Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Cal Newport

Ended: Jan. 19, 2016

Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.
you think it’s philosophically good or bad) is exposing a massive economic and personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth—an
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 compressed schedule is possible because I’ve invested significant effort to minimize the shallow in my life while making sure I get the most out of the time this frees up. I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. 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.
My commitment to depth has also returned nonprofessional benefits. For the most part, I don’t touch a computer between the time when I get home from work and the next morning when the new workday begins (the main exception being blog posts, which I like to write after my kids go to bed). This ability to fully disconnect, as opposed to the more standard practice of sneaking in a few quick work e-mail checks, or giving in to frequent surveys of social media sites, allows me to be present with my wife and two sons in the evenings, and read a surprising number of books for a busy father of two. 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.
As Brynjolfsson and McAfee emphasize, this Great Restructuring is not driving down all jobs but is instead dividing them. Though an increasing number of people will lose in this new economy as their skill becomes automatable or easily outsourced, there are others who will not only survive, but thrive—becoming more valued (and therefore more rewarded) than before.
As digital technology reduces the need for labor in many industries, the proportion of the rewards returned to those who own the intelligent machines is growing. A venture capitalist in today’s economy can fund a company like Instagram, which was eventually sold for a billion dollars, while employing only thirteen people. When else in history could such a small amount of labor be involved in such a large amount of value? With so little input from labor, the proportion of this wealth that flows back to the machine owners—in this case, the venture investors—is without precedent.
In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.
This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits—effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination. By contrast, if you’re trying to learn a complex new skill (say, SQL database management) in a state of low concentration (perhaps you also have your Facebook feed open), you’re firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually want to strengthen.
Though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.
good chief executive is essentially a hard-to-automate decision engine, not unlike IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing Watson system. They have built up a hard-won repository of experience and have honed and proved an instinct for their market. They’re then presented inputs throughout the day—in the form of e-mails, meetings, site visits, and the like—that they must process and act on. To ask a CEO to spend four hours thinking deeply about a single problem is a waste of what makes him or her valuable. It’s better to hire three smart subordinates to think deeply about the problem and then bring their solutions to the executive for a final decision.
Indeed, many software companies now deploy the Scrum project management methodology, which replaces a lot of this ad hoc messaging with regular, highly structured, and ruthlessly efficient status meetings (often held standing up to minimize the urge to bloviate).
In the last chapter, I argued that deep work is more valuable than ever before in our shifting economy. If this is true, however, you would expect to see this skill promoted not just by ambitious individuals but also by organizations hoping to get the most out of their employees. As the examples provided emphasize, this is not happening. Many other ideas are being prioritized as more important than deep work in the business world, including, as we just encountered, serendipitous collaboration, rapid communication, and an active presence on social media.
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 should be a priority in today’s business climate. But it’s not. I’ve just summarized various explanations for this paradox. Among them are the realities that deep work is hard and shallow work is easier, that in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving, and that our culture has developed a belief that if a behavior relates to “the Internet,” then it’s good—regardless of its impact on our ability to produce valuable things. All of these trends are enabled by the difficulty of directly measuring the value of depth or the cost of ignoring it.
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.
when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.” A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Csikszentmihalyi calls this mental state flow
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.
people were happier at work and less happy relaxing than they suspected.
Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.
In an ideal world—one in which the true value of deep work is accepted and celebrated—we’d all have access to something like the Eudaimonia Machine. Perhaps not David Dewane’s exact design, but, more generally speaking, a work environment (and culture) designed to help us extract as much value as possible from our brains. Unfortunately, this vision is far from our current reality. We instead find ourselves in distracting open offices where inboxes cannot be neglected and meetings are incessant—a setting where colleagues would rather you respond quickly to their latest e-mail than produce the best possible results.
You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.
Knuth deploys what I call the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling. This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.
As you might recall, Grant’s schedule during his rapid rise through the professorship ranks at Wharton provides a nice bimodality case study. On the scale of the academic year, he stacked his courses into one semester, so that he could focus the other on deep work. 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.
described a study by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow. In this study, a group of management consultants were asked to disconnect for a full day each workweek. The consultants were afraid the client would rebel. It turned out that the client didn’t care. As Jung, Grant, and Perlow’s subjects discovered, people will usually respect your right to become inaccessible if these periods are well defined and well advertised, and outside these stretches, you’re once again easy to find.
