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  • Writer's pictureGovind Kumar

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

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Deep Work by Cal Newport is an exceptional book on the science of productivity and concentration. According to Cal, the best way to do a meaningful work is to work deeply meaning working on a single task at a time with immense concentration.

"…all activities, regardless of their importance, consume your same limited store of time and attention. If you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities".

-Cal Newport

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.

Deep Work?

According to Cal, deep work is - "Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate".

Shallow Work?

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

eg. Checking emails and working, taking a look at social media notifications while studying and working.

According to Cal, there are 4 things that we should consider while doing deep work

  1. Single Tasking

  2. Intense Focus

  3. Zero Distraction

  4. Extended period of time

The Formula of Productivity:

High quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)

In order to produce more high-quality work in a day, you can either increase the hours you work, or increase the intensity of focus.

Single Tasking - Research has proven time and again that multitasking makes people less productive. Without a doubt, focusing on one task at a time maximizes productive output. Hence taking single task at a time improves your productivity.

Intense focus requires not just minimising distractions, but also minimising task switching. Newport describes the idea of the attention residue. If you start on task A, and then switch to task B, for some time while working on B, you have an attention residue that is still thinking about task A and is sapping the intensity of your focus. Lab studies in which individuals are forced to switch tasks before the first one is complete show that they perform worse on the second task.

Zero Distraction makes intuitive sense. You get more work done when you’re not constantly interrupted by distractions.

Extended period of time - In order to perform certain activities in a meaningful way, we must perform that activity for an extended period of time, with a minimum duration of 25-30 Minutes, which can be extended to 1 hr, 1.5 hrs, 2 hrs and so on.. with rigorous practice.

How to Perform Deep Work?

As per the book, these 4 major steps can lead to a great performance and productivity.

  • Rule #1: Work Deeply

  • Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

  • Rule #3: Quit Social Media

  • Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

Rule #1: Work Deeply

Working deeply, due to its effortful nature, is the very thing most of us don’t want to do. Add to this an environment and culture that makes deep work difficult, and a finite amount of willpower that gets depleted as we use it, and you have a recipe for shallow work. To make deep work a staple in our day-to-day lives, we need to create rituals and routines that make things easier and more automatic for us.

Depth Philosophies

  • Monastic: Practitioners have a well-defined, highly valued, and individualized (or small team) professional goal which the bulk of their success depends on. Example: cutting edge research, writing novels, etc. Practitioners basically live their life as monks of deep work. Not so good for managers or people who don't necessarily have a tangible product they can point to or are working on.

  • Bimodal: Dividing the year (or month, or week) into stretches (at least one day) of deep work isolation while spending the rest of your time in more shallow spaces, networking, attending conferences, teaching, etc. Usually pursued by those who would be monastic but can't succeed without substantial commitments to non-deep pursuits. For example: Jung working in his tower for months at a time but then coming back to Zurich to earn money as a teacher and networking in coffeehouses. Cal states more people can make use of this philosophy than one might think.

  • Rhythmic: Have a daily depth ritual (e.g. 1-2 hours in the morning) or otherwise schedule it into your day every day. Good for deep work beginners and for people who definitely can't step away to work in isolation.

  • Journalistic: Essentially fitting deep work in whenever you can (e.g. even if you only have thirty minutes free, hop on the computer and switch to deep work mode). This has the advantage of incredible flexibility while maintaining productivity BUT it is only for advanced/disciplined deep work practitioners. Switching your mind to deep mode is pretty taxing for a novice.


Put in regular work and don't wait for inspiration. Decide...

  • Where you'll work and for how long. Use the location only for depth and try to keep the time slot regular if possible.

  • How you'll work once you start to work. Might have a ban on internet/phone use, or maintain a metric such as words written per unit of time, etc. You'll need this structure so you have something to measure against regarding the question of whether you're working an adequate amount.

  • How you'll support your work. Maximize your energy (water, nutritious food, exercise and sleep). Also smart breaks — drinking water, sitting quietly, meditating. Basically anything that doesn't involve your mind, especially things like internet distractions.

