James' Blog

Some uninteresting thoughts from a software engineer.

Deep work

Book notes and review.

Written on 2023/05/22 11 min read

So this is a book I've had sitting on my shelf for literal years now and never gotten round to reading it. It's a shame because it's only been this year where I've dedicated time to reading, I've been missing out. So amid all the new books I've been discovering, I thought I might as well give this one a go. It sparked my interest back however many years ago, and after some research it looks like it's made its mark as a defining book on how to structure your workflows. So this will be a collection of key points and then I guess I'll round it all off at the end! For those in a hurry, I've left a TLDR summary at the bottom.

deep work

What is Deep Work?

So I'll start briefly outlining what 'Deep Work' actually is. In short, it's the valuable, meaningful work that takes commitment and concentration. It's a way of being immersed in the task, for sometimes up to days on end (in some of the more extreme cases), dedicating your time to that particular task, limiting distractions in the process.

It's the opposite of 'Shallow work', which is in contrast considered low value and can be fragmented, it's usually just work that can be done without too much engagement. Despite the low value, there is still some value, so we aim to not rid it entirely, but just to restructure it where it makes sense to maximise the output from the more desirable deep effort. But I guess the main question you're asking yourself now is why?

Why is Deep work important?

The economy is shifting and the need for deep work is becoming more rare yet more valuable. As the age of digital distraction ever increases, the ability to 'go deep' is becoming somewhat of a skill and something that you must learn. This new economy is split into 3 types of people:

The highly skilled workers

These are people who can excel at getting the most out of systems and leading with intelligent machines. They're quick to learn and see these machines as tools to help achieve their goals.

The superstars

These are the very best in their field, people who have spent years dedicating time into mastering their craft.

This is an important subset of people as the talent pool has widened to include the entire planet, this means that there's more competition. The need to be an expert is more desirable.

The owners

Owning some form of capital in the industry, e.g. owning instagram. Having this ownership means you can reduce the amount of skilled workers but increase the skill of said workers. The most difficult of the 3 to attain.

To thrive in this new economy you must learn these 2 skills:

  1. The ability to master hard things quickly, in a rapidly changing world.
  2. Producing at an elite level, mastering is not enough. You need to produce to show evidence of your skills.

If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.

What are the issues with shallow work?

The thing with shallow work is that it's easy to fall into execution patterns that do have a negative impact on the work that you're outputting. An example of one is the concept of 'Attention residue', which is where your performance drops significantly when either context switching between tasks or being distracted while working on them. The brain needs time to catch up to the task at hand, various studies outlined this in the book, but generally showcased that when these shallow tasks are stacked up, you could notice a dip in efficiency quite dramatically.

It's also hard to quantify value sometimes, so we tend to gravitate towards behaviours that appear easiest in the moment. Especially with knowledge work, this value is a difficult metric to calculate. Being busy has become the proxy for productivity and a favour for quantity over quality. This is partly due to societal pressure and the adoption of internet technologies being required for anyone to thrive in the modern economy regardless of the actual tangible benefit. You'd be considered to be 'behind' if you weren't engaged with tech.

deep work

So how do I do it?

So we've gone over the sales pitch for deep work, so how do we go about putting it into practice into our work habits? Well, some rules will help us along the way and create a basis on how we can shape the way we go deep in our work practice. It's worth mentioning that not all of these apply to every type of knowledge work or job and may be considered extreme for certain circumstances, but some basic principles may be adopted for even the smallest of improvements.

The monastic deep work philosophy

Being monastic in this context, is a way of totally immersing yourself in this deep work. Usually, it would involve scheduling all of the time into one set block, this can range from days to even weeks. While it's extreme, it can probably yield the most benefit as it aims to minimise the distractions. Despite its output, I'm assuming this is the philosophy that's the least likely to be adopted by most people. You'd have to have a pretty flexible schedule to just dedicate weeks to shutting yourself off from the world. But hey, if you can do it. All the power to you.

Bimodial philosophy

This philosophy comprises a 'best of both' approach with deep and shallow work. For those lifestyles where shallow work is necessary in regular bursts. So there'll be a level of monasticism for perhaps a few days and then the shallow work would be sprinked in-between. More commonly this would be more like one day a week, distraction free and in intense focus, so it's shorter sessions but more regularly.

Rhythmic Strategy

Probably one of the easiest to adopt, a further simplified version of the Bimodial philosophy, where the intervals of deep work is reduced to hours within a day instead of entire days. This will most likely be the approach that most people would be able to apply to their working day.

Journalist deep work scheduling

Named after how journalists learn to quickly enter a 'writing mode' in an ad-hoc fashion, this intends to incorporate deep work, whenever you get a chance too. Changing from low intensity to high intensity very quickly. It'll take a lot of practice and experience to get results from this but works great for schedules that are constantly changing.

Sometimes, you might need to create the illusion of significance on a project to bring your attention more firmly on it. There are several different ways this can be achieved, one of them being something known as a 'grand gesture'. This 'grand gesture' is the act of either spending money on the project, or radically changing the environment or routing surrounding the task that would elevate its perceived importance. You could rent out a cabin somewhere where you can focus on that project you've wanted to complete for ages, since you forked out the cash for it you'll be less likely to waste the opportunity.

Another option is to set your deadlines. They should give you a boost in focus if there's a need to complete by a certain date and make it known to people around you who can make you accountable, by broadcasting it you add some slight pressure. One thing to note is the deadline must be sensible, so this will probably take some tweaking until you have the variables correct, there's no point stressing yourself out over it if you don't need to!

How can I improve further?

It's no surprise that it's recommended to quit social media, the burden it takes on your attention is enough to kill any effort of productivity. I probably don't need to go further into why as it's pretty much common knowledge, but if you want to get serious work done, then maybe it's time to hang up the social accounts for a bit.

While you're on your planned hiatus from social media, you might find yourself a little bored, with the void where you would find yourself checking your notifications and scrolling your twitter feed being replaced with... nothing. Whenever you notice that boredom, embrace it! If you can train your brain to live without giving in to the immediate satisfactions of picking up your phone, your unconscious mind will get the space to solve those pesky problems you've been stuck on for ages.

Only the confidence that you're done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow.

When finishing work you'll also want to make sure you do finish. Your performance nose-dives in the evening, especially when you've already put in the full day, so anything you do extra will be insignificant in terms of output, you really won't be doing your best work. When you don't give your brain a proper rest you're hindering your performance for the next day, so when those extra few hours seem like a good idea, maybe you'd like to reconsider.

It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin.

In an aid to this work philosophy, you may need to make a few changes to make yourself unreachable out of hours. By making it difficult for people to reach out, you're going to limit the chances of distractions and work leaching into your personal life.

deep work


In summary, I think there is a lot that can be applied to my day to day work life. I've already made an effort to rid my social media presence which was always a huge time sink. The next thing will probably be grouping the shallow and deep work into blocks so I'm not constantly context switching, with each day planned by the minute. I'll probably do an update on how this goes some time in the future, if I stick to it! But I can see the benefit. It was a great book to read and while I've tried to outline the big points from it, there's still loads left to uncover, so I'd recommend picking up a copy yourself. I've glossed over a lot of detail in this post. If you do adopt any of these points, hopefully they help a lot, and if you don't, that's ok too, at the end of the day, work however you see fit.


Super speedy summary: Social media is bad for your productivity. Split deep work sessions into blocks during your week and group all shallow (low value, low effort) tasks into one block so you can stay focused and make sure you prioritise rest so that you can recharge your mental batteries for all this deep working.