A concept introduced in Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world” published 2016

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Target audience

  • those who want to increase productivity, especially knowledge workers (computer science falls under this)
  • those interested in the science of multitasking, attention, and productivity

What is deep work?

deep work: 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: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate

Newport claims the skill of deep work is becoming more rare and more valuable at the same time.

Those who cultivate this skill and make it core to their working lives will thrive.

Why is deep work rare and valuable?

Shallow work is easier and encouraged by businesses: constant connectivity (slack), fast responses, open offices. It is very easy to adopt shallow working styles due to it being the path of least resistance.

Deep work is valuable because it maximizes the amount of productivity that can be squeezed out of fixed time. It involves:

  • single tasking
  • no distractions
  • intense focus
  • extended periods of time (see attention residue)

Attention residue

Essentially, this is the cost of task switching. Context switching from task A to task B results in partial attention remaining at task A. Working in a state of semi-distraction is devastating to performance.

Deep work as a skill

Improving at the skill of deep work can be split into:

  • improving ability to concentrate intensely
  • overcoming desire for distraction

This skill needs to be practiced and fostered over a long period of time.


4 rules of deep work

Newport provides 4 rules to help deploy deep work in our lives.

rule 1: work deeply: Hard since it takes effort. Environment and culture doesn’t favour deep work. Willpower is limited. Need rituals/routines to help employ deep work.

rule 2: embrace boredom: Intense concentration must be trained. Giving in to distractions at any sign of boredom hinders the ability to develop the intense concentration required for deep work. Embrace boredom and train to resist distractions.

rule 3: quit social media: Social media facilitates distractions and shallow work due to its addictive nature.

rule 4: drain the shallows: Schedule time for deep work and spend as little time on shallow work as possible.

Using routines to ritualize deep work

The world pushes us towards shallow work. Design rituals and routines to minimize the willpower necessary to transition into and maintain blocks of deep work.

Ad-hoc approaches (as opposed to systematic approaches) are less effective since they rely on willpower, which is much less sustainable.

Different philosophies to draw from when creating routines:

Monastic philosophy: Cutting out distractions completely like a monk in a monastery.

Bimodal philosophy: Alternates between normal engagement and a monastic approach.

Rhythmic philosophy: Fixed time for deep work every day or fixed day throughout the week.

Journalistic philosophy: Fit deep work into schedule when possible, like a journalist ready to write for a deadline. Newport’s main approach.

Saying “yes” to the wildly important

Saying “no” to distractions is not motivating in itself. Saying “no” to distractions for the sake of achieving an ambitious goal is high motivating.

It’s a lot easier to say “no” when there is an even bigger “yes” worth pursuing.

This requires figuring out that wildly important goal in order to banish distractions to achieve it quickly.

Systematic idleness

Regularly resting the brain improves the quality of deep work. Work = work and rest = rest with no compromises.

This helps deep work because:

  • downtime aids insights: some decisions are made better by the unconscious mind
  • downtime recharges the deep work battery
  • the work that downtime replaces is not usually important: this is usually shallow work anyways

Systematic idleness involves true leisure: going for a walk, casual conversation, listening to music, playing games, exercising.

Shut down rituals facilitate downtime. At the end of a work day, shut down work thinking completely until the next work day. This can be made easier if we make an after-work commitment to a friend/ourselves. Then we can plan backwards.

Roosevelt dashes

Essentially interval training for the brain. A simple way to inject some deep work. They can help achieve new levels of concentration.

  1. pick a high priority deep task
  2. estimate how long this would normally take
  3. give yourself a hard deadline that is less than the estimate
  4. now there’s only one way to get it done – intense concentration and deep work