Book Notes: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Note: These notes are lightly organized and reflect my own takeaways from this book. They’re captured here for my own purposes. If you should find them useful, great!

Rule #1 - Work Deeply

Depth Philosophy - styles of achieving depth

  • Monastic - isolationist, doesn’t work well for the vast majority of folks and not likely to work for me
  • Bimodal - a few days on, a few days off
    – utilized by Carl Jung and Adam Grant– periods of intense deep work followed by periods of shallower work– probably most useful in achieving “big leaps” periodically
  • Rhythmic - best for day to day life
    – Cal Newport’s preferred– Do it every day. Probably best for growing the muscle initially.– For future - probably intersperse this approach with Bimodal.


  • develop habits that reduce willpower consumption
    – consistent routines and organization, e.g.
       – same ritual for starting and ending your work day– wearing the same clothing for your work week (Zuckerberg/Jobs style)– consistent places to work and for how long
  • pay attention to rituals before you enter Deep Work, look for opportunities to repeat
    – meditation– cup of tea– quick walk

Make Grand Gestures

  • e.g. holing up in a hotel suite ($1000/night) for a few days to complete something
  • probably less important/practical in most cases
  • practically, this may be as simple as paying for a private office

Don’t Work Alone

  • hard to do this if you’re a remote worker
  • How can I optimize this in business trips? Hole up in a conference room with key folks?
  • What about this will help me create breakthroughs?
  • whiteboard effect is very helpful - like time spent with J and so on

Execute Like a Business

Discipline #1 - Focus on the wildly important.

  • Saying no more than saying yes. Both to yourself and to others.
  • More importantly, say Yes to the truly important and lean into it.
    – Stay out of the attention grabbing fray to avoid saying No so often that it drains willpower.

Discipline #2 - Act on Lead Measures

  • Tighten the OODA loop in other words.
  • Easiest metric is time spent working deeply. If you’re not measuring this then you’re not getting a good sense of the quality of your time.

Discipline #3 - Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

  • “People play differently when you’re keeping score.”
  • “What’s measured gets managed.”
  • Try tally mark system.
    – Track hours spent working deeply. Each tally is an hour.– Circle tally marks where something big is finished.
  • Shoot for at least 50% deep work initially. Move up from there. Ideally >75%.

Discipline #4 - Create a Cadence of Accountability

  • Reviewing periodically helps put progress toward a goal into context.
  • Weekly review of notebook w/ score card.
    – Do it Saturday morning?– Review what went well and what went poorly.– Revise plan for following weekly to maximize likelihood of success.

Be Lazy

  • Make time for Leisure. Continually keeping the mind busy prevents it from forming those really deep connections.
  • Practically speaking, end the day at 17:30-18:30.
  • Working beyond 8 hours results in working on things which are not that important.
    – ~4-5 hours of deep work is possible per day. Anything else should not dominate.
  • Develop a shutdown ritual.
    – Note everything in flight 15-20 minutes before end of work day.– Provide next steps for anything that is in flight.– Note what is completed from the todo list of the day.– Be consistent. Have a verbal cue. e.g. “Shutdown complete.”– Basic outline of steps:
       1. Check email/Slack/Basecamp for nay outstanding tasks or requests.2. Transfer tasks that are on the mind to task list and add relevant notes for next steps.
           – There may be multiple lists of multiple projects ongoing.3. Quickly skim every task list and compare against the next few days of the calendar. Note any deadlines or appointments that impact task prioritization. Rearrange next day as needed.4. Say the words. e.g. “Shutdown complete.”

Rule #2 - Embrace Boredom

Boredom is directly related to ability to focus for long periods of time. Distractions, e.g. smartphones, reduce our capacity to be focused because they force stimulation. Focus is not strictly stimulating.

Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead take breaks from focus.

  • Internet Sabbath doesn’t address the underlying problem. Relies on taking a break from distractions.
  • Schedule in advance when Internet use will occur. Record the next time Internet use is allowed.
    1. This should work even with need for Internet as part of your job.2. Time outside the block should be absolutely free of Internet use.3. Scheduling Internet use at home can further improve concentration.
       – Just always have a notebook for thoughts/queries to look up?
  • This is all about rewiring the brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.

Work Like Teddy Roosevelt

  • Estimate how long a task should take and publicly commit to a deadline. For example - the person you’re doing the work for.
  • Start small initially. Focusing intensely with no distraction breaks. Over time, quality of intensity and distraction reduction should increase.

