Deep work is defined by Cal Newport as intense, concentrated work that challenges your cognitive abilities, while shallow work refers to menial tasks like email responses and unproductive meetings that lack value and can be completed by anyone.
The economy has shifted towards information-based work, which requires skills like problem-solving and programming that demand deep work. Cal Newport argues that the ability to do deep work is crucial for thriving in the modern economy, but technology such as phones and apps are hindering our ability to concentrate. Despite the importance of deep work, it has become more difficult to achieve. This guide is divided into two parts: the benefits of deep work and the practices to create an environment that fosters deep work.
Idea #1: Deep Work Is Important
According to Cal Newport, deep work is crucial for success in the information economy because it enables you to do two things:
- Learn and master new skills: To stay relevant in the rapidly changing economy, you must continue to learn challenging new skills, which requires focus. To master a skill, you need an attainable goal, a learning method that aligns with your style, and a mentor to coach you.
- Apply the skills effectively: The quality of your work depends on the time spent and intensity of focus, but it must also be useful and effective. Peter Drucker explains how to determine if your work is effective in improving your performance or just increasing output for its own sake.
Idea #2: Deep Work Is Difficult
Cal Newport identifies three major obstacles that make deep work challenging in modern workplaces:
- Open floor plans, which were designed to increase collaboration, actually create constant distractions and make it difficult to concentrate.
- Instant communication tools like Slack and texting interrupt our work on-demand and turn us into human network routers.
- Social media provides endless, novel content that doesn’t contribute to our major goals and is addictive due to variable rewards. In the guide’s second part, we’ll explore strategies to overcome these obstacles and create an environment conducive to deep work.
Idea #3: Deep Work Is Fulfilling
Shallow work gives an illusion of productivity and importance, like answering emails and keeping up with Slack conversations. But Newport argues that deep work is what leads to true fulfillment and progress, as it enables tackling complex problems that yield the greatest rewards. This aligns with psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow,” where deep focus on a challenging task leads to a sense of purpose and contentment.
Practice #1: Plan Out Time for Deep Work
Newport suggests creating a structured approach to deep work to make it a habit and part of your daily routine. Simply trying to do deep work on demand is ineffective, and instead requires discipline and a practiced ritual. The first step is to set aside dedicated time for deep work.
The Four Types of Deep Work Scheduling
By making deep work a habit, you won’t need to rely on willpower to resist distractions. Newport advises setting aside dedicated time for deep work, and experimenting with different schedules to find what works best. He offers four different types of deep work schedules to consider, each with varying time commitments and effectiveness.
Schedule Type 1: Seclusion
To maximize deep work, eliminate shallow tasks and prioritize deep work instead. Some authors achieve this by disconnecting from email and social media, relying solely on postal mail or editors for correspondence. This allows for uninterrupted deep work, but may not be practical for most careers.
Schedule Type 2: Periodic
Set aside regular and extended periods of time each week, month, or year dedicated to deep work. The book emphasizes the need for at least one full day to achieve maximum intensity. For instance, you can reserve a three-day block each week for deep work while using the other two days for shallow work. This schedule allows for more realistic integration of deep work into your routine while still achieving the highest level of focus. However, it may not be feasible for those who need to perform daily tasks.
Schedule Type 3: Daily
Allocate a fixed time slot every day to prioritize deep work over shallow tasks, such as dedicating the morning hours solely to deep work. This approach is practical and helps form a habit, but it may not allow for maximum focus like the other scheduling methods.
Schedule Type 4: Ad Hoc
This is the most flexible schedule, where you do deep work whenever you have the opportunity. For instance, you may carve out a few hours to work while on a trip with your family. However, because it lacks regularity, it’s less effective in forming a habit and requires the ability to switch to deep work quickly.
How Much Deep Work Should You Try to Fit Into Your Day?
Newport warns that there is a cap on how much deep work can be achieved in a day. According to Ericsson’s book, Peak, novices can only manage an hour of intense concentration, while experts with extensive experience can stretch it to four hours, but seldom more.
Plan Out Your Days
Newport recommends various methods to ensure that you allocate sufficient time for deep work and avoid the temptation of shallow work during those periods.
Technique #1: Schedule Internet Time
To maximize deep work time, schedule Internet use in advance and avoid it outside of those times. Keep a notepad nearby to jot down ideas and next scheduled use. Plan work to minimize internet use and move on to other tasks if internet access is needed. Don’t stop this practice at home to maintain the training done at work.
Technique #2: Plan Out Every Minute of Your Day, and Quantify Depth
- Newport advises planning your day in advance to minimize task switching. He suggests breaking down tasks into half-hour blocks and scheduling buffer time to handle unexpected tasks.
