Notes on Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”

! Note ! Personal notes on Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”. They haven’t been cleaned up for public consumption.

Questions / Things to Research

  • How to ensure that the lead metric you’re measuring is correlated
    with the lag measure that you’re ultimately trying to affect?
  • If one switches disciplines, can one handle more than 4 hours of
    deep work? If so, how big must the switch in disciplines be? Would
    you have to, for example, switch from mathematics to art, or is
    switching from something like physics to programming sufficient?


  • Nicholas Carr. The Shallows
  • William Power. Hamlet’s BlackBerry
  • John Freeman. The Tyranny of Email
  • Alex Soojung-Kim. The Distraction Addiction
  • Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges. The Intellectual Life
  • Daniel Coyle. The Talent Code
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow
  • Dreyfus & Kelly. All Things Shining
  • Hunt & Thomas. The Pragmatic Programmer
  • McChesney et al. The Four Disciplines of Execution
  • Joshua Foer. Moonwalking with Einstein


Newport’s hypothesis is that “deep work”, characterized by operating
at or near peak mental performance, is simultaneously valuable but not
sufficiently pursued in modern society. The modern office and modern
network tools present frequent distractions that prevent deep work by
interrupting conscious attempts at long-term concentration and focus.
Strategies to facilitate more deep work in your own life are


Deep work := professional activities performed in a state of
distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to
their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and
are hard to replicate.

Historical examples of deep workers:
– Carl Jung : Bollingen Tower retreats
– Michel de Montaigne : private library in southern tower
– Mark Twain : summer in shed on farm in NY
– Bill Gates : “Think Weeks”, often in lakeside cottages

Shallow work := non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks,
often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create
much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Some evidence suggests that spending enough time in a state of frenetic
shallowness permanently reduces your capacity to perform deep work.

Network tools – like SMS, IM, email, and FaceBook – negatively
impact deep work.

Newport’s hypothesis : there exist significant economic and personal
opportunity for those prioritizing deep work. Simultaneously, those
with the ability to perform it are rare.

Part 1 of the book supports Newport’s hypothesis
Part 2 of the book lists strategies to cultivate more deep work in
your own life

Newport hypothesizes a future economic trend: machines will displace
more varied types of workers.

Workers with innate protections: 1) high-skilled workers (able to work
with exceedingly complex machines); 2) superstars (the
best-of-the-best taking jobs away from local talent whilst being able
to work wherever they like); 3) owners (those who own the exceedingly
complex machines).

Core abilities to thrive in that future trend:
1. Ability to quickly master hard things
2. Ability to produce at an elite level (with regard to quality and

These core abilities fundamentally depend on deep work

Deliberate practice := specific form of practice:
1. attention focused tightly on specific skill you’re trying to
improve, or idea you’re trying to master
2. receive timely feedback so that you can adjust your approach

Bottom Line = to learn hard things quickly you must focus intently
without distraction (i.e. deep work)

Some anecdotes regarding deep work’s ability to foster elite-level
performance are discussed

Attention Residue := when switching from Task A to Task B, mental
baggage that sticks around from A that prevents full focus on B

Principle of Least Resistance := a tendency toward behaviors that are
easiest in the moment, without clear feedback of their impact on the
bottom line.

Evidence suggests that deep work and craftsmanship are more conducive
to contentment than aimless relaxation.

The Rules:

Rule #1 = Work Deeply

Evidence suggests that one is bombarded all day by desires to do
anything BUT focus on work.

Willpower is like a muscle with finite reserves; to best facilitate
deep work, add routines and rituals: remove willpower from the

Build a routine around a time and quiet location for deep work.

There are different approaches to deep work:
1. monastic : eliminate or radically minimize shallow obligations.
Adherents = { Donald Knuth, Neal Stephenson }
2. bi-modal : divide your time between deep work and shallow work on
particular timescales, e.g. day, week, season. Adherents = { Carl
Jung }
3. rhythmic : generate regular routine for deep work (e.g. the chain
method). Adherents = { Jerry Seinfeld }
4. journalistic : fit deep work in whenever you can. Adherents = {
Walter Isaacson }

It may be helpful to ritualize time, space, decor, etc. Also where
you’ll work, duration, how you’ll work once you start, and how you’ll
support your work (e.g. snacks).

A ritual that sticks may require iteration and initial commitment via
force of will.

It may be helpful to make a grand gesture to cement your ritual;
e.g. drive two towns over to their library.

