Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work by Cal Newport is an antithesis of our ““ world. It takes an academic look at how the most prolific researchers and creative thinkers of our generation achieved monumental works of their time through what he calls, “deep work”. Let’s talk about what its about and how it can be applied to our day-to-day

Deep Work Infographic

What it's about

  • Talks about the virtues of “Deep Work”, a purposefully crafted environment where one can produce work requiring deep analysis and uninterrupted creativity
  • The book argues that the digital world we live in give us the illusion of doing many things at a time but do not empirically prove our ability to do anything “better“ or “faster” especially when it comes to work requiring innovation, analysis and creativity
  • Deep work is a state where we disconnect ourselves from all forms of distractions (Emails, messages) and human contact both in person and digital forms(read: social media). It can be in time batches over a single day or can span several days or even weeks
  • Deep Work stands at odds with open office designs which allow distractions to enter without any control on our part
  • Deep work can only be cultivated through routines and rituals and communicated within your peer groups to give you the leeway to perform at your best without hurting sentiments by your perceived “aloofness”

Types of Deep Work

Monastic Approach

Involves complete cut-off from society until work is done entirely. Best suited for people into intense research, analysis or creative pursuits

Bimodal Approach

Doing large chunks of deep work ranging from hours to days followed by stepping back into the role of a socially accessible person

Rhythmic Approach

Create an unbroken chain of days where you perform your core work in batches everyday while also attending to other tasks in the periphery

Journalistic Approach

Whenever free time presents itself during the day, switch to deep work. This is best suited to people whose work inflow is dynamic

How the Book presents it's arguments

  • Cal presents several anecdotes, some of them from the claimants themselves, about how their best works were produced in deep states of isolation. Many of the names taken are knowledge workers, who are the best subjects for the philosophy explained
  • Prominent names like Carl Jung, Charles Darwin, Bill Gates, Donald Knuth, Neal Stephenson, Walter Isaacson, Michael Pollan and Adam Grant (among others) are quoted within this as practitioners of this philosophy in various forms
  • Of these, Adam Grant’s anecdote presents the central premise of the book, where he presents details from a workshop of academics who were approaching producing academic works more effectively. Among other observations, the concept of batching similar urgent and important tasks into continuous stretches without distractions was shown to significantly contribute to his productivity
  • Central to understanding the theme is to fall back on an academic study quoted by the author. It describes the nature of all work as a struggle between distractions (which is ever present) and willpower (which is finite). You cannot achieve deep focus without simultaneously removing distractions
  • It encourages practitioners to not wait for inspiration, but instead, rely on rituals and to choose the kind of Deep Work model that fits your personality and/or the kind of work one is dealing with
  • The author reconciles the need for collaborative work but argues that in all instances where collaborative work has succeeded consistently has been when it has been implemented through a “hub and spoke” model where people can switch between focused isolation and serendipitous collaboration
  • Working together yield best results when each member of the team has a clearly bifurcated tasks that flows into the other person’s or becomes part of a larger body of work as explained through the work of some of the best known innovations in modern history (stuff like, you know, the semiconductor)
  • The author also makes a case for seeking constructive downtime as a way to recharge the energy levels and creativity to get back into work mode. In other words, respect the closure of the day if you want to be effective the next day
  • Cal signs off by reminding us that the intention is not to forget about the spontaneous nature of today’s work-life scenario but to be aware of the need for Deep work and have a thoughtful say in how one’s day would look like. Any sudden task that assumes priority in the middle of an allotted time slot mustn’t be ignored but thoughtfully accommodated else this would end up being a paper exercise.

Practical Takeaways

Schedule meticulously

Then follow religiously. Batch similar tasks, such as online vs offline, new content vs back-end maintenance etc. Don’t let one seep into the other

Embrace Isolation

Treat extended creative or analytical tasks (writing, business development, academic research etc) as special cases. Eliminate distractions till it’s done

Find the gap

If office hours are chaotic, set aside time for deep work. Wake up early, or sleep later. Power through the high intensity tasks in those hours

Close your work day

Rest is as important as work. Try mindfulness techniques to repair your cognitive processes. Your work efficiency improves by how effectively you rest

Mind is a Muscle

Remember that and treat it like one. Push it to it’s limits regularly, let it rest, then repeat. Over time you will expand your ability to store and process data

Commit to Deadlines

Publicly if possible. The mind often triggers the challenge-response mechanism and rises to the occasion in ways that will surprise you

Deep Work at work

At your work place (virtual office by today’s needs) discuss the approximate proportion of activities requiring Deep work vs others (“shallow work”) with your reporting manager

Come to an agreement on blocking you out of meetings and zoom calls that can distract you during that time slot. 

Most work places would appreciate the frank dissection of work especially when they see the results from letting you tackle the toughest tasks, uninterrupted (trust me, it will make a difference)

Consider solutions like DeWo from for solopreneurs and small companies to encourage Deep Work without distractions

Another key tool that Cal Newport cites as the cornerstone of Deep Work in day-to-day is “Time Batching” or doing similar tasks in batches across your work day. This ensures that each workspace or similar workflows receive maximum attention. For example, this could involve batching all video chats (if possible) and online research and setting a separate time-slot for onsite meetings.

An easy way to get started is to sign up for the “Work Life in Time Blocks” system,  offered FREE to those signed of this blog’s newsletter. I would encourage you to consider signing up below:

Closing thoughts

Cal Newport has brought in insights from the minds whose work has impacted our lives. At its core, it reminds us that often there isn’t anything better than shutting our mind and environment to everything but the task at hand. Where the book succeeds is in giving us strong arguments through examples of effective implementation by people who took a scientific approach to productivity.

You can pick up a copy here:

Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. Which means that, at no cost to you, I get a small commission if you choose to buy through my links. Please go through my Disclaimer notes for more info

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