Newport, Carl. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Posted on October 11, 2017 by Ernesto Garbarino

Case Studies

J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, does use a computer, but was famously absent from social media during the writing of her Harry Potter novels—even though this period coincided with the rise of the technology and its popularity among media figures.

(Newport, 2016, p. 4)

Bill Gates

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.

(Newport, 2016, p. 5)

Donald Knuth

Message from Donald Knuth, famous for many innovations in computer science, including, notably, the development of a rigorous approach to analyzing algorithm performance, on Stanford’s website:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

(Newport, 2016, p. 103)

General Citations

Productivity Loss

The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers. A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 5–6)

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

(Newport, 2016, p. 64)

Shallow Work

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

(Newport, 2016, pp. 5–6)

In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality. To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 6–7)

Deep Work

Deep work is not, in other words, an old-fashioned skill falling into irrelevance. It’s instead a crucial ability for anyone looking to move ahead in a globally competitive information economy that tends to chew up and spit out those who aren’t earning their keep. The real rewards are reserved not for those who are comfortable using Facebook (a shallow task, easily replicated), but instead for those who are comfortable building the innovative distributed systems that run the service (a decidedly deep task, hard to replicate). Deep work is so important that we might consider it, to use the phrasing of business writer Eric Barker, “the superpower of the 21st century.”

(Newport, 2016, p. 4)

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 14–15)

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.

(Newport, 2016, p. 16)

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.

(Newport, 2016, p. 84)

Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.

(Newport, 2016, p. 258)

To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience. The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.

(Newport, 2016, p. 264)

Talent, Abilities & Skill

In a seminal 1981 paper, the economist Sherwin Rosen worked out the mathematics behind these “winner-take-all” markets. One of his key insights was to explicitly model talent—labeled, innocuously, with the variable q in his formulas—as a factor with “imperfect substitution,” which Rosen explains as follows: “Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” In other words, talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 25–26)

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.

(Newport, 2016, p. 29)

Intelligent machines are complicated and hard to master. 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.

(Newport, 2016, p. 31)

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

(Newport, 2016, p. 37)

It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another: On our worst days, it can seem that all knowledge work boils down to the same exhausting roil of e-mails and PowerPoint, with only the charts used in the slides differentiating one career from another.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 74–75)


The main obstacles to going deep: the urge to turn your attention toward something more superficial.

(Newport, 2016, p. 98)

Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.

(Newport, 2016, p. 100)

Addictions & Distractions

Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 158–159)

Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it.

(Newport, 2016, p. 160)

The Internet is seductive: You may think you’re just retrieving a single key e-mail from your inbox, but you’ll find it hard to not glance at the other “urgent” messages that have recently arrived. It doesn’t take many of these exceptions before your mind begins to treat the barrier between Internet and offline blocks as permeable.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 163–164)

[Network tools] are engineered to be addictive—robbing time and attention from activities that more directly support your professional and personal goals (such as deep work).

(Newport, 2016, p. 186)

All activities, regardless of their importance, consume your same limited store of time and attention. If you service low-impact activities [like spending time on Facebook], therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game.

(Newport, 2016, p. 202)

Among the different network tools that can claim your time and attention, [social media], if used without limit, can be particularly devastating to your quest to work deeper. They offer personalized information arriving on an unpredictable intermittent schedule—making them massively addictive and therefore capable of severely damaging your attempts to schedule and succeed with any act of concentration.

(Newport, 2016, p. 205)

Part of what makes social media insidious is that the companies that profit from your attention have succeeded with a masterful marketing coup: convincing our culture that if you don’t use their products you might miss out.

(Newport, 2016, p. 206)

Part of what fueled social media’s rapid assent, I contend, is its ability to short-circuit this connection between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you. It has instead replaced this timeless capitalist exchange with a shallow collectivist alternative: I’ll pay attention to what you say if you pay attention to what I say—regardless of its value. A blog or magazine or television program that contained the content that typically populates a Facebook wall or Twitter feed, for example, would attract, on average, no audience. But when captured within the social conventions of these services, that same content will attract attention in the form of likes and comments. The implicit agreement motivating this behavior is that in return for receiving (for the most part, undeserved) attention from your friends and followers, you’ll return the favor by lavishing (similarly undeserved) attention on them. You “like” my status update and I’ll “like” yours. This agreement gives everyone a simulacrum of importance without requiring much effort in return.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 207–208)

[Network tools] 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. They can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they’re a lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper.

(Newport, 2016, p. 209)

Addictive websites [e.g. BuzzFeed, Business Insider, Reddit] thrive in a vacuum: If you haven’t given yourself something to do in a given moment, they’ll always beckon as an appealing option. If you instead fill this free time with something of more quality, their grip on your attention will loosen.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 212–213)

If you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative.

(Newport, 2016, p. 214)

Free Time

Bennett suggests that his typical man see his sixteen free hours as a “day within a day,” explaining, “during those sixteen hours he is free; he is not a wage-earner; he is not preoccupied with monetary cares; he is just as good as a man with a private income.” Accordingly, the typical man should instead use this time as an aristocrat would: to perform rigorous self-improvement—a task that, according to Bennett, involves, primarily, reading great literature and poetry.

(Newport, 2016, p. 210)

One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.

