Deep Work by Cal Newport radically changed the way I approach my work. These principles for elevating professional output are also valuable for Christians who want to make the most of their lives for God’s glory.
“Deep work” refers to a type of concentrated work which staves off distraction and stretches one’s cognitive limits. In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport argues that people who prioritize working with this kind of intense focus produce more value, stand out from the crowd, and enjoy more satisfaction in their work.
Modern life with its distractions, however, is at odds with this kind of depth. So we must intentionally foster habits that promote deep work if we want to see these benefits in our work. Christians too can benefit from deep work. Since deep work leads to quality output it can help us better glorify God and serve others through our labors.
I talked about the highlights of this article in a recent podcast:
What Is Deep Work?
Here’s Cal Newport’s own definition from the book:
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
This is in contrast to the “shallow work” that makes up the life of most knowledge workers. Shallow work are those, “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.” (6).
Most of us live in the shallows. We are not leveraging our unique talents and energy to produce the best we can make. When it comes to our careers, that lack of focus means a lack of unique value which means we are easily replaced or outperformed by others.
Deep Work is a lead measure that consistently leads to valuable results. The more of it you can foster in your work, therefore, the more value you will create with your life.
The 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.
Benefits of Deep Work
Newport gives three primary reasons we should care about deep work.
1. Deep Work Is Valuable
In the modern knowledge economy, there are two skills that enable you to thrive as a professional.
- Having the ability to master hard things quickly
- Having the ability to produce at elite levels of quality and speed
The common denominator of these two abilities is that both are functions of focussed and concentrated effort. Or as Newport puts it, “the two core abilities just described depend on your ability to perform deep work.” (32)
Deep work, therefore, is a valuable skill because it leads to what is most valuable in our modern economy. But that’s not all.
2: Deep Work Is Rare
Most workers do not operate at any level of significant focus in our work. We skip from one distraction to the next. We chase these shallow tasks because they are easier than working deeply and because often we lack clarity on what value we should be producing. “Knowledge workers, I’m arguing, are trending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value.” (64).
Furthermore, the scarcity of deep work makes it even more valuable. It means that those who do embrace concentrated work will stand out from the crowd because the value they create will exceed that of those who only work shallowly.
Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow (whether you think it’s philosophically good or bad) is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth..Page 8
3: Deep Work Is Meaningful
Shallow work is why you hate your job
Many knowledge workers often do not find satisfaction with their work. Part of this is due to the intangibility of the product of knowledge work. Pushing paper doesn’t have the same visible results as, say, building a car. But knowledge work can also lack meaning because it is shallow. Without a sense of progress or completion, many jobs can feel like just a never-ending parade of emails and meetings. You find yourself wondering, “Sure, I got a paycheck, but what value did I actually produce? Does what I do even matter?”
Deep work produces quality work, and complete work, work we can be proud of. This provides a sense of accomplishment and purpose. We were made to work and create, but when our work is divorced from results we feel proud of, we become miserable. Deep work solves this.
To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.Page 13
How to Foster Deep Work
The battle for deep work is fought on two fronts:
- Minimize the shallow
- Optimize for depth
In the latter half of the book, Newport offers four rules for minimizing shallow activities and optimizing for deep work.
Rule 1: Work Deeply
You cannot rely on willpower alone to develop a life of deep work. You have to make it a habit. You have to create a routine.
“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”Page 100
Newport summarizes four types of deep work routine philosophies (102ff).
- The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. This is the most extreme, hermit-in-a-cave approach. Example: Going off grid to write a novel.
- The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. Find specific times you can go into monk-mode. Divide time between deep and shallow periods. Requires at least one full day of deep work. Tries to get best of monastic while being realistic to the value of some shallow demands. Requires a job with flexibility. Example: A college professor who dedicates Fall semester to teaching and Spring to writing and research.
- The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. Turns deep work into a consistent habit. Removes the decision of “if” just do the habit. Remove the option, remove the friction. This is the most common method. Schedule blocks of deep work into your week and make them non-negotiable. Example: Office worker who shuts their door and goes into do-not-distrub mode between 9 and 12am Monday, Wednesday, Friday.
- The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. Train yourself to go deep whenever required. Requires extreme skill. Example: Journalists who work with tight deadlines. They have to know how to slip into deep work at a moment’s notice.
For most people, the Rhythmic Philosophy is the most realistic. Scheduling blocks of deep work into your week ensure you actually make it a priority.
Rule 2: Embrace Boredom
Concentration is a skill, and we’re losing it.
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.Page 157
It’s hard to be bored with the whole world is at your fingertips on your phone. But by never being bored, we are actually training ourselves not to know how to concentrate. This has devastating effects on our work.
It’s not enough the add deep work to your schedule, you must also eliminate your addiction to distraction.
you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.Page 157
Schedule in advance when you will use the internet.
Without a doubt, our biggest source of distraction is the internet. Instead of setting up a bunch of rules for different types of social media you’ll use and not use, Newport suggests going straight for the head of the beast: “Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.” (161).
Deep work should feel uncomfortable.
“Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable.” (168). It’s why when working on an intense project gets hard we flee to easier activities like answering email or boredom-killing apps or websites.
Just because knowledge work is not manual labor, doesn’t mean it should be easy. It’s still work, and it ought to feel like it. If you wanted to do a significant physical feat, you would need to strain your body. If you want to do significant mental work, it’s going to mean straining your mind.
Rule 3: Quit Social Media
We should evaluate what occupies our attention like a wise craftsman evaluates his tools, weighing both pros and cons. We can all cite the benefits of social media, but what about the cons? Are the trade-offs worth it?
