Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World


  • Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a distraction-free environment with immense concentration, such that you are capable of pushing your cognitive abilities to their limit
    • The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare in today’s society
  • Many successful and influential people throughout history give precedence to uninterrupted work
    • Unnecessary emails and social media are distractions that should be limited or eliminated

Part 1: The Idea


Ch. 1 Deep Work Is Valuable

  • Talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach a certain level
    • “Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance”
  • Three valuable groups of people
    • High-skilled workers: people who work with machines and technology
    • Superstars: creators of new technology
    • Owners: venture capitalists with money to invest in new technology
  • Two core abilities for thriving in the economy:
    • Ability to quickly master hard subjects
    • Ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of quality and speed
  • Quickly learn hard subjects
    • Must tackle relevant topics systematically, requiring intense concentration
    • 1) Keep your attention focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve
    • 2) You receive feedback so you can adjust accordingly, and keep your attention focused productively
    • By focusing intently on a specific skill, you are isolating the relevant neural circuit
    • Having social media open while learning a new skill is a state of low concentration
  • Produce at an elite level
    • Batch your work together in chunks to avoid distractions
    • Example: Professor performing all his teaching during the fall semester, thus freeing the spring and summer for research
    • Work completed = time spent x intensity of focus
    • When switching from a Task A to another Task B, there is attention residue left behind such that you’re thinking of the previous Task A

Ch. 2 Deep Work is Rare

  • The Principle of Least Resistance
    • In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of our work, we will gravitate toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment
    • Setting up regularly occurring meetings for projects is easier because people force themselves to take some action during the meeting rather than managing their time wisely throughout the week
    • An open-ended email asking “Thoughts?” is easy for the sender to write, but wastes lots of time for the recipient who has to answer
    • Make emails easier to respond to, ask for a simple answer for the recipient
  • Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity
    • Actively avoid administrative duties because they take away from work that matters
    • Without a measurable indicator of productivity, many knowledge workers will fall back on merely trying to accomplish tasks in a visible manner
    • Example: answering emails during all hours, even during the weekend, to appear productive

Ch. 3 Deep Work is Meaningful

  • Research suggests that skillful management of attention is the key to maintaining a good and happy life
    • “Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to”
    • When you lose focus your mind thinks of what could be wrong in your life, instead of what’s right
  • Ironically, jobs are more enjoyable than free time, because you have goals, feedback, rules, challenges, etc.
    • All these encourage concentration, and to be immersed within your work
  • Your job doesn’t need to be glamorous, there is meaning uncovered by all efforts to increase your skill


Part 2: The Rules


Rule #1: Work Deeply

  • People fight desires all day long
    • Eating, sleeping, sex, taking a break, checking email and social media, music, TV
  • You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work in your life
    • Monastic philosophy maximizes deep work efforts by radically minimizing shallow obligations
    • Bimodal philosophy divides your time to clearly defined sessions for deep work, leaving the rest of the time for everything else
      • Bimodal practitioners respect the productivity of monastics, but also respect the value they receive from “shallow” behaviors
    • Rhythmic philosophy uses chaining, like marking a X on your calendar every day you exercise, so that you are inclined to continue the chain as the task becomes a habit
      • Rhythmic is most common in office jobs, where everyday you wake up early to do deep work before going into the office
    • Journalistic philosophy means fitting deep work wherever you can into your schedule
      • Journalistic approach is not recommended for beginners, as rapidly switching tasks decreases your productivity
  • Form a ritual
    • Know where you’ll work and for how long (a quiet, distraction free area), how you’ll work once you start (ban your use of social media), have metrics for your work (if writing a book, this could be ‘words written per 20 minutes’), and how you will support your work (coffee/exercising)
  • Go on retreats to places outside your normal working environment where you can cultivate deep work
    • JK Rowling struggling to finish Deathly Hallows, so she checked into a hotel
    • Bill Gates going on cabin retreats alone so that he could tackle big issues
  • Use collaboration, when appropriate, to push your results to a new level
    • Not necessarily open office spaces, which encourage distraction, but rather standard closed offices with areas in the building to collaborate and meet people
    • Example: long hallways such that people see each other and talk
  • Four Disciplines of Execution:
    • 1) Focus on the Wildly Important, because the more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish
    • Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue during your deep work hours
    • 2) Act on the Lead Measures, lag measures are what you’re trying to improve (customer satisfaction scores) but what you should focus on are lead measures, behaviors that will drive success on lag measures (number of customers that receive free samples)
    • Don’t focus on a metric like number of papers published per year, instead your lead measure will be time spent in a state of deep work dedicated towards your wildly important goal
    • 3) Keep a Compelling Scoreboard, “people play differently when they’re keeping score”, so have a public place to record and track lead measures
    • 4) Create a Cadence of Accountability, have meetings where team members must confront their scoreboard and take specific actions to improve their score before the next meeting
  • Shutdown your thinking after work, embrace the downtime as much needed recovery
    • No emails after work, no mental replays of conversations, no planning how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge
    • Downtime aids insights, helps recharge the energy needed for work, and the work that you think you should be doing during downtime is not going to be productive due to diminishing returns

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

  • Don’t take breaks from distractions, instead take breaks from focus
  • Theodore Roosevelt’s approach
    • When he had classes from 8:30am to 4:30pm, he would calculate his free time outside of school and lunch
    • The fragments of time left were used exclusively for studying, with blistering intensity
    • His concentration was so intense, reading so rapidly, that he could spend less time on schoolwork

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

  • The Law of the Vital Few: In many settings, 80% of the given effect is due to 20% of the possible causes (80/20 rule)
    • 80% of a company’s sales comes from 20% of the customers
    • A 80/20 split is what you would commonly see in a power law distribution over impact
  • Don’t use the Internet to entertain yourself
    • Weakens your mind’s ability to resist distraction
    • Give your mind something to do throughout all your waking hours and you will find yourself more fulfilled
    • Do productive habits such as reading

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

  • Performance psychologists studied how much efforts can be sustained by individuals
    • For someone new (like a child), 1 hour per day is reasonable
    • For those more familiar, 4 hours per day is a reasonable limit
  • Once you hit your deep work limit for the day, you will experience diminishing returns
  • Schedule every minute of your day
    • Helps you notice shallow work, non-cognitively demanding tasks that are often performed while distracted
  • Finish your work by 5:00 to 6:00
    • Called fixed-schedule productivity, fixing the firm goal of not working past a certain time
  • Make your emails easy to respond to
    • Instead of “Are you available?” say “I would like to stop by for 15 minutes on Thursday”