Deep Work: Why you need it and how to get more of it (Part I)

Deep Work

I just wrapped up Deep Work by Cal Newport and was blown away with all of the takeaways that came out of it. I’m going to give you a rundown, but it’s going to take a couple posts because it’s a LOT of information.

Fair warning:

  • Throughout this post, any statements I make or references to studies I mention are all from Cal’s book. I didn’t add anything to it other than my commentary. I thought that would be less annoying than saying, “Cal says/argues etc.” 85 bajillion times in this post.
  • Also, I am now an Amazon Affiliate. That means that if you buy any of the books I’ve linked here in this post using my link, I get a small (very small) kickback.

Deep work: What is it?

Deep work is: 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.

It’s the moments when you’re in flow and the time flies by while you’re working. Apparently it’s also important if you want to create and be influential. Or, as he puts it:

“The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers. …[Most knowledge workers are] constantly sending and receiving email messages, like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. – Cal Newport

I’m a knowledge worker and that just stings. I get it. I know it’s likely true, but it still stings.

To back this up, he talks about a 2012 Mckinsey study that found that the average knowledge worker spends more than 60% of their work week using electronic forms of communication and searching the Internet. And, 30% of a worker’s time is spent reading and answering emails.

To any of you with an office job, these stats are probably not that big of a surprise. We live from our inboxes. But, sadly, it’s also not influential work.

Shallow work is: Non-cognitively 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. 

Here’s the scary part:

Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to do deep work.” – Cal Newport

Permanently?! Holy hell.

Deep Work: Why it matters

“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. The few that can pull this off will thrive.” – Cal Newport

There are 3 types of workers that will thrive in the current and future economy:

  1. High-skilled workers
  2. Superstars (ace workers)
  3. Owners/investors

In order to thrive, you need two abilities:

  1. The ability to master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of quality and speed.

And what do you know? Both of those require the ability to focus and do “deep work”.


Deep work is meaningful

Deep work is meaningful for the following reasons:

Neurological argument

Winifred Gallagher argues that we focus on what happens to us and that we allow our circumstances determine how we feel. This allows us to ignore how we spend our days. Or, in other words, we’re focused on large-scale outcomes and not what we do day in and day out.

“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.” – Winifred Gallagher

Gallagher argues that an unfocused mind will focus on what could be wrong in your life instead of what’s right, which will bring you down.

Barbara Fredrickson argues in a similar vein that what you choose to focus on exerts significant leverage on your attitude. If you focus on the the positive, then you’ll have a more positive outcome even after negative events.

To go along with Gallagher’s and Fredrickson’s research, Newport argues that deep work gives you a perspective of gravity and importance in your work, making your worldview of gravity and importance. And he says that a shallow workday is likely to be draining and upsetting, even if that shallow stuff seemed fun because you didn’t focus on deep work and your focus on the shallow made your day shallow.

Psychological argument

A study done by Csikszentmihalyi and Larson backs up this idea that shallow work is a source of unhappiness.

Csikszentmihalyi and Larson’s study required their subjects to carry a beeper around with them and when the beeper would randomly go off, they would record what they were doing in that moment. What they found was that the best moments are “when your mind is stretched in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”. (Deep work).

Or as my simple brain puts it: Deep work = happy me. Shallow work = sad me.

Happier at work than at rest?

Cal argues, it’s actually much easier to be happier while you’re at work because you have built in goals, feedback rules, and challenges. Whereas, freetime is unstructured and requires greater effort to be enjoyable.

The hell? So my “Netflix and chill” nights are NOT a form of good self-care and recovery like I thought they were. In fact, I would be happier working? I cannot believe this…

Philosophical argument

Post-Enlightenment era, we decided that we are responsible for defining what is meaningful, which can be quite arbitrary and make you think that there is no meaning. (Well, no wonder I have issues.)

He argues that we are wrong to think that if we “follow our passion” and find some rare, unicorn job, that we will finally be fulfilled and be satisfied, while any other job will be hell. The actual work you do is irrelevant and what matters more is that you use your skills and you find meaning in it.

And, how do you find meaning in that job you hate?

Deep work. He says that deep work is the key to get meaning from your job and that deep work will allow you to grow your skills.

Intense focus means higher quality work

Intense focus is required to learn hard things quickly, which is what Cal argues is paramount to being successful in this economy. So intense focus is what you should practice if you want to create high quality work.

He argues that:

High quality work = (Time spent) x (Intensity of focus)

(I mean, that makes sense, but it also seems like a gratuitous equation to make it seem more scientific to me. No?)

Attention residue reduces your focus

Sophie Leroy from the University of MN (go, Gophers!) studied the impact of what she called “attention residue”. She found that when you switch from task A to task B, your attention isn’t fully on task B. Instead, a bit of your attention (a “residue”) remains on task A, especially if task A wasn’t finished, and was of low intensity without a deadline (a.k.a., shallow work).

