Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World 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.
We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.
Why talent / ability to do deep work is important in today's world
In a seminal 1981 paper, the economist Sherwin Rosen worked out the mathematics behind these “winner-take-all” markets.
explicitly model talent—as a factor with “imperfect substitution,” which Rosen explains as follows:
“Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.”
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. Therefore, if you’re in a marketplace where the consumer has access to all performers, and everyone’s q value is clear, the consumer will choose the very best. Even if the talent advantage of the best is small compared to the next rung down on the skill ladder, the superstars still win the bulk of the market.
I just identified two groups that are poised to thrive and that I claim are accessible:
those who can work creatively with intelligent machines and
those who are stars in their field.
Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy
The ability to quickly master hard things.
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-Gilbert 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.
a guide to “the development and deepening of the mind” for those called to make a living in the world of ideas.
This task of formalization began in earnest in the 1970s, when a branch of psychology, sometimes called performance psychology, began to systematically explore what separates experts (in many different fields) from everyone else.
In the early 1990s, K. Anders Ericsson, a professor at Florida State University, pulled together these strands into a single coherent answer, consistent with the growing research literature, that he gave a punchy name: deliberate practice. Ericsson opens his seminal paper on the topic with a powerful claim: “We deny that these differences [between expert performers and normal adults] are immutable… Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.”
In the intervening decades since K. Anders Ericsson’s first major papers on the topic, however, neuroscientists have been exploring the physical mechanisms that drive people’s improvements on hard tasks.
As the journalist Daniel Coyle surveys in his 2009 book, The Talent Code, these scientists increasingly believe the answer includes
a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner.
To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits.
This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.
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. In the introduction to this paper, she noted that other researchers have studied the effect of multitasking—trying to accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously—on performance, but that in the modern knowledge work office, once you got to a high enough level, it was more common to find people working on multiple projects sequentially:
The problem this research identifies with this work strategy is that when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.
Ref: Just-in-Time Productivity
Organization of modern knowledge work
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.
Deep work and happiness, meaning in life
The science writer Winifred Gallagher stumbled onto a connection between attention and happiness after an unexpected and terrifying event, a cancer diagnosis—“not just cancer,” she clarifies, “but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind.” As Gallagher recalls in her 2009 book Rapt,
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.
We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes, such as whether or not you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.
As Gallagher summarizes: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”
But the results from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ESM studies reveal that most people have this wrong: Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.
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. Our minds like this challenge, regardless of the subject.
In 2011, 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.”
The craftsmen they cite don’t have rarified jobs. Throughout most of human history, to be a blacksmith or a wheelwright wasn’t glamorous. But this doesn’t matter, as the specifics of the work are irrelevant. The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship—not the outcomes of their work. Put another way, a wooden wheel is not noble, but its shaping can be. The same applies to knowledge work. You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.
Seems to connect more to concepts of Flow than Gallagher's thesis about content of focus mattering
How to do deep work
Deep work chambers - architecture
This brings us to the final room of the machine, a collection of what Dewane calls “deep work chambers” (he adopted the term “deep work” from my articles on the topic). Each chamber is conceived to be six by ten feet and protected by thick soundproof walls (Dewane’s plans call for eighteen inches of insulation). “The purpose of the deep work chamber is to allow for total focus and uninterrupted work flow,” Dewane explains. He imagines a process in which you spend ninety minutes inside, take a ninety-minute break, and repeat two or three times—at which point your brain will have achieved its limit of concentration for the day.
Note: What about collaboration.
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.
(This issue is so important to Neal Stephenson that he went on to explore its implications—positive and negative—in his 2008 science fiction epic, Anathem, which considers a world where an intellectual elite live in monastic orders, isolated from the distracted masses and technology, thinking deep thoughts.)
Bi-modal (monastic vs worldly)
Carl Jung’s approach is what I call 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).
Rhytmic (regular habit)
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.
Fixed starting time.
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.
Use of rituals
Great minds like Caro and Darwin didn’t deploy rituals to be weird; they did so because success in their work depended on their ability to go deep, again and again—there’s
Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer.
Where you’ll work and for how long. Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts.
How you’ll work once you start to work.
Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any Internet use, or maintain a metric such as words produced per twenty-minute interval to keep your concentration honed. Without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate 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.
Link to Ultraworking
How you’ll support your work.
Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear.
such as organizing the raw materials of your work to minimize energy-dissipating friction (as we saw with Caro’s example).
