Deep Work – Key Highlights

Below are a selection of my top Readwise highlights from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Also see my takeaways from reading the book on the blog.


  • 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. (Page 3)
  • 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. (Page 6)
  • Attention residue: When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow-a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.
  • Productive Meditation: 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. (Page 170)
  • The Law of the Vital Few: In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes. (Page 201)

Key highlights

  • Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work. (Page 7)
  • The attention residue concept is still telling because it implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. (Page 43)
  • Busyness as 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.
  • Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life. (Page 90)
  • You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work. (Page 91)
  • Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. (Page 157)
  • Clifford Nass: “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 can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand… they’re pretty much mental wrecks.” (Page 158)
  • To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable. (Page 165)
  • Professorial Email Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies:
    • It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
    • It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
    • Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t. (Page 255)
  • Send fewer e-mails and ignore those that aren’t easy to process. (Page 256)

On Time Blocking

  • Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward-even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds. (Page 224)
  • In addition to regularly scheduling significant blocks of time for speculative thinking and discussion, I maintain a rule that if I stumble onto an important insight, then this is a perfectly valid reason to ignore the rest of my schedule for the day (with the exception, of course, of things that cannot be skipped). (Page 226)
  • This type of scheduling, however, isn’t about constraint-it’s instead about thoughtfulness. It’s a simple habit that forces you to continually take a moment throughout your day and ask: “What makes sense for me to do with the time that remains?” It’s the habit of asking that returns results, not your unyielding fidelity to the answer. (Page 226)