Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.
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.
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.
To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.
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.”
The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. To summarize these observations more succinctly: If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.
The two core abilities just described depend on your ability to perform deep work. If you haven’t mastered this foundational skill, you’ll struggle to learn hard things or produce at an elite level.
This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires. Its core components are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
The first component is of particular importance to our discussion, as it emphasizes that deliberate practice cannot exist alongside distraction, and that it instead requires uninterrupted concentration. As Ericsson emphasizes, “Diffused attention is almost antithetical to the focused attention required by deliberate practice”.
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. Deep Work Helps You Produce at an Elite Level
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
If you believe this formula, then Grant’s habits make sense: By maximizing his intensity when he works, he maximizes the results he produces per unit of time spent working. 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. 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.
To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.
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 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.
Here, for example, is the late Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman explaining in an interview one of his less orthodox productivity strategies: 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.
Knowledge workers want to prove that they’re productive members of the team and are earning their keep, but they’re not entirely clear what this goal constitutes. They have no rising h-index or rack of repaired motorcycles to point to as evidence of their worth. To overcome this gap, many seem to be turning back to the last time when productivity was more universally observable: the industrial age.
To understand this claim, recall that with the rise of assembly lines came the rise of the Efficiency Movement, identified with its founder, Frederic Taylor, who would famously stand with a stopwatch monitoring the efficiency of worker movements—looking for ways to increase the speed at which they accomplished their tasks.
In Taylor’s era, productivity was unambiguous: widgets created per unit of time. It seems that in today’s business landscape, many knowledge workers, bereft of other ideas, are turning toward this old definition of productivity in trying to solidify their value in the otherwise bewildering landscape of their professional lives. (David Allen, for example, even uses the specific phrase “cranking widgets” to describe a productive work flow.) Knowledge workers, I’m arguing, are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value. Let’s give this tendency a name.
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
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.
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.
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.”
By allowing your attention to drift over the seductive landscape of the shallow, you run the risk of falling into another neurological trap identified by Gallagher: “Five years of reporting on attention have confirmed some home truths,” Gallagher reports. “[Among them is the notion that] ‘the idle mind is the devil’s workshop’… when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.” 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.
The implication of these findings is clear. In work (and especially knowledge work), to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.
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.
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.
And as the ESM studies confirmed, the more such flow experiences that occur in a given week, the higher the subject’s life satisfaction. Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.
To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
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.
“We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.”
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.
Deep work is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy at the same time that it also is becoming increasingly rare (for somewhat arbitrary reasons). This represents a classic market mismatch: If you cultivate this skill, you’ll thrive professionally.
Greek concept of eudaimonia (a state in which you’re achieving your full human potential).
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.
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.
Another person committed to monastic deep work is the acclaimed science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. 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 time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
I call this approach, in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule, the journalist philosophy. This name is a nod to the fact that journalists, like Walter Isaacson, are trained to shift into a writing mode on a moment’s notice, as is required by the deadline-driven nature of their profession.
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.
“As I was finishing Deathly Hallows there came a day where the window cleaner came, the kids were at home, the dogs were barking,” Rowling recalled in an interview. It was too much, so J.K. Rowling decided to do something extreme to shift her mind-set where it needed to be: She checked into a suite in the five-star Balmoral Hotel, located in the heart of downtown Edinburgh. “So I came to this hotel because it’s a beautiful hotel, but I didn’t intend to stay here,” she explained. “[But] the first day’s writing went well so I kept coming back… and I ended up finishing the last of the Harry Potter books [here].”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Once you’ve identified a wildly important goal, you need to measure your success. In 4DX, there are two types of metrics for this purpose: lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve. For example, if your goal is to increase customer satisfaction in your bakery, then the relevant lag measure is your customer satisfaction scores. As the 4DX authors explain, the problem with lag measures is that they come too late to change your behavior: “When you receive them, the performance that drove them is already in the past.”
Lead measures, on the other hand, “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.” In the bakery example, a good lead measure might be the number of customers who receive free samples. This is a number you can directly increase by giving out more samples. As you increase this number, your lag measures will likely eventually improve as well. In other words, lead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals.
For an individual focused on deep work, it’s easy to identify the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.