Charles Darwin had a similarly strict structure for his working life during the period when he was perfecting On the Origin of Species. As his son Francis later remembered, he would rise promptly at seven to take a short walk. He would then eat breakfast alone and retire to his study from eight to nine thirty. The next hour was dedicated to reading his letters from the day before, after which he would return to his study from ten thirty until noon. After this session, he would mull over challenging ideas while walking on a proscribed route that started at his greenhouse and then circled a path on his property. He would walk until satisfied with his thinking then declare his workday done.
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 no way to win a Pulitzer Prize or conceive a grand theory without pushing your brain to its limit. Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer. If they had instead waited for inspiration to strike before settling in to serious work, their accomplishments would likely have been greatly reduced.
But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address: • Where you’ll work and for how long. Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door shut and desk cleaned off
Where you’ll work and for how long. Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office…
If it’s possible to identify a location used only for depth—for instance, a conference room or quiet library—the…
Regardless of where you work, be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete…
• 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…
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…
• 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…
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. (As Nietzsche said: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”) This support might also include environmental factors, such as organizing the raw materials of your work to minimize energy-dissipating friction (as we saw with Caro’s example). To maximize your success, you need to…
Rowling’s decision to check into a luxurious hotel suite near Edinburgh Castle is an example of a curious but effective strategy in the world of deep work: the grand gesture. The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.
When you study the habits of other well-known deep workers, the grand gesture strategy comes up often. Bill Gates, for example, was famous during his time as Microsoft CEO for taking Think Weeks during which he would leave behind his normal work and family obligations to retreat to a cabin with a stack of papers and books. His goal was to think deeply, without distraction, about the big issues relevant to his company. It was during one of these weeks, for example, that he famously came to the conclusion that the Internet was going to be a major force in the industry. There was nothing physically stopping Gates from thinking deeply in his office in Microsoft’s Seattle headquarters, but the novelty of his weeklong retreat helped him achieve the desired levels of concentration.
Christensen wrote for a book titled The 4 Disciplines of Execution, which built on extensive consulting case studies to describe four “disciplines” (abbreviated, 4DX) for helping companies successfully implement high-level strategies.
Just as Andy Grove had identified the importance of competing in the low-end processor market, I had identified the importance of prioritizing depth. What I needed was help figuring out how to execute this strategy. Intrigued by these parallels, I set out to adapt the 4DX framework to my personal work habits and ended up surprised by how helpful they proved in driving me toward effective action on my goal of working deeply.
the underlying concepts seem to apply anywhere that something important needs to get done against the backdrop of many competing obligations and distractions.
the authors of The 4 Disciplines of Execution explain, “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.”
Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important
“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.”
For an individual focused on deep work, the implication is that you should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours.
The general exhortation to “spend more time working deeply” doesn’t spark a lot of enthusiasm. To instead have a specific goal that would return tangible and substantial professional benefits will generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm.
“If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.”
Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures Once you’ve identified a wildly important goal, you need to measure your success. In 4DX, there are two types of metrics for this purpose: lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve. 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.” Lead measures, on the other hand, “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.
Once you’ve identified a wildly important goal, you need to measure your success. In 4DX, there are two types of metrics for this purpose: lag measures and lead measures. Lag measures describe the thing you’re ultimately trying to improve.
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. Returning
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.
Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
when attempting to drive your team’s engagement toward your organization’s wildly important goal, it’s important that they have a public place to record and track their lead measures. This scoreboard creates a sense of competition that drives them to focus on these measures, even when other demands vie for their attention. It also provides a reinforcing source of motivation. Once the team notices their success with a lead measure, they become invested in perpetuating this performance.
for an individual focused on deep work, hours spent working deeply should be the lead measure. It follows, therefore, that the individual’s scoreboard should be a physical artifact in the workspace that displays the individual’s current deep work hour count.
I argued that for an individual focused on deep work, hours spent working deeply should be the lead measure. It follows, therefore, that the individual’s scoreboard should be a physical artifact in the workspace that displays the individual’s current deep work hour count.
Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability The 4DX authors elaborate that the final step to help maintain a focus on lead measures is to put in place “a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns a wildly important goal.” During these meetings, the team members must confront their scoreboard, commit to specific actions to help improve the score before the next meeting, and describe what happened with the commitments they made at the last meeting.
