Book review: Deep Work - Cal Newport

In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that the ability to do ‘deep work’ is one of the most valuable and rare skills in this new, super competitive economy, where:

  • Companies would rather hire machines than people.
  • Companies can hire anyone around the world to do the work remotely - they don’t have to stick to local talent. Without this geographical barrier, they can essentially hire one very talented person to do the job of five people.

Newport explains why the ability to do deep work is so important and also shares five actionable tips on how to foster the ability to perform deep work.

What is Deep Work

The book talks about ‘deep work’ as the ability to focus without distraction on tasks that are cognitively demanding. Newport classifies a typical deep work session as 1-4 hours of continuous, undisturbed work on a specific task.

In comparison, ‘shallow work’ is work that is not cognitively demanding and is logistical by nature - writing emails, responding to messages - usually done in a state of distraction. Newport argues that these tasks don’t bring too much value to the world, and are easy to replicate.

Deep work is like a superpower in this highly competitive 21st century economy, because:

  1. It is so rare. For most people, their daily activities revolve around shallow work.
  2. You can create value that’s very hard to replicate by machines or other people.

Fighting for more deep work means we’re not just getting things done, but getting valuable things done, which by many standards is a requirement for a meaningful, purposeful and productive life.

Downside of ‘Effective’ Communication

In the past few decades, the amount of communication tools we use on a daily basis have increased dramatically. (eg. open plan offices, emails, social media etc.) What hasn’t increased,however, is our ability to be selective of the tools we use. We often adopt these tools as long as they offer some benefits, without carefully considering their negative effects. A 2019 survey by found that, rather than experiencing a boost in productivity, employees are drowning in the multiple apps they are encouraged to use in the workplace. As a consequence, they are more prone to making mistakes or wasting time on un-prioritized tasks.

Within companies, it’s easy to find businesses encouraging multitasking:

  • Expectation for immediate response to emails.
  • Regular attendance at meetings.
  • In senior roles, management of a number of different projects and tasks rather than focusing on one.

However, we don’t have detailed metrics on how this constant busyness and ‘shallow work’ is hurting our mental capabilities and the company’s bottom line. Thus, we keep doing it because there are certain benefits that we get from doing things the same way.

Cal Newport calls this The Principle of Least Resistance:

Without clear feedback on the impact of certain behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment. And without a clear idea of what is really working and what productivity means in the workplace, a lot of the workforce turn back to the old, industrial-age idea of what productivity is: doing a lot of stuff in a visible manner. When you respond to a bunch of emails, everyone can see that you’re on top of your project. When you spend a few hours researching a specific task, you might not have something tangible to show. Shallow work is easier. Going to meetings, responding to emails, these are all things that create the illusion of productivity but actually are less valuable and can easily be replicated.

The science behind Deep Work

Apparently, if we repeatedly spend enough time in this shallow work state, we may permanently reduce our brains’ capacity to perform deep work.

And there’s science to back this up:

Myelin is an insulating layer that forms around the nerves of your brain and spinal cord. As you get better at a specific skill, you develop more myelin around the neurons that perform a certain task. This allows the circuits in your brain to fire more smoothly. When we keep practicing one skill, we’re forcing those specific circuits to fire over and over in isolation, and the myelin keeps wrapping around the neurons. This is then how the brain cements a skill.

It takes long term, deliberate practice to improve performance, and this is the biggest difference between expert performers and the average employee.

The Problem with Task Switching

Newport also talks about the idea of attention residue:

When we switch between tasks, our attention doesn’t always follow immediately. Some of our attention will stay with our original tasks.

Newport talks about a study where a group of people were given a task, but were asked to constantly switch between tasks. As you might have guessed, they performed much worse after switching,compared to when they performed one task continuously.

This is also the science behind why productivity gurus like David Allen recommend timeblocking.

So what does this all mean?

If we want to produce at a peak level, the best way to achieve that is to work for extended periods with full concentration, ideally on a single task, free from distraction.

How do you perform Deep Work?

These five steps are all tricks to design your environment and your life so that doing deep work becomes easier. I’ve tried a few of these methods myself and I would highly recommend that you try them too, but try to have patience and focus on one method at a time.