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.
you should track time spent in deep work (lead measure), not output
Once you’ve identified a wildly important goal, you need to measure your success.
two types of metrics for this purpose: lag measures and lead measures.
describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve. For example, if your goal is to increase customer satisfaction in your bakery, then the relevant lag measure is your customer satisfaction scores. As the 4DX authors explain, the problem with lag measures is that they come too late to change your behavior: “When you receive them, the performance that drove them is already in the past.”
“measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.” In the bakery example, a good lead measure might be the number of customers who receive free samples. This is a number you can directly increase by giving out more samples.
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.
I used to focus on lag measures,
such as papers published per year. These measures, however, lacked influence on my day-to-day behavior because there was nothing I could do in the short term that could immediately generate a noticeable change to this long-term metric.
When I shifted to tracking deep work hours, suddenly these measures became relevant to my day-to-day: Every hour extra of deep work was immediately reflected in my tally.
In my early experiments with 4DX, I settled on a simple but effective solution for implementing this scoreboard. I took a piece of card stock and divided it into rows, one for each week of the current semester. I then labeled each row with the dates of the week and taped it to the wall next to my computer monitor (where it couldn’t be ignored). As each week progressed, I kept track of the hours spent in deep work that week with a simple tally of tick marks in that week’s row. 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.
Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability
the habit of a Weekly review in which you make a plan for the workweek ahead (see Rule #4). During my experiments with 4DX, I used a weekly review to look over my scoreboard to celebrate good weeks, help understand what led to bad weeks, and most important, figure out how to ensure a good score for the days ahead. This led me to adjust my schedule to meet the needs of my lead measure—enabling significantly more deep work than if I had avoided such reviews altogether.
Daily Plan - shutdown habit at the end of the day
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.
Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, set out to prove that some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. - unconscious thought theory
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.
Observations from experiments such as this one led Dijksterhuis and his collaborators to introduce unconscious thought theory (UTT)—an attempt to understand the different roles conscious and unconscious deliberation play in decision making.
At a high level, this theory proposes that
for decisions that require the application of strict rules, the conscious mind must be involved.
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. #holding an intention #System 1/2
UTT hypothesizes that this is due to the fact that these regions of your brain have more neuronal bandwidth available, allowing them to move around more information and sift through more potential solutions than your conscious centers of thinking.
Your conscious mind, according to this theory, is like a home computer on which you can run carefully written programs that return correct answers to limited problems, whereas your unconscious mind is like Google’s vast data centers, in which statistical algorithms sift through terabytes of unstructured information, teasing out surprising useful solutions to difficult questions.
The implication of this line of research is that providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges. A shutdown habit, therefore, is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you’re engaged in productive work, but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy.
Another key commitment for succeeding with this strategy is to support your commitment to shutting down with a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you succeed. In more detail, this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another. When you’re done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion (to end my own ritual, I say, “Shutdown complete”). This final step sounds cheesy, but it provides a simple cue to your mind that it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.
To make this suggestion more concrete, let me walk through the steps of my own shutdown ritual (which I first developed around the time I was writing my doctoral dissertation, and have deployed, in one form or another, ever since). The first thing I do is take a final look at my e-mail inbox to ensure that there’s nothing requiring an urgent response before the day ends. The next thing I do is transfer any new tasks that are on my mind or were scribbled down earlier in the day into my official task lists. (I use Google Docs for storing my task lists, as I like the ability to access them from any computer—but the technology here isn’t really relevant.) Once I have these task lists open, I quickly skim every task in every list, and then look at the next few days on my calendar. These two actions ensure that there’s nothing urgent I’m forgetting or any important deadlines or appointments sneaking up on me. I have, at this point, reviewed everything that’s on my professional plate. To end the ritual, I use this information to make a rough plan for the next day. Once the plan is created, I say, “Shutdown complete,” and my work thoughts are done for the day.
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, is based on the concept of [[attention fatigue]].
This resource is finite: If you exhaust it, you’ll struggle to concentrate. (For our purposes, we can think of this resource as the same thing as Roy F. Baumeister's limited willpower reserves we discussed in the introduction to this rule.*)
The 2008 study argues that walking on busy city streets requires you to use directed attention, as you must navigate complicated tasks like figuring out when to cross a street to not get run over, or when to maneuver around the slow group of tourists blocking the sidewalk. After just fifty minutes of this focused navigation, the subject’s store of directed attention was low.
