Doing Deep Work

Sometimes the right book comes along at the right time. It’s not so much that the idea is life-changing but that it reinforces a change that is already going on in your life. Deep Work by Cal Newport was like that for me. 1

Newport’s thesis is that work requiring sustained concentration that pushes your brain to the limit, is both valuable and rare. Such “deep work” is rare because we live in a culture of constant, distracting, stimulation that rewards busyness rather than productivity. It’s valuable because it is more productive, particularly for certain kinds of creative or technical work.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I is dedicated to convincing the reader that deep work is important, valuable, and rare. Honestly, it didn’t really grab me that much because I was already on this train. Part II, which is about about 2/3 of the book, is full of techniques and recommendations to help you do more and better deep work. This was really what was worth the price of admission for me.

One of the things that Newport emphasizes is that the ability to concentrate on deep work is not something that you either have or you don’t. It’s also not just a habit you can pick up through willpower. It’s a skill that you can train yourself to do.

He lays out four potential philosophies for doing deep work: The monastic philosophy is to isolate yourself from the distractions of the world and dedicate yourself to deep work over a long period of time. Bimodal philosophy alternates days or weeks of deep work with similar time periods dedicated to shallow work. The rhythmic approach is to dedicate a certain time period each day to doing deep work. The journalistic philosophy is to stick short bouts of deep work in whenever you have the time.

I realized that I was already pursuing the rhythmic approach, by doing things like turning off my email client until after lunch. My morning hours are the most productive when I’m trying to do technical or creative work (I’m writing this post on a Saturday morning, for instance). After reading about this I’m going to be more aggressive about defending that time from meetings and other distractions and dedicating it to the kind of deep work that I can do best during those hours.2

For a “productivity” book Deep Work really emphasizes the importance of downtime to recharge your batteries and renew your reserves of concentration. Newport is not at all a fan of putting in a huge amount of hours. His position is that there’s a limit to how much deep work you can get done per day (maxing out at about four hours). The rest of the day can be filled with shallow work, but beyond a certain point adding more shallow work will actually decrease the amount of deep work you can do, making you less productive overall.

I’ve always tried to avoid working late or bringing work home (though not necessarily as a productivity booster). It’s nice to have additional justification for this approach.

An area where Deep Work has lead me to try really changing my approach is scheduling. Newports advocates scheduling your entire day; writing down what you’ll be working on and when. This is advice I’ve heard from other sources but I’ve never put it in to practice because it felt too rigid. However, Newport presents a much more flexible approach to scheduling. He emphasizes that you don’t “win” if you stick to the schedule you laid out or “loose” if you have to change it. The goal is to avoid putting yourself in a position where you have to choose what you’re going to work on in that moment, because that makes it too easy to choose some sort of distraction.

To implement this more flexible approach he advises rescheduling as necessary throughout the day as things change and ignoring the schedule to follow up on interesting ideas or finish something if you’re on a roll. One tool he talks about to help with this is “conditional overflow” time blocks. If you are uncertain about how long something will take, schedule a block right after it that you can either use to complete the first task if it runs long or to work on a second, optional task if you finish up the first one.

Newport has in interesting benchmark to quantify the depth of a particular activity: How many months it would take to train a smart college graduate with no specialized training in the field to do this task? If the answer is relatively short, then the task is not that deep (and probably not all that valuable, since it implies almost anyone can be trained to do it). If the answer is quite long then it’s much more likely to be deep work. He recommends thinking about your various tasks using this benchmark and setting a shallow work budget to limit how much time you spend on these sorts of tasks.

One of the big shallow work time sinks that’s not pure distraction is email, and Deep Work lays out some techniques to reduce the email burden. On one side of the equation, he advocates making the people who email you do more work. If possible, don’t have your email address out there in public. Set expectations that email from people you don’t know may not receive a response. Then you don’t need to feel guilty when you don’t respond. As Newport puts it, “it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile.“ Unfortunately, these aren’t really an option for me in the day job. My work email is on our website and part of our job is being responsive to the public.3

Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, Newport advocates doing more work when you do respond to an email. Specifically, he recommends putting more effort into an individual email (preferably your first one in the conversation) with the goal of minimizing the number of emails needed. So instead of asking someone if they want to meet for coffee, propose a specific place and time up front and avoid the tedious back and forth. I’ve heard this sort of advice specifically around scheduling meetings before, but he advocates this sort of “project” focused email technique more broadly. Think about the end state that you want to get to and use that first email to accomplish (or prompt the person you’re emailing to accomplish) as many of the steps to get there as possible.

As I said in the intro, this book came along at just the right time for me. It provided reinforcement for some of the changes I was already making in my life. It’s also helped me better articulate what I’m doing and why. In addition to the larger conceptual stuff it also gave me quite a few techniques and insights about how to do deep work that are already proving their worth. I’d definitely recommend the book to anyone who does work that requires sustained concentration that pushes your brain to the limit. If you’re still on the fence, Shawn Blanc has a nice podcast interview with Deep Work author Cal Newport.

  1. I first heard about Deep Work from Shawn Blanc
  2. It would be nice to dedicate days or weeks (or years) to deep work, but my job and schedule wouldn’t really allow it. 
  3. Thankfully, what we do is boring enough to most people that we’re hardly deluged.