaining a large list of things to accomplish.

(Shortform note: In Built to Last, Jim Collins outlines steps to creating “big, hairy, audacious goals,” or BHAGs—he urges you to...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Shortform Introduction
  • Introduction: What Is Deep Work?
  • Exercise: What’s Your Deep Work?
  • Part 1: Why Deep Work Matters | Chapters 1-3: It’s Important, Difficult, and Fulfilling
  • Part 2: Deep Work Practices | Chapter 4: Plan Out Time for Deep Work
  • Exercise: Determine Your Deep Work Schedule
  • Chapter 5: Build Your Deep Work Environment
  • Exercise: Reflect on Your Distractions
  • Chapter 6: Train Your Focus
  • Exercise: Reflect on Your Feelings of Distraction
  • Chapter 7: Make the Most of Your Focused Time