No one else is allowed in there except with my permission
Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.
Jung built a tower out of stone in the woods to promote deep work in his professional life—a task that required time, energy, and money. It also took him away from more immediate pursuits.
Although he had many patients who relied on him, Jung was not shy about taking time off.” Deep work, though a burden to prioritize, was crucial for his goal of changing the world.
If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.
This state of fragmented attention cannot accommodate deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively 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.
Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.
Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.
Network tools are distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused.
A massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.
It didn’t take him long to realize that these ambitions would be thwarted so long as his main professional skills could be captured in an Excel macro.
He needed to increase his value to the world.
Learning something complex like computer programming requires intense uninterrupted concentration on cognitively demanding concepts.
I was always getting on the Internet and checking my e-mail; I couldn’t stop myself; it was a compulsion.
The business plan project—a chance to distinguish himself early in his career—fell to the wayside.
These periods free from electronic distraction were hard at first, but Benn gave himself no other option: He had to learn this material, and he made sure there was nothing in that room to distract him.
Eventually getting to a point where he was regularly clocking five or more disconnected hours per day in the room, focused without distraction on learning this hard new skill.
On good days, I can get in four hours of focus before the first meeting.
Then maybe another three to four hours in the afternoon. And I do mean ‘focus’: no e-mail, no Hacker News [a website popular among tech types], just programming.
Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers. It’s instead a skill that has great value today.
To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work.
If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward.
If what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.
To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.
Deep work is not, in other words, an old-fashioned skill falling into irrelevance. It’s instead a crucial ability for anyone looking to move ahead in a globally competitive information economy that tends to chew up and spit out those who aren’t earning their keep
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.”
Indeed, if we had hard metrics relating the impact of these behaviors on the bottom line, our current technopoly would likely crumble. But the metric black hole prevents such clarity and allows us instead to elevate all things Internet into Morozov’s feared “uber-ideology.” In such a culture, we should not be surprised that deep work struggles to compete against the shiny thrum of tweets, likes, tagged photos, walls, posts, and all the other behaviors that we’re now taught are necessary for no other reason than that they exist.
“To do it right, it is the most complicated thing I know how to make,” Furrer explains. “And it’s that challenge that drives me. I don’t need a sword. But I have to make them.”
Ric Furrer is a master craftsman whose work requires him to spend most of his day in a state of depth—even a small slip in concentration can ruin dozens of hours of effort. He’s also someone who clearly finds great meaning in his profession. This connection between deep work and a good life is familiar and widely accepted when considering the world of craftsmen. “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.
As elaborated in the last chapter, we live in an era where anything Internet related is understood by default to be innovative and necessary. Depth-destroying behaviors such as immediate e-mail responses and an active social media presence are lauded, while avoidance of these trends generates suspicion.
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. - Winifred Callagher
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.
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 world without changing anything concrete about it.
We can now step back and use Gallagher’s grand theory to better understand the role of deep work in cultivating a good life. This theory tells us that your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors. There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work—whether you’re Ric Furrer smithing a sword or a computer programmer optimizing an algorithm. Gallagher’s theory, therefore, predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.
There is, however, a hidden but equally important benefit to cultivating rapt attention in your workday: Such concentration hijacks your attention apparatus, preventing you from noticing the many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives. (The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whom we’ll learn more about in the next section, explicitly identifies this advantage when he emphasizes the advantage of cultivating “concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.”)
Many knowledge workers spend most of their working day interacting with these types of shallow concerns. Even when they’re required to complete something more involved, the habit of frequently checking inboxes ensures that these issues remain at the forefront of their attention.
A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun.
Among many breakthroughs, Csikszentmihalyi’s work with ESM helped validate a theory he had been developing over the preceding decade: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Csikszentmihalyi calls this mental state flow (a term he popularized with a 1990 book of the same title). At the time, this finding pushed back against conventional wisdom. Most people assumed (and still do) that relaxation makes them happy. We want to work less and spend more time in the hammock. But the results from Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM studies reveal that most people have this wrong: 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. When measured empirically, people were happier at work and less happy relaxing than they suspected. And as the ESM studies confirmed, the more such flow experiences[…]
Gallagher’s writing emphasizes that the content of what we focus on matters. If we give rapt attention to important things, and therefore also ignore shallow negative things, we’ll experience our working life as more important and positive. Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, by contrast, is mostly agnostic to the content of our attention. Though he would likely agree with the research cited by Gallagher, his theory notes that the feeling of going deep is in itself very rewarding. Our minds like this challenge, regardless of the subject.
