Author – Cal Newport
URL – Deep Work
My Notes –
Deep work is need to survive in this attention deficit world. You need to carve out time to learn and create.
Most successful people who had day jobs would do it in the mornings before their day started.
Deep work could be a burden but it’s needed to make useful contributions to the world.
Staying away from distraction as much as possible is required to do some deep thinking and meaningful work.
Scheduling 2-4 hours of deep work everyday is needed to create a significant output over long periods of time. Everyone would do it. From Jung to Bill Gates to Montaigne.
The whole idea is to find time during the day to do uninterrupted work. The book is filled with examples from history and research around the same. Our brains do not really like to multi-task. If you want to do great work, you want focused time.
The book also provides some productivity ideas like using a ruled notebook and using each line to distribute your time during the day to different work. But it does not really work too much for me. However, I like the idea of starting the day early to get all the things I would like to do before my day starts. That ways, I am already winning the day.
The author says that we need two qualities to survive in this world. The ability to master hard things and ability to produce at an elite level. In this new economy, three groups will have a particular those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.
In his book Daily Rituals, journalist Mason Currey sorted through various sources on Jung to re-create the psychiatrist’s work habits at the Tower. Jung would rise at seven a.m., Currey reports, and after a big breakfast he would spend two hours of undistracted writing time in his private office. His afternoons would often consist of meditation or long walks in the surrounding countryside. There was no electricity at the Tower, so as day gave way to night, light came from oil lamps and heat from the fireplace. Jung would retire to bed by ten p.m. “The feeling of repose and renewal that I had in this tower was intense from the start,” he said.
But he wasn’t satisfied with busyness alone. He wanted to change the way we understood the unconscious, and this goal required deeper, more careful thought than he could manage amid his hectic city lifestyle. Jung retreated to Bollingen, not to escape his professional life, but instead to advance it.
It also took him away from more immediate pursuits. As Mason Currey writes, Jung’s regular journeys to Bollingen reduced the time he spent on his clinical work, noting, “Although he had many patients who relied on him, Jung was not shy about taking time off.” Book Notes – Deep Work, though a burden to prioritize, was crucial for his goal of changing the world.
Moving forward in history, consider the screenwriter and director Woody Allen. In the forty-four-year period between 1969 and 2013, Woody Allen wrote and directed forty-four films that received twenty-three Academy Award nominations—an absurd rate of artistic productivity. Throughout this period, Allen never owned a computer, instead completing all his writing, free from electronic distraction, on a German Olympia SM3 manual typewriter.
Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.
A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.
Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow (whether you think it’s philosophically good or bad) is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth—an opportunity that, not too long ago, was leveraged by a bored young consultant from Virginia named Jason Benn.
Note: Taking advantage of chaos
Jason Benn’s story highlights a crucial lesson: Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers. It’s instead a skill that has great value today.
The real rewards are reserved not for those who are comfortable using Facebook (a shallow task, easily replicated), but instead for those who are comfortable building the innovative distributed systems that run the service (a decidedly deep task, hard to replicate). Book Notes – Deep Work is so important that we might consider it, to use the phrasing of business writer Eric Barker, “the superpower of the 21st century.”
I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.
A deep life is a good life.
“Our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind.”
This reality is not, however, universally grim. As Brynjolfsson and McAfee emphasize, this Great Restructuring is not driving down all jobs but is instead dividing them. Though an increasing number of people will lose in this new economy as their skill becomes automatable or easily outsourced, there are others who will not only survive, but thrive—becoming more valued (and therefore more rewarded) than before.
This same trend holds for the growing number of fields where technology makes productive remote work possible—consulting, marketing, writing, design, and so on. Once the talent market is made universally accessible, those at the peak of the market thrive while the rest suffer.
There’s a premium to being the best. Therefore, if you’re in a marketplace where the consumer has access to all performers, and everyone’s value is clear, the consumer will choose the very best. Even if the talent advantage of the best is small compared to the next rung down on the skill ladder, the superstars still win the bulk of the market.
In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.
Note: You will do well if you have access to capital. Personal finance
Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy The ability to quickly master hard things. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.
If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.
Ericsson opens his seminal paper on the topic with a powerful claim: “We deny that these differences [between expert performers and normal adults] are immutable … Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”
As Ericsson emphasizes, “Diffused attention is almost antithetical to the focused attention required by deliberate practice” (emphasis mine).
