Deep work is a skill that allows you to thrive in the modern economy.
This concept was coined by Cal Newport and is outlined in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. It involves uninterrupted, focused work sessions. By focusing on a cognitively demanding task without distractions, you're able to quickly master hard skills and produce value at an elite level.
Newport defines deep work as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push our cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Newport embodies this deep work habit. Only ten years after graduating college, he produced a massive amount of value: Publishing four books, earning a Ph.D., writing multiple peer-reviewed academic papers, and being hired as a tenured professor at Georgetown University.
The best part? He rarely worked past five or six p.m. during the workweek.
This deep work philosophy isn’t new—Carl Jung, Mark Twain, and other prominent figures valued deep work throughout their careers. Newport stresses the urgency of performing deep work in today's society, as people are easily distracted and drawn toward shallow work.
Here are 15 key takeaways from Cal Newport's deep work method.
1. It's a simple concept, but requires self-discipline to master.
“If more information was the answer, then we'd all be billionaires with perfect abs.” ― Derek Sivers
Deep work is simple. But it's easier said than done.
We live in a world of constant distractions, where it's easy to get pulled into shallow work. It's challenging to sit down and focus for hours on a task when there are so many things fighting for our attention.
But if you can learn to discipline your mind and perform deep work, you'll be able to produce exceptional results.
2. Purge shallow work.
Shallow work leaves you feeling reactive, unfulfilled, and captive to your workday.
Shallow tasks include emails, text messages, responding to notifications, sending slack messages, managing your calendar, scheduling meetings and trips, rote tasks, and other administrative work. Though they appear urgent, these shallow efforts tend to not create much impact long-term.
Here's the difference between deep and shallow work:
- Deep work creates significant value, while shallow work creates little value.
- Deep work sharpens your skills, while shallow work hinders you from developing your abilities.
- Deep work is mentally stimulating, while shallow work is mentally exhausting.
- Deep work requires sustained concentration on a single task-at-hand, while shallow work involves distractions and multi-tasking.
- Deep work creates results that are hard to replicate, while shallow work is easy to replicate and fails to give you a competitive advantage.
Successful professionals strive to maximize deep work while minimizing shallow work throughout the day.
3. Living a life of depth requires an individualized approach.
Not everyone can, or should, work the same way. The key is to find a deep work strategy that works for you.
Newport shares four deep work philosophies that you can apply in your work and life:
- The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This is the most extreme deep work philosophy. It aims to maximize impact by completely eliminating distractions and shallow work from your professional life.
- The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This is less extreme than the monastic deep work philosophy. Instead of completely eliminating distractions and shallow work, the bimodal approach only seeks this elimination during specific time periods (on a yearly, monthly, or weekly basis).
- The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This philosophy takes deep work sessions and turns them into a regular habit. It's more realistic for the everyday professional, and it involves consistently scheduling deep work into your calendar and getting things done on a routine basis.
- The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling: This approach involves fitting a deep work session wherever you can into your schedule. It's less structured. And it involves rapidly transforming a block of time into depth.
Choose the deep work strategy that puts you in a state of distraction-free concentration. Experiment with different approaches and see what works for you.
4. Proactively schedule deep work sessions into your calendar.
"If you don't design your own life plan, chances are you'll fall into someone else's plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much." - Jim Rohn
We're swamped with people fighting for our attention—text and app notifications, emails, advertisers, and meetings. Rather than reacting to these situations, we should establish boundaries in advance so we can concentrate on what’s important.
So how do you set boundaries and make sure a deep work session gets completed? Timebox it in your calendar.
Timeboxing simply means planning to perform a task within a specific time frame and blocking out time in your calendar. Make deep work non-negotiable. This is a simple technique that uses time constraints to facilitate clarity, focus, and creative thinking.
5. Create a distraction-free environment.
The environment shapes our behavior and productivity. And it’s impossible to accomplish a deep work task when you’re distracted.
The following strategies can be used to establish boundaries and remove distractions when engaging in deep work:
- Turn off computer notifications and close all the tabs you've opened.
- Hide your phone or turn it off.
- If an idea or task pops into your brain, quickly jot it down in a notepad or a distraction-free application. You can review it later.
- Block your meeting availability so people can't schedule calls during your planned deep work sessions (e.g. you can select your preferred meeting availability in your Undock account settings).
- Batch emails and low-impact tasks at a future time.
Your attention is a precious resource. Guard it with your life.
6. Digital technology will negatively impact those who don't adapt.
Digital technology is transforming the workforce, and people who don't keep up will get left behind.
In Newport's book Deep Work, he references MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee for their insights on the future of work. They predict that, as technology improves, organizations will be more likely to hire "machines" over "people." This is due to the fact that machines are becoming capable of handling many of the duties that average or low-skilled workers complete.