Those “quick checks” we do to see if so-and-so has responded to our email or to see how many likes our Facebook post is getting are super detrimental because of, you guessed it, attention residue. To add insult to injury, when we’re doing that “quick check”, we often see other emails/posts that we can’t deal with at that moment, which causes more attention residue, which tanks our performance on the next task.

What to do? Try this instead:

  • Work on a single hard task for a long time without switching to reduce attention residue. Guess what you’ll need to do that? The ability to focus.

The modern office ruins almost every chance you have at deep work.

Even though you may not be aware of it when it’s happening, your brain notices and responds to distractions. All. Of. Them. (This little tidbit is sourced in Cal’s book as being from “The Secret Life of Office Buildings“).

If distractions are so detrimental, why are they allowed, even, dare I say, promoted, in the modern work environment? Because of:

  1. The Metric Black Hole
  2. The Principle of Least Resistance
  3. Busyness as a proxy for productivity
  4. The cult of the Internet and technology

The Metric Black Hole

The Metric Black Hole is the unmeasurable impact of distractions.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t see the impact of it = The Metric Black Hole.

For example: Think of your average day. How much time do you spend on emails? What’s the average length of time it takes you to write an email? Read an email? How long do you spend trying to regain focus throughout the day? How long do you get stuck talking to the company bullshitter? How many meetings do you sit through that you don’t get a damn thing out of? How much time do you spend going to the bathroom, getting a drink, or grabbing a snack?

Because it’s hard to measure how much time we actually spend being human routers and being distracted, it gets ignored. We turn a blind eye to it because it’s easier to do so, which leads us to our next item…

The Principle of Least Resistance

The argument of this principle is that basically we do what is easiest in the moment at work because we don’t get feedback on what it does to the bottom line, thanks to the Metric Black Hole.


  • Why save up all your questions in one email for an individual when you can pepper that person all day with your questions, the instant you have them, via chat systems?
  • Recurring meetings…those are a lot easier to set and forget than to set up a meeting each time you need one. (Also, it’s nice to have that meeting on the calendar “to keep the project moving forward”).

How much time do you spend answering instant messages during the day or random questions from coworkers or attending a recurring meetings for status updates that really don’t impact you? I don’t know and I’m guessing you don’t either.

–>The principle of least resistance is protected by the Metric Black Hole.

How nice.

Busyness as a proxy for productivity

Since we can’t really show what it means to be productive and valuable at work or unproductive for that matter (thanks, Metrics Black Hole), we fall back on other indicators that are easier to see.

We show our value by doing lots of stuff in a highly visible manner. Hello, meetings, email, IM, and office brainstorming sessions!

When you are using busyness as a proxy, these highly visible behaviors are crucial for convincing yourself and others that you are doing your job.

Stings, doesn’t it?

We are uber-connected at work, work from our inboxes, and revel in meetings because then we can show what we did all day even though all that hustle and bustle probably didn’t produce a damn thing.

Well, shit.

And, if that wasn’t enough to promote this madness of distraction, this uber-connectivity and all the distractions that occur at work (don’t get me started on open office systems), allow us to avoid the discomfort that comes with concentration and planning. Hello, procrastination!

But the real bad news is that it also means that we rob ourselves of long-term satisfaction and from producing anything of real value. Dammit.

The cult of the Internet and technology

This is our last reason of why the modern workplace promotes so much distraction, when they really want us to make something of value, and it goes a little something like this…

Anything tied to technology and the Internet is seen as a good thing in our society and something that we should embrace.

Oh, come on. You know it’s true!

Have you ever had to explain why you haven’t been on a social media platform lately? Why is that? We EXPECT you to be active on the interwebs. What gives? It’s not like this is The Circle!

Or is it?

If you don’t have a Facebook account, you’re not “normal”. Even though social media has been shown to not be so great for our happiness, you’re still expected to be on it, and if you’re not, you better have an explanation as to why.

Evgeny Morozov, the author of To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, argues that when we have a question, we turn to the Internet. It’s seen as a great source of information and wisdom. It’s much more than just routers and cables to us. Morozov argues that because of how we idolize the Internet, we see anything tied to the digital age as a signifier of progress.

Neil Postman calls this a “Technopoly”. In a Technopoly, technology eliminates alternatives to itself by making them invisible or irrelevant. Well, hello, Brave New World.

But the kick in the pants is that if you want to do more deep work, you’re probably going to have to reject all the new and high-tech gadgetry.


Practice makes perfect

On the bright side, practice makes perfect. Deep work is like any activity you do repeatedly, you get better at it. Those neurons that are activated when you focus get reinforced with myelin each time you do it, which helps the nerve fire more effortlessly and effectively.

If you’re scattered and have lots of neurons firing at once, you can’t isolate the group of neurons you want to strengthen, so you don’t have the clear pathways and you won’t see improvement.

Well, how do I get there?

Are you ready to learn what you need to do to practice to have more deep work in your life? If so, be sure to read my next post where I get into Cal’s “rules” for deep work.

If you really want to make sure you don’t miss that future post, you could subscribe! All you need to do is enter your email address and my next post will be delivered right to your inbox. Voila!