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Deep Work by Cal Newport - 3 Big Ideas

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

The Deep Life is The Good Life


Welcome to 3 Things You Can Use, where Maddi and I decode self-improvement and entrepreneurship through books, three things at a time. This week's book is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport.

"Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive 21st-century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep - spending their days instead in a frantic blur of email and social media, not even realizing there's a better way."


So, what are three things we can use from this book?

3 Things You Can Use

1. Deep Life = Good Life

Cal Newport 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."

It's about focusing on your work for longer, unbroken periods of time, with the intent to put out your best work.

And apart from its economical advantages, it being a rare and desirable skill and it helping you to learn more, quicker, deep work also plays a part in how much you enjoy your life.

That is to say there is a connection between deep work and the good life.

Quoting from the book, "From anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counselling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non (essential element) of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience." End quote.

So according to most of the studies of human experience, and how to change it for the better, being able to focus, controlling your attention and maneuvering around distractions, is an essential part of experiencing life to the fullest.

Taking this into account and adding in the fact that deep work is rooted in your economical life, it figures out that deep work helps you to train your ability to focus, gives you an economical advantage, and provides you with a useful and healthy skill to use in the other realms of your life.

2. Implementation

But, deep work is not a "one size fits all." Along the spectrum of jobs and careers, deep work looks very different. Some can do deep work at all times, removing themselves from distractions completely for long stretches, while others must do deep work whenever possible owing to the fact that if they ignore their email for more than an hour they might get fired.

So Cal gives us four different deep work scheduling philosophies that can fit with different points on the spectrum.

The Monastic Philosophy

This is the most radical. Super deep work focus. The kind of live in the woods, spend the majority of your time in deep work, work. One of the people who practiced this form of deep work even cut out email and instead left on his contact page a mailbox for people to send letters to if they were so inclined.

This form of deep work is for the kind of people who like to buckle down to do their work like authors, researchers, philosophers and thinkers.

2. The Bimodal Philosophy

Still a radical one, though far less so, when practicing the bi-modal philosophy you'll break up your week into deep-work-days versus other days. He uses the example of someone having 4 straight days of deep work and leaving the remaining 3 days for other things.

3. The Rhythmic Philosophy

This is the more popular, more easily implemented one. With the rhythmic philosophy, you do a certain amount of deep work at the same time each day. Someone who practices the rhythmic philosophy might do deep work regularly from 9-12 every day. It counts as deep work if you can get your brain into this rhythm and still produce quality work during this time period.

This is the one that he says fits best with human nature and is the most common deep work philosophy among office workers.

4. The Journalistic Philosophy

This one is extreme too -- but it's on the other end of the spectrum. It's named the journalistic philosophy because it most aligns itself with this type of work. When practicing the journalistic philosophy one generally doesn't have the opportunity for a set schedule. Because of this, the one who practices this philosophy must be able to do deep work at a moments notice for an hour to half an hour at a time, whenever free space in the schedule opens up.

This is for the super busy and not recommended for the deep work novice.

Comment below which deep work scheduling philosophy best suits you.

3. Downtime

Though it's not just work, work, work, that's beneficial. In order to not only recharge and develop ideas further, downtime is important, because it can also increase the potency of your work, if used correctly.

So first, the benefits of downtime.

Downtime aids insights. The subconscious mind is a powerful puzzle doer and calculator, but if you're always in 'conscious go mode' then your subconscious never gets to show off any of its work. Downtime, especially walking, gives your conscious mind the chance to run in the background while your subconscious presents you with what it did in school today, aka, your best ideas.

Downtime also helps with concentration. You have probably heard of the limited willpower theory. This says that you only have a certain amount of willpower, and throughout the day you can get to the point where you use it up, and decisions become more and more feeling based and short-sighted. Downtime helps you to recharge your willpower stores and keeps you from orally engulfing that whole container of butterfinger ice-cream.

Though, letting your downtime times run amok because of the reasons it is helpful isn't the best idea. You must implement your downtime effectively in order to get the benefits.

It starts by ritualizing your downtime. Primarily, this means ending your work-hours at the same time every day. Practice this enough and you can get into a helpful mental rhythm, where your brain can be in a state of working, intensity and flow and then, at 5 o'clock sharp, a state of recovery, interest and exploration.

Without a fixed time for starting your downtime, you can make it easier for your brain to rationalize getting distracted and both take away from your work, but ultimately your ability to focus.

So regain attention autonomy and get yourself into a nice downtime-rhythm.


The deep life is the good life -- learning how to work with focus and keep yourself from being distracted is a pillar of optimal experience.

It's not one size fits all though so implementation requires you to pick a deep work scheduling philosophy.

Work is not the only important factor though, you must implement suitable downtime to stay effective. Without yin, yang is useless.

Deep work was a good one. I had read some reviews that said that he sounds like a broken record, stating the same thing about how deep work is important. I didn't get that while listening to it.

Yes he did mention deep work a lot, it is the title of the book, but I felt that there was definitely enough nuance between each point that there wasn't enough room to say that it was like a broken record.

On the whole I think it's a super useful book that caters well to people reaching for the top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Framing this deep form of working, focusing, as a pillar of self-actualization.

And if you're stuck in the pit of social media, email and distractions, you might appreciate the paradigm this book has to offer.

That's all for this one! If you liked our show, give it a like!

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we'll see you next week!

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Punching Sounds by: Mike Koenig

Reading Photo at end of video by: Marketa

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