1. Learn how to categorize tools as deep or shallow
a. Identify a desired big-picture outcome in a particular area of life (family, friends, health, work, etc.)
b. Identify just two or three activities that contribute the most toward this outcome. See Pareto’s 80/20 principle.
c. For each tool or task that currently consumes time and energy in this area of life, ask yourself: “Is this tool or task integral to the activities that help me make progress toward my desired outcomes?”
d. If the answer is no, quit the tool or task.

2. Make quick, structural changes that encourage deep work

This is a common trick when trying to build new habits. Design your environment and create structural changes that make it hard for you to get distracted:

1. Disable all incoming call / message notifications
You’d be amazed to find that.. Nobody expects you to respond immediately.

2. Become hard to reach
Set sender filters. Filter emails with rules and use auto-responders to manage reply expectations. Ask people to respect your time and energy, and they will.

3. Quit social media

Experiment by deleting one social media platform at first, for a period of 30 days. Monitor yourself and see how it affects your focus and your productivity. If you are finding that it’s having a positive impact on your productivity, consider taking longer social media breaks.

4. Work in a quiet place

Open-plan offices are the bane of deep work; a private room or library is best. Noise-cancelling headphones and music without words will also help you get into deep work mode.

5. Work at a quiet time

If you ask the most effective people you know when they wake up, their answer will probably be: early - when no one else is there to disturb them

- In the past month or two, I have managed to wake up at 5  am.
- For an hour in the morning, I do my research and writing for my Youtube channel.
- I started going in to work at 7 am, giving myself a full 1.5h of quiet work before work officially starts at 8:30am. The effects of this simple daily routine has been quite transformational for me.

3. Limit internet access during deep work time

- Gather everything you will need before beginning a session of deep work.
- Alternate online and offline work time — see the pomodoro technique.
- Block problem websites during work hours — check out Freedom.

4. Get visibility on deep vs. shallow time by minuting the day

The first step to changing anything is to measure it. Start keeping an honest record, on paper, of how much time is actually being spent each day. Review this record at the end of the day to get a sense of how much time is actually spent on deep vs. shallow work.

5. Train your attention

 In addition to taking steps to eliminate shallow work, we need to introduce deep work habits into our lives. Newport suggests a number of exercises to actively help strengthen our ability to effectively direct our attention. Much like meditation, each of these exercises involves choosing a single object of focus, noticing when attention has wandered, and then gently bringing attention back to the initial object.

Beyond strong and consistent anecdotal evidence, such practices have a proven physical impact on the attention centers of the brain.

1. Become friends with boredom
When standing in line or waiting for a friend, resist the temptation to instantly distract the mind with needless activity. Instead, just be in the present moment.

2. Practice thinking while walking
Get into the habit of thinking about a single, well-defined problem or topic,while being engaged in a physical activity that doesn’t require much mental exertion. This form of walking meditation not only improves attention, but also increases productivity.

3. Give the mind a work out with intense study or memorization skills
Spend time each day with some sort of intense studying or memorizing. It can be anything from memorizing a monologue or a pack of cards. These aren’t just good tricks to impress friends at the pub, - this kind of mental gymnastics also forces us to flex our attention muscles with far reaching implications for the rest of our lives.

What is your opinion on the practice of Deep Work? Have you tried some of these methods?

I would love to hear your opinions and experiences in the comments below!


1 year ago

Thanks for this excellent review. This book is resonating with the main direction of my organization's strategic plan: That world events since our last strategic plan have challenged us profoundly, we will take a collective breath to pause and reflect on how we have been affected and how we do our work from this point: "The decision to focus on the "how" of our work is bold and aspirational in that it prioritizes learning and relationships rather than forms of productivity and achievement that typically dictate our work."

The challenge is how do we operationalize this intention. I think this book will yield valuable insights into this.

Teng-Kiat Lee

12 months ago

I'm gonna go grab this book, but will it offer more than your review? 🙂


10 months ago

On my way to buy this book. I've always found it very hard to work on many things at the same time, you could say that I'm a naturally deep worker. It doesn't exactly come naturally though, I've found that there is a specific headspace I need to be in. Sometimes, I can get myself there, but it's not always easy. Hoping that by reading this book I will get a further understanding, thank you so much for the introduction.

I love your channel by the way. All the best x

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