by Cal Newport

Book Cover

This book captivated my attention, and aligned a lot with some of my values (craftsmanship, focus, continuous improvement). I strongly recommend reading it.


Best summarized by a quote

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.


Deep work is both the kind of work that brings value, and the state of focus and absorption required to produce it. Deep work is opposed to shallow work, work that has the appearance of being busy, but actually produces marginal or no outcome.

Main thesis is that deep work is a major source of satisfaction. It elaborates on the importance of craftsmanship, continuous improvement, and tolerating boredom and cerebral pain to the profit of long term happiness and satisfaction. It also places the mastery of a complex skill as central. Deep work yield results fast and focusing on deep work permits to work less. Deep work, however, is becoming increasingly rarer, due to the constant distraction offered to the brain, and the immediate gratification that comes out from it. The illusion of business coming from shallow work can also incentivize people against deep working, which is also harder. Social conventions are paradoxically expecting an emphasis on shallow attitudes like answering emails promptly and late, open space environments, phone conferences, being busy in meetings and such. Ironically, the rise of automation and machine learning render deep work, which can be only be performed by humans, all the more important. Deep work is not applicable to every knowledge workers as a day to day practice. Notably, executives are better employed making decisions over work produced by reports effectively producing the deep work. However, a case can be made for them to occasionally practice deep work around ideation and strategy (e. G. Bill Gates retreating 2 weeks a year to think and read). These are more exceptions than they are rules and therefore don’t apply to most.

A number of ways to accomplish deep work :

  • isolation - being harder to reach and far from distractions
  • grand gesture - monetary commitment, communicated deadlines and such make deep work more solemn and pressing
  • deep working with people on a focused task (e. G. Pair programming)
  • getting into the habit, by setting recurring focused slots of time to deep work
  • ‎trying to set disconnected timeslots to get back the capacity to focus, during which any connections (which are too great a risk for disruption) are forbidden
  • ‎on the contrary, setting timeslots for shallow work, outside of which shallow tasks are prohibited
  • ‎use walking meditation - occupy body somehow, and stay focused on a topic, try to advance it. Prevent looping on the topic. Way to occupy commute or dog walking.
  • ‎stay well rested, prevent overtime. A) focus and attention are limited resources, brain needs to restore itself. B) unconscious is working the problem on the back burner. Sleep on it.
  • ‎set deliberately too short deadlines to accomplished a task, and take commitments on these, to force oneself to be focused on finishing it asap.
  • set a maximum ratio of shallowness vs deep, getting approval from management, maintaining this balance by reducing the time spent on shallow tasks like email and meetings. Example- adhoc meetings when projects are advanced to limit useless weekly status meetings
  • categorize what constitutes deep work vs. not by the number of months it would take a freshly minted worker to get trained and replace you to do it.
  • organize days very precisely so that the mind stays focused on the tasks and does not require to think about organization, keeping some open spots for unplanned activities, accepting to throw the planning away to follow an interesting idea
  • quit social media. Newport makes an interesting case that digital tools should be assessed against one’s goals the same way as other tools. For most objectives (staying connected with friends, entertainment, information, marketing …) they perform poorly. He argues that they thus offer poor benefits at a great cost (captivating attention which is a limited resource) and are thus better ignored if possible. Also remember that they are companies competing for your attention and trying to make money out of you.
  • ‎become hard to reach - determine what minimum work you expect from a sender to deserve a reply from you, stop replying if not met. Communicate on that if necessary.
  • ‎use goal-oriented answers: when answering, advance the “project” as much as possible to reduce the clutter in communication (e. G. we should see each other -> ok, what about monday or Tuesday at 5pm or 6pm at the zxx cafe, if not give me a call at 505.123.1234 by tomorrow evening)
  • use deep work in all aspects of life, including relaxation. This seems counter intuitive, relaxation should be relaxing. Focused and productive hobbies that absorb attention are better at switching the brain from worries and distractions, and they’re also more fulfilling (pride in the craft)

About Reading Notes

These are my takes on this book. See other reading notes. Most of the time I stop taking notes on books I don't enjoy, and these end up not being in the list. This is why average ratings tend to be high.