reading notes for Deep Work by Cal Newport
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.
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.
Neal Stephenson, the acclaimed cyberpunk author who helped form our popular conception of the Internet age, is near impossible to reach electronically—his website offers no e-mail address and features an essay about why he is purposefully bad at using social media. Here’s how he once explained the omission: “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.”
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.
In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. 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. 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.
The idea that network tools are pushing our work from the deep toward the shallow is not new. The Shallows was just the first in a series of recent books to examine the Internet’s effect on our brains and work habits. These subsequent titles include William Powers’s Hamlet’s BlackBerry, John Freeman’s The Tyranny of E-mail, and Alex Soojung-Kin Pang’s The Distraction Addiction—all of which agree, more or less, that network tools are distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused.
Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow (whether you think it’s philosophically good or bad) is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth
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.
This same trend holds for the growing number of fields where technology makes productive remote work possible—consulting, marketing, writing, design, and so on. Once the talent market is made universally accessible, those at the peak of the market thrive while the rest suffer.
The Great Restructuring, unlike the postwar period, is a particularly good time to have access to capital. To understand why, first recall that bargaining theory, a key component in standard economic thinking, argues that when money is made through the combination of capital investment and labor, the rewards are returned, roughly speaking, proportional to the input. As digital technology reduces the need for labor in many industries, the proportion of the rewards returned to those who own the intelligent machines is growing. A venture capitalist in today’s economy can fund a company like Instagram, which was eventually sold for a billion dollars, while employing only thirteen people. When else in history could such a small amount of labor be involved in such a large amount of value? With so little input from labor, the proportion of this wealth that flows back to the machine owners—in this case, the venture investors—is without precedent.
Current economic thinking, as I’ve surveyed, argues that the unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy. In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.
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.
“Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.” This advice comes from Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges, a Dominican friar and professor of moral philosophy, who during the early part of the twentieth century penned a slim but influential volume titled The Intellectual Life.
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.
Ericsson emphasizes, “Diffused attention is almost antithetical to the focused attention required by deliberate practice”
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.
These business professors do not live the cliché of the absentminded academic lost in books and occasionally stumbling on a big idea. They see productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve—a goal Adam Grant seems to have achieved.
Though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. Grant performs this batching at multiple levels.
By batching his teaching in the fall, Grant can then turn his attention fully to research in the spring and summer, and tackle this work with less distraction.
Grant also batches his attention on a smaller time scale. Within a semester dedicated to research, he alternates between periods where his door is open to students and colleagues, and periods where he isolates himself to focus completely and without distraction on a single research task. (He typically divides the writing of a scholarly paper into three discrete tasks: analyzing the data, writing a full draft, and editing the draft into something publishable.) During these periods, which can last up to three or four days, he’ll often put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response.
In particular, by consolidating his work into intense and uninterrupted pulses, he’s leveraging the following law of productivity: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
By maximizing his intensity when he works, he maximizes the results he produces per unit of time spent working.
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.
Leroy studied the effect of this attention residue on performance by forcing task switches in the laboratory.
The results from this and her similar experiments were clear: “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task,” and the more intense the residue, the worse the performance.
Grant’s productivity. By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, Grant minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from his other obligations, allowing him to maximize performance on this one task.
work is repeatedly interrupted by residue-slathering interruptions.
the attention residue concept is still telling because it implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance.
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. If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally.
What about Jack Dorsey?
a specific example of a more general query: If deep work is so important, why are there distracted people who do well?
Jack Dorsey’s success without depth is common at this elite level of management. Once we’ve stipulated this reality, we must then step back to remind ourselves that it doesn’t undermine the general value of depth. Why? Because the necessity of distraction in these executives’ work lives is highly specific to their particular jobs. A good chief executive is essentially a hard-to-automate decision engine
To ask a CEO to spend four hours thinking deeply about a single problem is a waste of what makes him or her valuable. It’s better to hire three smart subordinates to think deeply about the problem and then bring their solutions to the executive for a final decision.
Their behaviors are characteristic of their specific roles as corporate officers. This rule of specificity should be applied to similar counterexamples that come to mind while reading the rest of this book. There are, we must continually remember, certain corners of our economy where depth is not valued. In addition to executives, we can also include, for example, certain types of salesmen and lobbyists, for whom constant connection is their most valued currency.
Just because your current habits make deep work difficult doesn’t mean that this lack of depth is fundamental to doing your job well.
Deep work is not the only skill valuable in our economy, and it’s possible to do well without fostering this ability, but the niches where this is advisable are increasingly rare. Unless you have strong evidence that distraction is important for your specific profession, you’re best served, for the reasons argued earlier in this chapter, by giving serious consideration to depth.
When the novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote a piece for the Guardian calling Twitter a “coercive development” in the literary world, he was widely ridiculed as out of touch. The online magazine Slate called Franzen’s complaints a “lonely war on the Internet” and fellow novelist Jennifer Weiner wrote a response in The New Republic in which she argued, “Franzen’s a category of one, a lonely voice issuing ex cathedra edicts that can only apply to himself.”
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.
George Packer captured this fear well in an essay about why he does not tweet: “Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.” Tellingly, when he wrote that essay, Packer was busy writing his book The Unwinding
To summarize, big trends in business today actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level).
