Book Review: Deep Work

Part I: The Idea

In the opening section, Newport defines deep work and constructs his hypothesis for why deep work is useful. Newport defines deep work as: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Deep work stands opposite of shallow work which is “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks” that “tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

Newport’s hypothesis is that as the economy becomes increasingly knowledge-based, deep work becomes more valuable and more uncommon due to the huge number of distractions in day to day life. To excel in a knowledge-based world, Newport argues that you must cultivate deep work to acquire the ability to “quickly master hard things” and “produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.” The second part of the book provides techniques for reaching an elite level.

Newport shows that the oft-cited counterexample to deep work, the perpetually distracted CEO, is not a knowledge worker but a “hard-to-automate decision engine.” A CEO does not conduct deep work but makes decisions based on experience to direct and guide the business. Most knowledge workers are not “decision engines” and benefit from working deeply. Newport argues that the current business culture reduces the incentive of deep work. An individual worker’s impact on the bottom-line is hard to measure. Due to measurement difficulty, workers gravitate towards easy, but highly visibly work. Newport terms this phenomenon as the Principle of Least Resistance. The implementation of this phenomenon is termed Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity which is “doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”

2 an essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary.

In the final chapter of part 1, Newport shows how deep work is meaningful in a knowledge based economy using neurological, psychological and philosophical arguments. His neurological argument cites science writer Winifred Gallagher. Gallagher’s research led to a theory in which the “skillful management of attention is the sine qua non 2 of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” In the absence of deep work, Gallagher reports that “[the idle mind] tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.”

Second, Newport uses a psychological argument for depth. Citing research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Newport explains that happiness occurs naturally in a flow state. Csikszentmihalyi wrote that “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult.” It is for this reason that a job is usually easier to enjoy than free time, because jobs have schedules and habits that encourage flow state.

Finally, Newport uses a philosophical argument for depth. Newport relies on the book All Things Shining, written by the chair of Harvard’s philosophy department and a philosophy professor at Berkeley. In All Things Shining, the authors explain that Descartes’ elevation of an individual seeking certainty eroded the order and sacredness essential for meaning previously imposed by religion or monarchy. The solution to regain order and meaning is to embrace the spirit of a craftsman. Instead of chasing passion, chase quality in execution. To use Newport’s metaphor, “a wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be.”

Part II: The Rules

The second half Deep Work provides four rules to structure your work for maximum depth and avoid common traps. The rules are:

  • Rule #1: Work Deeply
  • Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
  • Rule #3: Quit Social Media
  • Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Rule #1: Work Deeply

Each of Newport’s strategies involves recognizing that there is a finite amount of willpower for a given day. Each strategy is tailored to either increase depth or to reduce the friction of reaching depth. For working deeply, Newport lists six principles.

  1. Decide on your depth philosophy. The two poles for deep work are a singular focus on a hard problem and an intermittent approach between deep and shallow. The singular focus approach, typified by research professors pursuing a solution over days and weeks, is not viable by someone expected to be responsive throughout the day. For most knowledge workers, the opposite pole, a bimodal philosophy of deep work is more appropriate. The bimodal philosophy allocates parts of the day to deep work. The deep work parts of the day can be completed in two ways. First, with a journalistic approach where deep work is completed when time is available. Second, with habits to develop a consistent rhythm every day.
  2. Ritualize. Prolific knowledge workers are fastidious in scheduling their day. David Brooks, in a New York Times column, summarized this trait, writing “[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.” Newport shows that an effective ritual must address two concerns. First, address where you will do deep work and for how long. Second, determine how you will work once you start and how you will to support your work.
  3. Make grand gestures. By changing your environment it’s much easier to change habits and reach a deep flow state. Newport cites JK Rowling’s technique of renting a $1,000 per night hotel room to incentivize working deeply and finish the Harry Potter series.
  4. Don’t work alone. Collaboration can ease reaching depth. Newport writes that “the presence of the other party waiting for your next insight […] can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth.” Newport caveats this point with a firm recommendation to avoid distraction, as distraction is the “destroyer of depth.”
  5. Execute like a business. Newport uses Clayton Christensen’s book The 4 Disciplines of Execution to build a framework to achieve consistent depth. Discipline 1 - focus on the wildly important by identifying a personal or professional goal with tangible benefits. Discipline 2 - act on lead measures. Identify immediate measures that indicate progress rather than more accurate but slower measures. For deep work, a lead measure is recording the number of deep work sessions and a lag measure would be the number of academic papers produced. Discipline 3 - keep a compelling scoreboard. A calendar with the number of deep work hours serves as a scoreboard and maximizes motivation. Discipline 4 - create a cadence of accountability. A weekly review celebrates good weeks and identifies the issues in bad weeks.
  6. Be Lazy. Newport argues that downtime or idle time is indispensable to reaching depth and provides three approaches supporting his claim. The first way that idle time aids deep work relies on unconscious thought theory (UTT). The theory states that the subconscious has more bandwidth to assess decisions than deliberation. Idle time aids the subconscious in this process. The second benefit is that downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply. The final benefit is that any evening work replaced by downtime is usually not that important. To consistently reach downtime, Newport describes a shutdown checklist used before leaving work to cleanly delineate between work and home.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Newport advocates boredom as a method to increase concentration. Like athletic ability, concentration is a trainable skill. In addition to increasing concentration, it’s vital to reduce distractions that tempt you away from depth. To increase concentration and remove distractions, Newport relies on four principles.

