In his new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport defines “Deep Work” as: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

It’s what’s necessary not only to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity, but it also creates the state of mental strain that is necessary to improve intellectual abilities.

Newport argues that a commitment to deep work is a common theme in the lives of influential figures both past and present including Carl Jung, Michael de Montaigne, Mark Twain, Woody Allen, J. K. Rowling, Bill Gates, etc.

This contrasts sharply with most modern knowledge workers whose use of digital devices has fragmented their attention span into slivers. Instead, they are pre-occupied with “Shallow Work” which Newport defines as: Noncognitively demanding, logisitical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Most worryingly, there’s evidence that this shift to shallow work cannot be easily reversed but rather produces a permanent reduction in the capacity to do deep work.

However, like all changes, this produces opportunities as well as problems. As Newport put it:

Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.

The main reason for this is that due to the rapidly changing world and workplace, to remain valuable you have to learn complicated things quickly and that requires deep work. Deep work is so important that business writer Eric Barker has called it “the superpower of the 21st century.”

Newport concludes his introduction with this “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: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

  • Tom

    What a great post. The point about shallow work harming the ability to do deep work rings true. And I love the point about deep work being what is necessary to bring added value to the world. Wonderful thoughts. Thanks for posting this.