What I've So Far Learned with Deep Work by Cal Newport

OK. Just like Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Work Week, this is a book that I should have picked up and read years ago. I'm only part-way through the book, but I wanted to share with you two of the central concepts I've picked up so far:

  • Shallow work vs. deep work
  • The four kinds of deep work.

I'll have a more in-depth book review in the coming weeks.

Distracted living

So we all live in a world where we can get distracted easily. When I reflect at the start of my productivity journey, I quickly realized that effective productivity systems shut out distractions.

For example, I've learned how to turn off all email notifications for Microsoft Outlook. I often turn on the "Do Not Disturb" feature on my phone. Finally, some of the best money I've spent has been noise-canceling headphones. (A thriftier option that I used before noise-canceling headphones were earplugs with noise protection earmuffs.)

Why go through all this trouble? I found that my best work came when I had complete focus and concentration. Being able to shut out distractions so that you spend time and energy on only the important is advice that's repeated over and over again in productivity and time management books. I've read plenty, and every single book will have a section dedicated to being focused.

So with Newport's book titled Deep Work, he writes exclusively on this ability to focus. Below are two concepts that I've picked up on with my part-way reading of the book.

Shallow work vs. deep work

  • Shallow work. Work that is not cognitively tasking (i.e., doesn't require much thought) that you can do while distracted. This type of work is typically low- to no-value added kind of work and can be easily replicated by someone else. Examples might be answering email, passively sitting in a meeting, filling out paperwork, and social media use. These are usually unsatisfying and draining tasks.
  • Deep work. Work that you do in a distraction-free setting that pushes your cognitive abilities (i.e., requires deep, critical thinking). The end product is highly valuable and, therefore, not easily replicated. Completing deep work typically results in a feeling of accomplishment for finishing a challenging but worthwhile task. Examples include writing, programming, research, art, and craftsman-type projects.

The skill of deep work is hard to develop because we live in a culture of "busyness." Ever have the "I'm so busy conversation" and realize that maybe you're being one-upped? This conversation is code for how important a person is: Being busy is a proxy for indispensable someone is at work. I've had this conversation many times, and their stress is always from being overwhelmed with shallow work.

Deep work resonates with me because, as I reflect on my career, I could have used this skill when I was a PhD student (my dissertation could have been so much better), as an assistant professor (my teaching and research craft needed this kind of concentration), and then as a squadron commander (where, as a leader, it's easy to fall into the trap of shallow work because of the volume of work in front of you). Bottom line: Applying deep work practice will make you better.

Think about your work history. Where have you needed the skill of deep work to make you more effective at your job?

The four kinds of deep work

Another concept outlined in Deep Work are the four kinds of deep work:

  • Monastic deep work. Think monk-like living. This type of deep work involves shutting yourself off from the outside world to focus exclusively on some professional goal or obligation. The isolation is in long stretches, usually weeks or months, and involves eliminating shallow work.
  • Bimodal deep work. Bimodal means two types. This type of deep work divides work into deep work periods and shallow work periods. As a bimodal deep worker, you could split your day into one-half deep and the other half shallow work. You could also choose to do this over a week or a month.
  • Rhythmic deep work. In rhythmic deep work, the deep worker relies on habit and scheduling to accomplish deep work sessions. This strategy is probably the best for most workers who have many and varied obligations but also have a need to accomplish difficult, professional goals and aspirations.
  • Journalistic deep work. Think of the busy journalist jumping from story to story with some downtime in between. In this downtime, a journalistic deep worker would fit in the time to accomplish his or her deep work tasks. Journalistic deep work seems like an adaptation of the task switching often done in shallow work. This type of work is suited for those workers without set schedules but with a heavy load of responsibilities.

Common to each of these types of deep work is the need to accomplish some challenging and professional task. I suppose this is the purpose of deep work. For me, the rhythmic deep work is the best fit as I currently have a 40-hour a week job but with the flexibility to schedule my own time. The monastic philosophy seems too extreme for me; maybe one day, I'll be able to implement the bimodal strategy of deep work in a future job.

For you, do you see a need this kind of time and effort in your work? If you do, choosing the right type of deep work is your next action to take.


As always, I end my blog posts with helpful resources and tips if you're interested in further study or research into the topic. Here are a few links to help you learn more about deep work.

  • Cal Newport's book Deep Work on Amazon.
  • An in-depth article on the four deep work philosophies. It goes beyond a summary (which I did) and gives an implementation strategy and who each philosophy is suited for.
  • Coming soon! My book review on Deep Work. For now, check out the section of this website for the book reviews I've posted so far.

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