Deep Work

Newport, Cal

Deep work, though a burden to prioritize, was crucial for his goal of changing the world.

“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”

his theory notes that the feeling of going deep is in itself very rewarding. Our minds like this challenge, regardless of the subject.

“We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.”

One hundred years from now, our engineering may seem as archaic as the techniques used by medieval cathedral builders seem to today’s civil engineers, while our craftsmanship will still be honored.

a wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be.

Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants

“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.”

To maximize the motivation generated by this scoreboard, whenever I reached an important milestone in an academic paper (e.g., solving a key proof), I would circle the tally mark corresponding to the hour where I finished the result.* This served two purposes. First, it allowed me to connect, at a visceral level, accumulated deep work hours and tangible results. Second, it helped calibrate my expectations for how many hours of deep work were needed per result. This reality (which was larger than I first assumed) helped spur me to squeeze more such hours into each week.

“You cannot consider yourself as fulfilling this daily obligation unless you have stretched to the reaches of your mental capacity.”

attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.

your ability to trade concentration for completion time,

You must be on your guard for looping, as it can quickly subvert an entire productive meditation session. When you notice it, remark to yourself that you seem to be in a loop, then redirect your attention toward the next step.

Give of myself to those who are most important to me (e.g., making nontrivial sacrifices that improve their lives).

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?

what it means to live, and not just exist.

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.

This type of scheduling, however, isn’t about constraint—it’s instead about thoughtfulness.

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?

If our hypothetical college graduate requires many months of training to replicate a task, then this indicates that the task leverages hard-won expertise.

It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.

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.

There was no electricity at the Tower, so as day gave way to night, light came from oil lamps and heat from the fireplace. Jung would retire to bed by ten p.m. “The feeling of repose and renewal that I had in this tower was intense from the start,” he said.

Jung retreated to Bollingen, not to escape his professional life, but instead to advance it.

Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer. Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention for meals.

“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.”

To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.

To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires 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 particular professor is hard to reach. He’s not on Twitter and if he doesn’t know you, he’s unlikely to respond to your e-mail. Last year he published sixteen papers.

Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

More generally, the lack of distraction in my life tones down that background hum of nervous mental energy that seems to increasingly pervade people’s daily lives. I’m comfortable being bored, and this can be a surprisingly rewarding skill—especially on a lazy D.C. summer night listening to a Nationals game slowly unfold on the radio.

This book is best described as an attempt to formalize and explain my attraction to depth over shallowness, and to detail the types of strategies that have helped me act on this attraction. I’ve committed this thinking to words, in part, to help you follow my lead in rebuilding your life around deep work—but this isn’t the whole story. My other interest in distilling and clarifying these thoughts is to further develop my own practice. My recognition of the deep work hypothesis has helped me thrive, but I’m convinced that I haven’t yet reached my full value-producing potential. As you struggle and ultimately triumph with the ideas and rules in the chapters ahead, you can be assured that I’m following suit—ruthlessly culling the shallow and painstakingly cultivating the intensity of my depth.

It no longer makes sense, for example, to hire a full-time programmer, put aside office space, and pay benefits, when you can instead pay one of the world’s best programmers, like Hansson, for just enough time to complete the project at hand.

“Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” In other words, talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best.

To join the group of those who can work well with these machines, therefore, requires that you hone your ability to master hard things. And because these technologies change rapidly, this process of mastering hard things never ends: You must be able to do it quickly, again and again.

If you want to become a superstar, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You must then transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value.

To learn requires intense concentration.

Sertillanges seems to have been ahead of his time, arguing in The Intellectual Life, “Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.”

This understanding is important because it provides a neurological foundation for why deliberate practice works. By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

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. “It sometimes confuses my colleagues,” he told me. “They say, ‘You’re not out of office, I see you in your office right now!’” But to Grant, it’s important to enforce strict isolation until he completes the task at hand.

The concept of attention residue helps explain why the intensity formula is true and therefore helps explain Grant’s productivity. By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, Grant minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from his other obligations, allowing him to maximize performance on this one task.

When Grant is working for days in isolation on a paper, in other words, he’s doing so at a higher level of effectiveness than the standard professor following a more distracted strategy in which the work is repeatedly interrupted by residue-slathering interruptions.

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.

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.

So why is Alissa Rubin urged to regularly interrupt this necessarily deep work to provide, for free, shallow content to a service run by an unrelated media company based out of Silicon Valley? And perhaps even more important, why does this behavior seem so normal to most people?