As the journalist Daniel Coyle surveys in his 2009 book, The Talent Code, these scientists increasingly believe the answer includes myelin—a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated. This understanding is important because it provides a neurological foundation for why deliberate practice works. By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits—effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination. By contrast, if you’re trying to learn a complex new skill (say, SQL database management) in a state of low concentration (perhaps you also have your Facebook feed open), you’re firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually want to strengthen.
To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you.
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
An interesting explanation comes from Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota. In a 2009 paper, titled, intriguingly, “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?,” Leroy introduced an effect she called attention residue. In the introduction to this paper, she noted that other researchers have studied the effect of multitasking—trying to accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously—on performance, but that in the modern knowledge work office, once you got to a high enough level, it was more common to find people working on multiple projects sequentially: “Going from one meeting to the next, starting to work on one project and soon after having to transition to another is just part of life in organizations,” Leroy explains. The problem this research identifies with this work strategy is that when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while. Leroy studied the effect of this attention residue on performance by forcing task switches in the laboratory. In one such experiment, for example, she started her subjects working on a set of word puzzles. In one of the trials, she would interrupt them and tell them that they needed to move on to a new and challenging task, in this case, reading résumés and making hypothetical hiring decisions. In other trials, she let the subjects finish the puzzles before giving them the next task. In between puzzling and hiring, she would deploy a quick lexical decision game to quantify the amount of residue left from the first task.* The results from this and her similar experiments were clear: “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task,” and the more intense the residue, the worse the performance. The concept of attention residue helps explain why the intensity formula is true and therefore helps explain Grant’s productivity. By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, Grant minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from his other obligations, allowing him to maximize performance on this one task.
Even if you’re unable to fully replicate Grant’s extreme isolation (we’ll tackle different strategies for scheduling depth in Part 2), the attention residue concept is still telling because it implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so. Indeed, many justify this behavior as better than the old practice of leaving an inbox open on the screen at all times (a straw-man habit that few follow anymore). But Leroy teaches us that this is not in fact much of an improvement. That quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.
work. If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally. Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.
Unless you have strong evidence that distraction is important for your specific profession, you’re best served, for the reasons argued earlier in this chapter, by giving serious consideration to depth.
Similar issues apply to the rise of real-time messaging. E-mail inboxes, in theory, can distract you only when you choose to open them, whereas instant messenger systems are meant to be always active—magnifying the impact of interruption. Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, is an expert on the science of attention fragmentation. In a well-cited study, Mark and her co-authors observed knowledge workers in real offices and found that an interruption, even if short, delays the total time required to complete a task by a significant fraction. “This was reported by subjects as being very detrimental,” she summarized with typical academic understatement.
The respected New Yorker staff writer George Packer captured this fear well in an essay about why he does not tweet: “Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.”
The Metric Black Hole In the fall of 2012, Tom Cochran, the chief technology officer of Atlantic Media, became alarmed at how much time he seemed to spend on e-mail. So like any good techie, he decided to quantify this unease. Observing his own behavior, he measured that in a single week he received 511 e-mail messages and sent 284. This averaged to around 160 e-mails per day over a five-day workweek. Calculating further, Cochran noted that even if he managed to spend only thirty seconds per message on average, this still added up to almost an hour and a half per day dedicated to moving information around like a human network router. This seemed like a lot of time spent on something that wasn’t a primary piece of his job description. As Cochran recalls in a blog post he wrote about his experiment for the Harvard Business Review, these simple statistics got him thinking about the rest of his company. Just how much time were employees of Atlantic Media spending moving around information instead of focusing on the specialized tasks they were hired to perform? Determined to answer this question, Cochran gathered company-wide statistics on e-mails sent per day and the average number of words per e-mail. He then combined these numbers with the employees’ average typing speed, reading speed, and salary. The result: He discovered that Atlantic Media was spending well over a million dollars a year to pay people to process e-mails, with every message sent or received tapping the company for around ninety-five cents of labor costs. “A ‘free and frictionless’ method of communication,” Cochran summarized, “had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet.”
The reality of this metric black hole is the backdrop for the arguments that follow in this chapter. In these upcoming sections, I’ll describe various mind-sets and biases that have pushed business away from deep work and toward more distracting alternatives. None of these behaviors would survive long if it was clear that they were hurting the bottom line, but the metric black hole prevents this clarity and allows the shift toward distraction we increasingly encounter in the professional world.