Meditate Productively

  • Focus on a single well defined professional problem. Can be done while walking, on transit, or on a car ride.
  • Lets you make use of your brain while doing simple mechanical tasks.
  • This is less about productivity and more about improving deep focus ability. Forces you to resist distraction and return attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem.
  • Suggestions to make this more successful:
    1. Be wary of distractions and looping.
       – Similar to meditation, when you notice the mind wandering, bring attention back to the problem you’re focusing on.– Note when you’ve rehashed the same facts or observations repeatedly. Note it and redirect attention to the next problem solving step.2. Structure Your Deep Thinking
       – Structure helps decompose a problem. It can help to develop a framework for assessing the given problem and reasoning about it.– Useful steps include:
           – review the relevant variables– define the next-step question– Using the two pieces of info above allows you to plan and iterate on targeting your attention.– after solving the next-step question, consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer identified– push yourself to the next level of depth by restarting the process

Memorize a Deck of Cards

  • Memory training exercises help improve depth of focus. AKA helps by improving concentration.
  • May be useful to learn some basic memorization training exercises like memorizing the order of a deck of cards.

Rule #3 - Quit Social Media

The perceived value of social media is not nearly as deep or meaningful as they’d have us believe. For example - liking a Facebook post is not a replacement for having dinner and conversation with that same person.

  • Consider: “Any benefit approach” - “If X tool provides any benefit at all, it is worth using.”
    – This is obviously false, especially with things that consume our attention and willpower.– This is where social media pretty much categorically falls.
  • Consider: “craftsman approach” - “A tool is worth using only if its benefits substantially outweigh the negative impacts.”

Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits

  • Start by identifying the main high level goals in professional and personal life.
    – Professional Goals
       – Be an effective Engineering Leader for my team, our projects, and the broader company.– Be an advocate for the team for work/life balance and reasonable work expectations.– Be a resource for my team and peers to help them where possible.– Professional Activities that further these goals
       – Engineering Leader
           – regular 1:1’s with my team
               -realistic costing of our projects– keeping SLT expectations realistic– deeply consider designs and plans for projects– Advocate
           – encourage engineers to point out when things are negatively impacting their lives– telling SLT when our workload is too much and manage expectations
  • Any activity should be weighed against aforementioned goals and activities to identify whether a tool significantly or detracts from the goals and activities.
  • While there may in fact be benefits to a given social network, when evaluated holistically, they general don’t outweigh the costs.

The Law of the Vital Few

  • In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes.
  • In context of achieving goals, while there may be 10-15 activities that contribute towards goals, there’s probably 2-3 that really make the biggest difference. You should focus on those top 2-3 activities.
    – This is especially important in view of our limited attention and willpower. E.g. Do a couple things well rather than many things poorly.– By limiting focus to the most important activities, this probably magnifies their effectiveness.

Quitting Social Media

  • Use the “pack” method. Pack away everything and as you need it, unpack it again back into your life. In practice, this means stop using Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on and see who actually reaches out to find out where you went. Chances are, no one will.
  • In the case of Social Media, log out of all of them and login as needed. Block them from your devices in most cases.
  • Stuff, social networks, habits, etc accumulate without us noticing. The approach above helps identify what is truly useful.
  • Practically speaking, ask the following two questions of each social media service:
    1. Would the last thirty days have been notably if I had been able to use this service?2. Do people care that I wasn’t using this service?
  • If the answer is no to both, get rid of it.
  • If the answer is yes to both, keep using it.
  • If the answer is ambiguous, use best judgement.
    – Lean toward “no” in general - they’re designed to be addictive and easily become a time suck.

Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself

  • Both from an enrichment and relaxing effect, the Internet of today does a piss poor job of being a leisure activity.
    – The modern Internet is designed to generate FOMO and anxiety.– It is best treated with skepticism and avoided.– Better activities might include:
       – physical hobby like woodworking– reading books, papers, magazines, etc– writing blog posts, essays, etc– cooking– watching a movie or specific show - not surfing
  • Put thought into your leisure time. Schedule if necessary to help yourself make progress toward personal goals.
  • Planning leisure also helps avoid the “surfing” trap. You know what you’ll do so no need to surf.
    – This doesn’t mean being inflexible - just have a plan for how you’d like to use your time so that you have a default that isn’t surfing.

