Deep Work

One of the hardest things I've had to come to grips with as a new father is the transition from "and" to "or". I no longer have the time to do everything that's interesting to me. I have to prioritize and then slowly chip away at my chosen task.

This has largely been a positive development as it's somewhat reined in my distractibility, but the greatly reduced hours for tinkering, learning, and general learning has dwindled significantly. Somewhere along the way as I tried to find time for both off-work learning and my (wonderful) family, I read Deep Work by Cal Newport. I then shortly forgot everything it said and moved on.

Fast forward to a month or so ago when I read a terrific blog post that built on the ideas of the book and inspired me to re-read the book and apply the 30-hour method to my scarce nerd time. I'm still early in the process but wanted to share my book notes in case they proved useful to anyone else dipping their toes in this particular pool.

Deep Work is a means by which one can:

  1. Quickly master hard things.
  2. Produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.


Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.

Deep work is built on a foundation of quality, craftsmanship, and mastery. To embrace it is to swim upstream against the persistent nattering of the modern world.

Deep work generates meaning through an embrace of craftsmanship in our work--the approach--not it's outcome.

Deep work is demanding and experienced practitioners top out at around four hours a day.

Shallow Work

A good heuristic for shallow work is:

How many months would it take to train a recent graduate in my field to complete this task.

Shallow work is easy to replicate and creates little new value in the world.


Many professions lack clear indicators of productivity. In the absence of this metric we default to tasks that offer more visible signs of progress:

Some of these tasks are necessary but can take on undue importance in our days.

Paradoxically, busyness can often lead to idleness, for example when we run out of mail to check. Idleness can then cause our thoughts to drift toward the negative.

Attention Residue

Switching tasks causes attention residue, where you continue to think about the prior task. When prior work was shallow or aimless, the residue is especially thick.

To perform at a high level we must be able to focus on a single task for a long period of time.


Group all shallow work together in chunks, freeing the rest of your time for more focused activities. For example, get through your inbox first thing and then ignore it until the end of the day.

Philosophies of Deep Work

Philosophy Duration
Monastic Weeks
Bimodal Days
Rhythmic Hours
Journalistic Opportunistic hours

The Ritual

Once a philosophy has been chosen, a ritual must be established. The ritual helps you enter deep work and should include:

The ritual should also include idle time where your brain can expect to be free from obligation.

Every so often, engage in a Rooseveltian sprint in which you set an ambitious goal for the day's work that can only be achieved by intense focus. Alternatively, reduce your working hours but not your workload.

Fixed Schedule Productivity

This involves setting a fixed amount of time aside for work in a given week. Deciding to do anything additional will eat into this time. Jealously guard it against new, shallow commitments.

Process-Centric Email

Take a moment to consider the scope of what is being asked in an email and respond accordingly:

Email begets email.

The Sprint

This idea comes from Azeria's blog post. he goal of the sprint is to sink 30 hours into learning something new. Each of the following sprints should take four hours.

Shutting Down

This is the way we enter off-hours. Off-hourse are important for letting our brain relax and begin to process our days. To do so we need to close all of our loops and get ready for the next day.

  1. Review email.
  2. Review tasks and add any new ones required.
  3. Review next two days of calendar.
  4. Plan tomorrow.

Cultivate Idleness

Our brains require inactivity; time spent free from focused thought. During this time they will process our day, tie together ideas, and generally make sense of the world in ways our conscious mind cannot.

To restore mental energy, aim for 50 minutes or more of idleness, ideally in nature.

Idleness is not distraction. Idleness is the absence of an active task.

Fight Distraction

Context switching and multitasking destroy our ability to concentrate. The mental muscles required to focus must be trained.

Start by cultivating boredom; by resisting the temptation to pull out your smartphone whenever you have five minutes free.

Next, schedule the times you will allow yourself to be distracted. Start by working in 75-minute stretches followed by a 15 minute break.

Expand this habit to your personal life as well. Times of distraction should be scheduled. Disable notifications. Leave your phone elsewhere.

The Four Disciplines of Execution

The more you try to do, the less you will accomplish.

  1. Focus on the wildly important. Choose goals with significant positive impact.
  2. Act on the lead measures. The activities that will lead to achieving your goal (i.e. hours spent in deep work).
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard. Measure progress in a visible manner.
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability. Review the scoreboard to identify lack of progress towards the goal.

Productive Meditation

When physically, but not mentally, occupied, chew on a problem you're trying to solve. Like regular meditation, bring your focus back to your problem if it wavers.

In addition to distraction, be aware of looping, where your mind returns to the same information over and over.

Carry the relevant variables and the next step question in your working memory. Once a solution is reached, work it over to ensure it is sound, then repeat the process.

Managing Leisure

Social media and other addictive network tools thrive in a vacuum. Unless you put thought into how you'll spend your leisure time, you'll find it spent for you.

Self-improvement should be a primary goal here. Assuming a full workday, off-hours may be the only time you can grow beyond your current role.

Books are a great option here. Choose books that support your life goals. A solid piece of fiction is enough to keep you from defaulting junk media when you lack the mental reserves to tackle something more ambitious.