In the fall of 2012, Tom Cochran, the chief technology officer of Atlantic Media, became alarmed at how much time he seemed to spend on e-mail. So like any good techie, he decided to quantify this unease.
Cochran noted that even if he managed to spend only thirty seconds per message on average, this still added up to almost an hour and a half per day dedicated to moving information around like a human network router. This seemed like a lot of time spent on something that wasn’t a primary piece of his job description.
Cochran gathered company-wide statistics on e-mails sent per day and the average number of words per e-mail. He then combined these numbers with the employees’ average typing speed, reading speed, and salary. The result: He discovered that Atlantic Media was spending well over a million dollars a year to pay people to process e-mails, with every message sent or received tapping the company for around ninety-five cents of labor costs. “A ‘free and frictionless’ method of communication,” Cochran summarized, “had soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet.”
But the real importance of this story is the experiment itself, and in particular, its complexity. It turns out to be really difficult to answer a simple question such as: What’s the impact of our current e-mail habits on the bottom line?
Generally speaking, as knowledge work makes more complex demands of the labor force, it becomes harder to measure the value of an individual’s efforts.
Thomas Piketty made this point explicit in his study of the extreme growth of executive salaries. The enabling assumption driving his argument is that “it is objectively difficult to measure individual contributions to a firm’s output.” In the absence of such measures, irrational outcomes, such as executive salaries way out of proportion to the executive’s marginal productivity, can occur.
the metric black hole.
When it comes to distracting behaviors embraced in the workplace, we must give a position of dominance to the now ubiquitous culture of connectivity
she convinced executives at the Boston Consulting Group, a high-pressure management consulting firm with an ingrained culture of connectivity, to let her fiddle with the work habits of one of their teams. She wanted to test a simple question: Does it really help your work to be constantly connected?
“At first, the team resisted the experiment,” she recalled about one of the trials. “The partner in charge, who had been very supportive of the basic idea, was suddenly nervous about having to tell her client that each member of her team would be off one day a week.” The consultants were equally nervous and worried that they were “putting their careers in jeopardy.” But the team didn’t lose their clients and its members did not lose their jobs. Instead, the consultants found more enjoyment in their work, better communication among themselves, more learning (as we might have predicted, given the connection between depth and skill development highlighted in the last chapter), and perhaps most important, “a better product delivered to the client.”
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.
I’m picking on constant connectivity as a case study in this discussion, but it’s just one of many examples of business behaviors that are antithetical to depth, and likely reducing the bottom-line value produced by the company, that nonetheless thrive because, in the absence of metrics, most people fall back on what’s easiest.
The Principle of Least Resistance, protected from scrutiny by the metric black hole, supports work cultures that save us from the short-term discomfort of concentration and planning, at the expense of long-term satisfaction and the production of real value. By doing so, this principle drives us toward shallow work in an economy that increasingly rewards depth. It’s not, however, the only trend that leverages the metric black hole to reduce depth
Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity
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. Feynman was adamant in avoiding administrative duties because he knew they would only decrease his ability to do the one thing that mattered most in his professional life: “to do real good physics work.”
Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.
many knowledge workers. They 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.
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.
All it takes is an ideology seductive enough to convince you to discard common sense
“Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World,” he argued in his 1993 book on the topic. “It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.”
Evgeny Morozov. In his 2013 book, To Save Everything, Click Here
Morozov attempts to pull back the curtains on our technopolic obsession with “the Internet” (a term he purposefully places in scare quotes to emphasize its role as an ideology), saying: “It’s this propensity to view ‘the Internet’ as a source of wisdom and policy advice that transforms it from a fairly uninteresting set of cables and network routers into a seductive and exciting ideology—perhaps today’s uber-ideology.” In Morozov’s critique, we’ve made “the Internet” synonymous with the revolutionary future of business and government
Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech. Deep work is exiled in favor of more distracting high-tech behaviors, like the professional use of social media, not because the former is empirically inferior to the latter. Indeed, if we had hard metrics relating the impact of these behaviors on the bottom line, our current technopoly would likely crumble.
Deep work should be a priority in today’s business climate. But it’s not. I’ve just summarized various explanations for this paradox. Among them are the realities that deep work is hard and shallow work is easier, that in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving, and that our culture has developed a belief that if a behavior relates to “the Internet,” then it’s good—regardless of its impact on our ability to produce valuable things. All of these trends are enabled by the difficulty of directly measuring the value of depth or the cost of ignoring it.
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. But when we shift our attention to knowledge work this connection is muddied.
After five years of science reporting, she came away convinced that she was witness to a “grand unified theory” of the mind: 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.
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. Gallagher teaches us that this is a foolhardy way to go about your day, as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that’s dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.
Csikszentmihalyi and Larson called the approach the experience sampling method (ESM), and it provided unprecedented insight into how we actually feel about the beats of our daily lives.
“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
There is, of course, overlap between the theory of flow and the ideas of Winifred Gallagher highlighted in the last section. Both point toward the importance of depth over shallowness, but they focus on two different explanations for this importance. 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.
This, ultimately, is the lesson to come away with from our brief foray into the world of experimental psychology: To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
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.
As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. 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.