“People play differently when they’re keeping score,” the 4DX authors explain. They then elaborate that when attempting to drive your team’s engagement toward your organization’s wildly important goal, it’s important that they have a public place to record and track their lead measures. This scoreboard creates a sense of competition that drives them to focus on these measures, even when other demands vie for their attention. It also provides a reinforcing source of motivation. Once the team notices their success with a lead measure, they become invested in perpetuating this performance.
In the preceding discipline, I argued that for an individual focused on deep work, hours spent working deeply should be the lead measure. It follows, therefore, that the individual’s scoreboard should be a physical artifact in the workspace that displays the individual’s current deep work hour count.
To maximize the motivation generated by this scoreboard, whenever I reached an important milestone in an academic paper (e.g., solving a key proof), I would circle the tally mark corresponding to the hour where I finished the result.* This served two purposes. First, it allowed me to connect, at a visceral level, accumulated deep work hours and tangible results. Second, it helped calibrate my expectations for how many hours of deep work were needed per result. This reality (which was larger than I first assumed) helped spur me to squeeze more such hours into each week.
The 4DX authors elaborate that the final step to help maintain a focus on lead measures is to put in place “a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns a wildly important goal.”
During my experiments with 4DX, I used a weekly review to look over my scoreboard to celebrate good weeks, help understand what led to bad weeks, and most important, figure out how to ensure a good score for the days ahead. This led me to adjust my schedule to meet the needs of my lead measure—enabling significantly more deep work than if I had avoided such reviews altogether.
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
The science behind the value of downtime. A closer examination of this literature reveals the following three possible explanations for this value.
Consider the following excerpt from a 2006 paper that appeared in the journal Science: 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.
Observations from experiments such as this one led Dijksterhuis and his collaborators to introduce unconscious thought theory (UTT)—an attempt to understand the different roles conscious and unconscious deliberation play in decision making. At a high level, this theory proposes that for decisions that require the application of strict rules, the conscious mind must be involved.
UTT hypothesizes that this is due to the fact that these regions of your brain have more neuronal bandwidth available, allowing them to move around more information and sift through more potential solutions than your conscious centers of thinking. 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.
Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow. Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.
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.
One of the studies cited, for example, catalogs the practice habits of a group of elite violin players training at Berlin’s Universität der Künste. This study found the elite players average around three and a half hours per day in a state of deliberate practice, usually separated into two distinct periods. The less accomplished players spent less time in a state of depth.
Any work you do fit into the night, therefore, won’t be the type of high-value activities that really advance your career; your efforts will instead likely be confined to low-value shallow tasks (executed at a slow, low-energy pace). By deferring evening work, in other words, you’re not missing out on much of importance.
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.
The concept of a shutdown ritual might at first seem extreme, but there’s a good reason for it: the Zeigarnik effect. This effect, which is named for the experimental work of the early-twentieth-century psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. It tells us that if you simply stop whatever you are doing at five p.m. and declare, “I’m done with work until tomorrow,” you’ll likely struggle to keep your mind clear of professional issues, as the many obligations left unresolved in your mind will, as in Bluma Zeigarnik’s experiments, keep battling for your attention throughout the evening (a battle that they’ll often win).
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.
You cannot consider yourself as fulfilling this daily obligation unless you have stretched to the reaches of your mental capacity.”
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. This idea might sound obvious once it’s pointed out, but it represents a departure from how most people understand such matters. In my experience, it’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit like flossing—something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation. This mind-set is appealing because it implies you can transform your working life from distracted to focused overnight if you can simply muster enough motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your “mental muscle.”
There is, however, an important corollary to this idea: Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.
We can find evidence for this claim in the research of Clifford Nass, the late Stanford communications professor who was well known for his study of behavior in the digital age. Among other insights, Nass’s research revealed that constant attention switching online has a lasting negative effect on your brain. Here’s Nass summarizing these findings in a 2010 interview with NPR’s Ira Flatow:
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.
At this point Flatow asks Nass whether the chronically distracted recognize this rewiring of their brain: 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.
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.
“Twitter is crack for media addicts.”
The first step of this strategy is to identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal 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 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.
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.
