Deep Work: How to Focus and Resist Distractions (Ep. 100)

Cal NewportAlmost all of us have trouble focusing on our work at times.

Sometimes, we’re just tired and can’t seem to muster the energy to truly concentrate. However, the more common culprit is the myriad of distractions we face on a daily basis.

Social media accounts, websites that provide shallow, momentary doses of novelty (as opposed to high-density fun), rectangular pieces of metal and plastic that live in our pockets and glow sometimes… we’re never more than a few feet and a few seconds away from something that can pull us away from our work.

With so many distractions surrounding us, most of us spend more time than we’d like giving into their temptations. This results in an unfocused, ineffective style of working which takes far too long to get anything done.

The opposite of that is deep work, which is the topic of today’s podcast episode. I’m once again talking with Cal Newport, who is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, the author of  five books, and a massive proponent of doing deep work.

Cal defines deep work as the practice of focusing for a long time (well over an hour) on a cognitively demanding task without giving into any distractions whatsoever.

One thing that Cal stresses in the episode is that deep work is a skill, and it must be acquired through practice.

“You have to train your mind to concentrate, just like you’d train your muscles to be able to do a pull-up.”

Most people don’t think about attention and deep work in this way; instead, they’re apt to say, “eh, I probably don’t do enough of that,” and believe that they could work deeply right away if they just put their mind to it.

According to Cal, that’s really not the case. To be sure, a determined mindset to work deeply is important – but you also really do need to be practiced at it in order to do it well.

In this episode, Cal and I discuss the importance of building the skill of deep work, and also get into methods of doing it. As Cal puts it, becoming adept at doing deep work is like having a superpower if you’re a knowledge worker – it gives you the ability to finish complicated work in a fraction of the time it takes other people.

Featured Book

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldThis episode focuses heavily on the ideas from Cal’s latest book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

If you know anything about Cal, you’ll know he’s generally hard to get in contact with – and that’s on purpose. Cal deliberately structures his life in a way that provides him with long, uninterrupted blocks of time that he uses to focus deeply on complicated, difficult work – math proofs, computer science problems, writing books, etc.

Deep Work is essentially an argument – and an instruction manual – for that kind of work style. Cal’s main argument is that the ability to dive into complicated work in an intensely focused manner is a skill that is becoming increasingly rare, and hence increasingly valuable in our economy.

After making his argument, Cal proceeds to cover strategies for building your “attention muscle” and cultivating the skill of doing deep work. The book covers different styles of scheduling deep work, analyzes some of the practices of highly successful people, and emphasizes the importance of becoming accustomed to boredom rather than constantly seeking out small bits of novelty.

To be honest, I’m keenly aware that my own deep working skills aren’t as honed as they should be, so I’m going to be putting some of the strategies from this book into practice going forward (in particular, I’m going to try to adopt a bimodal work schedule and basically disappear for a couple days each week to write).

If you feel the need to improve your own skills in this area, this book may help. If you’d like to pick up a copy, you can support College Info Geek by using the link above!

Things mentioned in this episode:

Want more cool stuff? You can find all sorts of great tools at my Resources page.

If you enjoyed this episode, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes! It’s easy, you’ll get new episodes automatically, and it also helps the show gain exposure 🙂 You can also leave a review!

Here’s an image for sharing this episode on social media:

Deep Work: How to Focus and Resist Distractions

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Instagram

Hey there! Please note that some links in the article may be referral links, meaning that if you buy something through them, I'll earn a commission (at no extra cost to you). This helps to support CIG, but please don't buy anything unless you truly believe it'll benefit you! You can learn more here. Thank you :)

Want to Earn Better Grades?

Did you find this article useful?

Over 150,000 awesome students are learning how to dominate their classes, get more done, and land the jobs they want - and you should too.

Join in, and I'll also send you a free copy of my book on earning better grades!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. I sincerely love the ideas and logic behind this systems… It all makes so much sense. I wish that there was some post or podcast that looked at these kinds of productivity strategies from non-neurotypical perspectives. As someone with ADHD, even though these concepts make total sense intellectually, putting them into practice is literally impossible for me in the way they are discussed here. Thanks for the great info!

  2. Thank you very much , for this great podcast , it has life changing information , keep up the great work 🙂

  3. Wow, thanks! This podcast came at the right time as I get so easily distracted AND I have exams in a month. I just deleted my Twitter and Tumblr account, with not that much regret. I feel so free, jk. *Deep mode activated*

  4. Dear Thomas,

    While listening to this episode I happily realized that I have been doing some of the exercises that Cal had said without actually calling them deep work exercises.

