Notes on Deep Work


Deep work: professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit, create new value, improve your skill, hard to replicate

As opposed to shallow work: non-cognitively demanding, logistic style tasks, often performed while distracted, low value and easy to replicate.

Most workers (esp knowledge workers) do a ton of shallow work.

There is a massive opportunity for people who prioritize depth.

Part 1: Motivation

The first section of the book is Newport making the case that deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful.


It's essential to (1) learn new, hard skills quickly and (2) perform at a high level (both in terms of speed, quality) both involve pushing skills and capabilities to their limits.

Newport also talks about biological/neurological mechanisms for why learning/working while distracted is less effective


Newport basically needs this chapter so people can't say, "if deep work is so valuable, why don't more people do it?"

His answer: (1) metric black hole (hard for businesses to measure who, what is really productive) and (2) path of least resistance (running day out of inbox, sitting on skype just easier) another reason: culturally, people view tech as being worth it if it provides ANY benefit (regardless of costs).

For example: "I read that really cool thing on twitter once" vs the usual where you wasted a bunch of time/were distracted.

"Principle of least resistance + metric black hole = work cultures that save us from short term discomfort of concentration and planning at the expense of long-term satisfaction and creation of real value." - Newport


Happiness researchers: "best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."

Most people underestimate happiness at work, overestimate happiness relaxing.

Much of shallow work is trivial, annoying, stressful <- not deep working means this is at the forefront of your attention much of the time.

Part 2: Practice

The 2nd part of the book is HOW to do more/better deep work necessary because deep work isn't just something that'll happen because you want it to, you need systems, routines, habits, etc.

He supports with examples from historical, known deep workers, lessons drawn.

Bottom line basically: don't be haphazard in work habits don't wait for inspiration.

In talking about how to do deep work Newport zooms in and out of different levels over different chapters.

Generally, I'd divide the advice up as:

High level: identify what you're deep working towards, track deep work, do weekly reviews.

Lower or medium level, e.g.:

  • plan out every minute of your day
  • be done working at a certain time
  • say no/minimize shallow obligations

Separately, Newport puts a big emphasis on -- even when not (deep) working -- not giving in to mindless phone/internet/distraction

High Level.

Newport goes through some business literature talking about HOW people achieve goals.

  1. identify small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with deep work hours
  2. act on lead measures (time spent in a state of deep work dedicated towards ambitious outcomes)
  3. keep a compelling scoreboard (e.g. tally of hours deep worked per week in office)
  4. create a cadence of accountability

For (4), Newport did weekly reviews, where he look over scoreboard and celebrate good weeks, understand what led to bad weeks, figure out how to ensure good scores in days ahead

Lower/Medium Level Planning Daily Planning

Most people spend more time on shallow work then they realize.

To combat: plan every minute of your day in 30 minute increments.

Cal newport does his daily planning either: (1) night before, (2) first thing in the morning, (3) after he knocks out a big task in the morning.

Don't just plan work, plan lunch, relaxation too.


Planning doesn't mean you can't be flexible, if you get interrupted or things take longer just replan remainder of day when you need to.

The goal isn't to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it's instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you're doing with your time going forward -- even if those decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.

Can plan "task blocks", where just knock out smaller, specific things you have to do.

Newport has a rule for himself: if stumbles upon a really important insight, OK to spend rest of day thinking about it.

Most people use a plan as wishful thinking at first (definitely true in my experience), but should try to be accurate/conservative.

Weekly Planning

Note: not a lot of stuff on weekly planning in Newport's book, instead some of these notes are from posts on his blog. usually spends 1+ hour planning week

Be flexible, can do goals for each day or broader heuristics ("need to spend 3 hours each day on...").

Big part of weekly planning process if working back from calendar to fill open time effectively.

Full Horizon Planning

Same as above about not in Deep Work, found on blog.

Newport views work in terms of projects. Each project has two states: dormant or active.

If it's dormant, tracked somewhere that he regularly reviews (so he won't forget about it).

If it's active, he makes a plan for how and when the whole thing will be completed.

"To pull this off, this plan must exist at multiple levels of refining granularity. That is, on the monthly level, I know what weeks I will work on the project, and only when I get to those weeks do I plan out what days I will work on it, and only when I get to the specific days do I figure out which hours it will consume."

"These plans, of course, change as things unfold, but the point is that I don’t deal in abstractions, I like to work directly with the brute physicality of time. This makes sure I get the most out of the cycles I have available, and it prevents me from committing to more than is feasible."

Be done by 5:30

Newport calls this "fixed-schedule productivity"

Works backward to fit all he needs to get done in his time allocated for working. He thinks it makes him more productive.

"Because my time is limited each day, I cannot afford to allow a large deadline to creep up on me, or a morning to be wasted on something trivial, because I didn't take a moment to craft a smart plan."

Includes some non-work benefits:

  • more present with family
  • reads more books
  • more comfortable being bored

Eliminate shallow obligations

You should get comfortable saying no to things. No should be the default.

"The bar for gaining access to your attention and time should be very high."


Do more work when sending/responding.

It's tempting to do quickest thing to get it out of your inbox, but wastes time in the long run. Instead think about "project" the email represents, what the desired state of that project is and how to get there, then in your response make clear where you are currently/how to get there.

Get comfortable not responding. Don't respond if:

  • it's not something that interests you
  • nothing really good/bad would happen if you did/didn't respond


Obviously distraction during work is bad, it's one of definitions of shallow work.

But even when you're not working, will be much better off if can wean self from dependence on distraction

"Same way athletes take care of bodies outside just training, you'll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom"

I.e. don't just give in and mindlessly surf when you're waiting in line, etc need to be comfortable being bored.

This will help you work even deeper when you are doing it

Instead of being always online, on phone etc, with occasional breaks to focus, do the reverse: always off, with scheduled times to give into distraction if you actually need to use the internet a lot, just schedule more time for it

This isn't in deep work, but this helped me re phone (basically solved me feeling like I spend too much time on my phone, wish every problem I had was this easy to solve):