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. After fifty minutes of such replenishment, the subjects enjoyed a boost in their concentration.
(You might, of course, argue that perhaps being outside watching a sunset puts people in a good mood, and being in a good mood is what really helps performance on these tasks.
But in a sadistic twist, the researchers debunked that hypothesis by repeating the experiment in the harsh Ann Arbor winter. Walking outside in brutal cold conditions didn’t put the subjects in a good mood, but they still ended up doing better on concentration tasks.)
In K. Anders Ericsson’s seminal 1993 paper on the topic, titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” - max four hours per day for experts, less for novices
he dedicates a section to reviewing what the research literature reveals about an individual’s capacity for cognitively demanding work.
K. Anders 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 Zeigarnik effect.
This effect, which is named for the experimental work of the early-twentieth-century psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention.
It tells us that if you simply stop whatever you are doing at five p.m. and declare, “I’m done with work until tomorrow,” you’ll likely struggle to keep your mind clear of professional issues, as the many obligations left unresolved in your mind will, as in Bluma Zeigarnik’s experiments, keep battling for your attention throughout the evening (a battle that they’ll often win).
Riding to our rescue in this matter is our friend from earlier in the rule, the psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, who wrote a paper with E.J. Masicampo playfully titled “Consider It Done!”
In this study, the two researchers began by replicating the Zeigarnik effect in their subjects (in this case, the researchers assigned a task and then cruelly engineered interruptions), but then found that they could significantly reduce the effect’s impact by asking the subjects, soon after the interruption, to make a plan for how they would later complete the incomplete task. 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.”
Clifford 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]
Training deep focus
Rule #2 will help you significantly improve this limit. The strategies that follow are motivated by the key idea that 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.
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.
Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. I suggest that you keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed—no matter how tempting. 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. By segregating Internet use (and therefore segregating distractions) you’re minimizing the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so you let these attention-selecting muscles strengthen. For example, if you’ve scheduled your next Internet block thirty minutes from the current moment, and you’re beginning to feel bored and crave distraction, the next thirty minutes of resistance become a session of concentration calisthenics. A full day of scheduled distraction therefore becomes a full day of similar mental training.
Point #2: Regardless of how you schedule your Internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use.
If this is infeasible—perhaps you need to get the current offline activity done promptly—then the correct response is to change your schedule so that your next Internet block begins sooner. The key in making this change, however, is to not schedule the next Internet block to occur immediately. Instead, enforce at least a five-minute gap between the current moment and the next time you can go online. This gap is minor, so it won’t excessively impede your progress, but from a behavioralist perspective, it’s substantial because it separates the sensation of wanting to go online from the reward of actually doing so.
Point #3: Scheduling Internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training.
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 evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom. One place where this strategy becomes particularly difficult outside work is when you’re forced to wait (for example, standing in line at a store). It’s crucial in these situations that if you’re in an offline block, you simply gird yourself for the temporary boredom, and fight through it with only the company of your thoughts. 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
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. 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. 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. Like Roosevelt at Harvard, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration. Try this experiment no more than once a week at first—giving your brain practice with intensity, but also giving it (and your stress levels) time to rest in between. 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.
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. An additional benefit is that these dashes are incompatible with distraction (there’s no way you can give in to distraction and still make your deadlines). Therefore, every completed dash provides a session in which you’re potentially bored, and really want to seek more novel stimuli—but you resist. As argued in the previous strategy, the more you practice resisting such urges, the easier such resistance becomes. 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.
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
When faced with a hard problem, your mind, as it was evolved to do, will attempt to avoid excess expenditure of energy when possible. One way it might attempt to sidestep this expenditure is by avoiding diving deeper into the problem by instead looping over and over again on what you already know about it. For example, when working on a proof, my mind has a tendency to rehash simple preliminary results, again and again, to avoid the harder work of building on these results toward the needed solution. 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.
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. 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?,”
Assuming you’re able to solve your next-step question, the final step of this structured approach to deep thinking is to consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified. At this point, you can push yourself to the next level of depth by starting the process over.
They wanted to understand what differentiated these elite memorizers from the population at large. “We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention,” explained Roediger in a New York Times blog post (emphasis mine). The ability in question is called “attentional control,” and it measures the subjects’ ability to maintain their focus on essential information.