    I noticed an important wrinkle that may cause Cal’s methods to become hard to adopt. One embarrassingly simple thing –> Joyfulness.

    Yes, in the podcast you asked Cal if you were at the bank should you just stand in line and stare at the wall. Cal said yes, and you should just let yourself be bored.

    What I have learned is that we need to be joyfully bored. In other words, we need to reduce the suffering in the body. By suffering I mean tension and stress in the body as well as impatience in our feelings.
    How do we do that? First, an embarrassingly simple thing that we sometimes do and sometimes don’t: SMILE! (If smiling too widely makes you feel socially uncomfortable because you aren’t in a social mood then, reduce the extent of the smile. It still works.)

    After you smile, you may realize yourself wanting to yawn or wanting to take deeper gulps of air. Let yourself do it. It helps you relax.

    And also, taking in more air helps with impatience. I don’t know why but I have experienced it and it works. I can guess an explanation though.
    Imagine a continuum, on the extreme left is someone who has held his breath for too long underwater and is now absolutely impatient and wanting more air. And on the extreme right is someone who is breathing from an oxygen tank and feeling absolutely relaxed.
    It seems to me that for most of us our reality is too much to the left. In other words, our system isn’t getting enough air hence our body is impatient. Not as impatient as the drowning man but still somewhat impatient. So it seems like if we can help our body to get more air, it would get less impatient.

    An impatient mind and suffering body is a junkie for novel stimuli. Remember food tasting great when you are very hungry? But after you are full, even the most tasty delights don’t arouse any craving in you. Something like that. Just that in the case of deep work, the food is replaced with Facebook / social media / novel stimuli.

    Now, please note that Cal is not evil. He did not withhold information. I know all these because I encountered those problems. In other words, in the beginning I tried doing nothing and I felt like I wanted to die until I got my next glance at Facebook. And I sought out to solve the problems.
    Cal may not have encountered such problems. He may have been biologically well-endowed so his body doesn’t stress up as much as mine did.
    Or, very probably, he may have had a default backup plan. In other words, when he started to feel bad during boredom he may simply have an automatic solution. Many times, when we encounter problems, our willpower gets drained and we can’t think clearly and feel like giving up. So if we have thought of some action plan beforehand that doesn’t require any thinking in the moment, at least we would do that instead of allowing ourselves to just give up.
    His default backup plan may have been something as simple as thinking of a particular victory he had in the past. Or even just taking a walk and not allowing himself to see Facebook until he reaches a particular destination. And most probably, by the end of the walk or when we reach our destination we feel different and more relaxed and don’t need Facebook anymore!

    • well now I definitely must try that smiling idea! Thanks 😀

    • Indeed, after reading your post I suddenly remember about a scientific study I read some time back.

      It was about what causes us to feel happy at a biological level. In other words what affects our “happiness hormones”. The study said that 50% is genetic, 40% is how we perceive our life’s circumstances and only 10% is determined by external circumstances.

      50% Genes
      40% Viewpoints and Perceptions
      10% External

      It is possible that Professor Newport is biologically well-endowed in the 50% portion (the extent to how much our genes affect our happiness). He may have a high score there and therefore when life sends lemons, Professor Newport has enough defences metaphorically speaking.

      In other words, sometimes we give in to addictions exactly as what you said because “we feel like we want to die if we don’t do it”. Of course we don’t actually die but in the moment it feels like we want to die and life is not worth living if not for the addiction.

      So Professor Newport probably experiences less of the “wanting to die” feelings, and even if he does, it is probably less intense and that allows him to push through long enough for the rewards of his efforts to materialize.

      I also remember reading in a book “How to improve your marriage without talking about it” by authors Patricia Love and Steven Stonsy. They said that on a biological level, men feel less pain than women. No wonder men have higher tolerance to pain and can do more painful tasks without giving up!

      So sometimes men wonder why women are such cowards. But it is due to a fundamental disconnect on a biological level. Men don’t feel as much pain!

      So for us who are not well-endowed in the 50% genes department, there is still alot we can do. Especially in the 40% perceptions department. We can change the way we interpret seemingly negative happenings in our life. And with meditation, we can change our perceptions while maintaining calmness and compassion for others.

  5. I think we don’t just apply an “Any benefit” rule to digital tools but to all the stuff in our lives! This thought goes well with the concept of minimalism, when you think about which things actually bring you more value than they steal away your time, money etc.!

  6. I could have used this podcast a long time ago … I struggle with distractions almost everyday!

  7. Great podcast! I think I have some major changes to do. Thanks, Tom and Cal.

// Read This Next

How to Build a Diverse Skillset (Ep. 9)

Want more? Join over 150,000 students and grab my free book on earning better grades  →