Once understood, we can connect this sacredness inherent in traditional craftsmanship to the world of knowledge work. To do so, there are two key observations we must first make. The first might be obvious but requires emphasis: There’s nothing intrinsic about the manual trades when it comes to generating this particular source of meaning. Any pursuit—be it physical or cognitive—that supports high levels of skill can also generate a sense of sacredness.
Santiago Gonzalez describing his work to an interviewer: Beautiful code is short and concise, so if you were to give that code to another programmer they would say, “oh, that’s well written code.” It’s much like as if you were writing a poem.
the Eudaimonia Machine
The machine, which takes its name from the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia (a state in which you’re achieving your full human potential), turns out to be a building. “The goal of the machine,” David explained, “is to create a setting where the users can get into a state of deep human flourishing—creating work that’s at the absolute extent of their personal abilities.” It is, in other words, a space designed for the sole purpose of enabling the deepest possible deep work.
Why do we need such involved interventions? Put another way, once you accept that deep work is valuable, isn’t it enough to just start doing more of it? Do we really need something as complicated as the Eudaimonia Machine (or its equivalent) for something as simple as remembering to concentrate more often? Unfortunately, when it comes to replacing distraction with focus, matters are not so simple. To understand why this is true let’s take a closer look at one of the main obstacles to going deep: the urge to turn your attention toward something more superficial.
l. Most people recognize that this urge can complicate efforts to concentrate on hard things, but most underestimate its regularity and strength.
Roy Baumeister, has established the following important (and at the time, unexpected) truth about willpower: You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
Wilhelm Hofmann and Roy Baumeister
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. This strategy will help you avoid this fate by presenting four different depth philosophies that I’ve seen work exceptionally well in practice.
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.
In my experience, the monastic philosophy makes many knowledge workers defensive. The clarity with which its adherents identify their value to the world, I suspect, touches a raw nerve for those whose contribution to the information economy is more complex
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. The rest of Jung’s time was spent in Zurich, where his life was anything but monastic: He ran a busy clinical practice that often had him seeing patients until late at night; he was an active participant in the Zurich coffeehouse culture; and he gave and attended many lectures in the city’s respected universities.
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 bimodal philosophy is typically deployed by people who cannot succeed in the absence of substantial commitments to non-deep pursuits
Adam Grant, the Wharton Business School professor
He would, perhaps once or twice a month, take a period of two to four days to become completely monastic. He would shut his door, put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail, and work on his research without interruption. Outside of these deep sessions, Grant remained famously open and accessible. In some sense, he had to be: His 2013 bestseller, Give and Take, promotes the practice of giving of your time and attention, without expectation of something in return, as a key strategy in professional advancement.
Those who deploy the bimodal philosophy of deep work admire the productivity of the monastics but also respect the value they receive from the shallow behaviors in their working lives. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to implementing this philosophy is that even short periods of deep work require a flexibility that many fear they lack in their current positions. If even an hour away from your inbox makes you uncomfortable, then certainly the idea of disappearing for a day or more at a time will seem impossible.
the rhythmic philosophy. This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep. The chain method is a good example of the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling because it combines a simple scheduling heuristic (do the work every day), with an easy way to remind yourself to do the work: the big red Xs on the calendar.
Another common way to implement the rhythmic philosophy is to replace the visual aid of the chain method with a set starting time that you use every day for deep work. In much the same way that maintaining visual indicators of your work progress can reduce the barrier to entry for going deep, eliminating even the simplest scheduling decisions, such as when during the day to do the work, also reduces this barrier.
The rhythmic philosophy provides an interesting contrast to the bimodal philosophy. It perhaps fails to achieve the most intense levels of deep thinking sought in the daylong concentration sessions favored by the bimodalist. The trade-off, however, is that this approach works better with the reality of human nature. By supporting deep work with rock-solid routines that make sure a little bit gets done on a regular basis, the rhythmic scheduler will often log a larger total number of deep hours per year.
the journalist Walter Isaacson
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. 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.
This approach is not for the deep work novice.
the journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling remains difficult to pull off. But if you’re confident in the value of what you’re trying to produce, and practiced in the skill of going deep (a skill we will continue to develop in the strategies that follow), it can be a surprisingly robust way to squeeze out large amounts of depth from an otherwise demanding schedule.
An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.
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.
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.
Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer.
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.
- How you’ll work once you start to work
- How you’ll support your work.
(As Nietzsche said: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”)
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.
The relationship between deep work and collaboration is tricky. It’s worth taking the time to untangle, however, because properly leveraging collaboration can increase the quality of deep work in your professional life.
In MIT lore, it’s generally believed that this haphazard combination of different disciplines, thrown together in a large reconfigurable building, led to chance encounters and a spirit of inventiveness that generated breakthroughs at a fast pace, innovating topics as diverse as Chomsky grammars, Loran navigational radars, and video games, all within the same productive postwar decades.
