Deep Work

date Jun 29, 2017
authors Carl Newport
reading time 11 mins

Case studies

Carl Jung

He wanted to change the way we understood the unconscious, and this goal required deeper, more careful thought than he could manage amid his hectic city lifestyle. Jung retreated to Bollingen, not to escape his professional life, but instead to advance it.

Meaning of deep work

Deep Work: 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.

Meaning of shallow work

Shallow Work: Noncognitively 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.

Network tools are distracting us

The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit.

Art of learning complicating things

To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.

How long to do deep work?

Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

Who will benefit?

In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

Hard things at the level of mastery

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

Mastering hard things as a habit

To join the group of those who can work well with these machines, therefore, requires that you hone your ability to master hard things. And because these technologies change rapidly, this process of mastering hard things never ends: You must be able to do it quickly, again and again.

Focus + feedback

This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires. Its core components are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

Long uninterrupted hours

Though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.

High quality work formula

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Switching tasks / multi-tasking is not productive

The results from this and her similar experiments were clear: “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task,” and the more intense the residue, the worse the performance.

Jobs which does not require deep work

The fact that Dorsey encourages interruption or Kerry Trainor checks his e-mail constantly doesn’t mean that you’ll share their success if you follow suit: Their behaviors are characteristic of their specific roles as corporate officers.

Open offices

Open offices, for example, might create more opportunities for collaboration,* but they do so at the cost of “massive distraction,”

Social norms are opposite of what’s required

Depth-destroying behaviors such as immediate e-mail responses and an active social media presence are lauded, while avoidance of these trends generates suspicion.

Attention to

This theory tells us that your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors.

Life of satisfaction

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

Eudamonia Machine


The first room you enter when coming off the street is called the gallery. In Dewane’s plan, this room would contain examples of deep work produced in the building. It’s meant to inspire users of the machine, creating a “culture of healthy stress and peer pressure.”


Beyond the salon you enter the library. This room stores a permanent record of all work produced in the machine, as well as the books and other resources used in this previous work. There will be copiers and scanners for gathering and collecting the information you need for your project. Dewane describes the library as “the hard drive of the machine.”


“The office,” Dewane explains, “is for low-intensity activity.” To use our terminology, this is the space to complete the shallow efforts required by your project. Dewane imagines an administrator with a desk in the office who could help its users improve their work habits to optimize their efficiency.

Deep work chambers

“The purpose of the deep work chamber is to allow for total focus and uninterrupted work flow,” Dewane explains. He imagines a process in which you spend ninety minutes inside, take a ninety-minute break, and repeat two or three times—at which point your brain will have achieved its limit of concentration for the day.

Monastic philosophy - not possible for everyone

Knuth deploys what I call the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling. This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. Practitioners of the monastic philosophy tend to have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that they’re pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well.

Bimodal philosophy - possible for people with jobs

Jung’s approach is what I call the bimodal philosophy of deep work. This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. During the deep time, the bimodal worker will act monastically — seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration.

How to deal with people during scheduled focus work

people will usually respect your right to become inaccessible if these periods are well defined and well advertised, and outside these stretches, you’re once again easy to find.

Have a routine to keep brain free of deciding

The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep. The chain method is a good example of the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling because it combines a simple scheduling heuristic (do the work every day), with an easy way to remind yourself to do the work: the big red Xs on the calendar.

2 hours every morning

He made a rule that he would wake up and start working by five thirty every morning. He would then work until seven thirty, make breakfast, and go to work already done with his dissertation obligations for the day. Pleased by early progress, he soon pushed his wake-up time to four forty-five to squeeze out even more morning depth.

Experiment with the routines

But keep in mind that finding a ritual that sticks might require experimentation, so be willing to work at it. I assure you that the effort’s worth it: Once you’ve evolved something that feels right, the impact can be significant.

Hubs beyond solitude work

Their creative mojo had more to do with the fact that these offices shared a small number of long connecting spaces—forcing researchers to interact whenever they needed to travel from one location to another. These mega-hallways, in other words, provided highly effective hubs.

Hub and spoke model

First, distraction remains a destroyer of depth. Therefore, the hub-and-spoke model provides a crucial template. Separate your pursuit of serendipitous encounters from your efforts to think deeply and build on these inspirations. You should try to optimize each effort separately,

Lag measure (goal) vs lead measure (system)

In 4DX, there are two types of metrics for this purpose: lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve. … Lead measures, on the other hand, “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.”

  • Example of lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal
  • Example of lag measure: papers published per year

Consistency and regularity is important

In retrospect, it was not so much the intensity of my deep work periods that increased, but instead their regularity.

Why is shutdown

  • Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights
  • Reason #2: Downtime Helps
  • Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important

Before shutdown

The first thing I do is take a final look at my e-mail inbox to ensure that there’s nothing requiring an urgent response before the day ends. The next thing I do is transfer any new tasks that are on my mind or were scribbled down earlier in the day into my official task lists.

Regular resting of brain

Decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point toward the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.

Schedule in advance for shallow work

Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. I suggest that you keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed—no matter how tempting.

Being bored is a novelty

To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.

Social Media

These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers.

How did 37signals manage with lesser working hours?

In other words, the reduction in the 37signals workweek disproportionately eliminated shallow as compared to deep work, and because the latter was left largely untouched, the important stuff continued to get done.

Better results with long uninterrupted time

“I’d take 5 days in a row over 5 days spread out over 5 weeks,” he explained. “So our theory is that we’ll see better results when people have a long stretch of uninterrupted time.”

Deciding on shallow work

Here’s an important question that’s rarely asked: What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work? This strategy suggests that you ask it.

Saying No with no consolation

In turning down obligations, I also resist the urge to offer a consolation prize that ends up devouring almost as much of my schedule (e.g., “Sorry I can’t join your committee, but I’m happy to take a look at some of your proposals as they come together and offer my thoughts”). A clean break is best.

Selecting careful who to answer

As for my own interest in helping my readers, I now redirect this energy toward settings I carefully choose to maximize impact. Instead of allowing any student in the world to send me a question, for example, I now work closely with a small number of student groups where I’m quite accessible and can offer more substantial and effective mentoring.

Email inbox == opportunities!

By instead resetting your correspondents’ expectations to the reality that you’ll probably not respond, the experience is transformed. The inbox is now a collection of opportunities that you can glance at when you have the free time—seeking out those that make sense for you to engage.