To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
In 2011, Dreyfus and Kelly published a book, All Things Shining, which explores how notions of sacredness and meaning have evolved throughout the history of human culture. They set out to reconstruct this history because they’re worried about its endpoint in our current era. “The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things,” Dreyfus and Kelly explain early in the book. “The shining things now seem far away.” What happened between then and now? The short answer, the authors argue, is Descartes. From Descartes’s skepticism came the radical belief that the individual seeking certainty trumped a God or king bestowing truth. The resulting Enlightenment, of course, led to the concept of human rights and freed many from oppression. But as Dreyfus and Kelly emphasize, for all its good in the political arena, in the domain of the metaphysical this thinking stripped the world of the order and sacredness essential to creating meaning. In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism. “The Enlightenment’s metaphysical embrace of the autonomous individual leads not just to a boring life[…]
Craftsmanship, Dreyfus and Kelly argue in their book’s conclusion, provides a key to reopening a sense of sacredness in a responsible manner.
In this appreciation for the “subtle virtues” of his medium, they note, the craftsman has stumbled onto something crucial in a post-Enlightenment world: a source of meaning sited outside the individual.
The task of a craftsman, they conclude, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.” This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning. At the same time, this meaning seems safer than the sources cited in previous eras. The wheelwright, the authors imply, cannot easily use the inherent quality of a piece of pine to justify a despotic monarchy.
Returning to the question of professional satisfaction, Dreyfus and Kelly’s interpretation of craftsmanship as a path to meaning provides a nuanced understanding of why the work of those like Ric Furrer resonates with so many of us. The look of satisfaction on Furrer’s face as he works to extract artistry from crude metals, these philosophers would argue, is a look expressing appreciation for something elusive and valuable in modernity: a glimpse of the sacred.
Any pursuit—be it physical or cognitive—that supports high levels of skill can also generate a sense of sacredness.
A similar potential for craftsmanship can be found in most skilled jobs in the information economy. Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.
You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.
The purpose of the deep work chamber is to allow for total focus and uninterrupted work flow,” Dewane explains. He imagines a process in which you spend ninety minutes inside, take a ninety-minute break, and repeat two or three times—at which point your brain will have achieved its limit of concentration for the day.
In an ideal world—one in which the true value of deep work is accepted and celebrated—we’d all have access to something like the Eudaimonia Machine. Perhaps not David Dewane’s exact design, but, more generally speaking, a work environment (and culture) designed to help us extract as much value as possible from our brains.
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.
You must be careful to choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances, as a mismatch here can derail your deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify.
I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. 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.
If you visit Stephenson’s author website, you’ll notice a lack of e-mail or mailing address. We can gain insight into this omission from a pair of essays that Stephenson posted on his early website (hosted on The Well) back in the early 2000s, and which have been preserved by the Internet Archive. In one such essay, archived in 2003, Stephenson summarizes his communication policy as follows: Persons who wish to interfere with my concentration are politely requested not to do so, and warned that I don’t answer e-mail… lest [my communication policy’s] key message get lost in the verbiage, I will put it here succinctly: All of my time and attention are spoken for—several times over. Please do not ask for them. To further justify this policy, 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[…]
The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling
Jung did not deploy a monastic approach to deep work. Donald Knuth and Neal Stephenson, our examples from earlier, attempted to completely eliminate distraction and shallowness from their professional lives. Jung, by contrast, sought this elimination only during the periods he spent at his retreat.
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).
The bimodal philosophy believes that deep work can produce extreme productivity, but only if the subject dedicates enough time to such endeavors to reach maximum cognitive intensity—the state in which real breakthroughs occur. This is why the minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy tends to be at least one full day. To put aside a few hours in the morning, for example, is too short to count as a deep work stretch for an adherent of this approach.
The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling 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[…]
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.
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?”