Around the same time that Building 20 was hastily constructed, a more systematic pursuit of serendipitous creativity was under way two hundred miles to the southwest in Murray Hill, New Jersey. It was here that Bell Labs director Mervin Kelly guided the construction of a new home for the lab that would purposefully encourage interaction between its diverse mix of scientists and engineers. Kelly dismissed the standard university-style approach of housing different departments in different buildings, and instead connected the spaces into one contiguous structure joined by long hallways—some so long that when you stood at one end it would appear to converge to a vanishing point. As Bell Labs chronicler Jon Gertner notes about this design: “Traveling the hall’s length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions and ideas was almost impossible. A physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.” This strategy, mixed with Kelly’s aggressive recruitment of some of the world’s best minds, yielded some of the most concentrated innovation in the history of modern civilization. In the decades following the Second World War, the lab produced, among other achievements: the first solar cell, laser, communication satellite, cellular communication system, and fiber optic networking. At the same time, their theorists formulated both information theory and coding theory, their astronomers won the Nobel Prize for empirically validating the Big Bang Theory, and perhaps most important of all, their physicists invented the transistor.
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.
Building 20 and Bell Labs, we see that this is the architecture they deployed as well. Neither building offered anything resembling a modern open office plan. They were instead constructed using the standard layout of private offices connected to shared hallways. Their creative mojo had more to do with the fact that these offices shared a small number of long connecting spaces—forcing researchers to interact whenever they needed to travel from one location to another. These mega-hallways, in other words, provided highly effective hubs.
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.
The success of Building 20 and Bell Labs indicates that isolation is not required for productive deep work. Indeed, their example indicates that for many types of work—especially when pursuing innovation—collaborative deep work can yield better results. This strategy, therefore, asks that you consider this option in contemplating how best to integrate depth into your professional life. In doing so, however, keep the following two guidelines in mind. 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.
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.
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.
Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important
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
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.”
Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures
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.
Lead measures, on the other hand, “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.”
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.
Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
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.
Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability
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 these meetings, the team members must confront their scoreboard, commit to specific actions to help improve the score before the next meeting, and describe what happened with the commitments they made at the last meeting. They note that this review can be condensed to only a few minutes, but it must be regular for its effect to be felt.
For an individual focused on his or her own deep work habit, there’s likely no team to meet with, but this doesn’t exempt you from the need for regular accountability. In multiple places throughout this book I discuss and recommend the habit of a weekly review in which you make a plan for the workweek ahead (see Rule #4)
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.
remain nonresponsive to the pinprick onslaught of small obligations that seem harmless in isolation but aggregate to serious injury to his deep work habit.
Kreider’s explanation: Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
This strategy argues that you should follow Kreider’s lead by injecting regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day, providing you with the idleness paradoxically required to get (deep) work done.
quite powerful heuristic: At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free to encounter Kreider’s buttercups, stink bugs, and stars.
Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights
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 and his collaborators to introduce unconscious thought theory (UTT)—an attempt to understand the different roles conscious and unconscious deliberation play in decision making.
this theory proposes that for decisions that require the application of strict rules, the conscious mind must be involved. For example, if you need to do a math calculation, only your conscious mind is able to follow the precise arithmetic rules needed for correctness. On the other hand, for decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague, and perhaps even conflicting, constraints, your unconscious mind is well suited to tackle the issue.
Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply
attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. This theory, which was first proposed in the 1980s by the University of Michigan psychologists Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan
To concentrate requires what ART calls directed attention. This resource is finite: If you exhaust it, you’ll struggle to concentrate.
Walking through nature, by contrast, exposes you to what lead author Marc Berman calls “inherently fascinating stimuli,” using sunsets as an example. These stimuli “invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish.” Put another way, when walking through nature, you’re freed from having to direct your attention, as there are few challenges to navigate (like crowded street crossings), and experience enough interesting stimuli to keep your mind sufficiently occupied to avoid the need to actively aim your attention. This state allows your directed attention resources time to replenish.
What’s important to our purpose is observing that the implications of ART expand beyond the benefits of nature. The core mechanism of this theory is the idea that you can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this activity a rest. Walking in nature provides such a mental respite, but so, too, can any number of relaxing activities so long as they provide similar “inherently fascinating stimuli” and freedom from directed concentration.
Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important
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.
The implication of these results is that your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited. If you’re careful about your schedule (using, for example, the type of productivity strategies described in Rule #4), you should hit your daily deep work capacity during your workday. It follows, therefore, that by evening, you’re beyond the point where you can continue to effectively work deeply. 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.
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.
Roy Baumeister, who wrote a paper with E.J. Masicampo playfully titled “Consider It Done!”
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.
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.
Adam Marlin’s experience underscores an important reality about deep work: 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.
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
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. [emphasis mine] 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.
getting the most out of your deep work habit requires training, and as clarified previously, this training must address two goals: improving your ability to concentrate intensely and overcoming your desire for distraction.
Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.
I propose an alternative to the Internet Sabbath. Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction. To make this suggestion more concrete, let’s make the simplifying assumption that Internet use is synonymous with seeking distracting stimuli. (You can, of course, use the Internet in a way that’s focused and deep, but for a distraction addict, this is a difficult task.) Similarly, let’s consider working in the absence of the Internet to be synonymous with more focused work. (You can, of course, find ways to be distracted without a network connection, but these tend to be easier to resist.) With these rough categorizations established, the strategy works as follows: Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.
The idea motivating this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. This constant switching can be understood analogously as weakening the mental muscles responsible for organizing the many sources vying for your attention.