While this can be daunting, it also presents an opportunity for those who are willing to adapt and figure out how to succeed in this new economy.
Deep work will set you apart from machines.
7. High-skilled workers and superstars will thrive.
Two types of professionals will be highly sought after in the workforce: High-skilled workers and superstars.
- High-skilled workers will be professionals who can work well with technology, and use them to create meaningful results.
- Superstars will be favored in the globalized workforce and threaten the average worker who produces mediocre results.
The best way to stay ahead of the curve is to focus on becoming a high-skilled worker or superstar in your field. Developing a deep work habit can help you achieve this.
8. Deep work helps you quickly master hard things.
In the new economy, it's not enough to be good at one thing. You have to be able to learn new things fast and adapt as the world changes.
K. Anders Ericsson coined the term “deliberate practice,” and it's a crucial component to quickly mastering hard things.
- Having a narrow focus on a specific skill you’re trying to improve.
- Receiving feedback so you can continuously grow. This keeps your attention on the most important facets of your learning process.
Focus is a key variable in both of the steps above.
Many people won't commit to this level of focus because it's uncomfortable. It's much easier to engage in shallow work, as it's more gratifying in the short-term and gives you hits of dopamine. But this also gives you a competitive advantage (if you're willing to perform deep work).
9. Deep work helps you produce at an elite level.
“If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.” - Cal Newport
Many people struggle with performance because of poor work culture and unproductive habits.
One of the biggest culprits is the constant context switching that happens throughout the workday. Instead of focusing on deep work for long periods of time, we're tempted to constantly jump to different tasks, meetings, emails, and messages.
An entire week will go by without anything getting done.
Business professor Sophie Leroy explains that constantly switching your focus results in "attention residue," which diminishes cognitive resources and weakens your performance.
If you want to perform at an elite level, you need to cultivate intense focus through deep work.
10. Humans are more attracted to shallow work–be aware of the gravitational pull.
People are more attracted to shallow work because it's easier, provides instant gratification, and lets us fit into a business culture that values constant connection.
Cal Newport expands on this in his book, stating:
“Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly."
By technopoly, he's referring to a society that worships and deifies technology. Newport continues:
"[Deep work] builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech.”
Deep work is a lost art in the modern workforce. But this is good news for those who see the opportunity gap.
11. Modern business trends make deep work rare.
In Newport's words, we live in a "culture of connectivity." And this has given birth to three business trends that make deep work rare:
- Serendipitous collaboration.
- Rapid communication.
- Active presence on social media.
The intent behind these trends is positive. Collaboration, communication, and connecting with others are vital for work (and life). But when they're prioritized above deep work, problems will arise in your professional life.
12. In the absence of clarity, we resort to shallow work.
Be aware of when you're using, in Newport's words, "busyness as a proxy for productivity." He explains:
"In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner."
In other words: When we're unclear about what matters most, we fall back on shallow work—sending emails, attending meetings, responding to numerous message, etc. It's simply easier, and the visible busyness that comes with it becomes self-preserving.
The antidote is to become clear on what matters most, and then enter a state of deep work.
13. Deep work allows flow state to emerge.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychologist who coined the psychological concept of flow.
In an interview with Wired magazine, Csikszentmihalyi explains this state as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
This state is only achievable through intense concentration. So, deep work becomes a pathway to unlocking the flow state.
14. Deep work is deeply satisfying.
Expanding on the takeaway above, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that people who experience flow state on a regular basis are the happiest.
Meaningful work doesn't solely depend on the type of work you do. It's also the level of focus and skill you bring to it.
Expanding on this, Newport explains:
“Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.”
Being "in the zone" leads to happiness because you're not thinking about the past or the future. You're completely in the moment, enjoying the challenge of the task.
15. A deep worker is a craftsman.
Craftsmanship evokes images of manual labor.
Imagine a blacksmith forging a sword. The hammering process can take several hours, depending on the desired shape and metal used. Each strike is meticulous and purposeful. A skilled blacksmith isn't just going through the motions—they're in a flow state and deeply focused on their work. And once complete, there's a deep feeling of satisfaction.
But since most of us are knowledge workers, it's easy to dismiss craftmanship as an outdated concept. Many of us sit at desks and stare at computer screens, after all. How could our work possibly compare to that of a blacksmith and other manual trades?
Cal Newport addresses this in his book, stating:
“There’s nothing intrinsic about the manual trade when it comes to generating this particular source of meaning. Any pursuit—be it physical or cognitive—that supports high levels of skill can also generate a sense of sacredness.”
There you have it—15 key takeaways from the deep work method.
If you want to improve your focus, concentration, and productivity, then make deep work a priority in your life. And if you want to learn more about deep work, check out our other articles on the topic: