Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

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Summary Many people who had extraordinary accomplishments had isolated time to work deeply.

In current economics, working deeply is valuable because it is the foundation for two crucial skills: Learning hard things fast and doing outstanding work. Apart from professional rewards, a deep life is a satisfying life.

Often, being connected and multitasking is valued over depth. To work deeply while collaborating, Deep Work and social work must be seperated. There are different approaches to navigate a distracted world as a ‘disciple of depth’.

The ability to really focus is something that is exercised like a muscle. Network tools (Twitter, Facebook, BuzzFeed) might have some value but often more time in depth dwarfs those benefits. Quit any such tools where benefits don’t significantly weight out disadvantages. Similarly, reduce time spent in shallow activities to get more done while not investing more time.

Reflection I was surprised by how readable this book was. The structure makes sense and the tone was easy to follow. The book was very actionable and didn’t fall into

Action items

Quitting social media

Services I’ll quit for 30 days:

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Discord community servers (Obsidian and Eleventy)
  • YouTube

What I’ll keep using

  • RSS reader (maybe I shouldn’t, although this doesn’t quite feel like it falls into the infotainment website category)
  • Messaging: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Discord private messages & dnd group text


Introduction Summary

Many successful people had isolated time to work.

Successful individuals who spent time in long periods of focus:

1: Deep Work is Valuable

Chapter 1 Summary

The two most crucial professional skills are: Learning new things fast and doing outstanding work. Deep Work is the foundation of both.

In the new economy the three most valuable assets are

  1. Learn hard things quickly. Working well and creatively with intelligent machines, quickly master new skills in a changing landscape. Because uncreative and poor work is automated away.
  2. Producing at an elite level. Being the best at what you do, excelling at your field. Because top talent is rare: two mediocre workers do not make one expert. In the internet economy, you compete globally.
  3. Have access to capital (being able to investe in high-capital, low-investment ventures). Instagram was sold for a billions dollars with 13 employees.

Central thesis of this book

The first two skills, learning hard things quickly and producing at an elite level, depend on the ability to do Deep Work.

Skill 1: Learn hard things quickly

Learning requires intense concentration. Effective learning comes from deliberate practice.

Scientists increasingly believe that “Myelin”, a fatty layer that wraps around neurons, is key to learning. Wrapped neurons fire faster and cleaner.

Myelin wraps when an isolated cluster of neurons fire together. The emphasis is on isolated. Focus on one skill makes Myelin wrap. A distraction to the side prevent the neurons from reaching the Myelin threshold.

Skill 2: Produce at an elite level

Law of Focus

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time spent) x (Intensity of Focus) The amount of great things done is determined by hours invested and the degree of concentration.

Cal found that top performing students often studied less than the performers just below them. The very best studied with higher intensity, so their time was worth more.

Attention residue makes you perform worse on a task after switching. So frequent change of tasks degrades overall performance.

2: Deep Work is rare

Chapter 2 Summary

Current trends in the workplace, such as open-offices and instant messaging, as well as bigger cultural trends, value shallowness.

Switching tasks decreases productivity, you would expect that businesses value and create circumstances for deep work. However, big trends go against deep work.

There is no clear metric for productivity in knowledge work. So firstly, the bottom line detriment of shallow work is hard to quantify, and secondly, arbitrary measures are set into place.

Business is valued. A “culture of connectedness” is established. The benefits of that however, are dwarfed by the benefits of deep work.

There is also a philosophical underpinning: Neil Postman’s intellectual heir, Evgeny Morozov argues that we idolise all things “The Internet”. We embrace the new technology without question. Even suggesting the irrelevance of Social Media is untought off.

This provides a market mismatch. The ability of Deep Work is in high demand and exceedingly rare.

3: Deep Work is meaningful

Chapter 3 Summary

A life of depth is a satisfying life.

So far, the chapters argued that depth is economically beneficial. This chapter argues it is also meaningful. Interestingly, that is also the argument Elantris makes in narrative form.

Three dimensions of argument:

  • Neurological: Similar to the Availability heuristic, emotions depend on what we focus on.
    • He gives the example of an author battling cancer and finding that focusing on the good in life made her actually enjoy life a lot.
    • Additionally, shallow activities often focus on the negative: emails about office remors, doomscrolling on twitter. Even if the activity isn’t itself negative, an idle mind is prone to wander towards worries.
  • Psychologically: This is the point of Flow – The Psychology of Optimal Experience: We experience joy when totally immersed in an activity. Flow experiences bring happiness.
  • Philosophically: Cal’s points aren’t relevant for me, since a strong theological point already stands. Excellence, Jesus lived a focused life, etc.

Part 1 Summary

Part 1 Summary

Concentrating deeply is a crucial and rare skill in the modern economy. Additionally it leads to a rich and satisfying life.

Rule #1 - Work deeply

Rule 1 Summary

Culture is widely set against depth. Deep Work can thus be exercised in different degrees of isolation. Deep Work and collaboration must be seperated to maintain depth. Similarly, effective work is preceded by good rest.