Newport has a name for the way we invite distraction from network tools by only looking at the upsides: The any-benefit principle.
The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.Page 186
Instead, we should approach our tools like craftsmen.
The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.191
Attention management is a zero-sum game.
We have to be careful what noise we allow into our lives because our attention is limited. “all activities, regardless of their importance, consume your same limited store of time and attention. If you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game.” (202).
Rule 4: Drain the Shallows
If we truly wish to be people who optimize our lives for deep, meaningful work, we need to schedule for it. In fact, Newport says you should “schedule every minute of your day.” (221).
Strict schedules provide freedom.
At first, this may sound extreme and unrealistically rigid. But the point of scheduling your days isn’t to force you into an unbreakable covenant, it’s to make you decide in advance what you’ll work on. The process forces you to be proactive instead of reactive.
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
If you’ve ever experienced the distraction expelling, focus-promoting power of a deadline, you know having a strict plan for what you should be working on makes it much harder to justify indulging in distractions.
Commit to fixed-schedule productivity.
The goal of deep work isn’t workaholism. In fact, if you do optimize for deep work you will find that you are able to get more done in less time. And Newport contends that we should commit to a fixed workday schedule and refuse to work outside of those pre-determined times.
I call this commitment fixed-schedule productivity, as I fix the firm goal of not working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow me to satisfy this declaration.Page 236
The benefits from a work-life balance perspective are obvious, but there are also productivity benefits to this approach as well. A commitment to a fixed schedule shifts your thinking into a scarcity mindset. It forces you to acknowledge your limits and fit what truly needs doing within those boundaries. Without a fixed schedule, you can be tempted to feel infinite, like you can always squeeze one more thing in. Such an attitude eventually backfires on us.
Considerations for Christians
Deep Work is not a Christian book and is specially focused on how to advance your career by optimizing for depth and concentration. But the type of work promoted in the book is also beneficial for Christians in all walks of life.
Deep work is quality work, and excellence honors God
As Christians, our work should be marked by quality, just as our Creator in whose image we are made always fashions quality work. Christian work should not be characterized by laziness or slip-shop workmanship. If you believe God is honored by quality, craftsmanship, and mastery in your labors, you must pursue deep work because it is the only type of work that produces those characteristics.
We become what we pay attention to
One side benefit of deep work is that it makes us more deliberate in what we aim our attention at. And what we pay attention to shapes what we think and. ultimately, the people we become. “Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.” (77).
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.Hebrews 12:2
If we only give our attention to shallow tasks and distractions we become shallow people. Deep work for the Christian means refusing to be molded by the nudges of modernity and its shallow influences, and instead giving ourselves fully to activities and focuses that please Christ.
Whether in the prayer closet or at the office, depth honors the living God.
Deep work is good stewardship
There wasn’t much I disagreed with in this book. But Newport limits the importance of deep work to a merely pragmatic stance. I believe he’s wrong about that.
“A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement-it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.” (258).
Sure, deep work gets temporal results. But if deep work promotes quality work, Christians should care about more than just the temporal results. The means of deep work are justified by longer-term ends than money, namely the judgment seat of God. God will judge our works, and I for one am laboring for that “well done good and faithful servant.”
In that sense, then, deep work is a moral stance. In as far as depth helps us produce more excellent and God-honoring labor it is a moral good. And to avoid it in favor of the easier path is a kind of faithlessness. It’s poor stewardship of the life and opportunities God has given you.
Deep work is scary because it forces us to face up to our limits
The concept of deep work sounds really exciting. But it can also be quite frightening. Many of us in the face of failure have learned well the cop-out, “well, if I had really tried things would have been different.” And we spend our whole lives holding back from really trying our hardest, so we can always play that card if we fail. We can be tempted to resist deep work because it’s frightening to really test your metal.
There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.Page 263
But when believers recognize that our value is derived from who we are in Christ Jesus, not what we achieve, it gives us the confidence and freedom to give our all.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.Philippians 3:12
Considerations for Pastors
In an episode of The Call to Mastery podcast with Jordan Raynor, Cal Newport said that he hears from pastors more than almost any other group about his books Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.
I surmise pastors rightly recognize a need for deep work for several reasons:
- Pastors are highly motivated to make the most of their time in light of God
- Pastors have a high degree of autonomy with how they spend their time
- Pastors have limited accountability for how they spend their time
- A pastor’s work requires long periods of uninterrupted study
- A pastor’s work of personal ministry necessitates being open to interruption
Particularly, those last two present a conundrum. The two most important aspects of a pastor’s ministry, teaching and shepherding, are often in competition for the pastor’s limited time and focus. Pastors want to study God’s Word deeply but are frequently interrupted by the needs of the flock.
That’s why I think pastors, in particular, would benefit from really committing to deep work, eliminating distractions, and developing a schedule with reasonable boundaries which allow them to carry out all aspects of their ministry faithfully.
My Experience with Deep Work
I made this video explaining how shifting to a life of deep work fundamentally changed my own life and work. Since that video and re-reading the book, I have only increased my commitment to this valuable style of work.
Deep work is about straining your mind to produce the best quality work possible. It’s beating the body into submission, honing your craft, not phoning it into work but doing your very best. Those all sound like pursuits worthy of the Christian’s attention.
The main difference in how a Christian looks at the call to deep work is motivation. Will deep work advance your career by giving you an edge? Probably. And that’s fine. But much more importantly deep work produces the kind of work that pleases God and better serves others. Deep work, therefore, is a practice well worth embracing.