In researching this topic, Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow found that the professionals she surveyed spent around twenty to twenty-five hours a week outside the office monitoring e-mail—believing it important to answer any e-mail (internal or external) within an hour of its arrival.
The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
Note: How does this work in investing? How did it work before? We don’t have any resistance now considering the availability of medium to buy anything on a click, availability of people on the Internet shouting at the top of their lungs about the next available wealth creating idea or the next multibagger stock. We take this path unconsciously as our minds are wired for immediate rewards. Who wants to wait for a few decades to create wealth when there are people to help us do it in a matter of few hours
To name another example, consider the common practice of setting up regularly occurring meetings for projects. These meetings tend to pile up and fracture schedules to the point where sustained focus during the day becomes impossible. Why do they persist? They’re easier. For many, these standing meetings become a simple (but blunt) form of personal organization. Instead of trying to manage their time and obligations themselves, they let the impending meeting each week force them to take some action on a given project and more generally provide a highly visible simulacrum of progress.
To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time … it needs a lot of concentration … if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, “no,” I tell them: I’m irresponsible.
Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.
For some, their jobs really do depend on such behavior. In 2013, for example, Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer banned employees from working at home. She made this decision after checking the server logs for the virtual private network that Yahoo employees use to remotely log in to company servers. Mayer was upset because the employees working from home didn’t sign in enough throughout the day. She was, in some sense, punishing her employees for not spending more time checking e-mail (one of the primary reasons to log in to the servers). “If you’re not visibly busy,” she signaled, “I’ll assume you’re not productive.” Viewed objectively, however, this concept is anachronistic. Knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from information is an activity that’s often at odds with busyness, not supported by it. Remember, for example, Adam Grant, the academic from our last chapter who became the youngest full professor at Wharton by repeatedly shutting himself off from the outside world to concentrate on writing. Such behavior is the opposite of being publicly busy. If Grant worked for Yahoo, Marissa Mayer might have fired him. But this deep strategy turned out to produce a massive amount of value.
A foundation for our answer can be found in a warning provided by the late communication theorist and New York University professor Neil Postman. Writing in the early 1990s, as the personal computer revolution first accelerated, Postman argued that our society was sliding into a troubling relationship with technology. We were, he noted, no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiencies against the new problems introduced. If it’s high-tech, we began to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed. He called such a culture a technopoly, and he didn’t mince words in warning against it. “Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World,” he argued in his 1993 book on the topic. “It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.”
Note: Just because a product has had a recent success does not mean it will be successful in the longer term. Most times,vexatious has worked for decades will continue to work in the future
In Morozov’s critique, we’ve made “the Internet” synonymous with the revolutionary future of business and government. To make your company more like “the Internet” is to be with the times, and to ignore these trends is to be the proverbial buggy-whip maker in an automotive age. We no longer see Internet tools as products released by for-profit companies, funded by investors hoping to make a return, and run by twentysomethings who are often making things up as they go along. We’re instead quick to idolize these digital doodads as a signifier of progress and a harbinger of a (dare I say, brave) new world.
Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech.
Note: How has instant gratification changed in the last 2000 years? Does the media to fall in the gratification trap often? Does the distraction cause more harm in the longer term than it causes more benefits
The myopia of your peers and employers uncovers a great personal advantage. Assuming the trends outlined here continue, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable. Having just established that there’s nothing fundamentally flawed about deep work and nothing fundamentally necessary about the distracting behaviors that displace it, you can therefore continue with confidence with the ultimate goal of this book: to systematically develop your personal ability to go deep—and by doing so, reap great rewards.
“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy,” explains Matthew Crawford. And we believe him.
**Depth-destroying behaviors such as immediate e-mail responses and an active Social Media presence are lauded, while avoidance of these trends generates suspicion**. No one would fault Ric Furrer for not using Facebook, but if a knowledge worker makes this same decision, then he’s labeled an eccentric (as I’ve learned from personal experience).
that a deep life is not just economically lucrative, but also a life well lived.
Gallagher set out to better understand the role that attention—that is, what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore—plays in defining the quality of our life.
Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.
