Deep Work: A Scarcity in Digital Age

Deep work is valuable, rare and even meaningful in a digital world full of noise and distraction. Now, quit social media and embrace boredom.

Illustration by Thierry Fousse from Icons8


Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens (an international bestselling phenomenon), has no smartphone. However, that doesn’t stop him from making bold and insightful and somewhat provocative predictions about our very future of humanity and how AI and bio-technologies could join hands and shape history. By the way, he does 2 hour meditation every day and 2 month of retreat every year.

Bill Gates, a name that needs no introduction, would escape from daily routines and go into secret cabin where no distractions of any communication tools or people are present to think about “big ideas” in innovation and strategies about Microsoft. This is what he calls “Think weeks”.

The list just goes on and on…

The ubiquity of deep focus among influential individuals (more ironically so among those who are behind the big tech companies) is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contrast to the behaviors of most modern Internet users and knowledge workers, who are by a large chance reading this blog from their smart phones right now.

As I will define and argue later, deep work is not just valuable and rare from pragmatic perspective, but also meaningful in a world where meaning is at worst non-existent, at best ill-defined.


According to Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work. Deep work is defined as:

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.

Whereas in contrast, shallow work is defined as:

Shallow work: Non-cognitively 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.

If you prefer:

Deep work v.s. Shallow work

Deep work is valuable

The world is flat. It is increasingly connected and automated by the inevitable rise of Internet, and now data and AI.

In the “brave” new world (quote is mine, since I believe we are inching towards Aldous Huxley’s distopia), Cal Newport argues there are three types of winners:

  • High-skill workers those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machine
  • Superstars those who are best in what they do, whatever the field
  • Owners those who have access to capital

Not everyone is born with a silver spoon. However, the former two are attainable if one poses two core capabilities:

  • The ability to quickly master hard things
  • The ability to produce at elite level in terms of both quality and speed

This is the kind of person with high I/O bandwidth, who inputs fast and outputs fast and with quality.

To master intelligent machines is hard, to be at the best of what you do is hard, to quickly learn hard things is hard squared, to produce at elite level is hard exponential.

How to thrive in the new economy? It can only be done through laser-focused deep work.

Deep work is rare

Deep work is rare in today’s business world. Cal Newport lists three trends as causes:

  • The ubiquity of open office, which might create more serendipity at the cost of massive distraction
  • The rise of instant messaging tools and the implicit and sometimes explicit expectations of always online
  • The push for active presence on social media for content producers (for example, journalist)

This phenomenon highlights a paradox. If deep work is so valuable, why are not organizations encouraging it?

One reason is that it is hard to measure productivity of today’s white-collar jobs. In the mechanical industrial age, a worker’s productivity is simply the number of items he/she produces in a unit of time. Arguably, we can also measure a software engineer’s output by the number of code he/she writes. However, I can most surely say this metric can easily go in totally wrong direction, because the best engineers are typically not those who produce the most lines of code. This non-linearity of these jobs lead to a metric blackhole prevalent today.

This metric black hole together with the law of least resistance (in other words, people are lazy, so does the business world) creates another strange scene:

Busyness as proxy for productivity: In the absence of clear indications 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.

Many people are terrified by an empty work schedule and checking their emails every instant, as if being busy is the only reason why they are hired.

Another reason behind this rareness of deep work is the cult belief in Internet. Anything Internet is good, anything Internet is innovation, anything silicon valley does is good for my business. “This is how Google does it” is becoming a toxic dogma in many companies, even though what they do is thousands miles far from what Google is doing.

This Internet-centrism pushes the whole business world and every individual online and always connected. To stay offline is not a default anymore, even morally unethical to some in today’s work culture.

Deep work is meaningful

“I will live the focused life, because it is the best kind there is.”

— Winifred Gallagher

From the perspective of neurology, to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of human brain in a way that maximises the meaning and satisfaction that you will associate with working life.

From the perspective of psychology, deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state in one’s mind, which in turn generates happiness.

Even from a philosophical point of view, deep work can help modernity reestablish meaning, in a world where god is absent and sacredness is vanishing in every minute spent on TikTok.

Meaning is found through craftsmanship, and deep work is the only way leading there.

Software engineers find meanings in code. Beautiful code is concise and poetic for those who appreciate the craft.

How to achieve deep work?

Deep work is a skill that requires training. However, there are many different roads leading to Rome.

Some prefer the so-called “monastic” approach or caveman approach if you can afford cutting off all connections at all times.

Others adopt a bimodal approach, Yuval Noah Hararri and Bill Gates as mentioned before are prototypical examples.

For most of average people, who can simply not afford such luxuries to cut off everything for more than a week or even a few days, a rhythmic approach is perhaps much more pragmatic. This methodology can be summarised as “You are either in it or not.” or “When you work, work hard. When you are done, be done.

One’s will power is a limited resource, the more you use it, the less it becomes. This principle tells us to minimize distractions in our surroundings, because every time you use your will power to resist the temptation to pick up your smartphone, you exhaust some will power from your reserve.

Quit social media. Social media is sophisticated engineered to capture your attention and time, which in other words is the largest consumer of your will power, by quitting it you eliminate the biggest roadblock to deep work.

Embrace boredom. Nowadays, people cannot stand a single boring moment, not during the two minutes waiting in queue, not during an elevator ride, not even during a moment of silence at a dinner with close friends or partner.

Resist the source of temptation in your pocket and embrace boredom next time you encounter it, you might give yourself an otherwise scarce opportunity for new ideas to manifest themselves.


[1] thoughts are compiled from Deep work by Cal Newport.



Machine Learning & Software Engineer in Amsterdam, Holland

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