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 (a past favorite of mine). If card memorization seems weird to you, in other words, then choose a replacement that makes similar cognitive requirements. The key to this strategy is not the specifics, but instead the motivating idea that your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it.
Note: Memory palace for deck of cards
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.
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. To help illustrate this strategy in action, let’s
The Law of the Vital Few*: In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes. For example, it might be the case that 80 percent of a business’s profits come from just 20 percent of its clients, 80 percent of a nation’s wealth is held by its richest 20 percent of citizens, or 80 percent of computer software crashes come from just 20 percent of the identified bugs. There’s a formal mathematical underpinning to this phenomenon (an 80/20 split is roughly what you would expect when describing a power law distribution over impact—a type of distribution that shows up often when measuring quantities in the real world), but it’s probably most useful when applied heuristically as a reminder that, in many cases, contributions to an outcome are not evenly distributed. Moving
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?
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.”
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.”
Bennett, to his credit, anticipated this complaint. As he argues, such worries misunderstand what energizes the human spirit: What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary, it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.
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?”
Schedule every minute of your day.
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.
Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
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?
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.
For most people in most non-entry-level knowledge work jobs, the answer to the question will be somewhere in the 30 to 50 percent range
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.
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.
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?
Process-Centric Response to E-mail
a good process-centric message immediately “closes the loop” with respect to the project at hand. When a project is initiated by an e-mail that you send or receive, it squats in your mental landscape—becoming something that’s “on your plate” in the sense that it has been brought to your attention and eventually needs to be addressed. This method closes this open loop as soon as it forms.
Perhaps most impactful, I returned to my MIT habit of working on problems in my head whenever a good time presented itself—be it walking the dog or commuting.
“Let your mind become a lens”: from page 95 of Sertillanges, Antonin-Dalmace. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirits, Conditions, Methods. Trans. Mary Ryan. Cork, Ireland: Mercier Press, 1948. “the development and deepening of the mind”: Ibid., 13. Details about deliberate practice draw heavily on the following seminal survey paper on the topic: K. Anders Ericsson, K.A., R.T. Krampe, and C. Tesch-Römer. “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Psychological Review 100.3 (1993): 363–406.
Details on the neurobiology of expert performance can be found in: Coyle, The Talent Code.
For more on deliberate practice, the following two books provide a good popular overview: • Colvin, Geoffrey. Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. New York: Portfolio, 2008. • Coyle, Daniel. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. New York: Bantam, 2009.
“It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth”: This Nietzsche quote was brought to my attention by the excellent book on walking and philosophy: Gros, Frédérick. A Philosophy of Walking. Trans. John Howe. New York: Verso Books, 2014.
Michael Pollan’s book about building a writing cabin: Pollan, Michael. A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder. New York: Random House, 1997.
Much (though not all) of the research cited to support the value of downtime was first brought to my attention through a detailed Scientific American article on the subject: Jabr, Ferris. “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.” Scientific American, October 15, 2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/.
“The scientific literature has emphasized”: from the abstract of Dijksterhuis, Ap, Maarten W. Bos, Loran F. Nordgren, and Rick B. van Baaren, “On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect.” Science 311.5763 (2006): 1005–1007. The attention restoration theory study described in the text: Berman, Marc G., John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan. “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature.” Psychological Science 19.12 (2008): 1207–1212.
Kaplan, Rachel, and Stephen Kaplan. The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Newport, Cal. So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skill Trumps Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. New York: Business Plus, 2012.
After Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea of deliberate practice in his 2008 bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, it became fashionable within psychology circles (a group suspicious, generally speaking, of all things Gladwellian) to poke holes in the deliberate practice hypothesis. For the most part, however, these studies did not invalidate the necessity of deliberate practice, but instead attempted to identify other components also playing a role in expert performance. In a 2013 journal article, titled “Why Expert Performance Is Special and Cannot Be Extrapolated from Studies of Performance in the General Population: A Response to Criticisms,” and published in the journal Intelligence 45 (2014): 81–103, K. Anders Ericsson pushed back on many of these studies. In this article, Ericsson argues, among other things, that the experimental designs of these critical papers are often flawed because they assume you can extrapolate the difference between average and above average in a given field to the difference between expert and non-expert.
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 studies I cite are looking at the activity of deliberate practice—which substantially (but not completely) overlaps our definition of deep work. For our purposes here, deliberate practice is a good specific stand.in for the general category of cognitively demanding tasks to which deep work belongs.