To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.
to succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. This doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate distracting behaviors; it’s sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviors to hijack your attention.
boxing, wrestling, body building, dance lessons, poetry readings, and the continuation of a lifelong obsession with naturalism
Roosevelt would begin his scheduling by considering the eight hours from eight thirty a.m. to four thirty p.m. He would then remove the time spent in recitation and classes, his athletic training (which was once a day), and lunch. The fragments that remained were then considered time dedicated exclusively to studying. As noted, these fragments didn’t usually add up to a large number of total hours, but he would get the most out of them by working only on schoolwork during these periods, and doing so with a blistering intensity. “The amount of time he spent at his desk was comparatively small,” explained Morris, “but his concentration was so intense, and his reading so rapid, that he could afford more time off [from schoolwork] than most.”
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.
At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity—no e-mail breaks, no daydreaming, no Facebook browsing, no repeated trips to the coffee machine
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.
interval training for the attention centers of your brain.
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
In my experience, productive meditation builds on both of the key ideas introduced at the beginning of this rule. 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.
Suggestion #1: Be Wary of Distractions and Looping
Suggestion #2: Structure Your Deep Thinking
“Thinking deeply” about a problem seems like a self-evident activity, but in reality it’s not. When faced with a distraction-free mental landscape, a hard problem, and time to think, the next steps can become surprisingly non-obvious.
starting with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem
Once the relevant variables are identified, define the specific next-step question you need to answer using these variables.
consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified.
Memorize a Deck of Cards
a shuffled deck of cards, a string of one hundred random digits, or 115 abstract shapes
The technique for card memorization I’ll teach you comes from someone who knows quite a bit about this particular challenge: Ron White, a former USA Memory Champion and world record holder in card memorization
Ron White, “How to Memorize a Deck of Cards with Superhuman Speed,” guest post, The Art of Manliness, June 1, 2012, http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/06/01/how-to-memorize-a-deck-of-cards/.
professional memory athletes never attempt rote memorization
We’re not wired to quickly internalize abstract information. We are, however, really good at remembering scenes.
To prepare for this high-volume memorization task, White recommends that you begin by cementing in your mind the mental image of walking through five rooms in your home.
Once you can easily recall this mental walkthrough of a well-known location, fix in your mind a collection of ten items in each of these rooms. White recommends that these items be large (and therefore more memorable), like a desk, not a pencil. Next, establish an order in which you look at each of these items in each room.
Combined this is only fifty items, so add two more items, perhaps in your backyard, to get to the full fifty-two items you’ll later need when connecting these images to all the cards in a standard deck.
Practice this mental exercise of walking through the rooms, and looking at items in each room, in a set order.
The second step in preparing to memorize a deck of cards is to associate a memorable person or thing with each of the fifty-two possible cards. To make this process easier, try to maintain some logical association between the card and the corresponding image.
The two steps mentioned previously are advance steps—things you do just once and can then leverage again and again in memorizing specific decks. Once these steps are done, you’re ready for the main event: memorizing as quickly as possible the order of fifty-two cards in a freshly shuffled deck. The method here is straightforward. Begin your mental walk-through of your house. As you encounter each item, look at the next card from the shuffled deck, and imagine the corresponding memorable person or thing doing something memorable near that item.
Proceed carefully through the rooms, associating the proper mental images with objects in the proper order. After you complete a room, you might want to walk through it a few times in a row to lock in the imagery. Once you’re done, you’re ready to hand the deck to a friend and amaze him by rattling off the cards in order without peeking. To do so, of course, simply requires that you perform the mental walk-through one more time, connecting each memorable person or thing to its corresponding card as you turn your attention to it.
If you practice this technique, you’ll discover, like many mental athletes who came before you, that you can eventually internalize a whole deck in just minutes. More important than your ability to impress friends, of course, is the training such activities provide your mind. Proceeding through the steps described earlier requires that you focus your attention, again and again, on a clear target. Like a muscle responding to weights, this will strengthen your general ability to concentrate—allowing you to go deeper with more ease.
It’s worth emphasizing, however, the obvious point that there’s nothing special about card memorization. Any structured thought process that requires unwavering attention can have a similar effect—be it studying the Talmud, like Adam Marlin from Rule #2’s introduction, or practicing productive meditation, or trying to learn the guitar part of a song by ear
In 2013, author and digital media consultant Baratunde Thurston launched an experiment. He decided to disconnect from his online life for twenty-five days
We know about Thurston’s experiment because he wrote about it in a cover article for Fast Company magazine, ironically titled “#UnPlug.” 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.
For all the insight and clarity that Thurston gained during his Internet sabbatical, for example, it didn’t take him long once the experiment ended to slide back into the fragmented state where he began.
This rule attempts to break us out of this rut by proposing a third option: accepting that these tools are not inherently evil, and that some of them might be quite vital to your success and happiness, but at the same time also accepting that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention (not to mention personal data) should be much more stringent, and that most people should therefore be using many fewer such tools.
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
network tools are not exceptional; they’re tools, no different from a blacksmith’s hammer or an artist’s brush, used by skilled laborers to do their jobs better (and occasionally to enhance their leisure). Throughout history, skilled laborers have applied sophistication and skepticism to their encounters with new tools and their decisions about whether to adopt them
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
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.