Paradoxically, collaboration is useful – though not of the “open
office floor-plan” style. People need the chance for serendipity when
their minds are ready but to focus otherwise (e.g. a hub-and-spoke

Discipline #1 = Focus on the Wildly Important

“Focus on a small number of wildly important goals. Focus, not on
saying ‘no’ to trivial distractions, but ‘yes’ to the small number of
subjects that arouse terrifying longing and let them crowd out all

Discipline #2 = Act on the Lead Measures

lag measure := things you’re ultimately trying to improve; when you
measure them, though, the driving performance is already in the past

lead measure := the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag

E.g. academic success:
lag measure : published papers per unit time
lead measure : hours of deep work per unit time

Discipline #3 = Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

A public display of your lead measure (e.g. a scoreboard of deep work
hours per day, tallied up per week).

Discipline #4 = Create a Cadence of Accountability

Use a weekly review (a la Allen) in which you 1) plan the workweek
ahead; 2) review this past week’s metrics; 3) understand why the
metrics were what they were; and 4) set next week’s metrics goals

Be Lazy (vs. frenetic)

Kreider said: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a
vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body,
and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as
rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary
condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making
unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning
strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting
any work done.”

Downtime aids insight : evidence suggests that subconscious mental
work lets one make objectively better decisions.

Downtime also helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply.
Downtime includes things like: walking in nature; listening to music
while making dinner; having a casual conversation with friends;
exercise; etc. It DOES NOT include things like quickly checking your

The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important.

Note that elite workers can typically manage roughly 4 hours of deep
work without recharge.

Once you’re done for the day, you must really be done. Try a shutdown
ritual. It should ensure that all open loops on your projects are
closed so that you know what you need to do to pick things back up
again. Otherwise your mind may not be able to fully let go. You
should end your shutdown ritual with some signal that signifies it’s
complete (e.g. simply saying “shutdown complete”).

Rule #2 = Embrace Boredom

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.
Evidence suggests that people who multitask all the time can’t filter
out irrelevant information.

There are two focii:
1. Improving your ability to concentrate intensely
2. Overcoming your desire for distraction

Limit the number of context switches throughout the day.

Schedule internet time and keep the blocks outside of it free from its
use. If you need a piece of information just take note of it until
your next internet break. If it’s absolutely crucial, at least delay
it for 5 or 10 minutes to work against the craving -> reward cycle.

Schedule internet use at home, too.

You don’t need to use the internet while e.g. waiting in line at the
supermarket, either.

“Work Like Teddy Roosevelt”
1. Identify a deep task
2. Estimate how long you’d normally set aside to complete the task
3. Set a deadline that drastically reduces the time in 2.

“Meditate Productively”
Take a period in which you’re occupied physically (but not mentally)
and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional

Be wary of distractions and looping. Looping is when your mind
rehashes already defined or decided things to try to save energy.
When you notice that you’re distracted or looping, just gently note it
and get back on track.

Structure your deep thinking. Carefully review the relevant variables
and store them in your working memory. Define the specific next-step
question to address.

Memorize a deck of cards. Use the mind palace approach: do a
walk-through of 5 rooms in your house; build an association between
cards and objects; put those objects in your walk-through. Then, you
can walk through your filled house again and reproduce the deck.

Rule #3 = Quit Social Media

Make an honest assessment of network tools. What are their upsides?
What are their downsides? How do they support your primary goals?

Apply the law of the vital few to your internet habits
1. Identify the main high-level goals in your professional and
personal life
2. List 2 or 3 of the most important activities that help you satisfy
the goals
3. Consider the network tools you use. For each tool and goal
combination, determine its upsides, downsides, or neutral effects.

Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself. Put more thought into a
better plan for your leisure time. As stated earlier, evidence
suggests that contentment is better served by e.g. mastery of an
instrument than watching YouTube videos.

Rule #4 = Drain the Shallows

Ruthlessly identify shallowness in your current schedule, then cull it
down to a bare minimum.

Schedule every minute of your day. Use a piece of lined paper. Split
up the paper into all of the 30-minute blocks of your work day. Feel
free to reschedule as the day goes on. The schedule isn’t meant to
be something you slavishly devote yourself to; it’s meant to keep
track of deep and shallow work. You can batch task blocks together
(e.g. handle all of your email in a 30 minute block).