The 4DX authors elaborate that the final step to help maintain a focus on lead measures is to put in place “a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns a wildly important goal.”
For an individual focused on his or her own deep work habit, there’s likely no team to meet with, but this doesn’t exempt you from the need for regular accountability. In multiple places throughout this book I discuss and recommend the habit of a weekly review in which you make a plan for the workweek ahead (see Rule #4). 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.
Throughout this 4DX experiment, the clarity of this goal, coupled with the simple but unavoidable feedback of my lead measure scoreboard, pushed me to a level of depth I hadn’t before achieved. In retrospect, it was not so much the intensity of my deep work periods that increased, but instead their regularity. Whereas I used to cluster my deep thinking near paper submission deadlines, the 4DX habit kept my mind concentrated throughout the full 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.
I want to suggest a more applicable but still quite powerful heuristic: At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free to encounter Kreider’s buttercups, stink bugs, and stars.
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.
I want to first explore why a shutdown will be profitable to your ability to produce valuable output.
it’s worth taking the time to also understand the science behind the value of downtime. A closer examination of this literature reveals the following three possible explanations for this value. Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights
Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights
some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. In other words, to actively try to work through these decisions will lead to a worse outcome than loading up the relevant information and then moving on to something else while letting the subconscious layers of your mind mull things over.
The authors of this study, led by the Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, set out to prove that some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. In other words, to actively try to work through these decisions will lead to a worse outcome than loading up the relevant information and then moving on to something else while letting the subconscious layers of your mind mull things over.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply
A frequently cited 2008 paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science describes a simple experiment. Subjects were split into two groups. One group was asked to take a walk on a wooded path in an arboretum near the Ann Arbor, Michigan, campus where the study was conducted. The other group was sent on a walk through the bustling center of the city. Both groups were then given a concentration-sapping task called backward digit-span. The core finding of the study is that the nature group performed up to 20 percent better on the task. The nature advantage still held the next week when the researchers brought back the same subjects and switched the locations: It wasn’t the people who determined performance, but whether or not they got a chance to prepare by walking through the woods.
This study, it turns out, is one of many that validate 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 (the latter of which co-authored the 2008 study discussed here, along with Marc Berman and John Jonides), is based on the concept of attention fatigue. To concentrate requires what ART calls directed attention. 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 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,…
To concentrate requires what ART calls directed attention. This resource is finite: If you exhaust it, you…
(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 core mechanism of this theory is the idea that you can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this activity a rest. Walking in nature provides such a mental respite, but so, too, can any number of relaxing activities so long as they provide similar “inherently fascinating stimuli” and freedom from directed concentration. 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. On the other hand, if you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration. Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur. Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain…
Walking in nature provides such a mental respite, but so, too, can any number of relaxing activities so long as they provide similar “inherently fascinating stimuli” and freedom from directed concentration. 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. On the other hand, if you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours…
Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done…
Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually…
In Ericsson’s seminal 1993 paper on the topic, titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” he dedicates a section to reviewing what the research literature reveals about an individual’s capacity for cognitively demanding work. Ericsson notes that for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours—but rarely more.
Ericsson notes that for a novice, somewhere around an hour a day of intense concentration seems to be a limit, while for experts this number can expand to as many as four hours—but rarely more.
The implication of these results is that your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited. If you’re careful about your schedule (using, for example, the type of productivity strategies described in Rule #4), you should hit your daily deep work capacity during your workday. It follows, therefore, that by evening, you’re beyond the point where you can continue to effectively work deeply. Any work you do fit into the night, therefore, won’t be the type of high-value activities that really advance your career; your efforts will instead likely be confined to low-value shallow tasks (executed at a slow, low-energy pace). By deferring evening work, in other words, you’re not missing out on much of importance.
To succeed with this strategy, you must first accept the commitment that once your workday shuts down, you cannot allow even the smallest incursion of professional concerns into your field of attention. This includes, crucially, checking e-mail, as well as browsing work-related websites. In both cases, even a brief intrusion of work can generate a self-reinforcing stream of distraction that impedes the shutdown advantages described earlier for a long time to follow (most people are familiar, for example, with the experience of glancing at an alarming e-mail on a Saturday morning and then having its implications haunt your thoughts for the rest of the weekend).
