Cal Newport’s Deep Work Explained

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Have you ever felt like you work too much but never get enough done? Or that the things you do get done are not as impactful as what you did not tackle? Such feeling is a direct consequence of replacing deep work with easy, low-impact tasks.

In his book Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In a Distracted World, Cal Newport discusses the difference between deep and shallow activities. In the 2016’s best seller and now a must-read for productivity enthusiasts, the author examines the shift in the work priorities of knowledge workers. 

Next, let’s uncover what deep work is and how to apply its rules in the startup and corporate environments while balancing non-negotiable shallow and operational tasks. 

Carl Newport’s Deep Work

Carl Newport is an academic and professor of computer science at Georgetown University. Although his academic research concentrates on the theory of distributed systems, productivity and attention management are his main interests as a writer, as proven by his eight published books and recurrent contribution to The New Yorker. 

In one of his most praised books, Deep Work, the author discusses time management like never before. With several real-life practical examples, he shows that shallow work and distractions can be time-draining and the pitfall of productivity nowadays. 

While discussing the theory of deep work in the book’s first part, Newport raises awareness of what deep work is and why it is a game changer in an automated world. He questions that due to the excessive use of digital technologies, knowledge workers that once used to dedicate most of their time to deep, high cognitively demanding work are now spending the whole day exchanging emails.  

Although it may seem like the times just changed and now such workers have to deal more often with shallow tasks rather than deep work, the author argues that the expectations over the outcomes haven’t changed. So, those who master deep work continue to provide better results and distinguish themselves.

What is deep work?

Deep work is, at its core, a long session of undistracted work that pushes our cognitive capabilities to get highly impactful tasks done. Assignments such as writing, researching, and calculating are tasks that require deep work.

In his theory, Newport believes this type of work is the key to accomplishing significant progress toward our professional goals (but not limited to that). It would also be critical to distinguish ourselves in our field of labor, as we’ll produce more and with higher quality. 

Deep work vs. shallow work

Other than the practical outcomes of deep work, the author also highlights the joy and fulfillment incurred by it in contrast to shallow work. 

Shallow work would be any non-cognitively demanding tasks that are easy to replicate and has little to no value to our main objectives. Because they’re effortless to tackle, such tasks provide an instant satisfaction rush for getting something off your to-do list, but it’s not a long-term achievement. 

On the opposite, deep work is a challenge to be accomplished and results in a long-lasting feeling of pride over the work done and the results achieved. In addition, after some time practicing and mastering deep work, it is not unusual to lose the sense of time while working meaningfully. 

The 4 rules of deep work

1. Work deeply

It might seem like an obvious rule at first, but the truth is that setting our minds and bodies to work deeply is probably the hardest step of deep work. After conditioning ourselves to do shallow work so often, we’ll have to redesign our routines and habits to be able to work deeply again. 

The author argues that it is essential to ritualize deep work by planning the time, place, and resources beforehand and eliminating any possible distractions. Doing so will make it easier not to give in to unexpected interruptions. 

2. Embrace boredom

Boredom is our mind’s craving for distractions; the more we give in to it, the more we’ll crave. 

Instead of getting distracted whenever we want, the author advises that we schedule the breaks, much like in the Pomodoro Technique. If you work with a computer, for example, you can schedule the times when the Internet is allowed or not. 

Another recommendation is to practice productive meditation. Whenever you’re physically occupied but not mentally, Newport encourages you to use that time for thinking and focusing on problems you need to solve. 

3. Quit social media

While being low-profile or completely off on social media might not be an option for everyone, with this rule, the author invites us to reflect on the value of the tools we use. 

For example, Facebook and Twitter might be highly valuable and impactful in a marketer’s job. Still, they might not be as important for a developer, and, in this case, it would be interesting to evaluate how the usage of such platforms may be consuming your time daily. 

Whenever you start using a new tool, be it for professional or leisure purposes, you list your goals with the app and analyze how it fulfills its role and affects your other responsibilities. 

4. Drain the shallows

The last rule is about being more purposeful with your time rather than running on autopilot and only executing shallow tasks. For this step, Newport suggests time blocking every minute of your day, so you’ll always know what to tackle next and won’t be tempted to clear your whole email inbox. 

With time blocking, you can make time for shallow and deep work in the same work shift without having to work extra hours and tire yourself out. The author recommends ending your work day by 5:30 daily with a shutdown ritual when you’ll analyze your progress for the day and plan the following one. 

Adapting Cal Newport’s deep work to your routine

Like many other productivity and time management methodologies, deep work may seem too rigid and idealistic at first, primarily if you work in a corporate or startup environment. However, it can be highly flexible when applied well. 

To perform deep work efficiently, you must first get to know yourself. Reassess your routine and habits, observe your most productive hours, and pay attention to which tasks are the hardest for you to tackle. Gathering such information will be essential to building an effective daily plan and scheduling your deep work sessions.

Define your priorities

If you work a 9-to-5 job or simply cannot afford long hours of reclusive deep work, you can aim to set apart two to three 60-minute deep focus sessions throughout your day to work on your priorities

Think about those tasks that are often hard and tiring but will provide the most results or progress for your goals. Those are the tasks you’ll want to work deeply on. 

It can help to communicate your deep work schedule to your manager and explain why you’re prioritizing certain tasks on top of others. After you show them your results, they’ll probably adopt deep work for their routine too!

Track and analyze your time expenditure

Tracking how much time you spend on each task will help you optimize your schedule over time. More often than not, but reducing the time spent with distractions, you’ll already be able to fit in an entire deep work session.

Doing so will also help you learn when to say yes or no to new commitments, as you’ll know much better how much time you need to get something done and whether its deadline fits your current plan. 

Separate distraction time from rest time 

It’s common to mistake distraction breaks for rest breaks since both concepts are often understood as the same thing. But if all your breaks are meant for distraction, your brain will never get enough rest to perform at its best. 

Here are a few things you can do to get enough rest:

  • Make sure to set apart some time for distractions and rest separately.   
  • Disconnect fully from work once your shift is over. Don’t go checking emails on your phone!
  • Keep digital interactions to a minimum during your resting time. 

Learn more: Tips To Simplify Your Time Management With The Four-Hour Rule

Get more deep work done with Akiflow

Introducing deep work into your routine can be a much smoother experience with the assistance of a time blocking app, such as Akiflow.

Our app incorporates time and task management in a single view and connects with your go-to platforms to provide you with a single source of truth. 

You can pull tasks from all your other apps, such as project managers and email, and plan your schedule accordingly without missing anything. With the drag-and-drop feature, you can quickly create time slots for each task, including your deep work time.

Deep Work in Akiflow

After your schedule is planned and ready to be executed, you can share it with your manager and team with the Copy & Share feature. If anyone is looking to have a meeting with you, share your bookable slots with the Share Availability feature.

A few things you can do in Akiflow:

  • Collect tasks from other apps like Notion and Trello.
  • Organize your tasks with labels and priority tags.
  • Drag and drop items from your task inbox onto the calendar to create time blocks.
  • Share your schedule and communicate your availability.
  • Turn anything into tasks with the command bar and the capture feature.

Bottom line

Cal Newport’s deep work has become fundamental for productivity and time management discussions. If you’re looking for ways to improve your focus and results, this method might be worth the read and the try.

You can start your journey of mastering time blocking and deep work now with Akiflow. Begin your free trial today!