If you’re not sure if a task is shallow or deep, then quantify its
depth by determining how long it would take a smart, recent college
graduate to learn to do it. Bias your work toward complex tasks.

Ask your boss for a shallow work budget. Get his/her buy-in. If he
says 100% or “as much as necessary” of your time should be devoted to
shallow work than realize that this position does not value deep
work. Find a new position that values deep work more.

Finish your work at a set time (fixed-schedule productivity). When
you’re done, be done.

Be vague when turning down shallow commitments (don’t leave the door
open for the asker to weasel their way in).

Become hard to reach. Make people who send you email do more work.
Limit publicly accessible contact information. Enact a “sender
filter” (e.g. state the acceptable reasons to be contacted): this will
set peoples’ expectations regarding receiving a response.

Do more work when you send or reply to email. Try a process-centric
approach: 1) identify the relevant project; 2) determine the shortest
process to reach a successful conclusion.

Default to not responding! If the email or request is ambiguous,
doesn’t interest you, or if your participation or lack thereof has no
strong outcome one way or the other, just don’t respond.

Books I’d Like to Read

Until now, I didn’t have a canonical place to keep the list of books I’d like to read.  As a result, I have lists everywhere: text files on my computer, paper notes hidden in various folders in my desk and bookshelves, Scribbleton wiki entries, etc.  From now on, this’ll be my reference location.

  • Dweck, C.  Mindset.  (Saw it on Bill Gates’ list of favorite books he read in 2016)
  • Brooks, D.  The Road to Character.  (Saw it on Bill Gates’ list of favorite books he read in 2016)
  • Boye, K.  Kallocain.  (Referenced in 1984 wikipedia article)
  • Burgess, A.  1985.  (Referenced in 1984 wikipedia article)


  • As I find the other lists, add the entries to this list and delete/trash them
  • Add the 2016 reading list books to this list

Reading Goals/Process for 2016

I love to read, but it’s often a “feast or famine” proposition for me.  I’m prone to suffering from analysis paralysis, and I feel that a healthy love for reading can become excessive/obsessive and feed into that (or be a form of procrastination that’s at least more socially acceptable than binging an entire series on Netflix over the course of a weekend).  I set a goal of reading 12 books this year, with a maximum of 25; that’s between one per month to roughly one every two weeks.  That’s on top of my usually daily reading of science, design, development, and general news articles.

I’ve decided to start with Tim Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Workweek”.  Below you’ll find my list of other potential reads for this year.  It’s roughly sorted at the top.  It’s also subject to change (from simple reordering, all the way to adding or removing items).  I’ll also be checking in every so often to determine whether or not this process is achieving my goal of moderation in my level of reading.  One other approach I’ve been considering is shooting for a quantity of time reading per {day, week, whichever} rather than specifying the quantity of books.  I’ve got to let that idea marinate a little more, but I wanted to get a basic plan in place that can be modified later.  After all, “the key to success is to start”, yeah?

  • Ferriss, T.  The 4-Hour Workweek
  • Rowling, J. K.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
  • Hunt & Thomas.  The Pragmatic Programmer
  • Catmull, E.  Creativity, Inc
  • Rogers, S.  Level Up
  • Aristotle.  Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, or Poetics
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M.  Flow
  • McConnell, S.  Code Complete
  • L’Engle, M.  A Wrinkle in Time
  • Camus, A.  The Stranger
  • Rowling, J. K.  The Harry Potter series
  • Dostoevsky, F.  The Brothers Karamazov
  • McCarthy, C.  The Road
  • Plato.  The Republic
  • Lucretius.  On the Nature of Things
  • Aurelius, M.  Meditations
  • Alighieri, D.  The Divine Comedy
  • Machiavelli, N.  The Prince
  • Hobbes, T.  Leviathan,
  • de Spinoza, B.  Ethics
  • Milton, J.  Paradise Lost
  • Gibbon, E.  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Kant, I.  Critique of Pure Reason
  • Hegel, G. W. F.  The Philosophy of Right
  • Marx, K.  Capital
  • Voltaire.  Candide
  • Nietzsche, F.  Beyond Good and Evil
  • Russell, B.  The Problems of Philosophy
  • Heidegger, M.  What is Metaphysics?
  • Whitehead, A. N.  An Introduction to Mathematics
  • Hsieh, T.  Delivering Happiness
  • Ries, E.  The Lean Startup
  • Blank, S.  Four Steps to the Epiphany