Knowledge workers these days are involved into a lot of mechanical, non-cognitive autopilot work which hampers their effectiveness and efficiency. If they can understand and eliminate distractions that use up headspace and continuously concentrate on non-trivial work, they can stand out of the crowd as deep work produces extraordinary results and is becoming more and more scarce these days.

Deep Work

Shallow Work : Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed when distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Deep work is practised by some of the most important inventors, Academics and Industry leaders to get into the craft of understanding the issues, focussing on them in depth and then getting ot the results. In this process they have left a lot of things that distract them from deep work. Like administrative responsibilities, social media, incessant checking of email and messengers as these things (however necessary they may be) take a big part of your processing power and prevent you from going deep into the work you want to do.

Notable People : Bill gates, Cal Newport, Brynjolfsson, McAfeee etc.

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 work life will thrive.

Deep work is not, an old fashioned skill falling into irrelevance. (going off the internet etc.) It allows people to move ahead in a globally challenging information economy by allowing people to learn fast. The real rewards are reserved for those who are comfortable building innovative distributed systems that run the service rather than those who are adept at using Facebook.

High quality work produced = (Time spent) x (Intensity of focus)

Two core abilities to thrive in this new economy :

  • The ability to learn quickly and master hard things
  • The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed

The Principle of least Resistance : In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

Might argue that connectivity is necessary in fact paced business. Case study from HBR done on baine people suggests otherwise. Consultants were given a day off from any forms of communication among the team and with partners. They delivered much better and post the delivery felt much more satisfied and happy with the work they had done. Emails and instant texts allow us to feel good in the moment but hamper efficiency in exponents. More detrimental is instant messaging in workplaces. You might get answers straight away but you are moving away from deploying a more thoughtful approach of getting those answers and in the process losing out on learnings.

Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity : In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity : doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

  • Deep work might be bad for business but is good for you. At the back of an refrigerated truck, found a poster that says like us on facebook. It is the technopoly that induces such behaviour. Tagged photos, timeline shares etc might be necessary for business but are not important to you. And as businesses go on building this myopic view, deep work will become increasingly uncommon and thus if you have ability to work deep, you will be much more valuable.
  • Gallagher’s Grand Theory : Your world is a outcome of what you pay attention to. Create a concentration so intense that you have no head space left to think about irrelevant things. (Neurological argument for depth)
  • Jobs are easier to enjoy than free time because they have built in mechanisms for challenges, rewards, results and feedbacks. Free time on the other hand is unstructured and reuires much greater effort to restructure and enjoy. (Psychological argument for depth)
  • In post enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves to find out what is meaningful and what is not. It is important to engross ourselves in finding the meaning in the trades we work in, rather than creating meaning in it. All things, however small/big have a flavour of individual craftsmanship and creativity in them. Thus to do it in a manner that leads others to identify it will always be a more satisfactory way of doing things.

Rules for Deep Work


Key to developing deep work is to fill your working hours with rituals and routines that leave a very little space for your will power to keep you away from the shininess of the internet. (Willpower is limited and hence cannot be used infinitely for keeping you away from distractions)

Understand and imbibe one of the following philosophies of deep work :

  • Monastic Philosophy of Deep work Scheduling : Minimising the channels which can distract you from your deep work. Not having an email etc is a kind of ploy that appeals to people who work alone. Having long chunks of uninterrupted questioning,not giving speeches lets them continue with their deep work and hence produce brilliant pieces of art/ comp science etc.
  • Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling : Like was done by Carl Jung, he used keep very busy all the time practicing in Zurich. But he took time off these activities, would go into the woods for 7-10 days and keep himself aloof from the world to think about and refute philosophies of his mentor, Sigmund Freud.
  • Journalistic Philosophy of Deep work scheduling : Walter Isaacson is the epitome of this type of deep work. Whenever you get time, you transition from your busy life and fo deep work in intermittent chunks throughout the day. This is the hardest to do but easiest to achieve. You have to train yourself to shift to a deep work mode in an instant.
  • Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep work Scheduling : Create a rhythm. Do it everyday. Basically a ritual. An example that is not written in the book but I can’t help but ignore is Rafael Nadal, or MS dhoni. Before each serve and each ball these guys have a ritual, which helps them get into deep work zone. What this methodology asks you to do is reserve time each day for doing deep work. Not before not after but in the given time interval. Mark X on your calendar, create a streak, basically gamify the thing.

Things that can help you adapt deep work :

  • Ritualise deep work : So that your frame of mind and work fits into what you have picked up to do.
  • Make grand gestures : So that you know you are now getting into doing deep work.
  • Don’t Work Alone : Have someone to discuss you work post you are done. Take breaks and in those breaks take in ideas from others. Interaction opens up boundaries to other things.
  • Execute Like a business : Prioritise the things that help you get maximum gains. Focus on the wildly important Act on the leading measure Keep a compelling scoreboard Create a cadence of accountability.
  • Be lazy : Do nothing. It helps you keep your mind fresh next time you use areas of the brain for deep work. (ART – Attention Restoration theory) Downtime Aids Insights Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply The work that replaces downtimes is not really the end of you or the world. It can be skipped.