What interests me about Isaacson, however, is not what he accomplished with his first book but how he wrote it. In uncovering this story, I must draw from a fortunate personal connection. As it turns out, in the years leading up to the publication of The Wise Men, my uncle John Paul Newport, who was also a journalist in New York at the time, shared a summer beach rental with Isaacson. To this day, my uncle remembers Isaacson’s impressive work habits: It was always amazing… he could retreat up to the bedroom for a while, when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book… he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour, we’d hear the typewriter pounding, then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us… the work never seemed to faze him, he just happily went up to work when he had the spare time.
Isaacson was methodic: Any time he could find some free time, he would switch into a deep work mode and hammer away at his book. This is how, it turns out, one can write a nine-hundred-page book on the side while spending the bulk of one’s day becoming one of the country’s best magazine writers.
This type of conviction is typically built on a foundation of existing professional accomplishment. Isaacson, for example, likely had an easier time switching to writing mode than, say, a first-time novelist, because Isaacson had worked himself up to become a respected writer by this point. He knew he had the capacity to write an epic biography and understood it to be a key task in his professional advancement. This confidence goes a long way in motivating hard efforts.
I should admit that I’m not pure in my application of the journalist philosophy. I don’t, for example, make all my deep work decisions on a moment-to-moment basis. I instead tend to map out when I’ll work deeply during each week at the beginning of the week, and then refine these decisions, as needed, at the beginning of each day (see Rule #4 for more details on my scheduling routines). By reducing the need to make decisions about deep work moment by moment, I can preserve more mental energy for the deep thinking itself.
Charles Darwin had a similarly strict structure for his working life during the period when he was perfecting On the Origin of Species. As his son Francis later remembered, he would rise promptly at seven to take a short walk. He would then eat breakfast alone and retire to his study from eight to nine thirty. The next hour was dedicated to reading his letters from the day before, after which he would return to his study from ten thirty until noon. After this session, he would mull over challenging ideas while walking on a proscribed route that started at his greenhouse and then circled a path on his property. He would walk until satisfied with his thinking then declare his workday done.
The journalist Mason Currey, who spent half a decade cataloging the habits of famous thinkers and writers (and from whom I learned the previous two examples), summarized this tendency toward systematization as follows: 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.”
This strategy suggests the following: To make the most out of your deep work sessions, build rituals of the same level of strictness and idiosyncrasy as the important thinkers mentioned previously. There’s a good reason for this mimicry. Great minds like Caro and Darwin didn’t deploy rituals to be weird; they did so because success in their work depended on their ability to go deep, again and again—there’s no way to win a Pulitzer Prize or conceive a grand theory without pushing your brain to its limit. Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer. If they had instead waited for inspiration to strike before settling in to serious work, their accomplishments would likely have been greatly reduced. There’s no one correct deep work ritual—the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued. But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address: • Where you’ll work and for how long. Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door[…]
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. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.
Not everyone has the freedom to spend two months in Maine, but many writers, including Dan Pink and Michael Pollan, simulate the experience year-round by building—often at significant expense and effort—writing cabins on their properties. (Pollan, for his part, even wrote a book about his experience building his cabin in the woods behind his former Connecticut home.) These outbuildings aren’t strictly necessary for these writers, who need only a laptop and a flat surface to put it on to ply their trade. But it’s not the amenities of the cabins that generate their value; it’s instead the grand gesture represented in the design and building of the cabin for the sole purpose of enabling better writing.
In all of these examples, it’s not just the change of environment or seeking of quiet that enables more depth. The dominant force is the psychology of committing so seriously to the task at hand. To put yourself in an exotic location to focus on a writing project, or to take a week off from work just to think, or to lock yourself in a hotel room until you complete an important invention: These gestures push your deep goal to a level of mental priority that helps unlock the needed mental resources. Sometimes to go deep, you must first go big.
Both intuition and a growing body of research underscore the reality that sharing a workspace with a large number of coworkers is incredibly distracting—creating an environment that thwarts attempts to think seriously.
