How to maximize your Productivity with Deep Work?

I’ll live the focused life because it’s the best kind there is – Winifred Gallagher

This is a review of the book  Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World  by Cal Newport.

Visualize Two Scenarios

Scenario A:

You have been trying to get a deliverable or a task wrapped up in 5 minutes. You are almost there. Just then you get an instant messaging notification beep. Lured by the notification,  when you check, the link takes you to an interesting article, that is an estimated 15 minutes read.

Half-way through the article, you get a phone call from a colleague, asking about a report. As you review the report before sending, it occurs to you that you forgot to make a reservation. Suspend the report, and login for the reservation.  Now, the phone rings, and you pick it up. The saga continues.

At the end of the day, as you look back, you have a series of important tasks, most  of which are not completed.   They are either half-done, or sloppily done, or yet to be done.  You may face hundreds of such interruptions, that torpedo your Productivity, throughout the day.  The quality of your work, may be average (at best). Naturally, you feel stressed and disppointed.

Scenario B:

You have a laser-sharp focus, when you are at your work . Having lost track of time, you are in a Zen or  flow state, oblivious to anything surrounding you.

You don’t hear, see or feel anything other than the work at hand. You are so absorbed in your work, that you ignore all the distractions.

At the end of the day, you feel great. You just surprised yourself pleasantly through the quality of your work – some task that may even be new or difficult . Your important things got done.

You may have pulled off a new recipe, or an exercise routine or a painting or a blog post or just about anything. You are thrilled with your outputs!

Scenario A is what Cal NewPort calls as Shallow work, and Scenario B is Deep Work.

What is Deep Work?

CalNew Port defines 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.

Cal starts with the example of Carl Jung , one of the most eminent psychiatrists of the  20th century, who produced several Seminal works. Carl even disagreed with stalwarts like Sigmund Freud. It is said on Carl’s work habits that he would lock himself up in a room with the keys to himself;  won’t allow anyone to disturb him when he worked.

To create such work and build that level of eminence,  there is no doubt that Carl would have practiced Deep Work.

Why is Deep Work important?

Workers, specially Knowledge Workers, face a barrage of interruptions that are just onslaughts on Productivity.

There is a growing body of evidence, that Networks and Internet cause us to be distracted; They deteriorate our ability to focus, and do Deep Work.

Deep Work is a skill that has great value today. In today’s hyper connected Digital world , you can easily produce and share anything to limitless audience; however both the rewards and the risks are high.

If what you produce is of high value, you get a great audience. If not, the audience will switch to someone who can. You can create high value work only through Deep Work.

Cal formulates The Deep Work Hypothesis:

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Deep Work is Valuable

In the Global Information economy, where most work can get outsourced , Cal identifies two sets of people with the following abilities who can thrive.

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things and
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level both in terms of quality and speed.

Both skills, depend on your ability to perform Deep Work. If you haven’t mastered the foundational skill of Deep Work, your chances of success are low. These skills require deliberate practice, where your attention is tightly focussed — on a specific skill you are trying to improve or an idea you are trying to master.

Diffused attention doesn’t help. Only focused attention helps deliberate practice.

Deep Work is rare

Cal talks about 3 trends that have disrupted Deep Work and made it rare.

  • Open office cultures (e.g. Facebook’s buildings)
  • Instant messaging platforms (e.g. Yahoo Messenger,IBM Sametime)
  • Social media presence. i.e. serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and an active presence on social media – all of which impair people’s ability to perform Deep Work.

But these are perhaps the only accepted forms of communication in Organizations today. Most Organizations reward depth-destroying behaviors such as immediate e-mail responses and active social media presence; If you  avoid these trends, you  are treated with suspicion.

Deep Work has both neurological and psychological benefits 

Many knowledge workers spend most of their working day interacting shallow concerns, such as responding to mundane email messages, notifications and perennial requests for information.

Neurological studies reveal that when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.

Have you experienced this? When you go through a workday driven by shallow work, (even from a neurological perspective) it  is likely to be a draining and upsetting day. On the other hand, when you spend in a state of depth, you use the human brain in a way that maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.

At a psychological level, research proves that , the best moments usually occur when your body or mind is stretched to its limits  to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile (not  when you relax).

How to promote Deep Work?

 Rule #1: Work Deeply

Design workspaces and culture that help us to do Deep Work.

To Work Deeply add routines and rituals to minimize distraction and maximize your unbroken concentration. Research has conclusively established that merely using your will power to power your way to Deep work is just not fully effective.

A research study in 2012, led by psychologists Wilhelm Hofmann and Roy Baumeister, clearly established that people fight desires all day long. As summarized in his subsequent book Willpower:

“Desire turned out to be the norm, not the exception.”

