Notes on "Deep Work"

Personal Comment

It’s been some time since I published notes here. This note will be a recap of my notes from Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”. It enumerates many interesting points and I’d like to organize them into my notes here. Specifically, these notes will be on the latter part of the book focusing on “The Rules” and not the beginning (which serves to provide reason to them.)

On “Deep Work”

Rule #1: Work Deeply

In an ideal world, we are given an environment (and culture) where a work environment is designed to help us extract value, as much as possible, from our brains. We must “be a disciple of depth in a shallow world”.

One of the main obstacles to deep work is the “urge to turn your attention toward something more superficial.” We often underestimate the regularity and strength of this obstacle, as well. We should expect to be bombarded with distractions, and these distractions often win. Trying to defeat these distractions and urges can be quite futile.

Key point: “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.” Willpower is a muscle and these distractions will draw from your pool of willpower.

It’s key to develop routines and rituals to your working life to minimize the draw of willpower as you transition to a concentrated state. These routines and ritauls are a part of a “depth philosophy”. This depth philosophy must match your specific circumstances to solidify.

Depth Philosophies

The Monastic Philosophy

The monastic philosophy (as exampled by Donald Knuth and Neil Stephenson) emphasizes the minimalization of “shallow obligations” to maximize deep work. In Knuth’s and Stephenson’s cases, they don’t use email. This philosophy is ideal for individuals who have “well-defined and highly valued professional goals” and where “the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well”. E.g.: writing books.

Not many people fit this model.

The Bimodal Philosophy

The bimodal philosophy asks that “you divide your time dedicating clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.” Individuals act monastically during the deep period. During the shallow period, deep focus is not prioritized.

The division of time between these can happen on “multiple scales”; not just hourly, but possibly weekly or seasonally.

The bimodal philosophy tends to only work for people who can dedicate enough time to reach maximum cognitive intensity. “The minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy tends to be at least one full day.” A few hours each morning is not enough to maximize the intensity required for this philosophy to work well.

This philosophy serves those who cannot succeed absent from substantial commitments to “non-deep pursuits”.

The Rhythmic Philosophy

The rhythmic philosophy (as exampled by Jerry Seinfeld) states that the “easiest way to consistently start deep work session is to transform them into a simple regular habit.” You must generate a rhythm that removes the need to invest energy into deciding to work deeply.

This philosophy uses a scheduling heuristic (like working every day) and a way to remind yourself to do the work, such as a visual aid. E.g.: marking on your calendar. This visual aid can be replaced by using a set starting time that you use every day to begin deep work. Scheduled work is far more effective than “ad-hoc” work. The routine is key to this philosophy.

This philosophy contrasts the bimodal philosophy, however “the rhythmic scheduler will often log a larger total number of deep hours per year.”

Low pressure work (ie: no one is pressuring you to get it done) is ideal for the rhythmic philosophy. It is “one of the most common among deep workers in standard office jobs.”

The Journalistic Philosophy

The journalistic philosophy is where you “fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule” (as exampled by Walter Isaacson). This is not a “novice technique” and can quickly “deplete your finite willpower reserves.” It also strictly requires confidence in your abilities; their importance and your success.

This is a very difficult philosophy to use and requires a great deal of confidence as well as skill in focus.

Strategies to work deeply


Solid knowledge workers are “rarely haphazard about their work habits.” Rituals serve to minimize the “friction” to transition into a deep, focused work state and helps stay focused longer. There is no one correct deep work ritual.

General questions an effective ritual must answer:

  1. Where you’ll work and for how long.
    • A location must be specified.
    • A location used only for depth is most ideal.
  2. How you’ll work once you start to work.
    • Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep efforts structured.
    • Without the structure, you’ll often reiterate to yourself what you should and should not be doing. This is a drag on your willpower.
    • E.g.: No internet allowed, or maintaining a metric.
  3. How you’ll support your work.
    • Your ritual must ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a “high level of depth”.
    • This support should be systemitized so you don’t waste mental energy figuring out what you need.
    • E.g.: Starting with a cup of coffee or access to food of the right type.

Make Grand Gestures

Leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, with a significant investment of effort or money, and dedicating it toward supporting a deep work task can increase the perceived importance of the task. This reduces your minds instinct to procrastinate and helps motivate.

The grand gesture provides skin in the game. The dominant force is in the psychology of committing seriously to the task.

Don’t Work Alone

Properly leveraging collaboration can increase the quality of work, but this balance is tricky.

The key is to maximize serendipity. By exposing yourself to serendipity, you increase the likelihood of productive encounters. Placing yourself in areas where these encounters occur more often is ideal, especially in places where you are able to isolate and think deeply as well.

The Whiteboard effect is the idea that the presence of another party awaiting your next insight short-circuits the instinct to avoid depth. Collaboration that leverages this can maximize work results.

There are two guidelines to collaboration:

  1. Distraction remains a destroyer of depth.
    • Separate the pursuit of serendipitous encounters from efforts to think deeply.
    • Optimize each effort separately.
  2. Leverage the whiteboard effect as often as possible when you retreat to think and work deeply.
    • Potentially allows to push each party to “deeper levels of depth”.

Execute Like a Business

Recap on “The Four Disciplines of Execution”:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important
  2. Act on the Lead Measures
  3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability

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