• Elizabeth Wells

Deep Work by Cal Newport - Review & Discussion Questions

Deep Work

Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Cal Newport

304 Pages - Copyright Ⓒ 2015 Grand Central Publishing

“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”

Pick up where you left off:


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Rule #1

Rule #2

Rule #3

Rule #4

Key Terms List

Vocabulary List



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Book Review

Author Background

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University, where he does research about the theory of distributed systems. His focus is on the intersection between technology and culture and how to use technology productively. His first books focused on how to be successful as a student. More recent books include So Good They Can’t Ignore You (2012), Digital Minimalism (2019) and A World Without Email (2021).

His website can be found here. His podcast, Deep Questions, can be found on Spotify, Apple, and other platforms You can also get a time-block planner, as described in Deep Work, here.

What Problem Does This Book Attempt To Address?

Our society has shifted to an information economy, where many people fall into the category of “knowledge workers.” In order to be successful as a knowledge worker, you need to be able to produce high-quality results, something that is becoming increasingly difficult with the ever-present distractions of technology and office culture. Deep Work is the solution to this problem. The purpose of the book is to help you identify these distractions and discover strategies that address them most effectively while acknowledging that you cannot altogether remove them from your life.


· Concept explanation: Clear

· Related stories: Many

· Data references and studies: Less than average

· Charts and graphics: None

· Practical application: Good

The book is broken up into two parts: Why you should care about cultivating deep work and how to do it. It reminds of me of a high-level version of the book Indistractable. While Indistractable talks about very specific strategies for managing technological distraction, Deep Work talks more about the concepts and theory behind it.

Overall, this book is a good mix of interesting and useful. The book goes back and forth between theoretical arguments for deep work, stories of individuals and companies, psychological research studies, and strategies for practical application. This keeps the content varied and interesting throughout. It does feel somewhat light on the research and studies side.

The practical application is good. It is a more conceptual approach and less of a “do this, do that” approach. This will appeal to some readers and not others. If you are looking for more of a how-to guide, this may not be a good fit for you. If you like learning the “why” behind the ideas, you will like this book. Many of the examples are on the extreme end – people without phones, or retreating to cabins to get work done, but that is only to illustrate the point. The strategies are all centered around practical application in situations where you cannot just stop sending emails or attending meetings.

The book is primarily geared toward “knowledge workers,” people who sit in front of a computer for a living. Most of the advice and a majority of the examples are tech industry related. People in this industry will easily find value in this book. If you are not a knowledge worker, however, you can still find value in the concept of deep work. There are some examples of non-knowledge workers using deep work, too. If you fall into this category, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see how deep work translates to professions and skill sets outside of knowledge work.

Writing Style & Presentation

· Tone: Professional

· Organization: Great

· Flow: Great

The book takes on more of a professional tone, as opposed to the more personal tone many books of this type have. The audience of this book is professionals, so the tone feels very appropriate. The organization of the two parts and the subparts within them is logical and works well for presenting the information. The concepts are mostly separate from one another, relating back to overall theme, so they organize very easily into separate sections. While there is nothing particularly unique about the organization or flow, it supports the content well

Bringing It all Together

One thing done really well: The ratio of stories to studies to application keeps the book feeling varied and interesting.

One thing that could be better: While the target audience is meant to be primarily those in the tech industry, because that is the author’s professional focus, I think it will put off many people who could otherwise benefit from this book because after reading the first section they will think it doesn’t apply to them.

One main thing I took away from this book was: Deep Work isn’t something you just decide to do one day, it takes practice. You have to build up your deep work skillset by doing it consistently over time to get the most benefit from it.

Overall Recommendation

Overall recommendation: 4/5

Who I would recommend this book for: People who feel like they struggle to produce as much high-quality work as they would like.

Who I wouldn’t recommend this book for: People looking for quick and dirty productivity how-to manual.


Discussion Questions


What is deep work?

Why is deep work necessary?

Why are knowledge workers losing their familiarity with deep work?

What percentage of a workday does the average knowledge worker spend in electronic communication and internet searches?

What is shallow work?

Why is the shift toward shallow hard to reverse?

What are the two problems with network tools?

What are the two values of deep work?

How has the necessity for deep work changed?

What is the Deep Work Hypothesis?

Part 1

Chapter 1

Name the three types of workers who are most valuable today.

What is the primary ability that high-skill workers have?

How has the talent market changed and why does this matter?

What economic ratio is changing due to digital technology?

How is technology restructuring our economy?

What two core abilities are crucial for becoming a winner in this new economy?

What is the next necessary step once you have mastered relevant skills?

What do the two core abilities depend on?

What do differences between expert performers and normal adult reflect?

What does mastering a cognitively demanding task require?

What are the core components of deliberate practice?

What cannot coexist with deliberate practice?

How does the brain change as you develop skills?

What happens in your brain when you focus on a specific skill?

What is the law of productivity?

What is the role of intensity in productivity?

What is attention residue?

What is the effect of attention residue on performance?

How can you minimize the impact of attention residue?

Why are some top executives an exception to the deep work rule?

Chapter 2

What are the three new trends in big business?

What is the problem with these new trends?

What is the cause of the rareness of deep work?

What is the metric black hole?

Why are the costs of distraction difficult to measure?

What are some benefits of the team who took one day a week off of connectivity?

What is the principle of least resistance?

Why is being hyperresponsive easier in the short term?

Define the theory of busyness as a proxy for productivity?

What circumstances cause workers to value busyness?

What is the false premise many people have taken in regards to high-tech?

How does internet-centrism make it impossible not to embrace technology?

