Deep Work

15 min read



  • What is deep work? Spending a long amount of time alone and working hard on a problem.
  • People have made big progress on important things in isolation.
  • Jung had a tower that he worked in while trying to beat Freud' theories.
  • Bill Gates has think weeks where he’d spend 2 weeks with no technology, just reading and thinking “big thoughts”.
  • A knowledge worker is someone who’s job requires them to think for a living: programmers, doctors, scientists, lawyers, academics.
  • An estimated 60% of knowledge worker’s time is spent online and communicating with others.
  • What is shallow work? Repetitive, undemanding work that is performed while distracted.
  • Nowadays, hard tasks get split into distracted dashes that mean the work is of lower quality.
  • Networked tools like social media are making our work more shallow.
  • This shift is creating an economic gap where people who prioritise deep work are rewarded.
  • Hard things, like learning something complex or creating something new, require bouts of uninterrupted concentration.
  • The irony is strong: I was listening to the audio book whilst also using Snapchat, whilst also on a run.
  • Two reasons why deep work is needed:
    • Learning hard things quickly is an important and valuable skill.
    • You need to be able to make really good things.
  • The deep work hypothesis: deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time as it is becoming increasingly valuable.
What is deep work??

Spending a lot of time alone and working hard on a problem.

What is the deep work hypothesis??

Deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable.

What is the opposite of deep work??

Shallow work.

You’ve just checked your phone. That means that the work you’re doing at the moment is likely…??

Shallow work.

Part I

Chapter 1: Deep Work is Valuable

  • Blah blah blah, economy is changing. The three groups of people who will thrive:
    • The highly skilled people (i.e. good at working with intelligent machines)
    • The super stars (i.e. famous people in the industry, the best at what they do)
    • The owners (i.e. people with capital invest)
  • Make money by joining these people!
  • The skills needed to become “highly skilled” or “the super stars” are:
    • The ability to learn hard things quickly.
    • The ability to produce work of the highest quality and at speed.
  • If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.
  • If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive.
  • These abilities depend on your ability to deep work.
  • F: “Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.”
  • To learn requires intense concentration.
  • F: Deliberate practice shows up again, like it did in [[Body By Science]]N.
  • People aren’t always prodigies, they can make it to expert level through deliberate practice.
  • Attention needs to be focused tightly.
  • Feedback keeps attention where it is most effective.
  • Some biology:
    • Ability reduces down to the efficiency of the brain circuitry that perform the activity (the amount of myelin sheaths around a nerve cells measure this).
    • Distracted practice doesn’t isolate the corresponding circuits well enough to make quick, efficient progress (like working with a Facebook feed open).
  • To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intently and without distraction.
  • I should read that paper about deliberate practice.
  • You should model productivity as a scientific process to be optimised; this sounds similar to the later episodes of [[Replacing Guilt]]N.
  • Stack hard things into continuous blocks of intention.
  • F: Enforce strict isolation until you’ve completed the task at hand.
  • F: $$\text{quality of work produced} = \text{time spent} \times \text{intensity of focus}$$
  • You can increase your concentration to decrease the amount of time you spend working.
  • Context switching diminishes focus.
  • The type of work that optimises your performance is deep work.
  • Some people have lots of shallow attention while still being valuable – this is necessary for their type of work, like executives. This also feels a bit like Newport trying to explain away the anomalies in his theories.
“Let your mind become a lens…”??

“…thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.”

What is deliberate practice??

A special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic.

What’s one way of quickly increasing your focus on things??

Enforce strict isolation until you’ve completed the task at hand.

What is the $\text{quality of work produced}$ equation??

$$ \text{quality of work produced} = \text{time spent} \times \text{intensity of focus} $$

Chapter 2: Deep Work is Rare

  • Modern technologies like Slack supposedly increase communication and serendipity but undermine these benefits by preventing deep work.
  • It’s hard to measure some aspects of businesses, which explains why constant email has proliferated despite being harmful. People rely on how it feels in the moment.
  • One study (of one group, hmmm) found more job satisfaction and a better team when email was turned off one day a week.
  • The principle of least resistance: in a business setting without clear feedback on impacts to the bottom line, people will tend towards behaviours that are easier in the moment.
  • Email is easier in the moment but worse for the bottom line.
  • F: People use busyness as a proxy for productivity, pain is not the unit of effort.
  • The H-index is a formula for measuring your impact on a field using citations and papers written, so academics have a better idea of how activities affect their bottom line.
  • Admin tasks destroy productivity – Feynman used to claim that he was irresponsible so that he didn’t end up on any committee.
  • Solid goals with concrete indications of completion, like having a motorbike drive out of a show after being repaired, are better than the loose ones of modern work.
  • In the absence of clear indications of what is means to be productive, many workers turn to a more industrial “busyness” as a proxy for their measure of value.
  • This means they do lots of stuff visibly in hopes that it makes them look good.
  • Deep work is at odds to this – you’re not trying to make yourself visible.
  • Deep work is exiled and instead swapped with new distracting behaviours like the professional use of social media.
  • There’s nothing fundamentally necessary about the shallow work associated with the modern internet.
  • Deep work is getting rarer, and more valuable. If it does no harm, why not exploit the gap in the market by doing deep work.
What idea connects busyness and productivity??