Rule #4 - Drain the Shallows

  • You can’t completely eliminate the shallow work. A non-trivial amount of shallow work is required to stay successful at work. Sadly, you cannot exist solely in the Ivory Tower.
    – e.g. You can avoid checking email every ten minutes but probably can’t entirely ignore email like a hermit.
  • There’s a limit to the amount of deep work you can perform in a single day. Shallow work isn’t problematic till it begins to crowd out your deep work time.
  • Fracturing deep work time can be highly detrimental. Ideal to get big chunks of deep work and batch the shallow work together rather than interspersing.
  • Treat shallow work with suspicion in general. If someone asks you to do something and you can find little depth to it, push back.

Schedule Every Minute of Your Day

  • We often spend too much of our days on autopilot - being reactive. Giving too little thought to how we’re using our time.
  • Schedule in a notebook the hours of your work day.
    – block off times for tasks which fall outside meetings– if interruptions occur, take a moment to reschedule and shuffle the day
       – be flexible - if you hit an important insight, ignore the schedule and carry on with the insight– Periodically evaluate “What makes the most sense for me to do with the time that remains?” throughout the day. This affords flexibility and spontaneity to ensure you’re always working on the most important thing.

Quantify the Depth of Every Activity

  • For any task, ask “How long would it take in months to train a smart recent college graduate with no special training in my field to complete this task?”
  • If a task would take many months to train someone, then that’s the deep work to focus on.

Ask for a Shallow Work Budget

  • Ask boss or self, how much shallow work should you be doing? What percentage of your time?
  • After some analysis, may find that:
    – you avoid some projects which seem to have a high amount of shallow work– begin purging shallow work from current workload
  • Important to be aligned with boss. Don’t want mismatched expectations but be clear on what you believe is shallow work and why. Try to prune as much as possible.
  • Quantifying the percentage can be useful if you ned to show that there’s too much shallow work on your plate and want to force your management’s hand to agree to the max amount of shallow work on your plate.

Finish Work by Five Thirty

  • “fixed schedule productivity” - work backwards from the endpoint to identify productivity strategies to ensure a 17:30 end time to work day
  • Identify rules and habits that help enforce these regular work hours. By maintaining the regular work hours, you preserve your ability to sustain Deep Work regularly. It forces draining of the shallows and restoration of your limited willpower/focus.
  • Be extremely cautious with the use of the word “Yes.”
    – Be clear in your refusal but vague in your reasons.
       – Giving details allows the requestor of your time wiggle room to get you to say yes in a follow up request.– Resist the urge to offer consolation prizes when you turn down a request. Don’t invent shallow work for yourself.
  • The 17:30 cutoff forces good use of time earlier in the day. Can’t afford to waste the morning or to let a big deadline creep up on you.
  • This is all about a scarcity mindset. Drain the shallows mercilessly. Use this Fixed Schedule Productivity ruthlessly and relentlessly.
  • Just because your boss sends email or Slack messages at 20:30 doesn’t mean they’re sitting there waiting on a reply that evening. They’re probably just working through their backlog at their own pace.

Become Hard to Reach

  1. Make People Who Send You Email Do More Work
    – Provide people options for contact with clear expectations.
       – e.g. “Shoot an email here if you have something you think I’d find interesting. I guarantee no response unless I am specifically interested in engaging with you about the topic or opportunity.”– “sender filter” - This helps the sender understand they should only send you something they truly feel you’d be interested in.
       – “Most people easily accept the idea that you have a right to control you own incoming communication as they would like to enjoy the same right. More importantly, people appreciate clarity.”
  2. Do More Work When You Send or Reply to Emails
    – Avoid productivity land mines
       – e.g. “Great to meet you last week. Do you want to grab coffee?”– They prey on your desire to be helpful and you dash off a quick response. In the short term, feels productive, but in the long term, it just adds a lot of extra noise.– Best to consider these messages with requests in them as: “What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?”– Better response to request for coffee would be process centric, taking the time to describe the process you identified in the message, points out the current step, and emphasizes the next step.
       – e.g. to meet up, specify a place and a couple of times that you’re available to meet. Provide an out in case the details conflict.– Process centric email closes the loop and removes it from mental foreground. “You’ve dealt with it, next thing.”
  3. Don’t Respond
  4. “It’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile.”
  5. Simple rules to “Professorial Email Sorting”
    – It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.– It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.– Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.
  6. This can be an uncomfortable practice due to common conventions around email with expecting replies. There are also exceptions - e.g. your boss emails you.
  7. “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the truly life-changing big things.”
  8. People are adaptable. If they realize you only respond to requests relevant to your interests then they’ll adjust.