This combination of soundproofed offices connected to large common areas yields a hub-and-spoke architecture of innovation in which both serendipitous encounter and isolated deep thinking are supported. It’s a setup that straddles a spectrum where on one extreme we find the solo thinker, isolated from inspiration but free from distraction, and on the other extreme, we find the fully collaborative thinker in an open office, flush with inspiration but struggling to support the deep thinking needed to build on it.*
Brattain and Bardeen worked together during this period in a small lab, often side by side, pushing each other toward better and more effective designs. These efforts consisted primarily of deep work—but a type of deep work we haven’t yet encountered. Brattain would concentrate intensely to engineer an experimental design that could exploit Bardeen’s latest theoretical insight; then Bardeen would concentrate intensely to make sense of what Brattain’s latest experiments revealed, trying to expand his theoretical framework to match the observations. This back-and-forth represents a collaborative form of deep work (common in academic circles) that leverages what I call the whiteboard effect. For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone. The presence of the other party waiting for your next insight—be it someone physically in the same room or collaborating with you virtually—can short-circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth.
First, distraction remains a destroyer of depth. Therefore, the hub-and-spoke model provides a crucial template. Separate your pursuit of serendipitous encounters from your efforts to think deeply and build on these inspirations. You should try to optimize each effort separately, as opposed to mixing them together into a sludge that impedes both goals. Second, even when you retreat to a spoke to think deeply, when it’s reasonable to leverage the whiteboard effect, do so. By working side by side with someone on a problem, you can push each other toward deeper levels of depth, and therefore toward the generation of more and more valuable output as compared to working alone. When it comes to deep work, in other words, consider the use of collaboration when appropriate, as it can push your results to a new level. At the same time, don’t lionize this quest for interaction and positive randomness to the point where it crowds out the unbroken concentration ultimately required to wring something useful out of the swirl of ideas all around us.
As Christensen later explained, this division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world. It’s often straightforward to identify a strategy needed to achieve a goal, but what trips up companies is figuring out how to execute the strategy once identified. I came across this story in a foreword Christensen wrote for a book titled The 4 Disciplines of Execution, which built on extensive consulting case studies to describe four “disciplines” (abbreviated, 4DX) for helping companies successfully implement high-level strategies. What struck me as I read was that this gap between what and how was relevant to my personal quest to spend more time working deeply. Just as Andy Grove had identified the importance of competing in the low-end processor market, I had identified the importance of prioritizing depth. What I needed was help figuring out how to execute this strategy.
Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important As the authors of The 4 Disciplines of Execution explain, “The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.” They elaborate that execution should be aimed at a small number of “wildly important goals.” This simplicity will help focus an organization’s energy to a sufficient intensity to ignite real results. For an individual focused on deep work, the implication is that you should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours. The general exhortation to “spend more time working deeply” doesn’t spark a lot of enthusiasm. To instead have a specific goal that would return tangible and substantial professional benefits will generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm. In a 2014 column titled “The Art of Focus,” David Brooks endorsed this approach of letting ambitious goals drive focused behavior, explaining: “If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.” For example, when I first began experimenting with 4DX, I[…]
The scientific literature has emphasized the benefits of conscious deliberation in decision making for hundreds of years… The question addressed here is whether this view is justified. We hypothesize that it is not. Lurking in this bland statement is a bold claim. The authors of this study, led by the Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, set out to prove that some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. In other words, to actively try to work through these decisions will lead to a worse outcome than loading up the relevant information and then moving on to something else while letting the subconscious layers of your mind mull things over. Dijksterhuis’s team isolated this effect by giving subjects the information needed for a complex decision regarding a car purchase. Half the subjects were told to think through the information and then make the best decision. The other half were distracted by easy puzzles after they read the information, and were then put on the spot to make a decision without having had time to consciously deliberate. The distracted group ended up performing better.
Your conscious mind, according to this theory, is like a home computer on which you can run carefully written programs that return correct answers to limited problems, whereas your unconscious mind is like Google’s vast data centers, in which statistical algorithms sift through terabytes of unstructured information, teasing out surprising useful solutions to difficult questions. The implication of this line of research is that providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges. A shutdown habit, therefore, is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you’re engaged in productive work, but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy.
Having a casual conversation with a friend, listening to music while making dinner, playing a game with your kids, going for a run—the types of activities that will fill your time in the evening if you enforce a work shutdown—play the same attention-restoring role as walking in nature.