Even though the craftsman approach rejects the simplicity of the any-benefit approach, it doesn’t ignore the benefits that currently drive people to network tools, or make any advance proclamations about what’s “good” or “bad” technology: It simply asks that you give any particular network tool the same type of measured, nuanced accounting that tools in other trades have been subjected to throughout the history of skilled labor.
the craftsman approach is not cut-and-dry. Identifying what matters most in your life, and then attempting to assess the impacts of various tools on these factors, doesn’t reduce to a simple formula—this task requires practice and experimentation.
Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits
The first step of this strategy is to identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and your personal life.
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.)
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.
Personal Goal: To maintain close and rewarding friendships with a group of people who are important to me. Key Activities Supporting This Goal: 1. Regularly take the time for meaningful connection with those who are most important to me (e.g., a long talk, a meal, joint activity). 2. Give of myself to those who are most important to me (e.g., making nontrivial sacrifices that improve their lives).
This idea has many different forms and names, including the 80/20 rule, Pareto’s principle, and, if you’re feeling particularly pretentious, the principle of factor sparsity
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.
it’s probably most useful when applied heuristically as a reminder that, in many cases, contributions to an outcome are not evenly distributed.
all activities, regardless of their importance, consume your same limited store of time and attention. If you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game. And because your time returns substantially more rewards when invested in high-impact activities than when invested in low-impact activities, the more of it you shift to the latter, the lower your overall benefit.
Quit Social Media
this strategy asks that you perform the equivalent of a packing party on the social media services that you currently use. Instead of “packing,” however, you’ll instead ban yourself from using them for thirty days. All of them: Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, Snapchat, Vine—or whatever other services have risen to popularity since I first wrote these words. Don’t formally deactivate these services, and (this is important) don’t mention online that you’ll be signing off: Just stop using them, cold turkey. If someone reaches out to you by other means and asks why your activity on a particular service has fallen off, you can explain, but don’t go out of your way to tell people. 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.)
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.
By dropping off these services without notice you can test the reality of your status as a content producer. For most people and most services, the news might be sobering
Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself
They can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they’re a lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper. Or maybe social media tools are at the core of your existence. You won’t know either way until you sample life without them.
“Take the case of a Londoner who works in an office, whose office hours are from ten to six, and who spends fifty minutes morning and night in travelling between his house door and his office door,” Bennett writes in his 1910 self-help classic, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. This hypothetical London salaryman, he notes, has a little more than sixteen hours left in the day beyond these work-related hours. To Bennett, this is a lot of time, but most people in this situation tragically don’t realize its potential. The “great and profound mistake which my typical man makes in regard to his day,” he elaborates, is that even though he doesn’t particularly enjoy his work (seeing it as something to “get through”), “he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as ‘the day,’ to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.” This is an attitude that Bennett condemns as “utterly illogical and unhealthy.”
His vision of elevating the souls and minds of the middle class by reading poetry and great books feels somewhat antiquated and classist. But the logical foundation of his proposal, that you both should and can make deliberate use of your time outside work, remains relevant today—especially with respect to the goal of this rule, which is to reduce the impact of network tools on your ability to perform deep work.
“17 Words That Mean Something Totally Different When Spelled Backward” and “33 Dogs Winning at Everything.”
Arnold Bennett identified the solution to this problem a hundred years earlier: Put more thought into your leisure time. In other words, this strategy suggests that when it comes to your relaxation, don’t default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead dedicate some advance thinking to the question of how you want to spend your “day within a day.”
In the summer of 2007, the software company 37signals (now called Basecamp) launched an experiment: They shortened their workweek from five days to four. Their employees seemed to accomplish the same amount of work with one less day, so they made this change permanent
Tara Weiss wrote a critical piece for Forbes titled “Why a Four-Day Work Week Doesn’t Work.” She summarized her problem with this strategy as follows: Packing 40 hours into four days isn’t necessarily an efficient way to work. Many people find that eight hours are tough enough; requiring them to stay for an extra two could cause morale and productivity to decrease. Fried was quick to respond. In a blog post titled “Forbes Misses the Point of the 4-Day Work Week,” he begins by agreeing with Weiss’s premise that it would be stressful for employees to cram forty hours of effort into four days. But, as he clarifies, that’s not what he’s suggesting. “The point of the 4-day work week is about doing less work,” he writes. “It’s not about four 10-hour days… it’s about four normalish 8-hour days.”
As Fried expands: 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. In other words, the reduction in the 37signals workweek disproportionately eliminated shallow as compared to deep work, and because the latter was left largely untouched, the important stuff continued to get done.
he felt that carving one day out of an otherwise busy week was not enough to support the type of unbroken deep work that generates true breakthroughs. “I’d take 5 days in a row over 5 days spread out over 5 weeks,” he explained. “So our theory is that we’ll see better results when people have a long stretch of uninterrupted time.” To test this theory, 37signals implemented something radical: The company gave its employees the entire month of June off to work deeply on their own projects. This month would be a period free of any shallow work obligations—no status meetings, no memos, and, blessedly, no PowerPoint. At the end of the month, the company held a “pitch day” in which employees pitched the ideas they’d been working on. Summarizing the experiment in an Inc. magazine article, Fried dubbed it a success.