After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit: 1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service? 2. 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.)
But part of what makes social media insidious is that the companies that profit from your attention have succeeded with a masterful marketing coup: convincing our culture that if you don’t use their products you might miss out.
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.
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.”
At this point you might worry that adding such structure to your relaxation will defeat the purpose of relaxing, which many believe requires complete freedom from plans or obligations. 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.
Very few people work even 8 hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday. Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek. 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.
Then there’s the issue of cognitive capacity. Deep work is exhausting because it pushes you toward the limit of your abilities. Performance psychologists have extensively studied how much such efforts can be sustained by an individual in a given day.* In their seminal paper on deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson and his collaborators survey these studies. They note that for someone new to such practice (citing, in particular, a child in the early stages of developing an expert-level skill), an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigors of such activities, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more.
The implication is that once you’ve hit your deep work limit in a given day, you’ll experience diminishing rewards if you try to cram in more. Shallow work, therefore, doesn’t become dangerous until after you add enough to begin to crowd out your bounded deep efforts for the day.
Put another way, 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.
A survey by the National Sleep Foundation revealed that Americans think they’re sleeping, on average, somewhere around seven hours a night. The American Time Use Survey, which has people actually measure their sleep, corrected this number to 8.6 hours. Another study found that people who claimed to work sixty to sixty-four hours per week were actually averaging more like forty-four hours per week, while those claiming to work more than seventy-five hours were actually working less than fifty-five.
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 you’re doing with your time going forward—even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.
If you find that schedule revisions become overwhelming in their frequency, there are a few tactics that can inject some more stability. First, you should recognize that almost definitely you’re going to underestimate at first how much time you require for most things. When people are new to this habit, they tend to use their schedule as an incarnation of wishful thinking—a best-case scenario for their day. Over time, you should make an effort to accurately (if not somewhat conservatively) predict the time tasks will require.
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.
I should address a common objection. In my experience pitching the values of daily schedules, I’ve found that many people worry that this level of planning will become burdensomely restrictive. Here, for example, is part of a comment from a reader named Joseph on a blog post I wrote on this topic: I think you far understate the role of uncertainty… I [worry about] readers applying these observations too seriously, to the point of an obsessive (and unhealthy) relationship with one’s schedule that seems to exaggerate the importance of minute-counting over getting-lost-in-activities, which if we’re talking about artists is often the only really sensible course of action.
I understand these concerns, and Joseph is certainly not the first to raise them. Fortunately, however, they’re also easily addressed. In my own daily scheduling discipline, in addition to regularly scheduling significant blocks of time for speculative thinking and discussion, I maintain a rule that if I stumble onto an important insight, then this is a perfectly valid reason to ignore the rest of my schedule for the day (with the exception, of course, of things that cannot be skipped). I can then stick with this unexpected insight until it loses steam. At this point, I’ll step back and rebuild my schedule for any time that remains in the day.
In other words, I not only allow spontaneity in my schedule; I encourage it. Joseph’s critique is driven by the mistaken idea that the goal of a schedule is to force your behavior into a rigid plan. This type of scheduling, however, isn’t about constraint—it’s instead about thoughtfulness. It’s a simple habit that forces you to continually take a moment throughout your day and ask: “What makes sense for me to do with the time that remains?” It’s the habit of asking that returns results, not your unyielding fidelity to the answer.
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. Without structure, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow—e-mail, social media, Web surfing. This type of shallow behavior, though satisfying in the moment, is not conducive to creativity. With structure, on the other hand, you can ensure that you regularly schedule blocks to grapple with a new idea, or work deeply on something challenging, or brainstorm for a fixed period—the type of commitment more likely to instigate innovation.
And because you’re willing to abandon your plan when an innovative idea arises, you’re just as well suited as the distracted creative to follow up when the muse strikes.
An advantage of scheduling your day is that you can determine how much time you’re actually spending in shallow activities. Extracting this insight from your schedules, however, can become tricky in practice, as it’s not always clear exactly how shallow you should consider a given task.
I don’t work after five thirty p.m. I call this commitment fixed-schedule productivity, as I fix the firm goal of not working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow me to satisfy this declaration. I’ve practiced fixed-schedule productivity happily for more than half a decade now, and it’s been crucial to my efforts to build a productive professional life centered on deep work.
I, too, am incredibly cautious about my use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.” It takes a lot to convince me to agree to something that yields shallow work. The key is to avoid providing enough specificity about the excuse that the requester has the opportunity to defuse it. If, for example, I turn down a time-consuming speaking invitation with the excuse that I have other trips scheduled for around the same time, I don’t provide details—which might leave the requester the ability to suggest a way to fit his or her event into my existing obligations—but instead just say, “Sounds interesting, but I can’t make it due to schedule conflicts.”
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.
In addition to carefully guarding my obligations, I’m incredibly conscientious about managing my time. Because my time is limited each day, I cannot afford to allow a large deadline to creep up on me, or a morning to be wasted on something trivial, because I didn’t take a moment to craft a smart plan. The Damoclean cap on the workday enforced by fixed-schedule productivity has a way of keeping my organization efforts sharp. Without this looming cutoff, I’d likely end up more lax in my habits.
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. This filter has significantly reduced the time I spend in my inbox.
Another benefit of a sender filter is that it resets expectations. The most crucial line in my description is the following: “I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.” This seems minor, but it makes a substantial difference in how my correspondents think about their messages to me.
The default social convention surrounding e-mail is that unless you’re famous, if someone sends you something, you owe him or her a response. For most, therefore, an inbox full of messages generates a major sense of obligation.
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.
I worried when I first began using a sender filter that it would seem pretentious—as if my time was more valuable than that of my readers—and that it would upset people. But this fear wasn’t realized. Most people easily accept the idea that you have a right to control your own incoming communication, as they would like to enjoy this same right. More important, people appreciate clarity.
In particular, interrogative e-mails like these generate an initial instinct to dash off the quickest possible response that will clear the message—temporarily—out of your inbox. 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?
Once you’ve answered this question for yourself, replace a quick response with one that takes the time to describe the process you identified, points out the current step, and emphasizes the step that comes next. I call this the process-centric approach to e-mail, and it’s designed to minimize both the number of e-mails you receive and the amount of mental clutter they generate.
Process-Centric Response to E-mail 1: “I’d love to grab coffee. Let’s meet at the Starbucks on campus. Below I listed two days next week when I’m free. For each day, I listed three times. If any of those day and time combinations work for you, let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation for the meeting. If none of those date and time combinations work, give me a call at the number below and we’ll hash out a time that works. Looking forward to it.”
The process-centric approach to e-mail can significantly mitigate the impact of this technology on your time and attention. There are two reasons for this effect. First, it reduces the number of e-mails in your inbox—sometimes significantly (something as simple as scheduling a coffee meeting can easily spiral into half a dozen or more messages over a period of many days, if you’re not careful about your replies). This, in turn, reduces the time you spend in your inbox and reduces the brainpower you must expend when you do.
Second, to steal terminology from David Allen, a good process-centric message immediately “closes the loop” with respect to the project at hand. When a project is initiated by an e-mail that you send or receive, it squats in your mental landscape—becoming something that’s “on your plate” in the sense that it has been brought to your attention and eventually needs to be addressed. This method closes this open loop as soon as it forms. By working through the whole process, adding to your task lists and calendar any relevant commitments on your part, and bringing the other party up to speed, your mind can reclaim the mental real estate the project once demanded. Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking.
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.
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.
For example, the following e-mail would likely not generate a reply with many of the famous names at the Institute: Hi professor. I’d love to stop by sometime to talk about . Are you available? Responding to this message requires too much work (“Are you available?” is too vague to be answered quickly). Also, there’s no attempt to argue that this chat is worth the professor’s time. With these critiques in mind, here’s a version of the same message that would be more likely to generate a reply: Hi professor. I’m working on a project similar to with my advisor, . Is it okay if I stop by in the last fifteen minutes of your office hours on Thursday to explain what we’re up to in more detail and see if it might complement your current project?
Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies: • It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response. • It’s not a question or proposal that interests you. • Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.
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.”
The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial [[busy]]ness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.
But if you’re willing to sidestep these comforts and fears, and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.
Winifred Gallagher saying, “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”