(Newport, 2016, p. 214)

Approaches to Work Scheduling

The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

…the pool of individuals to whom the monastic philosophy applies is limited—and that’s okay. If you’re outside this pool, its radical simplicity shouldn’t evince too much envy. On the other hand, if you’re inside this pool—someone whose contribution to the world is discrete, clear, and individualized*—then you should give this philosophy serious consideration, as it might be the deciding factor between an average career and one that will be remembered.

The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

The bimodal philosophy believes that deep work can produce extreme productivity, but only if the subject dedicates enough time to such endeavors to reach maximum cognitive intensity—the state in which real breakthroughs occur. This is why the minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy tends to be at least one full day. To put aside a few hours in the morning, for example, is too short to count as a deep work stretch for an adherent of this approach.

The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. 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.

The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling:

I call this approach, in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule, the journalist philosophy. This name is a nod to the fact that journalists, like Walter Isaacson, are trained to shift into a writing mode on a moment’s notice, as is required by the deadline-driven nature of their profession. This approach is not for the deep work novice. As I established in the opening to this rule, the ability to rapidly switch your mind from shallow to deep mode doesn’t come naturally. Without practice, such switches can seriously deplete your finite willpower reserves. This habit also requires a sense of confidence in your abilities—a conviction that what you’re doing is important and will succeed. This type of conviction is typically built on a foundation of existing professional accomplishment.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 102–116)


Changing The Environment Radically

On J.K. Rowling’s decision to check into a luxurious hotel near Edinburgh Castle to finish the last Harry Potter book:

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 boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 122–123)

To put yourself in an exotic location to focus on a writing project, or to take a week off from work just to think, or to lock yourself in a hotel room until you complete an important invention: These gestures push your deep goal to a level of mental priority that helps unlock the needed mental resources. Sometimes to go deep, you must first go big.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 125–126)

The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Based on book of the same name:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important
  2. Act on the Lead Measures
  3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability

The 4DX framework is based on the fundamental premise that execution is more difficult than strategizing. After hundreds and hundreds of case studies, its inventors managed to isolate a few basic disciplines that seem to work particularly well in conquering this difficulty. It’s no surprise, therefore, that these same disciplines can have a similar effect on your personal goal of cultivating a deep work habit.

(Newport, 2016, p. 141)

Reasons for Resting/Taking Time

Reasons: (Newport, 2016, pp. 143–153)

  1. Downtime Aids Insights
  2. Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply: attention fatigue.
  3. The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important: for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours—but rarely more.

Walking through Nature

Walking through nature, by contrast, exposes you to what lead author Marc Berman calls “inherently fascinating stimuli,” using sunsets as an example. These stimuli “invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish.” Put another way, when walking through nature, you’re freed from having to direct your attention, as there are few challenges to navigate (like crowded street crossings), and experience enough interesting stimuli to keep your mind sufficiently occupied to avoid the need to actively aim your attention. This state allows your directed attention resources time to replenish. After fifty minutes of such replenishment, the subjects enjoyed a boost in their concentration.

(Newport, 2016, pp. 147–148)

Strict Shutdown Ritual

To succeed with this strategy, you must first accept the commitment that once your workday shuts down, you cannot allow even the smallest incursion of professional concerns into your field of attention. This includes, crucially, checking e-mail, as well as browsing work-related websites.

(Newport, 2016, p. 151)

As any busy knowledge worker can attest, there are always tasks left incomplete. The idea that you can ever reach a point where all your obligations are handled is a fantasy.

(Newport, 2016, p. 153)

Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they’re necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness

(Newport, 2016, p. 154)

Schedule Every Minute of your Day

Suggestion: At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook you dedicate to this purpose. Down the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you typically work. Now comes the important part: Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks.

(Newport, 2016, p. 222)

Say No

I, too, am incredibly cautious about my use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.” It takes a lot to convince me to agree to something that yields shallow work.

(Newport, 2016, p. 239)

Another tactic that works well for me is to be clear in my refusal but ambiguous in my explanation for the refusal. The key is to avoid providing enough specificity about the excuse that the requester has the opportunity to defuse it.

(Newport, 2016, p. 239)

In most knowledge work jobs, it can be difficult in the moment to turn down a shallow commitment that seems harmless in isolation—be it accepting an invitation to get coffee or agreeing to “jump on a call.” A commitment to fixed-schedule productivity, however, shifts you into a scarcity mind-set. Suddenly any obligation beyond your deepest efforts is suspect and seen as potentially disruptive.

(Newport, 2016, p. 240)

Dealing with Email

(Newport, 2016, pp. 242–255)

  1. Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work
    • Do not provide direct email addresses
    • Force senders to formulate thorough requests (e.g. send them to a FAQ)
  2. Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails
    • What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
    • Identify next steps and try to bring the project to closure
  3. Don’t respond
    • Ignore careless and ambiguously phrased emails

Misc Suggestions

(Newport, 2016, pp. 172–173)

  1. Be Wary of Distractions and Looping: When faced with a hard problem, your mind, as it was evolved to do, will attempt to avoid excess expenditure of energy when possible. One way it might attempt to sidestep this expenditure is by avoiding diving deeper into the problem by instead looping over and over again on what you already know about it.
  2. Structure Your Deep Thinking
  Author = {Cal Newport},
  Title = {{Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World},
  Publisher = {Piatkus Books},
  Year = {2016},
  ISBN = {0349411905}

Newport, C., 2016. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Piatkus Books.