In Ericsson’s seminal 1993 paper on the topic, titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” he dedicates a section to reviewing what the research literature reveals about an individual’s capacity for cognitively demanding work. Ericsson notes that for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours—but rarely more.
To succeed with this strategy, you must first accept the commitment that once your workday shuts down, you cannot allow even the smallest incursion of professional concerns into your field of attention. This includes, crucially, checking e-mail, as well as browsing work-related websites. In both cases, even a brief intrusion of work can generate a self-reinforcing stream of distraction that impedes the shutdown advantages described earlier for a long time to follow (most people are familiar, for example, with the experience of glancing at an alarming e-mail on a Saturday morning and then having its implications haunt your thoughts for the rest of the weekend).
Another key commitment for succeeding with this strategy is to support your commitment to shutting down with a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you succeed. In more detail, this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another. When you’re done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion (to end my own ritual, I say, “Shutdown complete”). This final step sounds cheesy, but it provides a simple cue to your mind that it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day. To make this suggestion more concrete, let me walk through the steps of my own shutdown ritual (which I first developed around the time I was writing my doctoral dissertation, and have deployed, in one form or another, ever since). The first thing I[…]
At first, this challenge might seem unresolvable. As any busy knowledge worker can attest, there are always tasks left incomplete. The idea that you can ever reach a point where all your obligations are handled is a fantasy. Fortunately, we don’t need to complete a task to get it off our minds. Riding to our rescue in this matter is our friend from earlier in the rule, the psychologist Roy Baumeister, who wrote a paper with E.J. Masicampo playfully titled “Consider It Done!” In this study, the two researchers began by replicating the Zeigarnik effect in their subjects (in this case, the researchers assigned a task and then cruelly engineered interruptions), but then found that they could significantly reduce the effect’s impact by asking the subjects, soon after the interruption, to make a plan for how they would later complete the incomplete task. To quote the paper: “Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits.”
Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they’re necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness summarized previously. From my experience, it should take a week or two before the shutdown habit sticks—that is, until your mind trusts your ritual enough to actually begin to release work-related thoughts in the evening. But once it does stick, the ritual will become a permanent fixture in your life—to the point that skipping the routine will fill you with a sense of unease.
Decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point toward the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done. Your average e-mail response time might suffer some, but you’ll more than make up for this with the sheer volume of truly important work produced during the day by your refreshed ability to dive deeper than your exhausted peers.
Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. 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.
Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.
Regardless of how you schedule your Internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use.
If you find yourself glued to a smartphone or laptop throughout your evenings and weekends, then it’s likely that your behavior outside of work is undoing many of your attempts during the workday to rewire your brain (which makes little distinction between the two settings). In this case, I would suggest that you maintain the strategy of scheduling Internet use even after the workday is over. To simplify matters, when scheduling Internet use after work, you can allow time-sensitive communication into your offline blocks (e.g., texting with a friend to agree on where you’ll meet for dinner), as well as time-sensitive information retrieval (e.g., looking up the location of the restaurant on your phone). Outside of these pragmatic exceptions, however, when in an offline block, put your phone away, ignore texts, and refrain from Internet usage. As in the workplace variation of this strategy, if the Internet plays a large and important role in your evening entertainment, that’s fine: Schedule lots of long Internet blocks. The key here isn’t to avoid or even to reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your[…]
To support this extracurricular exuberance Roosevelt had to severely restrict the time left available for what should have been his primary focus: his studies at Harvard. Morris used Roosevelt’s diary and letters from this period to estimate that the future president was spending no more than a quarter of the typical day studying. One might expect therefore that Roosevelt’s grades would crater. But they didn’t. He wasn’t the top student in his class, but he certainly didn’t struggle either: In his freshman year he earned honor grades in five out of his seven courses. The explanation for this Roosevelt paradox turns out to be his unique approach to tackling this schoolwork. 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[…]
This strategy asks you to inject the occasional dash of Rooseveltian intensity into your own workday. In particular, identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline—for example, by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible (or if it puts your job in jeopardy), then motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid seeing it as you work.
Like Roosevelt at Harvard, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.