Idleness is not just a vacation, a vice or an indulgence; It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body. Deprived of it we suffer mental afflictions such as rickets or disfiguration…. it is, paradoxically, necessary to not get any work done … sometimes


Boredom makes you long for shiny things. We have stopped being bored. It is one of the least practiced things in human life. Waiting in line ? Check out notifications. Doing work ? Run a playlist in the background.

…. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. they are chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand.. they’re pretty much mental wrecks.

Embracing boredom goes a long way in helping you achieve the state for deep work. Much in the same way as an athlete needs to take care of the body outside training hours, we need to train our brain not to sway away when we are not doing deep work as well.

Schedule times of when you will use the internet or media. Resist the temptation of surfing the internet to look for answers that supposedly help you move forward in the thinking process. Record on sheets when you are next allowed to connect with the seductive internet. Do not use internet till that time.

Meditate Productively : While jogging, running, travelling, waiting in a line, try being alone with your thoughts. The goal pf productive meditation is to take a period of time when you are physically occupied but not mentally occupied. To succeed in this form of meditation like any other would require lots of practice. During these mediation sessions :

  1. Be wary of distractions and loops : Can think about email you want to compose etc which is trivial and can be picked up later. Might want to go over preliminary thoughts again and again and not want to do hard thinking. Do not get fixed in a loop.
  2. Structure your deep thinking : Identify next steps as your pogress and keep on solving those next steps until you reach the finish line. Do not think about solving complete problems but next steps. This gives structure and easiness to your deep thinking.

Deep thinking is as more about applying your complete concentration on a problem rather than getting more advanced cognitively to solve it.


We have started to buy into the philosophy that any kind of benefit toll is a good tool. Hence for a lot of us Social Media which provides trivial goodness in terms of connectivity and outreach, has become an important part of us. We have never evaluated the downsides of being on social media.

In these cases its better to apply the Craftsman Approach to tool selection :

Identify the factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweight their negative impacts.

Spending less time on social media to have negligible or no impact on your professional and personal goals is the best way to keep being “in touch” while also not letting the deterioration of focus level of the brain drop. 80% of your goals are achieved by 20% of the activities. But should we after achieving those 80% of goals not pick up some more activities which might include social media ? This argument, misses key point that all activities regardless of their impact, consume same amount of your time and attention.

…. If you service low impact activities, you are taking away time you could be spending on high impact activities. It is a zero sum game….. Your time returns substantially more rewards when invested in high-impact activities than when invested in low impact activities, the more you shift it to the latter, the lower is your overall benefit.

Don’t think of internet as an entertainment tool. Twitter is mostly crack for media addicts. It is not like you cannot live withou knowing that extra news. Most news is entertainment and infotainment. The more you avoid overburdening your brain with this stuff the more healthy it remains.


The most evident supporter of this rule is the 4 day workweek schedule. Most companies found that amount of work people did in 5 days of the week was still getting completed in 4 days. This was possible even without increasing the daily work hours of the people. 84 == 85. Why ? People were spending less time doing useless meetings because they knew the deadlines are the same but time is less. hence they were draining out shallow work and everyone was involved in deep work.

Very few people work 8 hours a day in office. Most of the work they do is autopilot work. The method that can be used to avoid autopiloting is by scheduling every minute of your work day and leisure time. Schedules can be tough to follow and should be that way. Schedules are howere not piece of law. Ad-Hocs come up and should be dealt with accordingly. Schedules can be manoeuvred accordingly, but scheduling time helps you be more satisfied.

Quantify the depth of each activity :

  1. Logistical style tasks should be given least priority in your work day. Responding to emails is good but doing them in batches is the best way to approach this activity.
  2. If you can’t make out whether the work is logistical or not, ask yourself if a new bright college grad was hired to the same work, would he be able to do it within 3 months of hiring. If yes, shallow. If no Deep. 3 is indicative, you can be your own judge.

Become hard to reach. a) Make people who send you email do more work : they should not take your time for granted and send you inconsequential asks or problems to solve. b) Do more work before replying to emails : The inbox shouldn’t be filled with a reply once you have sent your email. work and be exhaustive in your own replies so that it takes time for the receiver to get material to get back to you. c) Don’t reply : It is okay to not reply to some emails.

NOTE : The example in the book takes up emails gotten by writers, academics. This can be extrapolated to some inconsequential messages or posts etc.



SST View All →

A graduate from BITS Pilani, class of 2019, I am currently working as a Product Manager at Flipkart. I like to write about things that get stuck in my head. By writing I make sure everyone knows what absurd thoughts I have :P Thanks for visiting.

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