“How can we afford to put our business on hold for a month to ‘mess around’ with new ideas?” Fried asked rhetorically. “How can we afford not to?”
as Jason Fried discovered, if you not only eliminate shallow work, but also replace this recovered time with more of the deep alternative, not only will the business continue to function; it can become more successful.
Before diving into the details of these strategies, however, we should first confront the reality that there’s a limit to this anti-shallow thinking. The value of deep work vastly outweighs the value of shallow, but this doesn’t mean that you must quixotically pursue a schedule in which all of your time is invested in depth. For one thing, a nontrivial amount of shallow work is needed to maintain most knowledge work jobs
we should see the goal of this rule as taming shallow work’s footprint in your schedule, not eliminating it.
treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated. This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact.
The American Time Use Survey
We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work, and then adopt the habit of pausing before action and asking, “What makes the most sense right now?”
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.
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.
When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you. It’s here, of course, that most people will begin to run into trouble. 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.
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.
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
This allows unpredictability in your day without requiring you to keep changing your schedule on paper.
The third tactic I suggest is to be liberal with your use of task blocks. Deploy many throughout your day and make them longer than required to handle the tasks you plan in the morning. Lots of things come up during the typical knowledge worker’s day: Having regularly occurring blocks of time to address these surprises keeps things running smoothly.
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.
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.
To summarize, the motivation for this strategy is the recognition that a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect. A good first step toward this respectful handling is the advice outlined here: Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter.
Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
An advantage of scheduling your day is that you can determine how much time you’re actually spending in shallow activities.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
The purpose of this strategy is to give you an accurate metric for resolving such ambiguity—providing you with a way to make clear and consistent decisions about where given work tasks fall on the shallow-to-deep scale. To do so, it asks that you evaluate activities by asking a simple (but surprisingly illuminating) question: How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?
How long would it take to train a bright recent college graduate to take your place in a planning meeting? He or she would have to understand the project well enough to know its milestones and the skills of its participants.
This question is meant as a thought experiment (I’m not going to ask you to actually hire a recent college graduate to take over tasks that score low). But the answers it provides will help you objectively quantify the shallowness or depth of various activities.
tasks that leverage your expertise tend to be deep tasks and they can therefore provide a double benefit: They return more value per time spent, and they stretch your abilities, leading to improvement. On the other hand, a task that our hypothetical college graduate can pick up quickly is one that does not leverage expertise, and therefore it can be understood as shallow.
What should you do with this strategy? Once you know where your activities fall on the deep-to-shallow scale, bias your time toward the former.
Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget
Here’s an important question that’s rarely asked: What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work? This strategy suggests that you ask it. If you have a boss, in other words, have a conversation about this question. (You’ll probably have to first define for him or her what “shallow” and “deep” work means.) If you work for yourself, ask yourself this question. In both cases, settle on a specific answer. Then—and this is the important part—try to stick to this budget.
Obeying this budget will likely require changes to your behavior. You’ll almost certainly end up forced into saying no to projects that seem infused with shallowness while also more aggressively reducing the amount of shallowness in your existing projects. This budget might lead you to drop the need for a weekly status meeting in preference for results-driven reporting (“let me know when you’ve made significant progress; then we’ll talk”). It might also lead you to start spending more mornings in communication isolation or decide it’s not as important as you once thought to respond quickly and in detail to every cc’d e-mail that crosses your inbox. These changes are all positive for your quest to make deep work central to your working life.
This limit frees up space for significant amounts of deep effort on a consistent basis. The reason why these decisions should start with a conversation with your boss is that this agreement establishes implicit support from your workplace. If you work for someone else, this strategy provides cover when you turn down an obligation or restructure a project to minimize shallowness.
part of the reason shallow work persists in large quantities in knowledge work is that we rarely see the total impact of such efforts on our schedules. We instead tend to evaluate these behaviors one by one in the moment—a perspective from which each task can seem quite reasonable and convenient.
The tools from earlier in this rule, however, allow you to make this impact explicit. You can now confidently say to your boss, “This is the exact percentage of my time spent last week on shallow work,” and force him or her to give explicit approval for that ratio. Faced with these numbers, and the economic reality they clarify (it’s incredibly wasteful, for example, to pay a highly trained professional to send e-mail messages and attend meetings for thirty hours a week), a boss will be led to the natural conclusion that you need to say no to some things and to streamline others—even if this makes life less convenient for the boss, or for you, or for your coworkers.
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. These hard numbers will provide you the confidence needed to start scaling back on the shallow activities that are sapping your time. Without these numbers, it’s difficult for an entrepreneur to say no to any opportunity that might generate some positive return.
By instead picking and sticking with a shallow-to-deep ratio, you can replace this guilt-driven unconditional acceptance with the more healthy habit of trying to get the most out of the time you put aside for shallow work (therefore still exposing yourself to many opportunities), but keeping these efforts constrained to a small enough fraction of your time and attention to enable the deep work that ultimately drives your business forward.
Finish Your Work by Five Thirty
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.
Radhika Nagpal, the Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University. Nagpal opens the article by claiming that much of the stress suffered by tenure-track professors is self-imposed. “Scary myths and scary data abound about life as a tenure-track faculty at an ‘R1’ [research-focused] university,” she begins, before continuing to explain how she finally decided to disregard the conventional wisdom and instead “deliberately… do specific things to preserve my happiness.” This deliberate effort led Nagpal to enjoy her pre-tenure time “tremendously.”