Once you feel confident in your ability to trade concentration for completion time, increase the frequency of these Roosevelt dashes. Remember, however, to always keep your self-imposed deadlines right at the edge of feasibility. You should be able to consistently beat the buzzer (or at least be close), but to do so should require teeth-gritting concentration. The main motivation for this strategy is straightforward. Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable. Roosevelt dashes leverage artificial deadlines to help you systematically increase the level you can regularly achieve—providing, in some sense, interval training for the attention centers of your brain. An additional benefit is that these dashes are incompatible with distraction (there’s no way you can give in to distraction and still make your deadlines). Therefore, every completed dash provides a session in which you’re potentially bored, and really want to seek more novel stimuli—but you resist. As argued in the previous strategy, the more you practice resisting such urges, the easier such resistance becomes.
During the two years I spent as a postdoctoral associate at MIT, my wife and I lived in a small but charming apartment on Pinckney Street, in historic Beacon Hill. Though I lived in Boston and worked in Cambridge, the two locations were close—only a mile apart, sitting on opposite banks of the Charles River. Intent on staying fit, even during the long and dark New England winter, I decided to take advantage of this proximity by traveling between home and work, to the greatest extent possible, on foot. My routine had me walk to campus in the morning, crossing the Longfellow Bridge in all weather (the city, it turns out to my dismay, is often slow to shovel the pedestrian path after snowstorms). Around lunch, I would change into running gear and run back home on a longer path that followed the banks of the Charles, crossing at the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge. After a quick lunch and shower at home, I would typically take the subway across the river on the way back to campus (saving, perhaps, a third of a mile on the trek), and then walk home when the workday was done. In other words[…]
The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.
I suggest that you adopt a productive meditation practice in your own life. You don’t necessarily need a serious session every day, but your goal should be to participate in at least two or three such sessions in a typical week.
I’m not, however, suggesting this practice for its productivity benefits (though they’re nice). I’m instead interested in its ability to rapidly improve your ability to think deeply.
By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration.
large. “We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention,” explained Roediger in a New York Times blog post (emphasis mine). The ability in question is called “attentional control,” and it measures the subjects’ ability to maintain their focus on essential information.
As Thurston reveals in the article, it didn’t take long to adjust to a disconnected life. “By the end of that first week, the quiet rhythm of my days seemed far less strange,” he said. “I was less stressed about not knowing new things; I felt that I still existed despite not having shared documentary evidence of said existence on the Internet.”
Willpower is limited, and therefore the more enticing tools you have pulling at your attention, the harder it’ll be to maintain focus on something important. To master the art of deep work, therefore, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.
I won’t ask you, in other words, to quit the Internet altogether like Baratunde Thurston did for twenty-five days back in 2013. But I will ask you to reject the state of distracted hyperconnectedness that drove him to that drastic experiment in the first place. There is a middle ground, and if you’re interested in developing a deep work habit, you must fight to get there.
If you can find some extra benefit in using a service like Facebook—even if it’s small—then why not use it? I call this way of thinking the any-benefit mind-set, as it identifies any possible benefit as sufficient justification for using a network tool. In more detail: The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it ignores all the negatives that come along with the tools in question. These services are engineered to be addictive—robbing time and attention from activities that more directly support your professional and personal goals (such as deep work). Eventually, if you use these tools enough, you’ll arrive at the state of burned-out, hyperdistracted connectivity that plagued Baratunde Thurston and millions of others like him. It’s here that we encounter the true insidious nature of an any-benefit mind-set. The use of network tools can be harmful. If you don’t attempt to weigh pros against cons, but instead use any[…]
Throughout history, skilled laborers have applied sophistication and skepticism to their encounters with new tools and their decisions about whether to adopt them. There’s no reason why knowledge workers cannot do the same when it comes to the Internet—the fact that the skilled labor here now involves digital bits doesn’t change this reality.
I propose that if you’re a knowledge worker—especially one interested in cultivating a deep work habit—you should treat your tool selection with the same level of care as other skilled workers, such as farmers. Following is my attempt to generalize this assessment strategy. I call it the craftsman approach to tool selection, a name that emphasizes that tools are ultimately aids to the larger goals of one’s craft. 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
Lewis, for example, worries that adding more accessibility will sap his energy and reduce his ability to research and write great stories, noting: “It’s amazing how overly accessible people are. There’s a lot of communication in my life that’s not enriching, it’s impoverishing.”