This concept upends the way most people think about their subjective experience of life. We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes, such as whether or not you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant – even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same. As Gallagher summarizes “Who you are, what you think, feel and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on”
After a bad or disrupting occurrence in your life, Fredrickson’s research shows, what you choose to focus on exerts significant leverage on your attitude going forward. These simple choices can provide a “reset button” to your emotions. She provides the example of a couple fighting over inequitable splitting of household chores. “Rather than continuing to focus on your partner’s selfishness and sloth,” she suggests, “you might focus on the fact that at least a festering conflict has been aired, which is the first step toward a solution to the problem, and to your improved mood.” This seems like a simple exhortation to look on the bright side, but Fredrickson found that skillful use of these emotional “leverage points” can generate a significantly more positive outcome after negative events.
Scientists can watch this effect in action all the way down to the neurological level. Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen, to name one such example, used an fMRI scanner to study the brain behavior of subjects presented with both positive and negative imagery. She found that for young people, their amygdala (a center of emotion) fired with activity at both types of imagery. When she instead scanned the elderly, the amygdala fired only for the positive images. Carstensen hypothesizes that the elderly subjects had trained the prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala in the presence of negative stimuli. These elderly subjects were not happier because their life circumstances were better than those of the young subjects; they were instead happier because they had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive. By skillfully managing their attention, they improved their without changing anything concrete about it.
Five years of reporting on attention have confirmed some home truths. Among them is the notion that the idle mind is the devils workshop. when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.” Gallagher
“I’ll choose my targets with care … then give them my rapt attention. In short, I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” We’d be wise to follow her lead.
Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.
Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.
Decades of research stemming from Csikszentmihalyi’s original ESM experiments validate that the act of going deep orders the consciousness in a way that makes life worthwhile.
To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
The Pragmatic Programmer, a well-regarded book in the computer programming field, makes this connection between code and old-style craftsmanship more directly by quoting the medieval quarry worker’s creed in its preface: “We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.” The book then elaborates that computer programmers must see their work in the same way: Within the overall structure of a project there is always room for individuality and craftsmanship … One hundred years from now, our engineering may seem as archaic as the techniques used by medieval cathedral builders seem to today’s civil engineers, while our craftsmanship will still be honored.
Our obsession with the advice to “follow your passion” (the subject of my last book), for example, is motivated by the (flawed) idea that what matters most for your career satisfaction is the specifics of the job you choose. In this way of thinking, there are some rarified jobs that can be a source of satisfaction—perhaps working in a nonprofit or starting a software company—while all others are soulless and bland. The philosophy of Dreyfus and Kelly frees us from such traps. The craftsmen they cite don’t have rarified jobs. Throughout most of human history, to be a blacksmith or a wheelwright wasn’t glamorous. But this doesn’t matter, as the specifics of the work are irrelevant. The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship—not the outcomes of their work. Put another way, a wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be. The same applies to knowledge work. You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.
2012 study by Wilhelm Hoffman and Roy Baumeister outfitted people with beepers that activated at random intervals. When the beepers were sounded, they were asked to pause for a moment and reflect on their desires and record it. After a week, the researchers had gathered more than 7,500 samples. Here’s the short version of what they found: People fight desires all day long. As Baumeister summarized in his subsequent book, Willpower (co-authored with the science writer John Tierney): “Desire turned out to be the norm, not the exception.” The five most common desires these subjects fought include, not surprisingly, eating, sleeping, and sex. But the top five list also included desires for “taking a break from [hard] work … checking e-mail and social networking sites, surfing the web, listening to music, or watching television.” The lure of the Internet and television proved especially strong: The subjects succeeded in resisting these particularly addictive distractions only around half the time.
You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.
This brings me to the motivating idea behind the strategies that follow: The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
With this in mind, the six strategies that follow can be understood as an arsenal of routines and rituals designed with the science of limited willpower in mind to maximize the amount of deep work you consistently accomplish in your schedule. Among other things, they’ll ask you to commit to a particular pattern for scheduling this work and develop rituals to sharpen your concentration before starting each session. Some of these strategies will deploy simple heuristics to hijack your brain’s motivation center while others are designed to recharge your willpower reserves at the fastest possible rate.
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.
Knuth deploys what I call the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling. This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. Practitioners of the monastic philosophy tend to have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that they’re pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well. It’s this clarity that helps them eliminate the thicket of shallow concerns that tend to trip up those whose value proposition in the working world is more varied.