Make Grand Gestures

Example: J.K. Rowling renting a room in a luxury hotel to afford the isolation for completing a novel, Bill Gates taking Think Weeks in a cabin in the woods, etc. By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This reduces your mind's instinct to procrastinate and delivers motivation.

Idea: When starting a new project/initiative, take a week off from work to really immerse yourself in that project totally, so that when you return to a normal schedule the project is part of who you are and putting it into your schedule is much more natural.

4DX (Four Disciplines of Execution) applied to deep work

  1. Focus on the wildly important. Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours. Example: Cal's goal was to publish five papers per year. This is both necessary for tenure and a higher rate of work than he was used to, which provided the pressure to achieve that goal.

  2. Act on the lead measures. Two metrics to consider - lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures actually tell you how well you're doing (e.g. projects completed per year) lead measures are the ones you can actually iterate on during the process (e.g. time spent in deep work dedicated to the goal).

  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard. Track the progress of your lead measures in a visible area. Example: A physical note card with the number of deep work hours per day. Cal used this to track both hours spent AND milestones accomplished (e.g. circling the hour tally on which he solved a key proof) so that he would be motivated as well as develop a sense of how much deep work is necessary (and therefore how much he should schedule per week)

  4. Create a cadence of accountability. For a team project, this would be a regular sync up. For solo work, this could be an honest weekly review of how you did.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom. Intense concentration is a skill that must be trained. Much like athletes who must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll need to take care of your concentration outside of your deep work sessions. If, throughout your day-to-day life, you give in to distractions at the slightest hint of boredom, you’ll struggle to develop the type of intense concentration necessary for deep work.

Even worse, you’ll literally train and rewire your brain for on-demand distraction. The result? You’ll be wired for getting distracted over and over again even if you want to concentrate and work deeply.

Don't Take Breaks From Distraction, Take Breaks from Focus

Once you're wired for distraction, you crave it. A conventional approach is to take an "Internet Sabbath" or short disconnect, but to use an example from physical health, eating healthy one day a week will not make any progress that isn't immediately overridden. Instead, you should create times where you allow yourself to be distracted (i.e. breaks from focus) with the default time going to focus.

Example Strategy: Schedule in advance when you'll use the web. Note that...

  1. This strategy works even if your job requires lots of web use (you'll just have more frequent web use blocks).

  2. Regardless of how you schedule your web blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from web use. Something that will inevitably happen is that your block will end, you'll need some crucial piece of information from the web, and you'll be tempted to break the rule to quickly retrieve the info and return to your offline block. Resist this temptation! The internet is seductive and on multiple occasions you can be lured away into looking at something else. It doesn't take many of these “exceptions” before your mind treats the offline blocks as less serious. If you must get the current project done promptly, then reschedule the next internet block closer to the present, but still leave at least a five minute window.

  3. Scheduling internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training. If you're glued to the phone or laptop on evenings and weekends, it’ll undo your mental progress. However you're allowed to do time-sensitive communication in your offline blocks (texting plans, logistics for an event, etc). You can even give yourself long internet blocks if you want - but the point is to always schedule this so you empower yourself to avoid internet usage when you've decided to put it away. One of the hardest times will be when you're waiting for something, but it's crucial not to check the web during these times if you're in an offline block.

Rule #3: Get Rid Of Social Distractions

Newport suggests that “to master the art of deep work…you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.”

This means being more selective about the tools we use, rejecting the “Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection” and embracing the “The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection”.

The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

The Craftsman Approach demands that we be more discerning when deciding which apps we let into our lives and which ones we opt to delete. We’re forced to choose quality over quantity and only use tools that support our high-level goals. Here’s Newport’s precise framework to apply this mindset to your digital life:

  1. Identify your most important goals at work and in life

  2. List the top 2-3 activities required to achieve each goal

  3. Assess each tool you presently use to see if they have a significantly positive impact, significantly negative impact, or neutral impact on the activities you outlined above

  4. Eliminate the tools that do not have a significantly positive impact that outweighs the negative impacts

Rule #3: Drain the Shallows

Purge Shallow Work From Your Life

Maximizing deep work in your schedule, honing your ability to perform it, and reducing distractions are all important parts of the equation. The missing piece we haven’t discussed is removing shallow work from your day-to-day. Of course, eliminating all shallow work is impossible.