While your goals will likely differ, the key is to keep the list limited to what’s most important and to keep the descriptions suitably high-level. (If your goal includes a specific target—“to reach a million dollars in sales” or “to publish a half dozen papers in a single year”—then it’s too specific for our purposes here.) When you’re done you should have a small number of goals for both the personal and professional areas of your life. Once you’ve identified these goals, list for each the two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal. These activities should be specific enough to allow you to clearly picture doing them. On the other hand, they should be general enough that they’re not tied to a onetime outcome. For example, “do better research” is too general (what does it look like to be “doing better research”?), while “finish paper on broadcast lower bounds in time for upcoming conference submission” is too specific (it’s a onetime outcome). A good activity in this context would be something like: “regularly read and understand the cutting-edge results in my field.” The next step in this strategy is to[…]
For a writer like Michael Lewis, however, marketing doesn’t likely merit its own goal when he assesses what’s important in his professional life. This follows because his reputation guarantees that he will receive massive coverage in massively influential media channels, if the book is really good. His focus, therefore, is much more productively applied to the goal of writing the best possible book than instead trying to squeeze out a few extra sales through inefficient author-driven means.
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. For example, it might be the case that 80 percent of a business’s profits come from just 20 percent of its clients, 80 percent of a nation’s wealth is held by its richest 20 percent of citizens, or 80 percent of computer software crashes come from just 20 percent of the identified bugs. There’s a formal mathematical underpinning to this phenomenon (an 80/20 split is roughly what you would expect when describing a power law distribution over impact—a type of distribution that shows up often when measuring quantities in the real world), but it’s probably most useful when applied heuristically as a reminder that, in many cases, contributions to an outcome are not evenly distributed.
Moving forward, let’s assume that this law holds for the important goals in your life. As we noted, many different activities can contribute to your achieving these goals. The law of the vital few, however, reminds us that the most important 20 percent or so of these activities provide the bulk of the benefit. Assuming that you could probably list somewhere between ten and fifteen distinct and potentially beneficial activities for each of your life goals, this law says that it’s the top two or three such activities—the number that this strategy asks you to focus on—that make most of the difference in whether or not you succeed with the goal. Even if you accept this result, however, you still might argue that you shouldn’t ignore the other 80 percent of possible beneficial activities. It’s true that these less important activities don’t contribute nearly as much to your goal as your top one or two, but they can provide some benefit, so why not keep them in the mix? As long as you don’t ignore the more important activities, it seems like it can’t hurt to also support some of the less important alternatives. This argument, however[…]
After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit: 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?
Part of what fueled social media’s rapid assent, I contend, is its ability to short-circuit this connection between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you. 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.
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.
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.
It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific actions with specific goals to fill your time. A set program of reading, à la Bennett, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is also a good option, as is, of course, exercise or the enjoyment of good (in-person) company.
Won’t a structured evening leave you exhausted—not refreshed—the next day at work? Bennett, to his credit, anticipated this complaint. As he argues, such worries misunderstand what energizes the human spirit: 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. In my experience, this analysis is spot-on. If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.
a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect.
Once you know where your activities fall on the deep-to-shallow scale, bias your time toward the former.
For most businesses, if you eliminated significant amounts of this shallowness, their bottom line would likely remain unaffected.
If our hypothetical college graduate requires many months of training to replicate a task, then this indicates that the task leverages hard-won expertise.
I, too, am incredibly cautious about my use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.”
If you work for yourself, this exercise will force you to confront the reality of how little time in your “busy” schedule you’re actually producing value.
even though we’re not capable of spending a full day in a state of blissful depth, this reality shouldn’t reduce the urgency of reducing shallow work, as the typical knowledge workday is more easily fragmented than many suspect.
In most knowledge work jobs, it can be difficult in the moment to turn down a shallow commitment that seems harmless in isolation—be it accepting an invitation to get coffee or agreeing to “jump on a call.” A commitment to fixed-schedule productivity, however, shifts you into a scarcity mind-set
I would go so far as to argue that someone following this combination of comprehensive scheduling and a willingness to adapt or modify the plan as needed will likely experience more creative insights than someone who adopts a more traditionally “spontaneous” approach where the day is left open and unstructured.
