Reflecting on Deep Work by Cal Newport

Should we delete social media?

This is supposed to be a series of decisions guided by the deep work framework leading to a (tweakable) ritual for myself geared towards actualizing deep work in my professional life. It should also answer the question: should I delete my twitter or not?

What is 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.

The Why

Our work culture's shift towards the shallow exposes a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.

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.

What Really Matters

The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?

Three people will thrive:

  • people great at working with intelligent machines
  • the superheros who invent/create new value
  • people with capital

The rational progression is from working with machines, to inventing/creating new value, to having capital.

How to Win in the Future of Work

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things

  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both QUALITY and SPEED

Deep work is needed to attain 1 and 2

Decide on your Depth Philosophy

Monastic Philosophy

Radically minimize shallow obligations -- imagine correspondence by letters, no smartphone; just books and thoughts.

Bimodal Philosophy

Escape to the monastic for a minimum of 24hrs, and alternate between monastic and regular day life.

The Rhythmic Philosophy

Transform deep work into a simple regular habit

Personally the rhythmic philosophy is what I want to key into for my career, and perhaps work that up towards bimodal.

Journalistic Philosophy

Schedule deep work sessions into your regular day as the opportunities arise, but with a bit of forethought, like looking ahead at your week's calendar to find deep work sessions.

Steps to Inculcating Deep Work


Sort out the following questions:

  1. Where will you work and for how long? The location needs to be specific and pre-determined to avoid making in the moment decisions
  2. How you'll work once you start: personally, I've experimented with app blockers such as cold turkey and stay focused, scheduled to coincide with my deep work sessions. The verdict is yet to be made, but there is at least a correlation between using these blockers with reduced screen time, and increased time spent reading books.
  3. How you'll support your work: this covers having electricity, good internet, the right resources, and very importantly, enough food in your stomach to power your brain through the deep work sessions.

Make grand gestures

Example: J.K rowling booked a multi-thousand pound hotel room to impress on herself the gravity of the stakes involved in finishing her final harry potter book to a high standard.

Don't work alone

This is less about having an accountability buddy, and more about having an intellectually stimulating buddy / group with which collaboration can happen,

where collaboration is of the form:

  • you bring ideas, data, insight to the team, then;
  • the team or partner takes that, digests it, and augments it with their own body of knowledge

towards the creation of something new, or the solution of a problem, something made possible by the unique merger of the different bodies of knowledge.

example: the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs. ...Brattain would concentrate intensely to engineer an experimental design that could exploit Bardeen's latest theoretical insight; then Bardeen would concentrate intensely to make sense of what Brattain's latest experiments revealed, trying to expand his theoretical framework to match the observations.

Be intentional about separating your sessions of collaboration a.k.a serendipitous encounters with new minds, from your efforts to think deeply and build on these inspirations.

Execute like a Business

Following the template laid out by the 4 disciplines of execution

  1. Focus on the wildly important: in that you must have a focus and work with the realization that the more you try to do the less you actually accomplish.

In a 2014 column titled the art of focus, david brooks endorsed this approach of letting ambitious goals drive focused behaviours explaining, if you want to win the war for attention, don't try to say no to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasboard, try to say yes to the subject that arouses so terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.

  1. Act on lead measures: Measure things that if done will change the outcome, instead of measuring outcomes which can no longer be changed In my case, hours spent coding everyday, or days spent coding. Tasks leading up to a milestone, e.t.c.

  2. Keep a compelling scoreboard: Keep track of lead measures in a visually easy to grasp way.

  3. Create a cadence of accountability: meet frequently with accountability partners to assess each other's score boards.

Be Lazy

In the sense that you understand:

idleness is not just a vacation,an indulgence or a vice, it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets is paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

How to be Lazy

  • At the end of the workday shut down all thoughts of work issues: no work email or browsing related activities
  • Do so with a strict shutdown ritual; e.g review tomorrows work, make sure you're planned and then perform an action associated with turning off work thoughts, such as saying: "shutdown complete"

Embrace Boredom

In the sense that when free you resist the urge to reach for your phone or easy means of distraction.

Don't Take Breaks from Distraction, Take Breaks from Focus

Keep in mind:

if you eat healthy just one day a week, you're unlinkey to lose weight.

Similarly, if you try to exist in a state of focus just once a week, you're unlikely to attain the ability to focus for long periods at a time.

Implementation: schedule focus breaks, and if during a deep work session you find you suddenly need a focus break... WAIT! WAIT, for 5 mins before jumping online.

Work like Teddy Roosevelt

Artificially limit the time you need to complete a task by a significant amount to force yourself to focus intently so that it can complete that task within the limited timeframe

Meditate Productively

Have a problem or concept to master which you meditate on during periods like jogs or runs.

Tips while meditating:

  • Be conscious that the mind will grasp for distractions and loop on the same topic to avoid spending too much energy thinking.
  • Structure the steps to the problem you're thinking towards solving, then walk through those steps.

Memorize a deck of cards

Using the mental house model.

The aim of this is to increase 'attention control,' which measures the subject's ability to maintain their focus on essential information.

Other structured thought processes, such as translating from one language to the other, also suffice.

Quit Social Media

Not a hard rule. The point is to qualify the benefit vs harm you attain by using social media to decide if that particular platform (tool) is net postiive in terms of value derived from it.

Apply the Law of the Vital Few

That roughly 20% of your activities contribute to the bulk, say 80% of your benefit. Choose those few activities that contribute the most.

... I've learned a good tool for this is the effort vs impact matrix.

Don't use the Internet to Entertain Yourself

In that you are intentional about your entertainment without leaving it up to the randomness of the internet to fulfill your need for entertainment.

And remember that structured hobbies are great for moments when entertainment is needed.

Drain the Shallows

Things like email et. al.

Schedule Every minute of your day

Start each day with a plan for how your time will be spent

Quantify the depth of every activity

To do so, ask:

Is this something that a bright recent graduate can pick up and be able to do in 3 months?

If so, then it's shallow, if not, then it's deep.

Ask your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget

To give your boss the best value for your time, they should allow you to spend only up to a certain maximum doing shallow tasks. This way it's easier to make a case for when meeting times have to be reduced and stuff like that.

Finish your work by 5:30

Using fixed-schedule productivity. Fix a firm goal of not working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow you to satisfy the declaration.

Twitter Decision

No I won't delete twitter, but constrain it to focus on the tech community, yes. Because I personally see being on Twitter to engage and learn from the tech community as net beneficial to learning about new research interests, new tech worth looking at, and most importantly meeting amazing people and fostering relationships with them.

Books mentioned in Deep Work which caught my interest

  • Race Against the Machine by MIT: for it's look at the future of work
  • The Intellectual Life by Antonin-Dalmace
  • The 4 disciplines of Execution


Replace Excel tasks with "some repetitive coding task" and I see parallels between myself, software engineers in general, and the need to look past what we currently do -- which I estimate will be automated within the next decade -- towards difficult to automate, high value creation activities.

Jason bell read like 18 comp sci books on the topic by the time he was done transitioning. In terms of value creation, think of where you will be in your career 18 comp sci books from now, vs 18 thousand twitter followers from now.

I'm already considering deleting twitter, and the only thing holding me back is a need for an audience or community to trash or dig my work. Thinking about this though, I remember how the first time I went deep I kept finding out about interesting people and interesting works I wanted to know more about. So really, perhaps all I need in terms of community is the ability to communicate with these communities outside of Twitter.

Nice quote

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.