Another key commitment for succeeding with this strategy is to support your commitment to shutting down with a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you succeed. 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.
The concept of a shutdown ritual might at first seem extreme, but there’s a good reason for it: the Zeigarnik effect. This effect, which is named for the experimental work of the early-twentieth-century psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. 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).
Fortunately, we don’t need to complete a task to get it off our minds. Riding to our rescue in this matter is our friend from earlier in the rule, the psychologist Roy 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.”
Decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point toward the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done. Your average e-mail response time might suffer some, but you’ll more than make up for this with the sheer volume of truly important work produced during the day by your refreshed ability to dive deeper than your exhausted peers.
Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.
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.
Imagine, for example, that over a two-hour period between meetings, you must schedule an e-mail check every fifteen minutes. Further imagine that these checks require, on average, five minutes. It’s sufficient, therefore, to schedule an Internet block every fifteen minutes through this two-hour stretch, with the rest of the time dedicated to offline blocks. In this example, you’ll end up spending around ninety minutes out of this two-hour period in a state where you’re offline and actively resisting distraction. This works out to be a large amount of concentration training that’s achieved without requiring you to sacrifice too much connectivity.
It’s crucial in this situation, therefore, that you don’t immediately abandon an offline block, even when stuck. If it’s possible, switch to another offline activity for the remainder of the current block (or perhaps even fill in this time relaxing). 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.
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 summarize, to succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. This doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate distracting behaviors; it’s sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviors to hijack your attention. The simple strategy proposed here of scheduling Internet blocks goes a long way toward helping you regain this attention autonomy.
This strategy asks you to inject the occasional dash of Rooseveltian intensity into your own workday. In particular, identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. 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.
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. You should be able to consistently beat the buzzer (or at least be close), but to do so should require teeth-gritting concentration.
The main motivation for this strategy is straightforward. Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable. 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).
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.
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.
suggest that you adopt a productive meditation practice in your own life. You don’t necessarily need a serious session every day, but your goal should be to participate in at least two or three such sessions in a typical week. Fortunately, finding time for this strategy is easy, as it takes advantage of periods that would otherwise be wasted (such as walking the dog or commuting to work), and if done right, can actually increase your professional productivity instead of taking time away from your work. In fact, you might even consider scheduling a walk during your workday specifically for the purpose of applying productive meditation to your most pressing problem at the moment.
A side effect of memory training, in other words, is an improvement in your general ability to concentrate. This ability can then be fruitfully applied to any task demanding deep work.
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
Willpower is limited, and therefore the more enticing tools you have pulling at your attention, the harder it’ll be to maintain focus on something important. To master the art of deep work, therefore, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.
This rule attempts to break us out of this rut by proposing a third option: accepting that these tools are not inherently evil, and that some of them might be quite vital to your success and happiness, but at the same time also accepting that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention (not to mention personal data) should be much more stringent, and that most people should therefore be using many fewer such tools. I won’t ask you, in other words, to quit the Internet altogether like Baratunde Thurston did for twenty-five days back in 2013. But I will ask you to reject the state of distracted hyperconnectedness that drove him to that drastic experiment in the first place. There is a middle ground, and if you’re interested in developing a deep work habit, you must fight to get there.
The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that it ignores all the negatives that come along with the tools in question. 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).
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.
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.
This hypothetical London salaryman, he notes, has a little more than sixteen hours left in the day beyond these work-related hours. To Bennett, this is a lot of time, but most people in this situation tragically don’t realize its potential. The “great and profound mistake which my typical man makes in regard to his day,” he elaborates, is that even though he doesn’t particularly enjoy his work (seeing it as something to “get through”), “he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as ‘the day,’ to which the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.” This is an attitude that Bennett condemns as “utterly illogical and unhealthy.”
Bennett suggests that his typical man see his sixteen free hours as a “day within a day,” explaining, “during those sixteen hours he is free; he is not a wage-earner; he is not preoccupied with monetary cares; he is just as good as a man with a private income.” Accordingly, the typical man should instead use this time as an aristocrat would: to perform rigorous self-improvement—a
In my own life, for example, I manage to read a surprising number of books in a typical year, given the demands on my time as a professor, writer, and father (on average, I’m typically reading three to five books at a time). This is possible because one of my favorite preplanned leisure activities after my kids’ bedtime is to read an interesting book. As a result, my smartphone and computer, and the distractions they can offer, typically remain neglected between the end of the workday and the next morning.