In turning down obligations, I also resist the urge to offer a consolation prize that ends up devouring almost as much of my schedule (e.g., “Sorry I can’t join your committee, but I’m happy to take a look at some of your proposals as they come together and offer my thoughts”). A clean break is best.
Process-centric e-mails might not seem natural at first. For one thing, they require that you spend more time thinking about your messages before you compose them. In the moment, this might seem like you’re spending more time on e-mail. But the important point to remember is that the extra two to three minutes you spend at this point will save you many more minutes reading and responding to unnecessary extra messages later.
By instead resetting your correspondents’ expectations to the reality that you’ll probably not respond, the experience is transformed. The inbox is now a collection of opportunities that you can glance at when you have the free time—seeking out those that make sense for you to engage. But the pile of unread messages no longer generates a sense of obligation. You could, if you wanted to, ignore them all, and nothing bad would happen. Psychologically, this can be freeing.
The second tactic that helps is the use of overflow conditional blocks. If you’re not sure how long a given activity might take, block off the expected time, then follow this with an additional block that has a split purpose. If you need more time for the preceding activity, use this additional block to keep working on it. If you finish the activity on time, however, have an alternate use already assigned for the extra block (for example, some nonurgent tasks). This allows unpredictability in your day without requiring you to keep changing your schedule on paper.
As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond. Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile. If you didn’t make a convincing case and sufficiently minimize the effort required by the professor to respond, you didn’t get a response.
A quick response will, in the short term, provide you with some minor relief because you’re bouncing the responsibility implied by the message off your court and back onto the sender’s. This relief, however, is short-lived, as this responsibility will continue to bounce back again and again, continually sapping your time and attention. I suggest, therefore, that the right strategy when faced with a question of this type is to pause a moment before replying and take the time to answer the following key prompt: What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?
Two things can (and likely will) go wrong with your schedule once the day progresses. The first is that your estimates will prove wrong. You might put aside two hours for writing a press release, for example, and in reality it takes two and a half hours. The second problem is that you’ll be interrupted and new obligations will unexpectedly appear on your plate. These events will also break your schedule. This is okay. If your schedule is disrupted, you should, at the next available moment, take a few minutes to create a revised schedule for the time that remains in the day. You can turn to a new page. You can erase and redraw blocks. Or do as I do: Cross out the blocks for the remainder of the day and create new blocks to the right of the old ones on the page (I draw my blocks skinny so I have room for several revisions). On some days, you might rewrite your schedule half a dozen times. Don’t despair if this happens. Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what[…]
Here’s my suggestion: At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook you dedicate to this purpose. Down the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you typically work. Now comes the important part: Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks. For example, you might block off nine a.m. to eleven a.m. for writing a client’s press release. To do so, actually draw a box that covers the lines corresponding to these hours, then write “press release” inside the box. Not every block need be dedicated to a work task. There might be time blocks for lunch or relaxation breaks. To keep things reasonably clean, the minimum length of a block should be thirty minutes (i.e., one line on your page). This means, for example, that instead of having a unique small box for each small task on your plate for the day—respond to boss’s e-mail, submit reimbursement form, ask Carl about report—you can batch similar things into more generic task blocks. You might find it[…]
Most nonfiction authors are easy to reach. They include an e-mail address on their author websites along with an open invitation to send them any request or suggestion that comes to mind. Many even encourage this feedback as a necessary commitment to the elusive but much-touted importance of “community building” among their readers. But here’s the thing: I don’t buy it. If you visit the contact page on my author website, there’s no general-purpose e-mail address. Instead, I list different individuals you can contact for specific purposes: my literary agent for rights requests, for example, or my speaking agent for speaking requests. If you want to reach me, I offer only a special-purpose e-mail address that comes with conditions and a lowered expectation that I’ll respond: If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting [at] calnewport.com. For the reasons stated above, I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests. I call this approach a sender filter, as I’m asking my correspondents to filter themselves before attempting to contact me.