Escape From Shallow Work with “Deep Work” (Book Review)

Deep Work by Cal Newport Book Cover

I finished reading Cal Newport‘s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World a few days ago. It has adjusted my thinking on productivity. The classic productivity books like Getting Things Done by David Allen (want to know more? read this: Leading Yourself With Getting Things Done) are often interpreted as a ‘task management system.’ Newport’s book argues that raw task accomplishment is not enough. We need to focus our energy on high value activities or or what he calls “deep work.”

Two Ways To Think About Your Work

Through book, Newport regularly compares and contrasts shallow and deep work. Let’s clarify with his definitions:

Deep Work: 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.

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

The degree to which the work is demanding on your capabilities is a key point. Newport also makes an economic distinction. With few exceptions, deep work tends to produce greater value and rewards. Why? Deep work tends to lead to mastery, new insights and improved skills. If deep work is so great, why don’t we practice it already? It comes down to distraction.

Why You You’re So Distracted: The Impact of Habit Forming Products

What comes to mind when you read the phrase ‘habit forming products’? Tobacco? For many of us, that’s not the challenge. Instead, the challenge is how and when to use what Newport calls “network tools.” In that broad category, he includes Facebook, email, social media, smart phones and more. It’s no accident these products and services are constantly grabbing your attention. A recent book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products delves into the psychology and methods to create this distracting (addictive?) products. If you find it difficult to focus, it’s not entirely your fault. There’s an industry of designers, engineers and consultants who are working at making these services difficult to resist.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Ok, so what can I do about this?” Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Keep reading!

Identify The High Value Activities For Your Profession

Doing the right work is underappreciated. Usually, there are a few activities truly matter. For research professors seeking tenure, publishing articles in highly respected publications is the most important activity. For sales professionals, time spent interacting with qualified prospects is the most important activity. I’m keen on this principle. Yet, I’m struggling with how to apply it to analyst roles or project management jobs. “Deliver the project” seems too broad. Perhaps the application is to aggressive manage the most important person (i.e. your boss, the client or the sponsor) because neglected clients will tend to get upset even if the project metrics look good.

Read: “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan.

Use Fixed Schedule Productivity

In the productivity world, there’s an ongoing debate between focusing on your schedule versus focusing on your task list. Clearly both matter; it is a question of priority. I like to use the “3 big tasks” each day strategy where each of the tasks connects to my annual goals (i.e. write and promoting this blog post connects to my goal to grow my email list – you can sign up here: Sign Up For the ProjectManagementHacks Email Newsletter). Newport makes the case for using a schedule approach.

Read the following article for a detailed explanation of this approach: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours

Improve Your Email Habits

Handling email is a major source of shallow work for all professionals – especially those who work in project management. Let’s take a look at some of Newport’s suggestions to cut back on email. Remember, the point of cutting back on email is to free up time to work on deep work activity.

Tip #1: Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work

Newport uses his practice of discouraging email correspondents with this example:

If you want to reach me, I offer only a special-purpose e-mail address that comes with conditions and a lowered expectation that I’ll respond: If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting [at] For the reasons stated above, I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.

Evaluation: I love the principle but it will likely be very difficult to adopt if you are an employee. If you have a way in mind to implement this idea, please share by writing a comment below.

Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails

It’s easy to dash off a quick response simply to “get it off your plate.” Newport points out this frantic approach often generate even more email because others need clarification. How do you improve? Newport’s solution is to use templates and a process approach to improve email.

The process-centric approach to e-mail can significantly mitigate the impact of this technology on your time and attention. There are two reasons for this effect. First, it reduces the number of e-mails in your inbox—sometimes significantly (something as simple as scheduling a coffee meeting can easily spiral into half a dozen or more messages over a period of many days, if you’re not careful about your replies).

Example: You need to arrange a meeting time with a coworker.

Bad Approach: “Let’s meet sometime”

Better Approach: “Let’s meet at the following dates and times (3 options).”

Evaluation: Yes, this is a fantastic principle!

Tip #3: Don’t Respond

Could silence be the best solution to never ending email? Here is Newport’s explanation:

As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond. Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile.

Evaluation: An interesting approach! It reminds me of email strategy that Tim Ferriss advocates in The 4 Hour Workweek.

Question For The Comment Section:

How do you improve your focus on high value deep work activities?

Get The Friday 5 Email Newsletter

Productivity Tips, Resources & Hacks Delivered Every Friday!

Powered by ConvertKit

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 thoughts on “Escape From Shallow Work with “Deep Work” (Book Review)

  1. The high-value activities will differ from one project to the next, but they will usually involve servant leadership. Removing obstacles, facilitating agreement, driving decisions, establishing the point of focus, asking questions that make people think and initiating what Susan Scott called fierce conversations are usually valuable, but value is relative and time-dependent. It is possible to engage in these activities at the wrong time and subtract value. And that’s why leadership is hard – it requires judgement as much as action, patience as much as intervention, and careful listening as much as well-chosen words.

  2. Very important topic, thanks for the post. Like the tip about not responding.

    One thing I’m working on is spending less time looking at email. It became a subconscious bad habit whereby I was checking it way too many times a day. So, now I close my email applications (outlook on my pc and Mail on my iPhone) which helps to reduce the needlessly checking as I now have to go through an extra step to open them and check my email which seems to remind me not to. Next step is to consciously schedule it to twice a day …