Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Title: Deep Work
Author: Cal Newport
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
ISBN-10: 9780349413686
ISBN-13: 978-0349413686
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In a generation that is constantly distracted by several inputs, either from too many electronic devices or by the constant interruptions of a an open plan work space, Cal Newport is a contrarian emphasising that several hours of work where you are uninterrupted by devices or humans is essential if you want to perform ground-breaking work. In his book Deep Work, he classifies all important work that requires total focus and utmost concentration as deep work or the type of work in which you need to work hard and dive deep down into the depths of your brain or body to find focus and achieve your goals. All other work  which keep you busy, but have no significant change in your life, say checking emails, chatting with your colleagues over work and commuting as shallow work.

Why deep work?

Multi-tasking is a myth. When you perform two tasks at the same time or different tasks rapidly one after the other, we believe that we are being efficient. But the brain is unable to focus effectively on any of the tasks that are being worked on. This is especially true for work that requires concentration, such as writing a book, understanding a report, constructing a software program or even building a piece of furniture. The best things in life and those that make a lot of difference to our lives require pure unadulterated focus, otherwise the results will be a string of sloppy mistakes and forgone deadlines.

Newport makes the case that the best in their respective fields constantly put themselves out of reach when working on something important. He talks about J K Rowling booking a suite for herself at a five-star hotel in Edinburgh in order to complete the Harry Potter series. He even talks about entrepreneur Peter Shankman, who booked himself a round-trip flight from United States to Japan, and back, in order to complete the manuscript of a book. While the two examples seem extreme, it is clear that the two of them prioritised their work and the ability to work at them completely uninterrupted in order to realise their best quality of effort.

Deep work strategies

Newport talks about the following four strategies to make deep work easy for you day after day.

  1. Work deeply: is a set of habits that help you enter your deepest state of focus and stay there by keeping distractions at bay.
  2. Embrace boredom: is a set of practices that acknowledge that deep work day after day is boring and how you must embrace the process however boring it is.
  3. Quit social media: is a set of habits that help you cut out distraction from online social media by cutting them out of your life or at least by scheduling them to a meagre part of your day.
  4. Drain the shallows: is a set of habits that make sure that you set a hard deadline to your work hours, so that you have limited time to achieve what you need to and hence you cut your all shallow work.

Work deeply

Like most good habits, deep work requires that you schedule a set of habits that will help you work deep everyday. The set of habits you decide for yourself depends on the philosophy of deep work that you believe in. There are four such philosophies:

Image courtesy: Top Results Academy
  1. Monastic: Monastic persons believe in only thing: deep work at all costs. The word comes from the life of monks who are not connected to the outside world from inside a monastery. Nor do they make it easy for someone to reach their monastery quarters easily. Monastic deep work persons are unreachable for most of their lives. Occasionally they reach out to the world on their own accord when the latest work of their deep work is done and they need to share it with the world. This includes several authors whose works are known, but very little is known about their personal lives, since they decline interviews. Several technology companies are obscure until their software is released. Their engineers seem to work in a hermetic life.
  2. Bimodal: Bimodal people divide their time into seasons or halves. One half of their life is spent alone on deep work, while another is highly social. Professors who work on theses during holiday seasons are incredibly hard to reach during holiday seasons, whereas during the academic year, they are available all the time during college hours. Some company managers spend the first half of the day making business plans and tell their secretaries to put up a ‘Do not disturb’ board, but spend the second half of the day conducting meetings with employees, clients and share-holders.
  3. Rhythmic: Rhythmic people practise deep work like clockwork. They set a daily routine and prefer to allot a certain block of time every single day for deep work. Their life runs like a time-table with predictable blocks of time allocated to things everyday. Rhythmic approach requires discipline, but is one of the most effective ways to get deep work done. It is easy to follow for freelancers, authors, sculptors and chefs. A little bit done everyday goes on to compound the effects. In this type of approach, the consistency of deep work trumps the amount of time spent. Being a freelancer, I am a devout follower of the rhythmic approach, wherein I have two slots for deep work everyday: 4:30 am to 6:00 am and 1:30 pm to 3:00 pm. My phone has all its notifications switched off and is always on silent mode. So during those 3 to 4 hours, I never look at the phone or any other distractions.
  4. Journalist: The journalistic approach to deep work is whimsical, but still effective. Whenever the follower of the journalist approach finds a slot of time that he / she knows is guaranteed to be free of distractions, say after his/her kids have gone to sleep or are yet to wake up, this type of person dives in. Free time and down time are also used up for deep work. This approach is mostly due to chance, so nothing can be planned to a deadline. The person can put his/her best effort as soon as a slot becomes available.