”You are a disciple of depth in a shallow world”. Depth is counter-cultural, meaning there are few support structures around.

Deep Work Philosophies

Hence, there are different approaches on making space for Deep Work:

Monastic Radically reduce shallowness. Being hard to reach, eshewing administrative tasks.

The people who this applies to is limited. With concrete, clear and individualised contributions to the world. Writers, philosophers, etc.

Bimodal Dedicating some time to clearly defined deep work stretches, leaving the rest open. In that time, the work is done monastically, without interruption. It is used by people who can’t operate in a relational vacuum.

A four-day weekend may be dedicated to depth and the rest to shallow time. In a year, some months might be dedicated to depth (like academics often do over the summer).

The minimum unit of time is at least a day.

Rythmic This approach fits easiest into lives. Certain times are blocked off for deep work. A young dad may schedule deep work into the mornings before work.

Journalistic Journalists need to be ready at any time to write. In this approach, deep work is done as available. Often for short periods of time. A lunch break, a free afternoon.

This approach is only advised if you’re confident in your skill and are experienced in quickly going deep.

Questions for effective rituals

  • Where will you work and for how long?
  • How will you work once you start? (What are the rules and how will you measure your outcome?)
  • How will you support your work? (Putting in guides beforehand)

Deep Work and collaboration

It is easy to think of those as two options: Isolated Deep Work (spoke) vs. Creative collaboration (hub).

That does not have to be. The most effective workplaces provide isolated cells for deep work and hub places for creativity and serendipity. It is key to seperate collaborative serendipity and individual work. Don’t mix chats into your deep work sessions.

If intentional, Deep Work can happen collaboratively. The “Whiteboard method” is comman in academic circles. One person works on a theory while the other listens. This social pressure can lead into better thinking.

In general, your email response time may suffer but the high quality work produced will outweigh this convincingly.

Disciplines while in Deep Work

From The Four Disciplines of execution.

  • Focus on the wildly important. Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes. Let the “terrifying longing” of the important wipe away all minor distraction.
  • Act on lead mesures. There is only one crucial measure: hours in deep work. Don’t focus on lag measures.
  • Keep a compelling scoreboard. Cal would tally daily Deep Work hours on a paper, circling the hours when he made major breakthroughs.
  • Create a cadence of responsibility. Do a weekly review: Celebrate good weeks, understand what lead to bad week, figure out a plan on how to ensure a good score for the days ahead.

Downtime is crucial

Your will is like a muscle that tires. It needs rest to recharge.

The unconcious brain is better at untangling some problems: See Blink · The Power of Thinking without Thinking.

Dijksterhuis’s Study

Dijksterhuis’s team isolated this effect by giving subjects the information needed for a complex decision regarding a car purchase. Half the subjects were told to think through the information and then make the best decision. The other half were distracted by easy puzzles after they read the information, and were then put on the spot to make a decision without having had time to consciously deliberate. The distracted group ended up performing better.

The rational mind excels when problems are clearly defined with strict rules. Math problems for example.

When there are multiple variables and vagueness, the unconcious mind is better suited.

Workday shutdown

After shutting down, you cannot allow the smallest thought or action related to work.

Cal’s Workday Shutdown:

  • Final look at email inbox to make sure nothing urgent is missed
  • Transfer loose tasks into task inbox.
  • Quickly skim every task.
    • Make sure you either have a plan to trust for completion, or a time to revisit again.
  • Look at the calendar. Make a loose plan for the next day.
  • Say “Shutdown Complete”.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Summary Rule 2

Intense concentration can be trained.

Strategies such as Internet Blocks, Deep Work Dashes or Productive Meditation exercise the muscle of thinking deeply.

Giving deep attention is a skill that can be trained. A lifestyle with practices of concentration will strengthen that muscle. A lifestyle of distraction weakens it.

  • Improve concentration deeply,
  • Overcome desire for distraction

The issue is not times of shallowness. It is frequently jumping from high-engagement to low-engagement tasks that muddies the waters. Keep times of concentration and of distraction seperate.

Make focus the default and distraction the exception. Instead of planning times without distraction to focus, plan breaks from focus.

The Internet-Block Strategy

The Block Strategy

Write down times for internet use for your day and do not use it outside them.

Have a notepad next to you and record the next time you’re allowed to use the internet. Don’t use it outside those times.


  • ”I need to use email a lot”: Simply schedule your internet blocks more frequently.
  • ”Without this online resource I’m stuck”: Do not abandon the internet block. This goes against the whole strategy.
    • Switch to another offline activity, perhaps even relax.
    • If this is impossible, schedule another block. Have at least five minutes between now and the next block.

The Internet-Block Strategy for home

  • Schedule internet blocks at home too
  • Have you phone away in a non-internet block
  • Allowed: time-sensitive communication (eg When are dinner guests coming)
  • Allowed: time-sensitive information retrieval (When does this restaurant open)

How to do Deep Work dashes

  • Choose an important task that requires sustained focus to complete
  • Estimate how long you’d spent on it normally, then drastically reduce the time. Give yourself a hard deadline.
    • You should be able to just meet it, when investing teeth-gritting levels of concentration
  • Commit to it publicly, or if infeasible set a timer on your phone

Do this no more than a once a week in the beginning. Once you feel comfortable, you may increase the frequency.