- Newport suggests estimating the “deep work” complexity of each task by considering how long it would take to train a smart college grad to do the task. The more time it takes, the deeper the work. Then, review your schedule and replace shallow tasks with deeper work if necessary.
- Newport advises reflecting on your schedule at the end of each day to set more accurate goals and expectations in the future.
Technique #3: Set Ambitious Deadlines
Set challenging deadlines to enhance concentration. Estimate how long a task would normally take, then shorten the time drastically and set it as your deadline, according to Newport.
Practice #2: Build Your Deep Work Environment
Newport suggests creating an environment conducive to deep work by minimizing distractions.
Step 1: Create a Deep-Work-Only Environment
Create a space solely for deep work, advises Newport. This designated space should be used only for deep work, such as a conference room, a library, or a home office. This compartmentalization will reinforce the habit of deep work.
Step 2: Get Rid of Distractions
Newport emphasizes the importance of eliminating distractions to increase the amount of time spent in deep work.
Newport suggests that the “hub and spoke” office floor plan is optimal for deep work. Central hubs facilitate collaborative work, while spokes provide private spaces for focused work.
Newport warns that social media can create an illusion of productivity, but in reality, it yields small benefits. To take control of your technology use, he recommends evaluating each tool’s benefits and costs by following these steps. This will help you identify which tools are worth your time and which are not.
- Identify your key goals: Make a list of your most important professional and personal goals and the specific activities that help you achieve them.
- Evaluate your tech tools: Assess the meaningful contribution of each major tool, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, to your important goals.
- Experiment with quitting: If you’re unsure about a tool’s importance, try quitting it for 30 days and assess the impact on your life.
Newport suggests ways to minimize unproductive time spent on emails, which he sees as a significant time-waster for both senders and receivers.
1) Newport advises ensuring emails contain all necessary information, including the current state, ultimate goal, and effective next steps, to avoid unproductive back-and-forth emails. He emphasizes the importance of closing mental loops to prevent mental residue accumulation. An example of a bad email reply would be vague, while a better reply would include specific available times and instructions for scheduling a meeting.
2) Establish and share your email policy. Clarify how you will handle incoming emails, including which types you may reject. Newport recommends crafting a direct message, such as “Contact me via email only for speaking engagements, collaborations, or introductions that align with my interests. Note that I may not respond if it does not suit my schedule and interests.”
Practice #3: Train Your Focus
Newport suggests techniques to improve focus during deep work. One of these is allowing yourself to experience boredom during low-stimuli moments, instead of constantly reaching for your phone. This trains your brain to tolerate boredom and strengthens your “focus muscles.” For instance, resist the urge to check your phone while waiting outside a bar and take in your surroundings instead.
Newport advises creating a specific metric to define the success of your deep work practices. This keeps you focused on the task at hand, rather than worrying about how you should be using your time or if your results are sufficient. For instance, setting a goal to write 500 words every 30 minutes can provide a simple and measurable target.
Practice #4: Make the Most of Your Focused Time
Newport suggests ways to maximize your deep work sessions.
The 4 Disciplines of Execution
Newport presents four principles from the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution to help optimize time and focus during deep work sessions.
Newport shares four principles from the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution that can optimize deep work sessions. These principles help focus on the most important tasks and track progress in real-time.
- Prioritize the important tasks. Determine the tasks that will have the most significant impact and focus on them. By saying yes to the important tasks, trivial distractions will automatically be pushed aside.
- Use leading metrics. Real-time leading metrics like the number of pages written or new ideas generated are more effective than lagging metrics like end-of-year published papers.
- Keep metrics visible. Keep a physical display in the workspace, like a small whiteboard, to track leading metrics. This will help stay motivated and celebrate successes more frequently.
- Foster accountability. Regularly reviewing your deep work performance can help you stay on track and identify areas for improvement. Newport recommends setting aside time for a weekly review to evaluate your progress and plan for the week ahead. Use this time to analyze what worked well and what didn’t, and make adjustments to your schedule if needed.
Learn to Say No to Shallow Work
Newport advises knowledge workers to avoid shallow work, such as meetings and committees, by giving a vague response that doesn’t allow the requester to find a loophole. For instance, one could say, “I can’t make it due to schedule conflicts” or “Thank you for inviting me, but I won’t be able to make it.”
Ritualize Your Workday Shutdown
Newport advises creating a shutdown ritual to mentally disconnect from work and relax. The ritual should help you review your work, check for anything you may have missed, and plan for the next day. Examples include checking emails for any urgent items, updating your to-do list, reviewing upcoming deadlines on your calendar, and verbally marking the end of the workday with a phrase like “All done.”