The first principle is to take breaks from focus. Rather than scheduling times to focus, schedule blocks of distraction so you rewire your default method to focus. To support this approach, Newport advises readers to schedule internet usage when working deeply. The constant switching with the internet “teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” Newport emphasizes that this approach is fully compatible with jobs that require heavy internet usage by increasing the frequency of scheduled internet usage.

The second principle is to work with single minded focus, like Teddy Roosevelt. To achieve focus, identify an important deep task. Estimate the time to complete the task. Schedule a public deadline that drastically reduces this estimate.

The third principle is to meditate productively. Whenever an opportunity requires physical activity but no mental exertion, use the time to work on a deep problem. Commuting and walking are prime opportunities. Avoid the pitfalls of looping repeatedly over problems and distractions by reviewing relevant data before the sessions to provide context and structure to the problem.

The fourth principle is to increase your control of attention by memorizing a deck of cards. Newport cites research that shows attention is the most important trait in memory competitions.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

3 Google re:Work team, Re:Work - Guide: Set Goals with OKRs

Social media, while useful, does not generally provide enough benefit to outweigh the significant costs of attention. Newport classifies social media as a tool and shows two approaches to tool selection. The first approach, the any-benefit metric, proposes that a tool is justified if it provides any benefit. The craftsman metric proposes that a tool is justified only if the positive impacts substantially outweigh the negative impacts. The impact is evaluated on the core factors of success and happiness in the context of personal or professional goals. Newport uses a case-study approach to show how to score tools by first identifying personal or professional goals. If a tool helps accomplish key activities in pursuit of the goal, the tool may be justified. Interestingly, the structure of goals and supporting activity is similar to Google’s goal setting methodology of objectives and key results (OKRs). 3

Newport asks readers to quit social media for 30 days and evaluate if a tool is essential by asking two questions. First, would the tool have noticeably improved life? Second, did people care that the service was used? Newport closes the discussion on quitting social media by recommending structured hobbies to fill vacant time.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Newport’s final rule advocates excising necessary shallow periods from daily life. Newport’s approach is to schedule every minute of your day. Rather than rigidly adhere to the schedule, Newport emphasizes that the goal of the schedule is to thoughtfully approach the day. The schedule is split into tasks. Each task is quantified by estimating how many months it would take a smart, recent college graduate to complete the task. Tasks that require many months are more valuable because they leverage your individual, hard-won expertise. Newport also recommends fixed-schedule productivity by scheduling a hard deadline for leaving work each day. The deadline constraint helps to prioritize deep work and devalues shallow work.

To decrease the burden of shallow emails, Newport lists three techniques. First, make people who email you work harder. Instead of assuming each email requires your response, check to see if the email is worth your time. Second, do more work when sending email. Avoid the logistical back and forth by trying to resolve the project associated with an email as quickly as possible. Thirdly, don’t respond to emails that are ambiguous, not interesting to you, or would generate an ambivalent outcome, either positive or negative.


Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Grand Central Publishing .

Google re:Work team, Re:Work - Guide: Set Goals with OKRs

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