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.
In my experience, this analysis is spot-on. 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.
To summarize, if you want to eliminate the addictive pull of entertainment sites on your time and attention, give your brain a quality alternative. Not only will this preserve your ability to resist distraction and concentrate, but you might even fulfill Arnold Bennett’s ambitious goal of experiencing, perhaps for the first time, what it means to live, and not just exist.
Very few people work even 8 hours a day. You’re lucky if you get a few good hours in between all the meetings, interruptions, web surfing, office politics, and personal business that permeate the typical workday. Fewer official working hours helps squeeze the fat out of the typical workweek. Once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more. People become stingy with their time and that’s a good thing. They don’t waste it on things that just don’t matter. When you have fewer hours you usually spend them more wisely.
To test this theory, 37signals implemented something radical: The company gave its employees the entire month of June off to work deeply on their own projects. This month would be a period free of any shallow work obligations—no status meetings, no memos, and, blessedly, no PowerPoint. At the end of the month, the company held a “pitch day” in which employees pitched the ideas they’d been working on. Summarizing the experiment in an Inc. magazine article, Fried dubbed it a success. The pitch day produced two projects that were soon put into production: a better suite of tools for handling customer support and a data visualization system that helps the company understand how their customers use their products. These projects are predicted to bring substantial value to the company, but they almost certainly would not have been produced in the absence of the unobstructed deep work time provided to the employees. To tease out their potential required dozens of hours of unimpeded effort.
This rule asks you to apply these insights to your personal work life. The strategies that follow are designed to help you ruthlessly identify the shallowness in your current schedule, then cull it down to minimum levels—leaving more time for the deep efforts that ultimately matter most.
Ericsson and his collaborators survey these studies. 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. The implication is that once you’ve hit your deep work limit in a given day, you’ll experience diminishing rewards if you try to cram in more. Shallow work, therefore, doesn’t become dangerous until after you add enough to begin to crowd out your bounded deep efforts for the day. At first, this caveat might seem optimistic. The typical workday is eight hours. The most adept deep thinker cannot spend more than four of these hours in a state of true depth. It follows that you can safely spend half the day wallowing in the shallows without adverse effect. The danger missed by this analysis is how easily this amount of time can be consumed, especially once you consider the impact of meetings, appointments, calls, and other scheduled events. For many jobs, these time drains can leave you with surprisingly little time left for solo work.
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?” The strategy described in the following paragraphs is designed to force you into these behaviors. It’s an idea that might seem extreme at first but will soon prove indispensable in your quest to take full advantage of the value of deep work: Schedule every minute of your day.
Here’s my suggestion: At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook you dedicate to this purpose. Down the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you typically work. Now comes the important part: Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks. For example, you might block off nine a.m. to eleven a.m. for writing a client’s press release. To do so, actually draw a box that covers the lines corresponding to these hours, then write “press release” inside the box. Not every block need be dedicated to a work task. There might be time blocks for lunch or relaxation breaks. To keep things reasonably clean, the minimum length of a block should be thirty minutes (i.e., one line on your page). This means, for example, that instead of having a unique small box for each small task on your plate for the day—respond to boss’s e-mail, submit reimbursement form, ask Carl about report—you can batch similar things into more generic task blocks. You might find it useful, in this case, to draw a line from a task block to the open right-hand side of the page where you can list out the full set of small tasks you plan to accomplish in that block.
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. 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.
To summarize, the motivation for this strategy is the recognition that a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect. A good first step toward this respectful handling is the advice outlined here: Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
The purpose of this strategy is to give you an accurate metric for resolving such ambiguity—providing you with a way to make clear and consistent decisions about where given work tasks fall on the shallow-to-deep scale. To do so, it asks that you evaluate activities by asking a simple (but surprisingly illuminating) question: How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?
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.)