Along with habits, the environment is wildly responsible for our ability to work deep or get distracted. Practitioners of deep work use all the opportunities to prioritise deep work and bust distractions. Locking their door, keep their rooms sparse, explaining others not to disturb them and setting deadlines are some ways in which these people ensure that they reach a deep state and are not disturbed.

Deep work people also realise that they need to stop when they get too tired of focusing hard. Hence they limit their day to 4 – 5 hours of deep work only. It’s possible that they have to drop what they are doing today only to work on it tomorrow. It is common to have the work lingering in their brains long after it was left incomplete. This is called Zeigarnik effect. Newport suggests that we take not of things that were left undone and make a plan of what will be done to complete it the next day. Then speak to you yourself a magic phrase such as ‘I am done’, so that your brain is relaxed into thinking that your work for the day is over and that a plan has been made for the next day.

Embrace boredom

Deep work can get very boring when done for long hours. But it is important not to give into distraction when the urge strikes. This is why it is important to practise deep work every day. Concentration doesn’t occur by will power. It is a skill that must be trained just like your muscles. During the initial days, your mind will wander at every opportunity. But with practice, you will master the act of focusing on a single task at a time, even when it seems boring.

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It is not possible to be free from distractions. So it is better to acknowledge that you need them and should schedule a part of your day to fulfill them. E.g. half an hour every day to check messages, email and social media content. You should not indulge in distractions during any other part of the day.

Quit social media

Cal Newport is not a member of social media. He has no account anywhere and is happy about it, since he doesn’t have to check for messages like you or I do. Events that he should care about usually reach him through someone. If something doesn’t reach him, then it’s probably not important enough.

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How is he able to stay away from social media like that? Due to his one principle where he evaluates the benefit. If your reason to join and stay connected to social media is vague and does not outline a clear benefit, then you are in it for the wrong reasons. Usually you should have a clear professional purpose for joining and an even clearer reason for checking the content everyday. It should not be due to casual reasons such as presence of friends or family or because everyone else is doing it. After joining, the social media should measurably improve your professional outreach. E.g. in my case, LinkedIn has allowed me to find several projects as a freelance, while YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have helped me share my blogs’s contents and increase engagement.

Newport is not against joining social media for family or friendship, but in that case, your time spent on them should be severely restricted, such as to once every week or month.

Drain the shallows

Draining the shallows means to set up your deep work time so restrictively such that shallow work cannot creep in. Newport shares the story of a few technology companies which reduced the number of working hours of work per day and even the number of working days per week. They reported no difference in the productivity.

During a traditional Mon – Fri, each day being 9 – 5, employees wasted a lot of time surfing the Internet, catching up on water cooler conversations and taking smoking breaks. However when the number of hours were reduced, they started using those hours more judiciously and came out having achieved the same amount of work that they’d have achieved in a regular work week.

When you reduce the time you have available for a task and set hard deadlines, your usually distracted brain eliminates the unnecessary things and focuses sharply.

Image courtesy: Square Space

In addition to your brain’s enhanced focus, here are some more tips that you can follow.

  1. It is not necessary to schedule any type of shallow work during the work day, e.g. meetings without clear agenda, errands and favours.
  2. It is not necessary to reply to communication unless explicitly asked for. E.g. an email that says, “Meeting at 2 pm”, doesn’t need a string of replies saying, “Ok”, “I’ll be there”, etc. It is only necessary to reply if you are unable to attend or if re-scheduling is needed.
  3. Make it a habit to ignore communication with a vague purpose. This will signal to the sender that it is not okay to send messages where the onus of understanding and inference is on the reader. Communication should be such that the reader is able to understand and take action immediately.


We live in a hyper-connected world today and the management of several companies tout that as a wonderful thing since they can always stay connected to employees, clients and stakeholders. But with such connectivity comes distraction and the loss of focus when working on something important.

Deep Work provides a contrarian view and a practical one, suggesting that nothing is more important than the hours you spend in isolated focus and achieve all the things that you have set yourself to, even if it comes at the cost of availability to other people.

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Published by

Harikrishna Natrajan

Unleashing life's full potential

2 thoughts on “Book Summary: Deep Work by Cal Newport”

    1. Indeed. Deep work is very rare these days. Those who are able to do it effectively are going on to become the most powerful people in the world, be it business builders or politicians.

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