Deep Work

Producing At Your Peak Level With Full Concentration

Reframing the discipline of applied concentration for the millenial digitally distracted age



What Is Deep Work?

Deep Work is a reframing for the millenial digitally distracted age of the good old fashioned discipline of applied concentration.

The phrase "Deep Work" was coined by Cal Newport who is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. He has a background in writing articles and producing materials for students to aid and assist their study process.

Aside from his professional academic work, Newport writes a lot about how digital technology impacts people's capacity for focused attention - in terms of reduced capacity to perform because of the endless digital distractions of the modern workplace and our personal use of smart phones and social media.

In this context Newport positions deep work as:

“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.”

He has published a popular and well received book on this subject.

His extra-curricular activity in this area  can be summarised as:

  1. Finding focus in an age of digital distraction and cultivating digital minimalism.
  2. The deliberate cultivation of attention-management skills.
  3. The practice of “deep work”

The concept of deep work has been rapidly adopted as a useful counter-measure to the prevailing modern working practices which are inundated with unrewarding and unproductive distractions – leading to overwhelm with  emails, meetings, instant communication, constant connectivity, and social media.



Shallow Work

The counterpoint to deep work is what Newport has framed as "Shallow Work"  and which he defines as work or mental activity that is non-cognitively demanding and that can be performed while distracted.

These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate


Deep Work As An Acquired Competence

Newport argues that the capacity to rapidly mentally get to grips with hard things and the resultant ability to produce at a consistently high-quality level, are core prerequisites for surviving and prospering in the current economy.

“The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”

“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.”

Newport sees deep work as a competence that can be acquired with practise and application and his book outlines a series of experience based practical tips  on how to do this.


Removing [or Reducing] Digital Distractions

A secondary focus of Newport's approach in "Deep Work" is the application of several practical strategies for removing (or reducing) the digital distractions that erode the quality time needed to develop and benefit from deep work.






Summary - DEEP WORK by Cal Newport






Deep Work - Key Point Book Summary

Samuel Thomas Davies has produced an excellent 15 page book summary which you can review online or download.







Criticisms Of Deep Work

I recently wrote a piece on Elon Musk in which I noted his reflection that:

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.

I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

“Don’t tell me what you like, tell me what you don’t like.”

Following Musk's observation I have read a number of in-depth reviews of Newport's "Deep Work", all of which had many positive things to say about the book and his approach. I have curated the following perspectives of what  cross-section of reviewers did not like:

Ana Canhoto

  • "The book equates value (and therefore success) with achievements that are directly beneficial to the individual.
  • There is no mention of contributing to the organisation that employs him, for instance by taking up a leadership role.
  • This book is written from a position of privilege. Newport is a straight, white man, with a full-time job at an Ivy League university (and probably from a privileged background, too).
  • The third thing that I do not like in this book is that the vast majority of examples of successful professionals provided in this book are of males.
  • The fourth and final criticism that I have concerns the writing style. In my opinion, the last two chapters are about 30% too long. They get a bit repetitive, and go on and on about the same message"


Kelly Dombroski - The Invisible Gender of Deep Work

  • "Newport Ignores Power Relations  - Some people are able to do longer stretches of deep work more easily than others. These are normally people who have someone to take care of much of the shallow work in their lives.
  • Newport Creates a False Dichotomy - To lump social media in with care-work is really not accurate or helpful.
  • Beyond Deep Work for Men - My point? Well, this style of work is a) familiar to mothers with time-scarcity since we have no choice but to focus intensely in the hours we have away from our children and b) relies on the care-work of others oftentimes — either others taking up administrative loads we cannot meet due to our stretched schedules, or others taking up care-work for a period to free us up.
  • Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge Travis Dombroski for folding all the washing (non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style work that does not produce value) while simultaneously entertaining the three kids (distracted, but perhaps not easily replaced) while I wrote this blog post in bed on a public holiday with the door mostly shut. He also did the dishes and hung out the washing, he adds.  I dedicate this post to Cal Newport’s partner."


Imogen Mathew

  • "Titles like these make me feel uncomfortable and reinforce my reservations about the genre as a whole: in my view, self-help books operate on the assumption of deficiency, they are prescriptive and often read as clumsy attempts to deal with complex problems.
  • Newport’s disdain for social media will not be for everyone, nor his advocacy of a purposefully distant approach to email and administration. He concedes that this type of shallow work is inescapable but urges readers to limit it to the absolute periphery of their schedule.
  • The strategies promoted by Newport may appear to contradict findings from the Thesis Whisperer on academic employability: that to be a successful academic today you need to be as strong in the ‘shallows’ as you are in the deep. And this means using social network tools to connect and engage within the academy and beyond.
  • A far more disturbing element to the book for me was its gender politics. Almost every example featured a male protagonist to illustrate the virtues of deep work. Male scholars provided the primary theoretical ballast to Newport’s argument. I couldn’t help feeling that Newport had imbibed and regurgitated the unhelpful equation that deep work equals brilliance equals male. Women were present on the periphery, stranded in the shallows of Newport’s consciousness."






How Does "Deep Work" Align With The Themes Of This Site?

Here are a number of touch points:





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