Deep Work vs Shallow Work: How To Be More Focused

William Kennedy
7 min readApr 1, 2017


Today’s world is full of distractions and devoid of deep work. This makes writing or learning to code much more difficult. Emails, Social Media , and Reddit are working against you. They have given rise to a global attention-deficit disorder.

In my previous 2 articles on productivity, I spoke about pre-planning and habits. Notice I did not mention any tools or tactics such as the Pomodoro technique. Productivity is a skill and like any other skill, it takes practice to become better.

This article focuses on the concept of Deep Work which comes from the book of the same name written by Cal Newport.

Creativity Comes From Deep Work

Have you ever been so immersed in an activity that you just seem to be one with the moment? Time skips by and you are at zen with the magic that flows from your physical being. You feel you are getting a lot done and in fact, you know you are getting a lot done. This is what Cal Newport calls deep work.

The worst thing that happens in those moments is a sharp tap on the shoulder from a colleague or a girlfriend who must know something trivial RIGHT now. When your flow disappears, it takes about 15 to 20 minutes to get it back. So the cost of constant distraction is high.

Now imagine, how big the cost is when you leave yourself open to distraction and interruption. Do you find yourself checking your phone every couple of minutes? Maybe you automatically type the letter ‘f’ into the address bar when you open your browser. This frazzled state of looking for little bouts of entertainment and distraction while also working is shallow work.

In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport alludes to his observation that attention and ability to focus are diminishing skills in the new knowledge economy. Despite the fact that there is more necessity for this deeper attention. He argues against open offices which are a hotbed of distraction and shallow work. For example, a journalist for the Atlantic calculated that cost of employee emails was $2m/yr. These emails would not always be contusive to production either. A lot of their emails would be one-word replies or single sentence replies. In fact, I have been at companies where whole email threads are just a series of memes and gifs.

Of course, Newport also targets Facebook and other social networks in his plight for more rigorous focus. He criticizes Facebook for popularizing the open office which does not create boundaries for people to achieve their best work.

To be a more productive worker, Cal Newport suggests embracing the concept of Deep Work.

This involves picking a single task and focusing on it without any distraction. Cal Newport advises preparing all the tools necessary to complete your task. To start, put aside two hours free of distraction. That means no internet, no interruption, nothing to distract. When I first tried this, it took me a little bit of time to actually get into the workflow. I found myself with this habitual urge to reach for my phone or my email. After some effort, I found my groove and the output was amazing. For the first time in weeks, I managed to sit down and write a technical article for a popular website. Better still, at work, I managed to knuckle down and close off my task lists items for good.

Avoiding the temptation to Google (or DuckDuckGo in my case), I ended up producing more.

Back To You

One of the main reasons you could be on this site now is that you are looking to become a software developer or to improve your current career. Here is one way you could use Deep Work principle to elevate your career.

I argue that a portfolio is one of the single greatest assets a developer can have. It is better than a degree because it has proven you can build cool shit which is what most employers really want to know.

Let’s say, you want to build your portfolio and decided on a website. Before ever going to the internet and Googling other portfolio sites for inspiration, instead, you would take a pen and paper and plan out everything. From how the website looks, to who you are marketing it too to what projects you are going to showcase.

Do this task alone and do not worry about anything else. Newport argues attention to a single task is what leads to the greatest breakthroughs with work.

Maybe you need to actually create a project but find yourself Googling how to do it before. .you know. actually doing it. Deep work could work here.

Anything which requires the production of a tangible body of work such as writing, studying, coding, marketing or just about any knowledge job could benefit from deep work.

As a developer or anyone who works in a knowledge field, the ability to sit down and do the task for hours on end is rare. Most of us in today’s society are working at fractional attention. We are inviting distraction into our lives. It has become more important than ever to focus on a single difficult task. As Cal Newport argues, major breakthroughs only come about because of a commitment to deep work, not as a commitment to shallow work.

How to achieve the Deep Work mindset quickly?

1. Embrace a Low Information Diet

We have been led to believe that being ‘informed’ citizens is a good thing. I argue that most information is crap anyway. My advice for relieving a whole litany of stress, anger worry and fear from your body? Do not watch or read the news. This includes cutting down on social media, blog reading, and especially the news. The dirty truth about a lot of media coverage is that it does not affect your life one bit.

Most people don’t like this advice at all. So I suggest trying it for 5 days. Take a low information diet. This includes cutting down on TV, newspapers, blogs, Reddit, Hacker News and social media. Also, it means cutting down on emails. Try it for 5 days. Test it to see if you are more productive without all that racket created by attention hogs.

2. Focus on a Task for 2 hours without any internet or other distractions

Pick any task and put aside two hours to that task. Just focus on that task for at least two hours. If you embraced the low information diet, you will find this a bit easier. You can pick any task. It can be coding, practicing an instrument or even writing. It doesn’t matter, you just have to focus on that task for two hours without any distraction such as the internet or TV. If you find it too difficult, then I recommend scaling it back to 90 minutes. After you have done this, reward yourself with a chocolate as per Charles Duhiggs recommendation.

3. Be Honest With Yourself

The last two steps were a bit more specific. This one can be interrupted as being touchy feely. I do not mean being in touch with your emotions. When I say be honest with yourself, I mean you have to look at what is physically stopping your creating something cool or learning a new skill. Even exercising. Some try and blame society for the way they are. They make society try and fit their low standards or inaction.

What stops you from you being more productive? Here is an example of something that would stop me going to the gym. If I went to work and didn’t bring my gym clothes with me, I won’t go to the gym. All the affirmations in the world are not going to fix that.

How do I get my ass to the gym? I bring my exercise gear to work and go straight after.

When I was first trying to learn to code, I was not practicing. I was mindlessly reading books and doing codecademy exercises. I was never going to get a job. I was never building my own projects and learning from them. I looked at myself and figured out that I was actually just suffering from the Donning Kruger effect. It was only when I acknowledged that I didn’t know anything did I start to get somewhere. Physically, I set aside time to practice and followed the Odin Project as well as some other resources to build a portfolio and finally land a job.

When I go home to visit my mom, I eat all the junk in the house. My mother keeps them in a drawer in the kitchen. I know exactly where you hide them, mother!

If I want to avoid eating junk then I must avoid that environment. This is what I mean about being honest with why you do things. It does not have to be a complex answer. Sometimes it is as simple as being in the wrong environment. Or the fact, you let something happen.

If you want to hear more advice on becoming a developer, then feel free to sign up to my newsletter. I have a whole email series about getting your first development job plus a development career cheatsheet.

Originally published at on June 14, 2016.



William Kennedy

McDonalds Connoisseur. Software Developer,