Doing lots of shallow work visibly and using busyness as a proxy to productivity.

How did Feynman used to get out of admin work??

He claimed he was very irresponsible.

Chapter 3: Deep Work is Meaningful

  • Blacksmithing is cool; it creates a strong Flow experience.
  • Knowledge work has less well defined boundaries than blacksmithing or motorbike work.
  • Shallow work is the normal, deep work is frowned upon.
  • Our emotions depend on what we focus on:
    • If we think about a cancer diagnosis the whole time, or something bad that happened a couple days ago, then we will feel sad.
    • If we focus on positive things, like 6:30 martinis, then we’ll be happier.
  • F: “Who you are is the sum of what you focus on.”
  • Skillful “thinking on the bright side” leads to better outcomes.
  • Deep work helps you focus on the meaningful things.
  • Deep work means honing concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems.
  • F: There’s a “buffet of distraction” in knowledge work.
  • F: Flow: The mental state where a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of an activity.
  • Deep work helps you create a flow state.
  • Meaning has gone after the enlightenment as we have to make our own goals rather than rely on divine judgement; there aren’t many sources of meaning outside the individual.
  • Suggestion of “the pragmatic programmer” book.
  • Deep work helps work feel meaningful.
How can you relate personal identity and focus??

Who you are is the sum of what you focus on.

I’m thinking about something negative. How can I make myself happier??

Think about something that you’re looking forward to or excited about instead.

What’s a nice metaphor for all the different ways you can get distracted on the modern internet??

There’s a buffet of distraction, you don’t spend all day eating at buffets.

What is flow??

A mental state where you’re fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of an activity.

Part II

Rule #1: Work Deeply

  • Suggestion of the finite willpower model; skeptical about this since it’s been criticised recently:
  • While working hard or trying to focus, you’re bombarded with desires to do other things.
  • It’s better to set up habits and routines that minimise the amount of effort you have to put in to working deeply than to make it a big deal which makes it harder to get started.
  • Committing to a schedule can help this.
  • A few deep work philosophies:
    • Monastic – radically minimize shallow obligations. Donald Knuth is an example.
    • Bimodal – Divide your time (i.e. 4 days on, 3 days off or 2 seasons on, 2 seasons off) and be monastic during one of those periods.
    • Rhythmic – Transform deep work into a scheduled, repeated daily work. Think one hour in the morning or similar. Use a set starting time to minimise effort.
    • Journalistic – Do work whenever you can, 20 minutes here and there; difficult because of context switching.
  • Make sure if you’re doing monastic or bimodal deep work that you make sure that these times are well defined and well advertised.
  • “Great creative minds work like artists but think like accountants”.
  • Build strict rituals, when will you work and when?
  • Find a deep work retreat, like a cabin in the woods or a spot in the library.
  • Give it a time frame so that it isn’t open-ended.
  • Create hard and fast rules like no internet whatsoever.
  • Use a grand gesture; make a big change in order to increase motivation and energy (like checking into a hotel).
  • Need a combination of sole thinking (like Carl Jung’s stone tower) and collaborative efforts; spaces that facilitate both ends of the spectrum are better.
  • Feedback loops between individuals can improve things.
  • Working on a shared whiteboard is good.
  • People rave about serendipity but its better to keep serendipitous pursuits separate from efforts to think deeply.
  • Realising what action needs to be taken to achieve a goal is a world of difference from figuring out how to achieve it.
  • Focus on the wildly important – it’s better to focus on a small number of ambitious outcomes rather than fracturing attention between lots and lots of smaller ones.
  • Let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.
  • Measure progress on the goals that you’re trying to achieve and put them in your face.
  • Lag measures vs lead measures, lag measures are too late.
  • Create a scoreboard for competition, people play differently when they’re being measured.
  • To track deep work, put tallies next to week dates on a piece of paper. Circle the tally where you achieved something important.
  • Regular accountability: use a weekly review to look at progress being made and metrics being recorded.
  • Be lazy: Shut down work thinking before the end of each day, and try not to think about it at all.
  • Downtime is crucial, it helps you recharge your batteries for working deeply again.
  • It’s easier to walk through nature than it is to walk through the city because there’s less challenges involved.
  • Shutdown ritual, make sure it’s in a system like in Getting Things Done, kinda like an end of day review.
“Great creative minds…”??

“think work artists but think like accountants”.

“Let the terrifying…”??