To further justify this policy, Neal Stephenson wrote an essay titled “Why I Am a Bad Correspondent.” At the core of his explanation for his inaccessibility is the following decision: The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.
Neal Stephenson sees two mutually exclusive options: He can write good novels at a regular rate, or he can answer a lot of individual e-mails and attend conferences, and as a result produce lower-quality novels at a slower rate. He chose the former option, and this choice requires him to avoid as much as possible any source of shallow work in his professional life. (This issue is so important to Stephenson that he went on to explore its implications—positive and negative—in his 2008 science fiction epic, Anathem, which considers a world where an intellectual elite live in monastic orders, isolated from the distracted masses and technology, thinking deep thoughts.)
Jung’s approach is what I call the bimodal philosophy of deep work. This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else. During the deep time, the bimodal worker will act monastically—seeking intense and uninterrupted concentration. During the shallow time, such focus is not prioritized. This division of time between deep and open can happen on multiple scales. For example, on the scale of a week, you might dedicate a four-day weekend to depth and the rest to open time. Similarly, on the scale of a year, you might dedicate one season to contain most of your deep stretches (as many academics do over the summer or while on sabbatical).
At the same time, the bimodal philosophy is typically deployed by people who cannot succeed in the absence of substantial commitments to non-deep pursuits. Jung, for example, needed his clinical practice to pay the bills and the Zurich coffeehouse scene to stimulate his thinking. The approach of shifting between two modes provides a way to serve both needs well.
Note: This approach could be used to pursue your passion while doing a job which pays your bills
To provide a more modern example of the bimodal philosophy in action, we can once again consider Adam Grant, the Wharton Business School professor whose thoughtfulness about work habits was first introduced in Part 1. As you might recall, Grant’s schedule during his rapid rise through the professorship ranks at Wharton provides a nice bimodality case study. On the scale of the academic year, he stacked his courses into one semester, so that he could focus the other on deep work. During these deep semesters he then applied the bimodal approach on the weekly scale. He would, perhaps once or twice a month, take a period of two to four days to become completely monastic. He would shut his door, put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail, and work on his research without interruption. Outside of these deep sessions, Grant remained famously open and accessible. In some sense, he had to be: His 2013 bestseller, Give and Take, promotes the practice of giving of your time and attention, without expectation of something in return, as a key strategy in professional advancement.
In the early days of the Seinfeld show, Jerry Seinfeld remained a working comic with a busy tour schedule. It was during this period that a writer and comic named Brad Isaac, who was working open mic nights at the time, ran into Seinfeld at a club waiting to go on stage. As Isaac later explained in a now classic Lifehacker article: “I saw my chance. I had to ask Seinfeld if he had any tips for a young comic. What he told me was something that would benefit me for a lifetime.” Seinfeld began his advice to Isaac with some common sense, noting “the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes,” and then explaining that the way to create better jokes was to write every day. Seinfeld continued by describing a specific technique he used to help maintain this discipline. He keeps a calendar on his wall. Every day that he writes jokes he crosses out the date on the calendar with a big red X. “After a few days you’ll have a chain,” Seinfeld said. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
For our purposes, it provides a specific example of a general approach to integrating depth into your life: the rhythmic philosophy. This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep. The chain method is a good example of the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling because it combines a simple scheduling heuristic (do the work every day), with an easy way to remind yourself to do the work: the big red Xs on the calendar.
It was the glacial Writing progress during this year that drove Chappell to embrace the rhythmic method. He made a rule that he would wake up and start working by five thirty every morning. He would then work until seven thirty, make breakfast, and go to work already done with his dissertation obligations for the day. Pleased by early progress, he soon pushed his wake-up time to four forty-five to squeeze out even more morning depth. When I interviewed Chappell for this book, he described his rhythmic approach to deep work scheduling as “both astronomically productive and guilt free.” His routine was producing four to five pages of academic prose per day and was capable of generating drafts of thesis chapters at a rate of one chapter every two or three weeks: a phenomenal output for someone who also worked a nine-to-five job. “Who’s to say that I can’t be that prolific?” he concluded. “Why not me?”