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

During these deep semesters he then applied the bimodal approach on the weekly scale. He would, perhaps once or twice a month, take a period of two to four days to become completely monastic. He would shut his door, put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail, and work on his research without interruption. Outside of these deep sessions, Grant remained famously open and accessible. In some sense, he had to be: His 2013 bestseller, Give and Take, promotes the practice of giving of your time and attention, without expectation of something in return, as a key strategy in professional advancement.

The decision between rhythmic and bimodal can come down to your self-control in such scheduling matters. If you’re Carl Jung and are engaged in an intellectual dogfight with Sigmund Freud’s supporters, you’ll likely have no trouble recognizing the importance of finding time to focus on your ideas. On the other hand, if you’re writing a dissertation with no one pressuring you to get it done, the habitual nature of the rhythmic philosophy might be necessary to maintain progress.

my uncle remembers Isaacson’s impressive work habits: It was always amazing… he could retreat up to the bedroom for a while, when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book… he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour, we’d hear the typewriter pounding, then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us… the work never seemed to faze him, he just happily went up to work when he had the spare time.

This habit also requires a sense of confidence in your abilities—a conviction

This habit also requires a sense of confidence in your abilities—a conviction

This habit also requires a sense of confidence in your abilities—a conviction that what you’re doing is important and will succeed.

The dominant force is the psychology of committing so seriously to the task at hand. To put yourself in an exotic location to focus on a writing project, or to take a week off from work just to think, or to lock yourself in a hotel room until you complete an important invention: These gestures push your deep goal to a level of mental priority that helps unlock the needed mental resources. Sometimes to go deep, you must first go big.

Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply on what you encounter.

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.

“How do I do this?” Christensen responded with a discussion of business strategy, explaining how Grove could set up a new business unit and so on. Grove cut him off with a gruff reply: “You are such a naïve academic. I asked you how to do it, and you told me what I should do. I know what I need to do. I just don’t know how to do it.”

“The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.” They elaborate that execution should be aimed at a small number of “wildly important goals.” This simplicity will help focus an organization’s energy to a sufficient intensity to ignite real results.

For an individual focused on deep work, it’s easy to identify the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.

In retrospect, it was not so much the intensity of my deep work periods that increased, but instead their regularity.

By the summer of 2014, I had nine full papers accepted for publication, more than doubling what I had managed to accomplish in any preceding year.

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.

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.

Walking through nature, by contrast, exposes you to what lead author Marc Berman calls “inherently fascinating stimuli,” using sunsets as an example.

Having a casual conversation with a friend, listening to music while making dinner, playing a game with your kids, going for a run—the types of activities that will fill your time in the evening if you enforce a work shutdown—play the same attention-restoring role as walking in nature.

Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they’re necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness summarized previously. From my experience, it should take a week or two before the shutdown habit sticks—that is, until your mind trusts your ritual enough to actually begin to release work-related thoughts in the evening. But once it does stick, the ritual will become a permanent fixture in your life—to the point that skipping the routine will fill you with a sense of unease.

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.

Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline—for example, by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible (or if it puts your job in jeopardy), then motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid seeing it as you work.

The main motivation for this strategy is straightforward. Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable. Roosevelt dashes leverage artificial deadlines to help you systematically increase the level you can regularly achieve—providing, in some sense, interval training for the attention centers of your brain.

I’m not, however, suggesting this practice for its productivity benefits (though they’re nice). I’m instead interested in its ability to rapidly improve your ability to think deeply. 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. To succeed with productive meditation,

I’m not, however, suggesting this practice for its productivity benefits (though they’re nice). I’m instead interested in its ability to rapidly improve your ability to think deeply. 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.

“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. In my experience, it helps to have some structure for this deep thinking process.

I suggest starting with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem and then storing these values in your working memory. For example, if you’re working on the outline for a book chapter, the relevant variables might be the main points you want to make in the chapter.

Once the relevant variables are identified, define the specific next-step question you need to answer using these variables. In the book chapter example, this next-step question might be, “How am I going to effectively open this chapter?,”

“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?”

They note that for someone new to such practice (citing, in particular, a child in the early stages of developing an expert-level skill), an hour a day is a reasonable limit. For those familiar with the rigors of such activities, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more.

To summarize, I’m asking you to treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.

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] For the reasons stated above, I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests. I call this approach a sender filter, as I’m asking my correspondents to filter themselves before attempting to contact me. This filter has significantly reduced the time I spend in my inbox.

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 (in general, those with a minor public presence, such as authors, overestimate how much people really care about their replies to their messages).

“Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.”