“longing crowd out everything else”.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

  • Concentration is a skill that can be trained.
  • Need to be comfortable with boredom in order to improve active concentration.
  • Constantly fracturing attention means your brain gets worse at concentrating.
  • Take breaks from focus, rather than taking breaks from distraction.
  • Internet sabbaths aren’t good and should be flipped: take breaks from focus in order to distract yourself with the internet. Schedule in advance when you’ll use the internet.
  • Keep the time outside of the internet completely offline.
  • Schedule internet restrictions even after work is over.
  • Being forced to wait is a crucial situation that helps improve your concentration.
  • Inject the occasional dash of Rooseveltian attention to a deep work task – make it intense and attack the task with every neuron. You’re trading concentration for completion time.
  • You can use artificially set deadlines to make yourself work harder.
  • Try it for once a week at the start.
  • Productive meditation: take a period where you’re occupied physically but not mentally to think deeply about one specific professional task, i.e. take thinking walks.
  • Things like this improve your ability to concentrate while also making you more productive.
  • Memory training helps you concentrate – learn to memorise a deck of cards!

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

  • Social media and “infotainment” sites fragment our attention.
  • Find a middle ground between using social media heavily and not at all.
  • Any benefit mindset: identifying any benefit as a justification for using a tool without considering the negatives.
  • The craftsman mindset: adopt a tool if and only if it’s positive benefits on your personal and professional values outweigh the negative effects.
  • Identify a small number of professional and personal goals, then identify the activities that pursue those goals.
  • Measure if the network tools you use help, hurt or have little effect on the goal.
  • The law of the vital few: in many settings, 80% of a given effect is because of 20% of contributions.
  • Companies fire clients! If one client is being unproductive then they can redirect the hours they would normally spend towards a more lucrative contract.
  • Ban yourself from using social media for 30 days and see what you actually end up needing to use.
  • Think “would the last 30 days have been noticeably better if I was using this service?” and “Did anybody care that I was offline?”
  • Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself. There’s plenty of things that are more real and valuable you can use, like books or even films.
  • People view the time after work/school as like the end of the day, when really there is another 16 hours.
  • Spend those 16 hours like an aristocrat would, reading great literature and poetry.
  • You should and can make deliberate use of your time outside of school and work.
  • Every psychological trick possible is used on entertainment sites in order to keep you engaged.
  • They are crazy effective. You end up using them when…
    • Waiting in a line.
    • Waiting for the plot of a TV show to pick up.
    • Waiting to finish eating a meal.
  • They can ruin your attention. Sites like HackerNews, BuzzFeed and Reddit don’t even require sign-ups; they’re always there, just a click away.
  • Figure out what you’re planning to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin.
  • Addictive websites thrive in a vacuum – when you have nothing else to do, they easily fill that space. When you purposefully plan what you’re going to do, they go away.
  • Read an interesting book rather than going on YouTube. They don’t have to be complicated, you could pick something light-hearted that’s a bit easier to digest.
  • Always give your brain a quality alternative. I think this advice applies to snacking too.
How can you paradoxically make relaxation time more relaxing??

Plan out how you’re going to relax.

“Addictive websites…”??

“thrive in a vacuum”.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

  • 4-day workweeks can be just as effective as 5-day workweeks because people prioritise deep work over shallow work.
  • Ruthlessly identify the shallowness in your current schedule and then cut it down to a minimum.
  • You can improve your ability to do Deep Work from about 1 hour a day to 4 hours a day. It’s hard to get over the 4 hours a day limit.
  • Some level of shallow work is required, you can’t just quit email full stop.
  • Treat shallow work with suspicion. Its harm is underestimated and its benefits are overestimated.
  • Schedule every minute of your day.
  • Pause before action and think “what makes the most sense right now”?
  • Timeboxing – break each day down to 30 minute chunks and draw squares where you plat what you want to do and when.
  • Estimated will prove wrong and interruptions will appear. Don’t throw away the schedule, revise it.
  • If you stumble onto an unexpected insight, allow that to change priorities of everything else.
  • “What would make sense to do with the time remaining?”
  • Quantify the depth of every activity.
  • Ask yourself how long you should be spending on shallow work per day.
  • Finish work at 5:30PM (fixed schedule productivity).
  • Work out what habits are needed to fulfil the commitment of fixed productivity scheduling.
  • Guard obligations and don’t say yes to shallow work very often.
  • Become hard to reach.
  • For people who receive a lot of emails from a lot of people; make people do more work to reach you (Sender filters).
  • Process centric approach to email: Identify the project inside the email and then come up with the response that brings the project to the conclusion quickly and effectively.
  • Just don’t reply to email if it’s ambiguous.


  • Concentration is a skill that gets valuable things done.
  • Find quiet places and focus hard.
  • It’s uncomfortable to think about trying the hardest you can because you have to confront the fact that you’re not good enough.
  • “Step into the Rooseveltian ring”

date: 2021-08-16 09:56
finished: true
rating: 8
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title: Deep Work