There will always be administrative and logistical tasks you need to attend to: sending emails, booking work travel, and submitting expense reports.

However, there’s a lot of shallow work that can be culled in an effort to maximize your time spent on deep work. This will enable you to push your career and personal pursuits forward.

Schedule Your Day Methodically

Starting your day with a plan is the best way to approach deep work. While it’s important to acknowledge a day typically won’t go exactly as planned, it’s important to set a strategy regardless.

Assign Shallow and Deep Grades to Your Work

In order to focus on deep work and decrease shallow work, it’s important to distinguish which is which. Assigning a simple “deep” or “shallow” grade to the work you have planned is a quick way to determine where you should focus your time most intently.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to determine if a task qualifies as deep work:

  • Does this task require focused attention?

  • Does this task require specialised training or knowledge?

  • Does this task create new value in the world?

  • Would this task be difficult to replicate?

If you can easily answer “yes” to most of the questions above, the task likely falls under the category of “deep work” and is worth your effort to prioritise in your schedule.

Get Your Boss on Board With Deep Work

The modern workplace is biased towards shallow work. Companies make little to no effort to quantify the costs of shallow work, failing to recognize the dollar amount lost when skilled people don’t focus on deep work.

They default to the status quo of constant connectivity and regularly occurring meetings instead of prioritizing long-term impact. Busyness is viewed as a sign of getting things done, rather than its direct adversary.

However, all hope is not lost. Many are open to the idea of minimizing information overload and distractions at work, allowing deep work to flourish, and helping employees do their best work. Your boss might be one of them.

Explain the concept of deep work and shallow work to them, using examples from your own typical workday. Then, ask them this question:

“What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?”

By getting support from your manager to spend time on deep work and getting an approximate “shallow-to-deep ratio”, you’ll be better able to structure your time at work and know that your boss supports you in unchaining yourself from your inbox and delving into work that provides deep value to your company. If there are specific ways your manager can support you in your quest for deep work, let them know.

Limit Your Workday

Embrace “fixed-schedule productivity”. Rather than working ridiculous hours to accomplish your goals, constrain yourself to a typical 8hrs work day, that forces you to be ruthless choosing where to spend your time and energy.

Remove shallow work from your schedule, don’t entertain opportunities that do little to serve your goals, and be liberal in your use of the word "no".With limited time at your disposal, you’ll need to be methodical in how you plan. As Newport notes, “A commitment to fixed-schedule productivity…shifts you into a scarcity mindset”. This necessarily makes you consider how you spend your time more wisely and raises the bar for what gets your attention and what is relegated the unimportant pile.

Make Yourself Inaccessible

Most of us have a steady drip of emails entering our inbox each day. This takes up mind space and attention that could be devoted to deep work. Newport argues that email is the “quintessential shallow activity is particularly insidious in its grip on most knowledge workers’ attention”.

However, there are several strategies we can use in dealing with email and loosening its grip on our attention:

Make Senders Do More Work When They Email You

  • Make senders work for your email addresses; don’t list it publicly or have it on your website.

  • Ask senders to filter themselves by having different emails or separate contact forms for different queries

Do More When You Send or Respond to Emails

  • Reduce the back-and-forth of emails with a “process-centric approach to email”. By sending more thorough and complete correspondence, you’ll close the loop on a conversation more quickly.

Don’t Respond

Not every email that lands in your inbox requires a response. For some the default line of thinking is that “it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile”. However, this is a controversial belief. Some suggest that not responding to emails is rude and others recommend never responding to your emails at all.

These three rules may help you find a middle ground that saves your sanity while still remaining open to opportunities that may arise. Newport recommends that you don’t respond to a message with these qualities:

  1. It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.

  2. It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.

  3. Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.

While uncomfortable to begin with, you may find these ground rules for responding to emails save you time and energy that you can direct towards deep work.

And Finally Few Quotes:


Book - Deep Work (Author Cal Newport)

Blog- Doist

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