Deep Work: Summary & Review

deep work book

In Deep Work (2016) Carl Newport shows the readers how to path to higher productivity, more free time, and higher life satisfaction lies in acquiring the skills for “deep work“, such as the single-minded focus on work that allows us to do more, in less time.

Bullet Summary

  • Deep work -the ability to focus and immerse yourself in a task- is the only work that will advance your life, career, and achievements
  • Train your deep work skills: the more you do it, the better at it you get
  • Design a life with habits and routines built around producing deep work
  • Deep work is taxing: once you’ve done enough, stop working. Otherwise, you’re wasting time on shallow work

Full Summary

About the Author:
Cal Newport holds a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT. He is the associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of several self-improvement books, including “So Good They Can’t Ignore You“.


Deep Work is divided into two parts: the first part tells you what deep work is and why you need it.
The second part explains how to learn it as a skill and how to implement it in your life.

Deep Work Definition

I will quote Cal Newport here:

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.

Deep work creates value for you and for the world.

Shallow work is the opposite.
It works on simple tasks and/or that you perform distracted, and which tends to create little value to you and the world.

Basically, you want to do less shallow work and more deep work.
Here are some examples of shallow work.

Shallow Work Examples

  • Checking emails
  • Replying to texts that add no real values
  • Checking your Facebook feed
  • Updating your status
  • Interacting with various push notifications
  • Checking your phone
  • Important work but distracted

Do less of the above.

Why You Need a Shallow Work Shield

Cal Newport makes the point that our current society seems to push people towards more shallow work.
Just think of the following:

  • Open office spaces with constant interruptions
  • “Culture of business” where running around is seen as productive
  • Expectations of fast response on all communication channels
  • Push notifications of all kinds
  • Addictive social media is built and designed to trap your mind

Basically: the world is pushing you into shallow work. But if you are driven and want to deliver big results, you need to buck the trend.
That is why if you want to achieve it is so crucial that you build the skill and culture for deep work.

The Elements of Deep Work

Here are the major elements of deep work:

  1. Single-tasking: multi-tasking is a myth, it decreases your productivity. Do one thing at a time
  2. No distractions: set blocks of time where you don’t allow yourself to be interrupted
  3. Intense focus: the more you’re into the task, the more and better you will deliver
  4. Staying power: the longer you can stay at it, the deeper you will go

Don’t Switch Tasks: Attention Residue Phenomenon

Cal Newport discusses the phenomenon of attention residue.

Attention residue is the “mental contamination” that different tasks produce on each other.

Imagine you are writing a post on the best lessons learned from the book Deep Work. But you crave a distraction and want to quickly check the emails.

Giving in to the distraction takes you away from your immersion in the task of writing and interrupts the flow.

Now imagine in your inbox you see two emails.
Once you decide to reply right now, it further takes you away from the mental cycles that are needed to write a good summary.
The second one, you can’t deal with it right now and you go back to writing.

When you go back to writing you need to “warm-up again” from scratch. And the email you could not reply to is still lingering in your mind as your next “to-do task”.

Now you need time to get into the writing mood again, and your mind is “polluted” by the task you’ve just finished in the past and the one you still have to do in the future.

Meaning for you? Stick with one task.

Attention residue is the reason why you should not constantly switch between tasks but rather stay focused on a single one for as long as possible.

The Skills for Deep Work

Deep work is a skill that you can increase with training.
The more you do it, the better you get at it.

Cal Newport says there are two key components you need to develop to increase your deep work:

  1. Concentration skills: the ability to fully focus on your tasks
  2. Beating the craving for distraction: unless you overcome your brain’s craving for a quick distraction, you will never get into deep work

And of course, the two are heavily interconnected.

How to Develop Deep Work Skills

Cal Newport proposes four rules to get good at deep work:

  1. Work Deeply: you need to structure your life around deep work. Divide your days into time blocks. Each time block is for doing one thing and one thing only
  2. Embrace Boredom: it’s when we are bored that the craving for distraction gets us the easiest. You must train yourself to stick with a task long after it’s gotten boring. To help fight the craving for distraction don’t fill your day with tasks but leave out some time where you allow your mind to relax, wander and recuperate
  3. Quit Social Media: they are designed to pull you away from deep life and they are the kings of distractions. Quit them for 30 days and see if your results will improve
  4. Drain the shallows: look at your day-to-day work and remove all the unproductive tasks. The example is a company whose productivity went up after they removed Friday from the workweek: employees just were focusing more during the other days to get the same amount done

Finally, Cal Newport recommends we develop routines that support deep work.

Habits and Routines for Deep Work

The author says that we have a limited amount of willpower.

My Note: Is willpower really limited?
It’s an open issue, read more about pop psychology myths-.

That’s why we should strive to conserve our willpower for what really matters.

One way of wasting willpower is trying to combat distractions.
If we don’t develop good habits that support our deep work, we will be using our willpower trying to wrestle our attention away from shallow work, social media, cat videos, and all other distractions.

How to conserve willpower?
To avoid wasting our willpower, we should develop a lifestyle that supports deep work.
Cal Newport proposes four different alternatives:

  1. Monastical lifestyle: cut off all distractions
  2. Bimodal monastic: you alternate periods of monk lifestyle to a “normal” life
  3. Rhythmic monastic: you partition your days for deep work -ie.: 9 to 5 and leave the evening off-
  4. Journalistic monastic: you fit deep work into your schedule any time you can

Also, see:

Rest And Sleep Well

Finally, you need to rest and sleep enough.
Plenty of research from different fields shows that getting enough rest and downtime does not take time away from productivity but enables deep work, concentration, and productivity.

