Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

An experiment run by 37signals showed that employees completed as much work in a 4-day work week as they did in 5 days. The experiment also showed that employees produced work of much higher importance when they were allowed an entire month to work on the things they wanted to, without any obligations to meetings etc.

Though in this section Cal wants you to be extremely mindful of shallowness in your life and remove it as much as possible, he also cautions about the limits of this type of thinking. You need to acknowledge that a lot of trivial, shallow work is needed to keep knowledge work companies running. Your goal is to minimise, not to eliminate.

To drain the shallows, Cal suggests five approaches:

  1. Schedule Every Minute of Your Day
    • Surveys conducted by the British TV licensing authority showed that people thought they were watching TV for 16-17 hours/week, but in reality, the number was 28 hours/week. This and more such surveys show that people spend most of their time on autopilot, not knowing what they’re doing in the moment.
    • It is difficult to be in the meditative state where you can always be mindful of what you’re doing, making sure you are avoiding trivialities. Hence, Cal suggests you schedule every minute of your day. The techniques are as follows.
    • At the beginning of the day, block your calendar with blocks of minimum 30min. These blocks are supposed to represent a larger chunk of activity and not fine-grained tasks that you’re going to perform during the sessions. For example, instead of having a block for “respond to X email”, you should batch all such tasks and call them, perhaps, “generic tasks”. You need to make sure every minute of your day is part of a block. The blocks can also include leisure activities, boredom, lunch hours etc, they don’t have to be exclusively about deep work.
    • If you’re unsure how long an activity will take, block off the expected time. Then add “overflow conditional” block which serves two purposes: either keep working on the task or keep an alternative task at hand if the activity is completed on/before time.
    • Having created these blocks, keep in mind that interruptions and distractions are a part of life and they should be embraced. You should always be prepared to rearrange the schedule after an interruption. And if the opportunity presents itself with an extra interesting idea, it is recommended to give up the rest of the schedule in favour of this new spark of an idea.
    • The goal of the schedule is not to make sure you strictly adhere to it, but to make sure you are mindful of where you are spending your time.
  2. Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
    • To objectively quantify the depth of the activity, and use that to bias your schedule and priorities, Cal suggests you ask the question “How long in months would it take to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialised training in my field to complete this task?”
    • The answers will produce a fairly objective spectrum which you can use to decide what you should be working on.
  3. Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget
    • Find out how much you are expected to work on shallow activities by asking your direct boss if you have any.
  4. Finish Your Work by 5:30
    • This approach is called “fixed schedule productivity”
    • Junior professors almost always have to work 12 hours/day. According to one professor’s estimate, he spent ~1.5 hours/day doing focused work out of those 12 hours.
    • There are examples of professors such as Radhika Nagpal, Cal etc who avoided the extreme work hours by biasing their activities to fit the fixed-schedule productivity. Cal uses a lot of care in saying “yes” to anything.
  5. Become Hard to Reach
    • Make people who send you emails do more work.
    • Do more work when sending or replying to emails.
    • Don’t respond to emails.
    • This approach is easy to extrapolate for all professional communications.


Following the philosophy of deep work, Cal managed to produce 9 papers while raising 2 kids, writing a book, working as a professor etc. Though he says deep work is not for everybody, he has found it to be essential in his own life along with all the other important thinkers mentioned in the book such as Gallagher, Knuth, Jung etc.

“I will live the focused life because it is the best kind there is.” - Winifred Gallagher

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