Deep Work: Book Review

A review of “Deep Work” by Cal Newport.

During the research I have done so far into time management, I have noticed that Deep Work by Cal Newport gets cited frequently, so I had to check it out to see what I could learn.

Here I have provided an overview of the content with my comments throughout and in the Takeaway section at the bottom. If you have read it, please feel free to post your own thoughts in the comments section.


Deep Work examines the difference between two types of work, which he refers to as shallow work and deep work.

Newport defines deep work as:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create a new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.”

Shallow work, on the other hand, is:

“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.”

PART I: The Idea

Chapter 1: Deep work is valuable

Newport hypothesises that the ability to perform deep work is something that is becoming increasingly rare in society, coinciding with a time that it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.

He uses a few real-life stories of different people to highlight the value of deep work.

Newport believes that the people who thrive in the world will be those possessing the following two core abilities:

1 – The ability to master difficult things quickly.

2 – The ability to produce work at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

And both of these depend on your ability to carry out deep work.

He goes into the science of focusing your attention deliberately and intensely on a specific skill and the effect that has on your brain circuitry.

You’re basically training the neurons in your brain to fire more efficiently, which allows you to focus your attention even more effectively and in turn, helps you produce better work.

No academic work would be complete without a little formula thrown in, so we get the following law of productivity:

High-quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)

An interesting effect that was introduced to me through this book is something called attention residue, which I have referred to in other posts.

This was named and studied by Professor Sophie Leroy and essentially explains why multi-tasking and switching your focus from one task to another doesn’t work well.

“ . . . when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.”

Cal Newport, Deep Work

Newport is quick to point out that many people may believe that they don’t have jobs that require deep work.

However, while that may be the case, he goes on to say that just because your current habits might make it difficult to engage in deep work doesn’t mean that it cannot be applied in some way.

Unless you have solid evidence that distraction is an important part of your specific job role, you should still give deep work some serious consideration.

Chapter 2: Deep work is rare

In this chapter, Newport discusses the detrimental effects of distraction in the workplace such as email habits and social media and how they reduce people’s ability to perform deep work.

He also examines the issue of constant connectivity in the workplace and why it is so pervasive.

Within the context of assembly lines and “making stuff”, productivity is unambiguous, but that is not the case when it comes to knowledge work, so busyness has now become a proxy for productivity.

In other words, knowledge workers tend towards increasingly visible busyness (e.g. pinging around emails all day) for lack of a better way to demonstrate their value.

This creates a mindset that replying to emails, setting meetings and sending instant messages makes you productive.

And deep work struggles to find a place in such an environment.

Newport discusses how deep work should be a priority in today’s business climate, but it is extremely difficult to compete against the addictive backdrop of tweets, likes, tagged photos and posts.

Chapter 3: Deep work is meaningful

Here Newport hypothesizes that “deep work is meaningful and that a deep life is not just economically lucrative, but also a life well-lived.”

“Who you are, what you think, feel and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.”

Despite the trend for more shallow work in the workplace, it seems that humans are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.

He makes neurological, psychological and philosophical arguments for his case and uses examples from craftsmen, writers and his own life to illustrate his points.

Overall, he makes a compelling argument and ultimately, concludes that a “deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.”

PART 2: The Rules

Newport lays out four rules in the second part of the book.

Rule #1: Work deeply

The biggest hurdle to overcome is the urge to turn your attention to something more superficial and shallow. We all fight desires all day long and we only have a finite amount of willpower to fight those urges.

Newport suggests the use of routines and rituals to develop deep work habits.

You also need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your life. There are different methods you can use to employ deep work, which Newport explores in this chapter, but ultimately, the message is that you need to find what works best for you.

The importance of having a “shutdown ritual” in the evening is covered in this section and he puts it down to something called the Zeigarnik effect, which describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. David Allen discussed this in his book, Getting Things Done and describes it as “closing the loop”.

Rule #2: Embrace boredom

Don’t become accustomed to on-demand distraction. This becomes an addiction and it will make it harder for you to cultivate the focus and attention required to perform deep work.

Schedule time for distraction and don’t let it invade deep work. Distraction here really refers to the internet and your phone.

Rule #3: Quit social media

By this point in the book, you’ll have come to realize that Newport is not a big fan of social media.

And I get it, because neither am I.

Social media platforms are a constant source of distraction and they have been deliberately engineered to be that way.

And they are a constant threat to deep work if you get sucked in.

However, rather than dogmatically stating that all social media is bad and no-one serious about deep work should ever use it, he explores it as one of many tools available, but asks us to consider it more carefully and only use it if the positive impacts on your success, happiness, professional and personal life outweigh the (many) negative effects.

Most of us are familiar with the Pareto Principle, aka the Law of the Vital Few, and have heard its application to business, which can be basically summarized as 80% of a given effect comes from 20% of the possible causes. For example, 80% of your business comes from 20% of your clients; or 80% of a nations’ wealth is held by 20% of its citizens, etc.

In this section, Newport explores the Law of the Vital Few within the context of our internet habits, advising that we should consider whether time spent using tools like Twitter and Facebook actually add any value to our professional endeavours or whether deep work activities are where we should be investing our time.

If quitting social media altogether seems like a measure that is far too draconian for you, Newport suggests trying thirty days of “network isolation” and after thirty days, ask the following questions:

  1. Would the last thirty days have been better if I’d been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

A “no” to both indicates you should quit.

If there is a ‘yes”, then return to it.

Seems like a reasonable approach to me.

Rule #4: Drain the shallows

Schedule every minute of your day.

Quantify the depth of every activity.

Commit to what Newport calls fixed-schedule productivity, which means finish your work by five-thirty (or similar pre-determined time) and then focus your attention on something other than work.

Become hard to reach. This applies greatly to email. Learn how to manage your emails efficiently. I have examined a great strategy for doing so in this post.

Time Hack Hero Takeaway

The concepts discussed throughout the book are valid, but part of me feels that it’s really an academic intellectualization of a fairly simple notion that if you want to get serious stuff done, you need to schedule time that is free of distraction so that you can give it your undivided attention.

Stop wasting hours each day on trivial stuff like social media and immerse yourself deeply in something that gives your life meaning and makes you happy. In other words, a deep life is a good life.

If I’ve missed something, tell me!

So, would I recommend it?

I’ve read the book twice, fairly quickly in a “deep-work state”, but not sure if I could have got through it so easily if I were reading it on a more casual basis.

The tone is quite like that of an academic paper, although that is to be expected from someone of Newport’s obvious intellectual ability and of course, the fact he is a university professor.

While I feel the advice is geared towards more academic pursuits, there are some good time management takeaways that I think most people could apply to their life in some way.

So, yeah – give it a go!

More Reading

Eat That Frog! Book Review

The 4-Hour Workweek: Book Review

How To Stop Procrastinating

How To Deal With Internet Distractions

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