Not getting enough rest and downtime is harmful to your productivity.

Here is why you need rest and downtime and how to use it:

  1. Plan downtime to recharge your batteries: downtime is a bit like plugging your phone into mains. It’s simply something you have to do to keep enjoying all your top functionalities. Plan it into your days
  2. Use downtime for inspiration: our unconscious has more power than our conscious mind. By taking breaks or going for walks we can leverage the power of our unconscious to come up with ideas and solution
  3. You waste time working too long: deep work is highly taxing and our capacity for deep work is limited (4 hours on a whole day for masters with chunks of 60 to 90 minutes). Any work that we do outside of our (current) capacity for deep work is most likely going to be shallow work and time-filling

To make downtime an integral part of your life Cal Newport recommends that when you stop working, you stop working for good.
No more checking emails, no WhatsApp group with your coworkers, and no mental cycles spent on work.

The proof that it works?
Cal Newport finishes work at 17:30 and rarely works weekends.

Productivity is about depth of work, not amount of time

Real-Life Applications

Plenty of life-changing advice in this book:

  • Get Rest – Or You’re Wasting Time

This concept is simple and yet it was really eye-opening for me.
Much of the time we spend “working” is wasted time. Once you can’t stomach deep work anymore, you are better off stopping to work because you’re not really doing much anyway.
Do something else.
Improve your intimate relationship, work out, listen to music, and do something you’re passionate about. Or yeah, check your social media too maybe.
But stop wasting time on shallow “work”.

  • Say No to Distraction -And Yes to Passion-

Saying no to distractions is hard. But it’s all the hardest if you are trying to give your attention to something you don’t love.
That’s why it’s crucial in life that you give your deep work time to something you love. Say no to distractions, but only to say yes to what you love.

On the techniques for “saying no to people“, see:

5 Techniques to Say No (Polite, But Effective)

  • Use Your Unconscious for Groundbreaking Ideas

I loved the concept of using downtime -and your unconscious- to come up with new ideas. You can take a break from your work and go for a walk to let your mind wander.
Or you can also meditate with a piece of paper nearby and then quickly jot down new ideas that come to your mind.
I have had some of my best ideas while meditating.

Deep Work Video Summary

And here is a Deep Work video summary with some of the examples I haven’t touched on in this summary and review:


Not Always Accurate on Latest Research

Deep Work makes ego depletion -such as the idea that our willpower is limited- a central tenet for its recommendation.

However, the concept of ego depletion has been called into question.

Not hearing counter-arguments reduces the authority of the author for critical readers like myself.

Social Media Bashing

The author says he is not telling you to abandon social media.

BUT… Then proceeds to spend a good portion of the book in what sounded to me a lot like social media bashing.
I find it unnecessary.

The author says that social media ruins most people’s productivity. And that may be true -albeit even there, did he measure that to be sure?-.

But most people aren’t going to maximize their efficiency anyway -and maybe not everyone even should seek that-.
Most people were watching TV before social media, listening to the radio before TV, and loitering before the radio. The point is: people who don’t care about maximizing efficiency will always find something to do that is not work.

Driven people instead are more likely to find a way to be productive, no matter what technology is available.
And they’re a lot more likely use social media for good.

Social media can be a bane or it can be a tool you can leverage. It’s up to us how we use it.

In Today’s World You Need…” Fallacy

Have you ever noticed that so many speakers use this format:

  • “In today’s world you need X”
  • “In today’s world you can’t allow yourself to be X anymore”?
  • “Today it’s more difficult than ever”

Then you read that book when it’s a few decades old and you smile.
And you realize how hollow those sentences are.

The truth is that no matter the world and era you live in you can always do more and be more and you should always strive to be better no matter in which period you live.

That’s why I didn’t particularly enjoy Deep Work’s recurrent references to “today’s world”.
I don’t think we need more deep work today.
We need more deep work today, as much as we will need more deep work tomorrow, as much as we needed deep work yesterday.

Sometimes Extremist

At times, it felt to me like Deep Work was being extremist with its tenets.

From deleting social media to not checking your phone if you are waiting in line to not checking the Internet if you need a piece of information.

I can’t think of not using the Internet while I write: it helps me write better, research information, double-check resources, and write better reviews.

The idea of not checking your phone while waiting in line also seems like an unnecessary time waste. You can use that downtime to reply to what you need to reply to.


I won’t list a bunch of “pros” here for a simple reason: it’s the concept of Deep Work that is life-changing.

When you develop your skills for deep work you can do more and better with less time. More results together with more free time, fun, and better relationships?

That’s life-changing to me.

What to Read After Deep Work

If you like “Deep Work” you are also likely to enjoy the following books:

  • The 4-Hour Workweek: a classic with the typical Ferris’ tips on increasing your productivity
  • Essentialism: focus on less to do more
  • The One Thing: focus on one thing, leave out all the rest
  • The War of Art: let the dreams take you forward, but build processes to make dreams a reality
  • The Talent Code: goes deeper into myelin, “reaching flow” and is best suited for sports or instrument players (also quoted by Newport in Deep Work)
  • Mastery: Robert Greene’s take on what it takes to achieve mastery


Deep Work is a great book, with a simple, life-changing concept.

Deep Work is not revolutionary in any way as it repeats a few well-known concepts of productivity. BUT.. It combines all the research with personal experiences and insights in a way that the end result is a truly remarkable book.

The changes that Deep Work inspires lead to what Cal Newport calls “Deep Life”, such as a life free of distractions and meaningless tasks. A deep life has deeper work, deeper relationships, and deeper satisfaction.

Check the best books collection or get Deep Work on Amazon

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