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What is Deep Work? – The 21st Century Superpower

Would you like to know the secret to becoming better at the skills and knowledge needed in the 21st Century? Want to know how to stand out from others and move to the top of your field?

In the 21st Century, everyone wants superpowers. Superheroes have replaced the real-world examples of the past as what we aspire to be.

We are all looking for the edge that will make us better in our field. That will make us better in the fields that are shaping the future right now.

The key to this is deep work.

Deep Work is a term coined by Cal Newport in his book of the same name. It isn’t something new, but it is both the key to being exceptional in the 21st Century and the thing most being destroyed by our culture and technology.

Ironically, the very technology that is destroying your ability to do deep work, has to be created by people doing deep work.

What is Deep Work?

Deep work is focused intellectual activity done on a regular basis.


First and foremost, deep work is focused on one thing. One task with nothing else interfering. You should be only taking input on the subject or task you are working on. No other distractions around.

Deep work is a Flow state activity, but not all flow state activities are deep work. Deep work isn’t just about the state of consciousness you enter, it is also what you are doing.

Because deep work has a purpose. It exists to solve a problem, or develop your knowledge.

Reading a great novel is a flow state endeavor that causes a deep focus, but it isn’t deep work. Deep work is work in the sense that is done for a purpose other than relaxation or enjoyment.

Which makes it sound no fun at all.

Deep work is a little like exercise. It is working out for the brain. Sometimes that means it isn’t fun, but hard and a struggle. The only pleasure you can get out of it is that you accomplished it.

But most of the time it is an enjoyable process that makes you feel a sense of accomplishment. While doing it you often don’t really feel anything. The world falls away and all your attention is in your mind.


While we use exercise as a metaphor for deep work, it is a purely intellectual exercise. This is one of the reasons it is the superpower of the 21st Century.

Do you realized that super heroes don’t fight crime much anymore? At least not regular human crime. Mostly it is alien invasions or supervillains. “Hulk Smash” isn’t going to be much use in our world.

But the people who are changing our world for the better are sitting in front of computers all day. Thinking and writing. Writing books, scripts, articles or code. And all that activity is deep work.

All of the highest paying jobs are based on intellectual tasks from doctors to data scientists. Lawyers to AI researchers.

We live in an age where being smart is a lot more valuable in the economy than being strong or able to fight.


Deep work is active. It isn’t just passively ingesting content. It is taking in information and interacting with it. Or taking a broad intellectual understanding and shaping it into something new or useful.

This is why while it may feel the same to read a novel about space flight, it isn’t the same as studying rocket science. Watching a documentary on the mating habits of gorillas isn’t the deep work of reading all the academic papers with actual primate observations in them, then taking those a finding differences and commonalities.

Deep work can be taking in new information and expanding our knowledge of a subject, but it is also thinking about that subject deeply. Integrating new information into existing knowledge and innovating by integrating other diverse fields of knowledge.

Deep work isn’t just consuming, it is creating as well.

Done on a regular basis

Just like exercise, you can’t do deep work once and have a super power. You have to do it on a regular basis. Imagine you want to become a great computer scientist.

You wouldn’t just read one book on python and call it a day. Or watch 10 YouTube videos about React. You would read a book on python. Then another on algorithms. Then you would write code based on what you now knew.

Then go back and read other papers on data structures or the patterns of putting code together. You’d search for the problems that were truly hard to do with a computer and think about how you would try and solve those problems.

Do this daily for three months, and you will be the expert in your office. You’d know more and be able to think better than 99% of programmers in the world.

Deep work is focused intellectual activity done on a regular basis.

Doing Deep Work

Here’s a basic outline of how to do deep work.

  • Set aside quiet time to do deep work. You need a time and a space to do your deep work. In general, you want then sessions to be at least an hour. You may break that hour into 20 minutes Pomodoro segments, but you are going to stay on this task for an hour.
  • Do only this one thing. No social media. No phone at all. If you can, no internet at all. Use books and paper.
  • Interact with the material. Don’t just read. Interact with the material. Highlight. Outline. Take written notes. Set objectives before starting.

Don’t confuse simple with easy. It is simple to say “All you have to do deep work is set aside a couple of hours a day to read the top books in your field.”

But that is like saying, “All you have to do to run a marathon is set aside a couple of hours a day to run.”

You immediately understand that running for two hours isn’t something you can do.

Finding the time is often a problem for people and Time Leadership is a topic for another video.

But just getting rid of the distractions is hard all by itself. We live in a world full of noise and notifications. It is a little amazing how hard it is to just find a quiet place to think in our world.

But even if you can find the time and place to do the work, you’ll then discover just how much an intellectual couch potato you have become.

We’ll talk about the deep work Kryptonite that is all around us next week.

Question of the Day: How much and what kind of deep work do you do?

The subject of deep work is well, deep. Matter of fact you might want to start your deep work training program by reading a couple of books on it.

Here’s my two suggestions:

Deep Work by Cal Newport
How to be a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport

This book helped me through paramedic school and re-taught me how to study. Because there isn’t just one way to study, and the material dictates the ways that work best.

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