Deep Work

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.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work is any professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.

Shallow Work is any non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style task that is often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Our work culture’s shift toward shallow work is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.

Why Deep Work is Important

Think deeply and then apply that skill to produce work of such stunning originality that changes the world.

  1. To Learn: To remain valuable in our economy, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.
  2. To Create: If you can create something useful, its reachable audience is essentially limitless - which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s easy for your audience to find a better alternative.

The real rewards are reserved not for those who are comfortable using Facebook or Twitter (a shallow task, easily replicated), but instead for those who are comfortable building the innovative distributed systems that run these services (a deep task, hard to replicate).

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things. To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive - no matter how skilled or talented you are.

Deliberate Practice

Your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master.

You receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

Myelin is a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits.

By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation.

This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.

Deep Work is Rare

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, supporting 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.

But for you, as an individual, good news lurks. The myopia of your peers and employers uncovers a great personal advantage. Assuming the trends outlined here continue, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable.

Deep Work is Meaningful

Human beings are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.

Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state by stretching your mind to its limits, concentrating, and losing yourself in an activity.

To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.

Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.

Form a Deep Work Ritual

To make the most out of your deep work sessions, build a ritual. A ritual minimizes the friction in the transition to depth, allowing you to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer. When planning a ritual, think about the following.

  • Where you’ll work and for how long. You need a location for your deep work efforts.
  • How you’ll work once you start to work. You need rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. Without this structure, you’ll have to think again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.
  • How you’ll support your work. Make sure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, you might start with a cup of good coffee or exercise. This primes your brain for the upcoming deep work session.

Keep in mind that finding a ritual that sticks might require experimentation, so be willing to work at it. I assure you that the effort’s worth it: Once you’ve evolved something that feels right, the impact can be significant.

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

To work deeply is a big deal and should not be an activity undertaken lightly. Surrounding such efforts with a complicated (and perhaps, to the outside world, quite strange) ritual accepts this reality—providing your mind with the structure and commitment it needs to slip into the state of focus where you can begin to create things that matter.

Focus on the wildly important.

Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours.

The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish. Execution should be aimed at a small number of “wildly important goals”. This simplicity will focus your energy to a sufficient intensity to ignite real results.

Act on the lead measures.

Once you’ve identified a wildly important goal, you need to measure your success. Lead measures are the behaviors that drive the lag measures. For example, writing quality blog posts is a lead measure, whereas a large number of newsletter subscribers is a lag measure.

Lead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals.

For deep work, measure the time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.

Keep a compelling scoreboard

People play differently when they’re keeping score.

Make sure you’ve got a place to record and track your lead measures. It provides a reinforcing source of motivation. Once you notice your success with a lead measure, you become invested in perpetuating this performance.

Create a cadence of accountability

Do periodic (weekly) reviews of your scoreboard. Commit to specific actions to help improve the score before the next meeting, and review the previous commitments.

Have a Shutdown Ritual

At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning. 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.

Downtime provides insights.

Providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges.

A shutdown habit, therefore, is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you’re engaged in productive work, but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy.

Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply.

You can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this activity a rest.

Walking in nature, having a casual conversation with a friend, listening to music while making dinner, playing a game with your kids, or 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.

If you keep interrupting your evening for sporadic work, you’re robbing your directed attention of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration.

Embrace Boredom

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.

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.

Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.

Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead, take breaks from focus.

The constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.

Do Concentration Dashes

Deep work needs long periods of uninterrupted thinking.

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

After a few months of deploying this strategy, your understanding of what it means to focus will likely be transformed as you reach levels of intensity stronger than anything you’ve experienced before.

Productive Meditation

The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.

Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.

It rapidly improves your ability to think deeply. By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration.

Quit Social Media

What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation - Nicholas Carr

These services are engineered to be addictive—robbing time and attention from activities that more directly support your professional and personal goals (such as deep work). Eventually, if you use these tools enough, you’ll arrive at the state of burned-out, hyper-distracted connectivity that plagues millions of people.

It’s here that we encounter the true insidious nature of an any-benefit mindset. The use of network tools can be harmful. If you don’t attempt to weigh pros against cons, but instead use any glimpse of some potential benefit as justification for unrestrained use of a tool, then you’re unwittingly crippling your ability to succeed in the world of knowledge work.

Written on January 1, 2023