As Nagpal admits, early in her academic career she found herself trying to cram work into every free hour between seven a.m. and midnight (because she has kids, this time, especially in the evening, was often severely fractured). It didn’t take long before she decided this strategy was unsustainable, so she set a limit of fifty hours a week and worked backward to determine what rules and habits were needed to satisfy this constraint. Nagpal, in other words, deployed fixed-schedule productivity
what all her tactics shared was a commitment to ruthlessly capping the shallow while protecting the deep efforts—that is, original research—that ultimately determined her professional fate.
If you ask for my involvement in university business that’s not absolutely necessary, I might respond with a defense I learned from the department chair who hired me: “Talk to me after tenure.”
Another tactic that works well for me is to be clear in my refusal but ambiguous in my explanation for the refusal. The key is to avoid providing enough specificity about the excuse that the requester has the opportunity to defuse it.
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.
asymmetric in the culling forced by our fixed-schedule commitment. By ruthlessly reducing the shallow while preserving the deep, this strategy frees up our time without diminishing the amount of new value we generate. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that the reduction in shallow frees up more energy for the deep alternative, allowing us to produce more than if we had defaulted to a more typical crowded schedule.
limits to our time necessitate more careful thinking about our organizational habits, also leading to more value produced as compared to longer but less organized schedules.
A commitment to fixed-schedule productivity, however, shifts you into a scarcity mind-set. Suddenly any obligation beyond your deepest efforts is suspect and seen as potentially disruptive. Your default answer becomes no, the bar for gaining access to your time and attention rises precipitously, and you begin to organize the efforts that pass these obstacles with a ruthless efficiency.
Fixed-schedule productivity, in other words, is a meta-habit that’s simple to adopt but broad in its impact. If you have to choose just one behavior that reorients your focus toward the deep, this one should be high on your list of possibilities.
No discussion of shallow work is complete without considering e-mail. This quintessential shallow activity is particularly insidious in its grip on most knowledge workers’ attention, as it delivers a steady stream of distractions addressed specifically to you. Ubiquitous e-mail access has become so ingrained in our professional habits that we’re beginning to lose the sense that we have any say in its role in our life. As John Freeman warns in his 2009 book, The Tyranny of E-mail, with the rise of this technology “we are slowly eroding our ability to explain—in a careful, complex way—why it is so wrong for us to complain, resist, or redesign our workdays so that they are manageable.” E-mail seems a fait accompli. Resistance is futile.
Just because you cannot avoid this tool altogether doesn’t mean you have to cede all authority over its role in your mental landscape.
Tip #1: Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work
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.
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.
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.
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. Most are okay to not receive a response if they don’t expect one
Clay Herbert, who is an expert in running crowd-funding campaigns for technology start-ups: a specialty that attracts a lot of correspondents hoping to glean some helpful advice. As a Forbes.com article on sender filters reports, “At some point, the number of people reaching out exceeded [Herbert’s] capacity, so he created filters that put the onus on the person asking for help.” Though he started from a similar motivation as me, Herbert’s filters ended up taking a different form. To contact him, you must first consult an FAQ to make sure your question has not already been answered (which was the case for a lot of the messages Herbert was processing before his filters were in place). If you make it through this FAQ sieve, he then asks you to fill out a survey that allows him to further screen for connections that seem particularly relevant to his expertise. For those who make it past this step, Herbert enforces a small fee you must pay before communicating with him. This fee is not about making extra money, but is instead about selecting for individuals who are serious about receiving and acting on advice. Herbert’s filters still enable him to help people and encounter interesting opportunities. But at the same time, they have reduced his incoming communication to a level he can easily handle.
Antonio Centeno, who runs the popular Real Man Style blog. Centeno’s sender filter lays out a two-step process. If you have a question, he diverts you to a public location to post it. Centeno thinks it’s wasteful to answer the same questions again and again in private one-on-one conversations. If you make it past this step, he then makes you commit to, by clicking check boxes, the following three promises: I am not asking Antonio a style question I could find searching Google for 10 minutes. I am not SPAMMING Antonio with a cut-and-pasting generic request to promote my unrelated business. I will do a good deed for some random stranger if Antonio responds within 23 hours. The message box in which you can type your message doesn’t appear on the contact page until after you’ve clicked the box by all three promises.
the technologies underlying e-mail are transformative, but the current social conventions guiding how we apply this technology are underdeveloped. The notion that all messages, regardless of purpose or sender, arrive in the same undifferentiated inbox, and that there’s an expectation that every message deserves a (timely) response, is absurdly unproductive. The sender filter is a small but useful step toward a better state of affairs,
Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails
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.
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.
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.
Tip #3: Don’t Respond
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.
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.”
There are two common tropes bandied around when people discuss solutions to e-mail overload. One says that sending e-mails generates more e-mails, while the other says that wrestling with ambiguous or irrelevant e-mails is a major source of inbox-related stress. The approach suggested here responds aggressively to both issues—you send fewer e-mails and ignore those that aren’t easy to process—and by doing so will significantly weaken the grip your inbox maintains over your time and attention.
It’s easy, amid the turbulence of a rapidly evolving information age, to default to dialectical grumbling
A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.
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.