By this point, he was undoubtedly on the radar of the thinking class. Christopher Hitchens, for example, Writing in the London Review of Books during this period, called him “one of the best magazine journalists in America.” The time was right for Isaacson to write a Big Important Book—a necessary step on the ladder of journalistic achievement. So Isaacson chose a complicated topic, an intertwined narrative biography of six figures who played an important role in early Cold War policy, and teamed up with a fellow young Time editor, Evan Thomas, to produce an appropriately weighty book: an 864-page epic titled The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. This book, which was published in 1986, was well received by the right people. The New York Times called it “a richly textured account,” while the San Francisco Chronicle exulted that the two young writers had “fashioned a Cold War Plutarch.” Less than a decade later, Isaacson reached the apex of his journalism career when he was appointed editor of Time (which he then followed with a second act as the CEO of a think tank and an incredibly popular biographer of figures including Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs).
There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where … but I hope my work makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.
In a New York Times column on the topic, David Brooks summarizes this reality more bluntly: “[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”
These questions will help you get started in crafting your deep work ritual. But keep in mind that finding a ritual that sticks might require experimentation, so be willing to work at it. I assure you that the effort’s worth it: Once you’ve evolved something that feels right, the impact can be significant. To work deeply is a big deal and should not be an activity undertaken lightly. Surrounding such efforts with a complicated (and perhaps, to the outside world, quite strange) ritual accepts this reality—providing your mind with the structure and commitment it needs to slip into the state of focus where you can begin to create things that matter.
Rowling’s decision to check into a luxurious hotel suite near Edinburgh Castle is an example of a curious but effective strategy in the world of deep work: the grand gesture. The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.
When you study the habits of other well-known deep workers, the grand gesture strategy comes up often. Bill Gates, for example, was famous during his time as Microsoft CEO for taking Think Weeks during which he would leave behind his normal work and family obligations to retreat to a cabin with a stack of papers and books. His goal was to think deeply, without distraction, about the big issues relevant to his company. It was during one of these weeks, for example, that he famously came to the conclusion that the Internet was going to be a major force in the industry. There was nothing physically stopping Gates from thinking deeply in his office in Microsoft’s Seattle headquarters, but the novelty of his weeklong retreat helped him achieve the desired levels of concentration.
To conclude, let’s return one last time to my own example. As I noted earlier, when I first embraced 4DX I adopted the goal of publishing five peer-reviewed papers in the 2013–2014 academic year. This was an ambitious goal given that I had published only four papers the previous year (a feat I was proud of). Throughout this 4DX experiment, the clarity of this goal, coupled with the simple but unavoidable feedback of my lead measure scoreboard, pushed me to a level of depth I hadn’t before achieved. In retrospect, it was not so much the intensity of my deep work periods that increased, but instead their regularity. Whereas I used to cluster my deep thinking near paper submission deadlines, the 4DX habit kept my mind concentrated throughout the full year. It ended up, I must admit, an exhausting year (especially given that I was writing this book at the same time). But it also turned out to produce a convincing endorsement for the 4DX framework: By the summer of 2014, I had nine full papers accepted for publication, more than doubling what I had managed to accomplish in any preceding year.
I want to suggest a more applicable but still quite powerful Heuristics : At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free to encounter Kreider’s buttercups, stink bugs, and stars.
The 2008 study argues that walking on busy city streets requires you to use directed attention, as you must navigate complicated tasks like figuring out when to cross a street to not get run over, or when to maneuver around the slow group of tourists blocking the sidewalk. After just fifty minutes of this focused navigation, the subject’s store of directed attention was low. Walking through nature, by contrast, exposes you to what lead author Marc Berman calls “inherently fascinating stimuli,” using sunsets as an example. These stimuli “invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish.”
Marlin would wake up everyday and learn ancient texts through deep study. Marlin began to notice positive changes in his own ability to think deeply. “I’ve recently been making more highly creative insights in my business life,” he told me. “I’m convinced it’s related to this daily mental practice. This consistent strain has built my mental muscle over years and years. This was not the goal when I started, but it is the effect.”
The creative insights that Adam Marlin now experiences in his professional life, in other words, have little to do with a onetime decision to think deeper, and much to do with a commitment to training this ability early every morning.
So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand … they’re pretty much mental wrecks.
The people we talk with continually said, “look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused.” And unfortunately, they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task. [emphasis mine]
To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.