What are the conflicting values between deep work and a technopoly?

Chapter 3

Define attention.

What is attention the key to?

What do we tend to put focus on with regards to subjective life experiences?

How do our brains construct our worldview?

How can you use your attention as a “reset button”?

What impact will the deep work state have on your mind and why?

What kind of construct will dominate your mind when you focus on distraction?

What is a shallow-driven workday likely to cause?

What are the benefits of being in a flow state?

How are deep work and flow related?

Describe the theory of craftmanship as a path to meaning?

Why is looking for a rarified job the wrong approach?

Part 2

Rule #1

What do people underestimate about the urge to turn your attention towards the superficial?

On average, how often do people successfully resist distractions?

What is the truth about willpower?

What is the key to avoid being drained of willpower despite good intentions?

How do routines minimize the use of willpower?

What is the monastic philosophy of deep work?

What is the bimodal philosophy of deep work?

In the bimodal philosophy, when is extreme productivity attained?

What is the biggest obstacle to implementing the bimodal philosophy?

What is the rhythmic philosophy of deep work?

What is the tradeoff between the bimodal and rhythmic philosophies?

What is the journalistic philosophy?

Who is the journalistic philosophy not suited for?

What is the purpose of ritualizing deep work?

What three questions must you address to create a deep work ritual?

What happens if you start deep work without structure?

What is a grand gesture as it relates to deep work?

Why is the theory of serendipitous creativity flawed?

What two things are required for innovation and how can offices organize for this?

How does the whiteboard effect combine deep work and collaboration?

List the 4 disciplines in the 4DX framework.

When choosing a goal for deep work hours, what should this goal do?

Differentiate between lag and lead measures.

What is the purpose of creating a scoreboard?

How can you create accountability without a team?

What is the function of idleness?

List the three reasons for shutting down work during your off hours.

What is the unconscious thought theory (UTT)?

What type of decisions are better tackled in the unconscious mind?

What is attention restoration theory (ART)?

How much time for replenishment was required to boost concentration in the nature walk study?

What is the time limit for someone who is new to concentrating on cognitively demanding work?

What is the upper time limit for experts in concentration?

What is the purpose of having a shutdown ritual?

What is the Zeigarnik effect?

How can you reduce the Zeigarnik effect when handling incomplete projects at the end of a workday?

How long can you expect it to take to see the benefits of the shutdown ritual?

Rule #2

Why is the mindset of using motivation to concentrate a myth?

What can’t people who multitask do?

How do the brain functions of multitasking and concentrating differ?

What are the two goals for deep work training?

What happens once you are wired for distraction?

By what method should you schedule distraction and deep work?

What does constant switching to high stimuli activities teach your brain?

Why is distraction segregation useful?

How do you adapt this strategy in a job that requires prompt email replies?

What are the main three points for practicing distraction segregation?

What is NOT the goal of creating distraction free time?

How do you use the strategy of Rooseveltian intensity?

What is productive meditation?

What occurs during looping?

What are the three steps for structuring deep thinking?

What is attentional control?

What approach to memorization is ineffective?

Rule #3

What are the consequences of the increased use of network tools?

What is the binary response to the problems created by network tools?

What is the third option of how to use network tools?

What is the default decision process deployed by most internet users?

Define the Any-Benefit Approach.

What is the downside of the any-benefit approach?

Describe the craftsman metaphor for choosing network tools.

Describe the Law of the Vital Few

What are the three steps in determining whether or not you should use a specific network tool?

What is the purpose of a radical reduction of priorities?

Describe the social media equivalent to the packing party strategy.

Which two questions should you ask after thirty days of social media isolation?

What makes social media insidious?

How does social media replace the efforts of deep work?

Why should you use time outside work deliberately?

What happens as a result of giving your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours?

Rule #4

What does having fewer official working hours help do?

What reality does the 37signals experiment highlight?

Why should you treat shallow work with suspicion?

Describe the strategy of scheduling your day.

What should you do when your schedule is disrupted?

What is the goal of creating a schedule?

What three tactics can be used to create stability in this strategy?

How do you encourage spontaneity in your schedule?

How can structure provide more creativity?

What is the purpose of determining how deep or shallow each of your activities is?

What is the ideal range of time to spend on shallow work for most knowledge workers?

What does setting a shallow work budget force you to do?

Why should you get explicit approval from your boss about your shallow work budget?

What can happen when we consider each piece shallow work in isolation?

How can you turn down shallow or time-consuming requests cleanly?

What is the result of the scarcity-mindset with regards to fixed-schedule productivity?

What is a meta-habit?

What are 3 tips for becoming harder to reach?

What is the purpose of a sender filter?

What are the three steps to take when crafting email responses?

What is a process-centric email?

Which 3 types of email should you not respond to?

Key Terms

  • Any-Benefit Approach

  • Attention residue

  • Attention restoration theory (ART)

..... download the workbook to view the full list!

Vocabulary List

Aggregate (n.) The whole sum or amount

Bereft (adj.) Lacking something needed, wanted, or expected

Corollary (n.) Something that incidentally or naturally accompanies or parallels

..... download the workbook to view the full list!

Discussion Question Workbook

The workbook that accompanies this post includes:

  • Pre-reading questions

  • All discussion questions with space for writing answers

  • All vocabulary words with space to write definitions and add your own words

  • All key terms with space to write definitions

  • Chapter reflection questions

  • Final reflection questions

  • A condensed list of all discussion questions, vocab, and key terms for reference

  • Extra reflections pages to write your thoughts and ideas

You can get an eBook or paperback version of the workbook here.

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