Productive meditation

Productive Meditation Practice

During a period in which you’re active physically but not mentally (showering, walking, running, driving). Keep concentration on a well-defined professional problem you’re trying to solve. Outlining a book, preparing a talk, planning a project, are all examples.

  • Participate in two to three sessions per week
  • The aim is to rapidly improve thinking deeply

Some pointers:

  • Notice and avoid Looping. To reduce effort, the brain might start a loop of thinking.
  • Structure your thinking.
    • Start with the variables. What are the main points? What’s the relevant information?
    • What are the next steps?
    • Fasten the solutions by reviewing the solutions, possibly going deeper again.

Any such exercise helps to think deeply. Cal mentions study of the Hebrew scriptures in a synagogue. What would such study look like for reading the Bible?

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

Rule 3 summary

Network tools may have some benefit for what you want. Most of the time, forfetting those tools to invest into deep time is much more valuable. Critically examine the cost on time and attention of the tools you use. Lean towards quitting.

  • Cal uses the term “network tools” for social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and infotainment websites (Buzzfeed, Reddit)
  • Most network tools rely on a “like for like I pay attention to you if you pay attention to me” agreement. Regardless of quality or value.

The any-benefit approach: If this tool makes life better in any way, I’ll use it.

The craftsman approach: I deliberate weigh the positive and negative impact of this tool and what I value in life. If the tool has a marginal or negative impact on what I value, I won’t use it.

  • Be aware that tools can be harmful.
  • Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t use Twitter: “Who says my fans want to hear from me on Twitter?”
  • Time spent on low-impact activities take time from high-impact activities.
  • You might miss out on small benefits but will more than make up the value you get from investing in what you already do.

The Goal-aligned Tools strategy

  1. Identify the main high-level goals in your personal and professional life.
  2. Put down two or three main activities that help you meet them.
  3. For each of your tools, go through the key activities. Does it have a net positive, negative or no impact?
  4. Unless it has a significant positive impact, do not use it.

”If it’s not helping me to make money, it’s out.” –Christopher Hawkins

For your goal: *If it’s not helping me to _ _ _ _, it’s out”.

30 days social network packing party

Inspired by the “packing party” of Ryan Nicodemus of the Minimalists.

  • For 30 days, quit all network tools
  • Do not tell people you’re signing off
  • After 30 days: Would that time have been notably better if I used a service? Did anyone notice? If not, quit. Lean towards quitting, you can always join later.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Rule 4 Summary

Through various strategies time spend in shallow work can be dramatically increased. This leads to more meaningful work being done.

Basecamp introduced the policy that over summer, employees work four days a week, instead of five. It was met with criticism that workers had to cram 40h in four days. The CEO responded that it’s not about doing more work. They get the same amount done with less hours. Fewer hours help squeeze the fat out of the work week.

Similarly, the following strategies help to reduce shallowness in a schedule.

Shallow work is inevitable but it it should be viewed with caution. Keep it limited so it doesn’t impede in your ability to do deep work.

Schedule Every Minute of Your Day

  • Otherwise referred to as Time blocking
  • The point is not to follow the schedule to a fault. It is to be intentional at what you’re doing any minute of your day.
  • Minimum length of a block: 30 minutes
    • Can include multiple tasks
  • When plan is disrupted, create a new schedule
    • Crossing out the remaining blocks below, adding new ones to the side
  • To deal with uncertainty, employ conditional overflow blocks
    • ”If I get my previous block done, I’ll work on x”

Quantify the depth of your activities


  • Shallow Work: Activities that don’t require intense concentration, often administrative in nature. Usually they aren’t creative and can be easily done by others.

It can be hard to gather how Deep an activity is. Cal proposes this: How many months would it take for a smart undergraduate student to be trained to do this job?

If it’s many months, that means the task requires expertise.

Ask You Boss for a Shallow Budget

”How much time of my job should be spent on shallow tasks?”

Fixed Schedule Productivity

Set a time when you leave work. Choose what you work on based on that. This leads to a scarcity mindset when it comes to your use of time and commitments.

Become Hard to Reach

Cal’s tips on email:

  1. Make people who send you email do more work. Have a “sender filter”. “Only send me x”. Set the expectation that you probably won’t respond.
  2. Do more work when you send or reply to email. Avoid the endless bouncing back of sorting out details. Take a lot of time once to write out a proposal. What is the project that this email represents and what is the most efficient (in terms of emails) way to bring it to a successful conclusion? Empathize the next step.
  3. Don’t respond.


The founding of Microsoft by Bill Gates is often discussed. Cal reckons a crucial role in his success was also Gates’ ability for sustained Deep Work. Gates worked with such an intensity over two months that he would often collapse into sleep on his keyboard, writing code.

Deep Work is not crucial because distraction is evil. It is important because it is more powerful than most people realise.