Rule 2 will help you significantly improve this limit. The strategies that follow are motivated by the key idea that getting the most out of your deep work habit requires training, and as clarified previously, this training must address two goals: improving your ability to concentrate intensely and overcoming your desire for distraction.
Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it.
Before diving into the details, let’s start by considering a popular suggestion for distraction addiction that doesn’t quite solve our problem: the Internet Sabbath (sometimes called a digital detox). In its basic form, this ritual asks you to put aside regular time—typically, one day a week—where you refrain from network technology. In the same way that the Sabbath in the Hebrew Bible induces a period of quiet and reflection well suited to appreciate God and his works, the Internet Sabbath is meant to remind you of what you miss when you are glued to a screen.
“Do what Thoreau did, which is learn to have a little disconnectedness within the connected world—don’t run away.”
With these rough categorizations established, the strategy works as follows: Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. I suggest that you keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed—no matter how tempting.
Point 3: Scheduling Internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training.
Roosevelt would begin his scheduling by considering the eight hours from eight thirty a.m. to four thirty p.m. He would then remove the time spent in recitation and classes, his athletic training (which was once a day), and lunch. The fragments that remained were then considered time dedicated exclusively to studying. As noted, these fragments didn’t usually add up to a large number of total hours, but he would get the most out of them by working only on schoolwork during these periods, and doing so with a blistering intensity. “The amount of time he spent at his desk was comparatively small,” explained Morris, “but his concentration was so intense, and his reading so rapid, that he could afford more time off [from schoolwork] than most.”
Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable.
The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
The next step in this strategy is to consider the network tools you currently use. For each such tool, go through the key activities you identified and ask whether the use of the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity. Now comes the important decision: Keep using this tool only if you concluded that it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts.
The Law of the Vital Few*: In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes.
Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service? Did people care that I wasn’t using this service? If your answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service permanently. If your answer was a clear “yes,” then return to using the service. If your answers are qualified or ambiguous, it’s up to you whether you return to the service, though I would encourage you to lean toward quitting. (You can always rejoin later.)
As of this writing, for example, the average number of followers for a Twitter user is 208. When you know that more than two hundred people volunteered to hear what you have to say, it’s easy to begin to believe that your activities on these services are important. Speaking from experience as someone who makes a living trying to sell my ideas to people: This is a powerfully addictive feeling! It has instead replaced this timeless capitalist exchange with a shallow collectivist alternative: I’ll pay attention to what you say if you pay attention to what I say—regardless of its value. You “like” my status update and I’ll “like” yours. This agreement gives everyone a simulacrum of importance without requiring much effort in return.
“Take the case of a Londoner who works in an office, whose office hours are from ten to six, and who spends fifty minutes morning and night in travelling between his house door and his office door,” Bennett writes in his 1910 self-help classic, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. This hypothetical London salaryman, he notes, has a little more than sixteen hours left in the day beyond these work-related hours. To Bennett, this is a lot of time, but most people in this situation tragically don’t realize its potential. The “great and profound mistake which my typical man makes in regard to his day,” he elaborates, is that even though he doesn’t particularly enjoy his work (seeing it as something to “get through”), “he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as ‘the day,’ to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.” This is an attitude that Bennett condemns as “utterly illogical and unhealthy.” What’s the alternative to this state of affairs? Bennett suggests that his typical man see his sixteen free hours as a “day within a day,” explaining, “during those sixteen hours he is free; he is not a wage-earner; he is not preoccupied with monetary cares; he is just as good as a man with a private income.” Accordingly, the typical man should instead use this time as an aristocrat would: to perform rigorous self-improvement—a task that, according to Bennett, involves, primarily, reading great literature and poetry.
Fortunately, Arnold Bennett identified the solution to this problem a hundred years earlier: Put more thought into your leisure time. In other words, this strategy suggests that when it comes to your relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead dedicate some advance thinking to the question of how you want to spend your “day within a day.” Addictive websites of the type mentioned previously thrive in a vacuum: If you haven’t given yourself something to do in a given moment, they’ll always beckon as an appealing option. If you instead fill this free time with something of more quality, their grip on your attention will loosen.
What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.
Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that’s a good thing. They don’t waste it on things that just don’t matter. When you have fewer hours you usually spend them more wisely.
As the author Tim Ferriss once wrote: “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.” It should comfort you to realize that, as the professors at MIT discovered, people are quick to adjust their expectations to the specifics of your communication habits.