As I discussed in Chapter 2, part of the reason shallow work persists in large quantities in knowledge work is that we rarely see the total impact of such efforts on our schedules. We instead tend to evaluate these behaviors one by one in the moment—a perspective from which each task can seem quite reasonable and convenient. The tools from earlier in this rule, however, allow you to make this impact explicit. You can now confidently say to your boss, “This is the exact percentage of my time spent last week on shallow work,” and force him or her to give explicit approval for that ratio. Faced with these numbers, and the economic reality they clarify (it’s incredibly wasteful, for example, to pay a highly trained professional to send e-mail messages and attend meetings for thirty hours a week), a boss will be led to the natural conclusion that you need to say no to some things and to streamline others—even if this makes life less convenient for the boss, or for you, or for your coworkers. Because, of course, in the end, a business’s goal is to generate value, not to make
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. I’ve practiced fixed-schedule productivity happily for more than half a decade now, and it’s been crucial to my efforts to build a productive professional life centered on deep work. In the pages ahead, I will try to convince you to adopt this strategy as well.
Returning to my own example, it’s a similar commitment that enables me to succeed with fixed scheduling. I, too, am incredibly cautious about my use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.” It takes a lot to convince me to agree to something that yields shallow work. If you ask for my involvement in university business that’s not absolutely necessary, I might respond with a defense I learned from the department chair who hired me: “Talk to me after tenure.” Another tactic that works well for me is to be clear in my refusal but ambiguous in my explanation for the refusal. The key is to avoid providing enough specificity about the excuse that the requester has the opportunity to defuse it. If, for example, I turn down a time-consuming speaking invitation with the excuse that I have other trips scheduled for around the same time, I don’t provide details—which might leave the requester the ability to suggest a way to fit his or her event into my existing obligations—but instead just say, “Sounds interesting, but I can’t make it due to schedule conflicts.” In turning down obligations, I also resist the urge to offer a consolation prize that ends up devouring almost as much of my schedule (e.g., “Sorry I can’t join your committee, but I’m happy to take a look at some of your proposals as they come together and offer my thoughts”). A clean break is best.
addition to carefully guarding my obligations, I’m incredibly conscientious about managing my time. Because my time is limited each day, I cannot afford to allow a large deadline to creep up on me, or a morning to be wasted on something trivial, because I didn’t take a moment to craft a smart plan. The Damoclean cap on the workday enforced by fixed-schedule productivity has a way of keeping my organization efforts sharp. Without this looming cutoff, I’d likely end up more lax in my habits.
To summarize these observations, Nagpal and I can both succeed in academia without Tom-style overload due to two reasons. First, we’re asymmetric in the culling forced by our fixed-schedule commitment. By ruthlessly reducing the shallow while preserving the deep, this strategy frees up our time without diminishing the amount of new value we generate. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that the reduction in shallow frees up more energy for the deep alternative, allowing us to produce more than if we had defaulted to a more typical crowded schedule. Second, the limits to our time necessitate more careful thinking about our organizational habits, also leading to more value produced as compared to longer but less organized schedules.
quick response will, in the short term, provide you with some minor relief because you’re bouncing the responsibility implied by the message off your court and back onto the sender’s. This relief, however, is short-lived, as this responsibility will continue to bounce back again and again, continually sapping your time and attention. I suggest, therefore, that the right strategy when faced with a question of this type is to pause a moment before replying and take the time to answer the following key prompt: What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion? Once you’ve answered this question for yourself, replace a quick response with one that takes the time to describe the process you identified, points out the current step, and emphasizes the step that comes next. I call this the process-centric approach to e-mail, and it’s designed to minimize both the number of e-mails you receive and the amount of mental clutter they generate.
As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond. Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile. If you didn’t make a convincing case and sufficiently minimize the effort required by the professor to respond, you didn’t get a response.
This is also a lesson, as it turns out, that I’ve personally relearned again and again in my own career. I’ve been a depth devotee for more than a decade, but even I am still regularly surprised by its power. When I was in graduate school, the period when I first encountered and started prioritizing this skill, I found that deep work allowed me to write a pair of quality peer-reviewed papers each year (a respectable rate for a student), while rarely having to work past five on weekdays or work at all on weekends (a rarity among my peers).
I’m the first to admit that my year of extreme depth was perhaps a bit too extreme: It proved cognitively exhausting, and going forward I’ll likely moderate this intensity. But this experience reinforces the point that opened this conclusion: Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand. It’s a commitment to this skill that allowed Bill Gates to make the most of an unexpected opportunity to create a new industry, and that allowed me to double my academic productivity the same year I decided to concurrently write a book. To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience.