Reading Notes: Deep Work

April 18, 2017

"I'll live the focused life, because it's the best kind there is." - Winifred Gallagher

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.

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 make it the core of their working life will thrive.

Part One: The Idea

Deep work is valuable

In the new economy, a small number of people will be the only winners. They belong to three groups.

The high-skilled workers: are you good at working with intelligent machines or can you be replaced by one?

The superstars: once the talent market is made universally accessible, those at the peak of the market thrive while the rest suffer.

The owners: those with capital to invest in disruptive technologies.

There are 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 quality and speed.

Both of these skills depend entirely on one's ability to perform deep work.

Focused concentration isolates the circuit required for a skill, allowing it to be strengthened. This doesn't occur when practicing something using diffuse concentration.

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

Producing large quantities of good work, too, requires long stretches spent entirely focused on a single thing.

Deep work is rare

Open offices, Slack, and social media accounts: businesses are trending away from deep work. Why? For starters, it's hard to quantify the exact value of deep work, or the cost of those things that detract from it. But it's easy to count your Facebook likes.

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.

Being busy is not the same as being productive. It feels like it, though, and we think we look good to others when perceived as busy. Slack, open offices, etc, are ways for us to be and broadcast being busy, but don't help us focus.

People idolize technology. To not have a social media presence is unthinkable - but maybe we should think about it. Does forcing New York Times reporters to tweet regularly improve the quality of their journalism? Deep work is almost anachronistic and anti-tech.

Deep work is meaningful

A deep life is not just economically lucrative, but also a life well lived.

Craftsmen tackle professional challenges that are simple to define but difficult to execute - a useful imbalance when seeking purpose.

Finding depth and meaning in knowledge work is more difficult, but it is possible.

A neurological argument for depth

the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your existence. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love - is the sum of what you focus on.

(This is a very Stoic idea. Develop mastery over your mental state, and thereby your personal, subjective reality.)

Focus your effort and attention on deep work, and your brain will tell you that you're living a meaningful life. Spend your time on trivial or shallow activities, and you will feel the opposite.

A psychological argument for depth

This section is about Flow. How humans are happiest when they're engaged in something challenging, not when they're laying in a hammock.

A philosophical argument for depth

The Enlightenment replaced sacredness with autonomous individualism. But the sacred world has order, whereas the autonomous world is nihilistic. Craftsmen are romantic because they work with the innate, sacred properties of their materials.

Viewing your own work as craft and focusing on honing your abilities helps you generate meaning.

Part Two: The Rules

Work deeply

Modern workplaces and work culture are not set up to help you do deep work and reach the full potential of your brain's creative ability.

As a reader of this book, you're a disciple of depth in a shallow world.

People fight distracting urges all day long. To overcome these distractions and do lots of deep work, you need a strategy.

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.

Decide on your depth philosophy

Different circumstances and goals require different approaches to integrating deep work.

Monastic: eliminate or radically minimize shallow obligations (Donald Knuth has no email, and answers postal mail in a big batch every three months). Good for people whose professional contributions to the world are "discrete, clear, and individualized."

Bimodal: divide your time between stretches of deep work and periods when you are open to everything else (Jung's Bollinger retreat, doing deep work while there and then returning to Zurich to run his practice and socialize with other intellectuals). Minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy is a full day.

Rhythmic: do deep work every day, ideally at the same time (doctoral student who wakes up at 5:30 every morning and works on his thesis for two hours, then goes about the rest of his day with that obligation taken care of). Rhythmic fits more easily into modern life than monastic or bimodal.

Journalistic: be able to shift into deep work mode at a moment's notice, fitting it in as your schedule allows (journalists getting their writing done whenever they can to meet deadlines - kids are asleep? let me get out my laptop). Difficult, as it requires you to be good at focusing as well as good at your craft itself.


Make deep work a ritual: where you work, how you work, how you block off distractions, what time of day, what you have on your desk (fresh coffee, etc). Do you walk? Take a shower right before? Put up a "do not disturb" sign?

Make grand gestures

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.

Examples: take a retreat, book a hotel room and lock yourself in it to work, buy a round-trip business class plane ticket to nowhere and work while you fly.

Don't work alone

Open offices suck, but serendipitous collaboration doesn't. An ideal office plan resembles a hub-and-spoke architecture: private offices where people can isolate themselves to concentrate and work, connected to common areas where they can share ideas.

Beyond serendipitous collaboration, though, there is a form of deep work that involves working with another person. Especially useful when pursuing innovation.

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.

Execute like a business

Knowing what to do isn't useful unless you also know how to do it.

1: Focus on the wildly important: let ambitious goals drive you. "I want to do more deep work so that I can bill a few more hours each week" isn't inspiring.

2: Act on the lead metrics: lead metrics measure behaviors; focus on these instead of lag metrics, which measure outcomes. "Hours of deep work per day," not "papers published per year."

3: Keep a compelling scoreboard: have a visible place where you track your lead metrics. Correlate those metrics with lagging results when possible.

People play differently when they're keeping score.

4: Create a cadence of accountability: on a regular schedule, review the progress made in the previous period and plan out the next one. Again, focus on lead metrics.

Be lazy

At the end of the day, shut down thoughts about work entirely. Downtime lets your unconscious mind work on problems and aids in making insights. Downtime (when you are not using much concentration) restores mental energy (good activities: walking in nature, cooking, listening to music, talking to a friend, exercising).

Have a "shutdown ritual" that you go through at the end of each day. This will both ensure that work distractions don't intrude on your downtime, and become a cue that lets your mind know it's time to forget about work for the day. During shutdown, wrap up any incomplete tasks and thoughts (or jot down a plan for completing them tomorrow, or just write them in a todo list) so that your brain can let them go.

Embrace boredom

Deep work depends on both the ability to concentrate, and the ability to be bored. That is, to not have the impulse to fill every idle moment with distraction or attention switching. If you feel the urge to check Twitter every time there's a lull, that's a sign of a brain that's not suitably wired for deep work, even if you're regularly scheduling time for concentrated focus. You must overcome your desire for distraction.

Don't take breaks from distraction - take breaks from focus

Instead of scheduling times to focus, schedule times during which you'll allow yourself to give into distractions (Twitter, Reddit, etc). Make that the exception, and focus / mindfulness your normal state.

Literally schedule blocks of time during which you're allowed to use the internet, and avoid it completely outside those blocks. At work, at home, and on mobile. If you feel the urge to check Twitter, but see that your next "distraction block" isn't for another 30 minutes, waiting instead of immediately giving in will train your brain to be less distractable. This is like exercise: each time you resist the urge to distract yourself, you get better at it.

The key here isn't to avoid or even to reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your day to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.

For example, playing video games is fine, but schedule that block of gaming time in advance. Don't say "I'm bored, I'm going to play video games."

The goal of all this is to rewire your brain to not crave 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.

Work like Teddy Roosevelt

Roosevelt had a lot of interests in college, but still managed good grades despite not having a lot of time to study. He did this by scheduling blocks of time to study - less time than most would consider necessary - and then focusing and working intently during those blocks. Sounds like obvious advice, but the point is that because he scheduled himself way less time than he "needed," he was forced to make up the difference with a proportional increase in concentration.

Try this yourself. Pick a high priority task that requires deep work, and set yourself an aggressive deadline and some blocks of time to work on it such that the only way you can complete the task is by working above your normal level of intensity in the time you give yourself. The goal is to train your ability to concentrate.

Meditate productively

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.

Not to be more productive, but to improve your deep thinking ability. Distraction resistance and concentration. Focus on avoiding both distracting thoughts, and the tendency for your mind to dwell on the areas of the problem that you've already solved instead of straining to unwind the ones you haven't. Have a mental structure that defines what progress you want to make in each session - don't just "ponder" something.

Memorize a deck of cards

People who participate in memory competitions were studied: cognitively, they were no different than the general population. What set them apart was their ability to control their attention.

A side effect of memory training, in other words, is an improvement in your general ability to concentrate.

Here, the author describes a method for memorizing cards. He then says, though, that any activity that demands unwavering attention will work just as well, eg: chess.

Quit social media

Just kidding. There's a middle ground to strive for, where we utilize and enjoy social media without letting it fragment our lives.

Social media apps, entertainment news sites, etc, are all tools. You have to holistically decide which tools to use, which includes looking at the opportunity costs. Facebook isn't without value, but is keeping up with people you knew in high school worth having your attention fragmented and remaining addicted to checking your feed?

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.

Apply the law of the vital few to your internet habits

Come up with a small number of goals for your personal and professional life. For each goal, list two or three activities that support that goal. Don't get too specific or too vague. Example:

Goal: To craft well-written, narrative-driven stories that change the way people understand the world.

Key Activities Supporting This Goal: * Research patiently and deeply. * Write carefully and with purpose.

Look at your social media tools. Do they help you perform the activities you listed? If not, consider deleting your account or severely limiting your use of those platforms.

The question once again is not whether Twitter offers some benefits, but instead whether it offers enough benefits to offset its drag on your time and attention.

Personal goals and purely social tools. Facebook helps you maintain lightweight connections. This may be great for some people (e.g. college freshmen or people who are far away from their friends and family) but distracting and attention-draining for others (people focused on having deep relationships with people they already know).

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.

Quit social media

Quit all social media, cold turkey, for thirty days. Don't tell people (especially not your Twitter followers) that you're quitting. At the end of thirty days, ask these two questions:

  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?

Worth repeating: social media is engineered to be addictive and attention-destroying. It rewires your brain to be worse at doing deep work. Turn it off and fuck FOMO.

Don't use the internet to entertain yourself

Figure out in advance what you will do during evenings and weekends. When you have no plan is when it's easiest to end up getting trapped in Reddit.

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you'll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.

Drain the shallows

37signals does four-day work weeks, and people get the same amount done in fewer total hours. How?

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.

You have the ability to do about four hours of real deep work each day. Make sure you get it.

Schedule every minute of your day

Most people have a terrible grasp of how they actually spend their time.

We spend much of our day on autopilot - not giving much thought to what we're doing with our time. This is a problem.

In the morning schedule (in coarse blocks no shorter than 30 minutes) how you will spend each minute of the day. If necessary, revise the schedule during the day if an activity takes longer than expected or if something new comes up.

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.

To add flexibility, use dual-purpose blocks when an activity might overflow its block. E.g.:

  • 2:00 - 3:00: Task A
  • 3:00 - 3:30: Task A or B
  • 3:30 - 4:00: Task B

Having a thorough schedule doesn't mean that you can't set aside time for contemplation, or ignore the schedule if you have a breakthrough that's worth chasing.

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.

If every minute is not scheduled, the following sections will be very difficult to implement.

Quantify the depth of every activity

When evaluating the "depth" of each activity you spend your time on, ask this 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?" The higher the score, the more that task is leveraging your hard earned skills.

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.

Strive to spend as much time as possible on activities that score high on this metric.

Ask your boss for a shallow work budget

Set a percentage for how much of your time you allow yourself to "spend" on shallow work, and don't go over it. This will help you justify saying "no" to things that have dubious value without feeling guilty.

Finish your work by 5:30

I call this commitment fixed-schedule productivity, as I fix the firm goal of not working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow me to satisfy this declaration.

Having a cap on how much working time you allow yourself forces you to use it conscientiously with good habits. Say "no" to obligations that generate lots of shallow work.

A commitment to fixed-schedule productivity shifts you into a scarcity mind-set. Suddenly any obligation beyond your deepest efforts is suspect and seen as potentially disruptive.

This tactic is about improving quality of life as much as it's about getting more done.

Become hard to reach

Email is a quintessential shallow activity. A steady stream of distractions, addressed directly to you.

Tip 1: Make people who email you do more work. Especially strangers. Make them jump through a few hoops, direct them to post their question in a forum instead, or simply set the expectation that you probably won't respond.

Tip 2: Do more work when you send or reply to an email. The goal is to minimize the number of emails that need to be exchanged and to resolve the issue as efficiently as possible. This also "closes the loop" as quickly as possible, so you don't have a half-completed todo item nagging on your attention.

Tip 3: Don't respond. Unless an email minimizes the effort required by the receiver, and also makes a case for why it's worth their effort, it may not merit any response at all. Cultivate a "professorial ambivalence" to email.