The ability to take break from hard work , checking email,  social networking is a top desire.  These competing desires can often win you out.

  • Schedule your Deep work smartly. You need to decide where,  when and how long you will work, how you will work when you start the work.
  • Don’t Wait for inspiration to strike: Instead make it as a ritual to work, which is a much smarter choice (even for artists and people in creative purusuits).

Collaboration vs Deep work: Cal recommends hub and spoke type of offices, instead of totally open offices, in which collaboration borders noise,  and the resulting distraction destroys depth. Collaborative Deep Work leads to much better innovation.

Downtime is important as it  aids in deep insights; it provides the energy  needed to work deeply.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Remeber the last time you got bored? Did you ever notice that It’s getting tougher to get bored ?

Incessant distractions from social media, instant messengers, notifications media feeds etc. can keep anyone engrossed for life.

To build Deep Work in to your muscle, you can’t brute force it through motivation. Instead, build the muscle as a habit. But how?

Embrace Boredom, and allow yourself to get bored

It is key to building this muscle.  If you are someone who at the slightest hint of boredom, whips up your smart phone to browse or socialize, you need to take note. Your brain has likely been rewired to a point where it’s not ready for Deep Work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.

A research study carried out by the late Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass concluded:


So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task

 The idea is not to take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.

Cal recommends the following strategy:
  1. Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.
  2. Keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet.
  3. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed—no matter how tempting.

There are many plugins such as stayfocsd (Chrome), Freedom (all platforms) and coldturkey (Windows), which can let you do the same thing, but they call for keeping your browsers open.

Note that the use of these distracting services does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It is the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.

Even if your job requires lots of Internet use and/or prompt e-mail replies, this strategy still holds. This just means that your Internet blocks will be more numerous than those of someone whose job requires less connectivity

Take to Productive meditation:   The idea is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.

 Rule #3: Quit Social Media

You may feel annoyed or distressed or repulsive at this suggestion.  Cal’s arguments are simple:
    • Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter , Instagram are engineered to be addictive – robbing your time and attention from activities that more directly support your professional or personal growth
    • As entertainment, they provide mediocre entertainment and minuscule benefits that are minor and somewhat random
    • Adopt The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts. Contrast this to a “any-benefit” approach, where you select a tool, just because it offers some value.

There are numerous examples of mega-best sellng authors (e.g. Malcom Gladwell,  Michael Lewis) and scribes (e.g. NewYorker Scribe George Packer)  who don’t use Twitter.

It is not that they  find Twitter useless; but more out of concern that the accessibility to these services , could sap the energy and reduce the ability to research and write great stories.

Cal provides specific strategies to internalize and embrace this rule. ( If you are serious about Deep Work, you need to)

Cal summarizes this chapter thus:
If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

The chapter begins with the case study of the company  37signals (now Basecamp), which launched an experiment on 4 day work week. The experiment proved that, by compressing the work week to 4 days (without increasing the hours) –  they were able to get more things done effectively. They were able to eliminate shallow work.

To drain the shallows, the recommended strategies may seem extreme, but they are quite effective

  • Schedule every working minute of your day. Schedule in blocks, and  batch related tasks together.
  • If you stumble on to an important insight, then this is a perfectly valid reason to ignore the rest of your schedule for the day (barring things that can’t be skipped)
  • Finish your work by five-thirty. The point is not the exact time you finish , but you need a fixed scheduling method. Plan ahead and work backword for strategies that will fit your declaration to finish your work early.
  • .Become hard to reach.  This is really about keeping your emails in control. Email being a fait accompli, the resistance is futile. However, you can reduce the volume of emails you receive and send.
    • Make your email senders do more of the work through sender filters ; set up expectations that you can be contacted but you respond to certain types of requests (whatever they may be)
    • Preempt additional mails, by being comprehensive in the email replies
    • Don’t respond if the emails aren’t comprehensive enough for you to understand quickly, or it is not interesting


Deep Work can you take you to a wholly different level of existence and creation. It is way more powerful than what you understand on the surface.

However, it is also true that Deep work and a Deep Life is not for everyone. It calls for shedding the artificial busyness through email and social media.

But if you are willing to side step these comforts and deploy your mind to its fullets capacity , you can truly create things that matter. It can create a life that is rich with Productivity and meaning.

This is a Great Book to read on the topic of Productivity.  Cal Newport has thoroughly researched the topic, and has quoted the sources of his case studies and experiments.

You will be happy that you picked this up, if you are a Productivity Enthusiast.

Click below, if you would like to buy this book.

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