Deep Work: Rules for focussed success in a distracted world


Three quick questions:

  1. How many times do you think you checked your phone today?
  2. If you’re reading this on a laptop or PC, how many browser tabs do you currently have open or have had open in the last hour?
  3. How many work emails did you receive and send today?
The Calm Investor | Deep Work

Source: Linkedin

What do the answers to these questions have anything to do with anything? Plenty, it turns out, according to Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Cal is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University with a Phd from MIT. His focus has been on understanding  how to perform productive, valuable and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age. In Deep Work, he argues that focus is the new I.Q. in the knowledge economy, and individuals who cultivate their ability to concentrate without distraction will thrive. This post is based on the book, the sections in […] are directly quoted, while the rest is selectively paraphrased.

Deep Work – Shallow Work

Carl Jung, Mark Twain, Woody Allen, Bill Gates. Influential individuals with a formidable list of accomplishments, each from different fields and timelines. What is common to them is their philosophy of carving out time and even space to do some of their most demanding work. Cal calls what they did as “Deep Work”

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

Compare that to how you and I typically work. Multiple applications open, powerpoint, a couple of spreadsheets, definitely a browser with multiple tabs. Switching back and forth as our email application constantly buzzes with the arrival of each new (urgent) email. The odd detour to check twitter or facebook, punctuated by the ubiquitous telesales call offering credit cards. i.e. lots of Shallow Work.

Shallow Work – Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These effort tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. A way to identify whether a task is shallow is to ask how many months would it take for a recently graduated college student to get trained on it. If the answer is less than 20+ months, then it’s a candidate for the shallow end.

Consider the impact of switching back and forth across all those open apps. Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford University, was particularly interested in the impact of multitasking on people. His finding; constant attention switching has a lasting negative impact on the brain.

In an NPR interview in 2010, he said:

“So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the the task at hand…they’re pretty much mental wrecks”

[…Once your brain becomes accustomed to on-demand distraction, it’s hard to shake the addiction when you want to concentrate. If every moment of potential boredom, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives, is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where it’s not ready for deep work…]

What’s wrong with Shallow Work

Consider the typical workplace. Vast open-plan offices with an ever-present buzz of activity, designed to allow for “serendipitous collaboration”. Laptop screens flashing with IMs and Slack messages as hyper connected teams exchange information. People darting out one and into another status meeting checking on progress of key projects. The picture of a productive workplace? So what if it gets tagged as “shallow”

Cal puts it down to the difficulty that a typical “knowledge worker” has in defining his productivity. Unlike the industrial age where “widgets produced per hour” was a clear metric, the knowledge worker, anxious to prove his worth, tends to busyness i.e. doing lots of stuff in a visible manner, because of lack of a better way to demonstrate his value

[…If you send and answer email at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems within seconds when someone poses a question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter – all these behaviours make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviours can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well…]

This proliferation of shallow work is an opportunity for those who recognise the value of deep work and develop their ability to go deep.

What is rare is valuable

Zoom out to consider today’s landscape. Automation, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning. As machines become smarter, jobs involving skills that can be broken down and automated are set to disappear. While skills that involve being able to interact with these machines, work with enormous amounts of data and true proficiency, will gain in significance and be the big winners.

Cal summarises two skills essential to being able to thrive in the new economy:

  1. Ability to master hard things. Think manipulating massive data sets to tease out insights
  2. Ability to produce at an elite level, in quality and speed. If the freelancer based on another continent can deliver in half the time it takes you, what’s to stop her from taking your job?

Both these abilities rely on your ability to go deep into intricate concepts, to focus intensely without distraction. To learn is an act of deep work. And in an age where scrolling feeds and switching screens every second minute has become the norm, the ability to perform deep work is set to be increasingly valuable.

What is valuable is meaningful

Sometime in the 80’s, researchers Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Reed Larson deployed an exhaustive study to understand when are people at their most productive. Called the Experience Sampling Method (ESM), it involved putting pagers on subjects which then beeped at various times in the day. When beeped, subjects were required to answer a short questionnaire measuring their immediate state of mind. Their revolutionary finding:

[…The best moments usually occur when a person’s body and mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile…]

Csíkszentmihályi famously named this state of being as flow

We are at our best when immersed deeply in something challenging. To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

4 Rules of Deep Work

Having established that our environments today are not engineered for our best and most rewarding outcomes, Cal cautions that it’s not enough to decide to do deep work to be able to start doing it consistently. The capacity for intense focus is a muscle and in most of us, it’s not in the best shape. Building that muscle requires deliberate actions. Cal lays out four rules to develop the ability to focus and do deep work:

  1. Start to work deeply – Decide on your depth philosophy. A writer can deploy monasticism, that prioritises deep work by eliminating all others. While you and I could adopt a rhythmic strategy to deep work, where a chunk of time each day is blocked for deep work non-negotiably
  2. Embrace boredom –  Not being distracted by the shiny new thing is harder than we realise. The brain needs to be trained to not seek out a screen with notifications. Since it is the constant switching from high-stimuli + low value activities (browsing facebook) to low-stimuli + high value activities (writing a piece of code) that weakens the focus muscle, set aside times for focus and take breaks to gradually increase your attention span
  3. Quit Social Media or Apply the law of the vital few – Put all the tools you use (facebook, instagram, twitter, quora…) to the cost-benefit test. Only stick with the ones that have a clear benefit that you wouldn’t get otherwise
  4. Drain the shallows – Treat all shallow work with suspicion because its value tends to be overestimated. One way to tackle shallow work is to crowd it out. Schedule every minute of your day to ensure all time is accounted for and ration shallow work to the bare minimum

[…The deep life, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid email messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better…]

Deep Work is a timely book for anyone wondering how to be more effective at what they do while eliciting the satisfaction from doing something worth doing, well.

Further reading:

Email is not free – Tom Cochran – HBR

Stay focused – 5 ways to increase your attention span – Barking up the wrong tree

Quit social media | Dr. Cal Newport | TEDxTysons


  1. Interesting. I really doubt if any one in our generation can sit still and be deliberately bored for even 15 minutes without electronic stimuli , of course , me included 🙂

  2. Agree Nishanth. Which is exactly why we need to recognize the problem before we can fix it 🙂

  3. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks Sundar!

  5. In the olden days, when there were no TVs, mobiles, even no telephone in home( initial 35 years of my life), forget about computers and social media, our relations, individual all round growth, communication, relationship or even creativity was much superior. I could spend lot of time with myself. Now it is completely gone. Deep work perhaps is telling to bring it back

  6. Good way to look at it Jeevan.

  7. Pingback: Read, Learn, Improve – 15-Apr-17 | Random Thoughts of Analyst

What do you think?