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Deep Work by Cal Newport

  • Tue 16 February 2021
  • Books

In this book, Cal Newport shows that cognitively demanding intellectual work, that is deep work, is extremely valuable and rare at the same time. This includes rapid acquiring of new skills and gaining complex knowledge, as well as producing at a high quality level. If we prioritize this kind of activity over shallow work that does not require much effort from us, we will gain an advantage over most knowledge workers. That is because deep work is rare for good reason. Distracting office settings, internet centrism, finite amount of willpower, and exhaustiveness of such a work create obstacles. Fortunately, Cal offers many rules and strategies in the book that will not only help you develop the ability to immerse yourself in important work more often and for longer, but also give meaning to the activity itself.


Here is my outline of the book. This is based on a mindmap I created for this book.


  • Deep Work Definition: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
  • Shallow Work Definition: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
  • 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.

Part 1: The Idea

  • Deep Work is Valuable

    Three Groups Having a Particular Advantage. -- How to Become a Winner in the New Economy. -- Deep Work Helps You Quickly Learn Hard Things. -- Deep Work Helps You Produce at an Elite Level. -- An Example of Success Without Deep Work.

  • Deep Work is Rare

    The Metric Black Hole. -- The Principle of Least Resistance. -- Busyness as Proxy for Productivity. -- Internet-centrism or Technopoly.

  • Deep Work is Meaningful

    A Neurological Argument for Depth. -- A Psychological Argument for Depth. -- A Philosophical Argument for Depth.

Part 2: Rules

  • Rule #1: Work Deeply

    Depth Approaches: Monastic philosophy / Bimodal philosophy / Rhythmic philosophy / Journalistic philosophy. -- Ritualize. -- Make Grand Gestures. -- Don't Work Alone. -- Execute Like a Business: Focus on the Wildly Important / Act on the Lead Measures / Keep a Compelling Scoreboard / Create a Cadence of Accountability. -- Be Lazy. -- Downtime Aids Insights. -- Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply. -- The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important

  • Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

    Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus. -- Working with Great Intensity (like Teddy Roosevelt). -- Meditate Productively: Be Wary of Distractions and Looping / Structure Your Deep Thinking. -- Memorize a Deck of Cards.

  • Rule #3: Quit Social Media

    The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection. -- The Law of the Vital Few, or 80/20. -- Quit Social Media. -- Don't Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself.

  • Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

    Schedule Every Minute of Your Day. -- Quantify the Depth of Every Activity. -- Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget. -- Finish Your Work by Five Thirty, or Fixed-schedule productivity. -- Become Hard to Reach.

My five cents

Indeed, the author has made a strong case for why deep work is valuable but rare. Though I was more impressed by the arguments for why this type of activity is meaningful. For my part, I can say that when I manage to carve out several long blocks (at least 2-3 hours) for deep work on tasks during a day, I feel much more satisfied with my job at the end of the working day.

Working as a project manager, I can easily spend my day in shallow work. Numerous meeting calls, the need to be online to answer urgent questions from colleagues on various projects, chasing people to get something from them - all this strongly impedes the intention to work deeply. It even questions the possibility of deep work in the day of a project manager.

I believe, though, deep work can and should be present in the day-to-day experience of a project manager. For example, the following activities require a lot of cognitive efforts and are quite valuable:

  • Analysis of project risks
  • Scheduling a project taking multiple constraints into account
  • Taking courses and reading books for professional development
  • Mastering new software tools
  • Working on process improvements within the company
  • Automation of repetitive tasks
  • Data analysis

As such, I find the author's recommendations to be applicable to my work as well. I do try to apply some of them on a daily basis. For example, I use the built-in Kanbanflow feature to work in Pomodoro sessions. Thus, I follow a rule from the book “Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus”. Before starting the Pomodoro session, I turn off instant messengers and then, I will be working focused on the task for a while, without being distracted. Afterwards, I will turn on instant messengers again to make sure that nothing is urgently expected from me.

Kanbanflow also keeps statistics on the time spent in depth mode, which helps me understand how deeply I worked during the last week, for example, and generally understand the trend. This allows me to remain vigilant and not deviate from the intended strategy. Basically, this corresponds to the rule called “Keep a Compelling Scoreboard”.

Read this book to find out more suggestions how to make deep work central to your working life. I highly recommend this book to all knowledge workers.

Further Reading

  • Jung, Carl. Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
  • Sertillanges, Antonin-Dalmace. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirits, Conditions, Methods. Trans. Mary Ryan. Cork, Ireland: Mercier Press, 1948.
  • Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
  • Morozov, Evgeny. To Save Everything, Click Here. New York: Public Affairs, 2013.
  • Gallagher, Winifred. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. New York, Penguin, 2009.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990.
  • All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. New York: Free Press, 2011.
  • Baumeister, Roy F., and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.
  • McChesney, Covey, and Huling, The 4 Disciplines of Execution.
  • Bennett, Arnold. How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

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