Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Some of the quotes from the book Deep Work that I highlighted while reading it. These are the lines that I read again and again.

Introduction

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

Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.

“If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time- chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there is a bunch of e- mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.”

To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing— a task that requires depth.

PART 1: The Idea

Chapter 1: Deep Work Is Valuable

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.

The ability to quickly master hard things. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive— no matter how skilled or talented you are.

deliberate practice.

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.”

This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires. Its core components are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

An inescapable conclusion: To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

The batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. Grant performs this batching at multiple levels. Within the year, he stacks his teaching into the fall semester, during which he can turn all of his attention to teaching well and being available to his students.

(He typically divides the writing of a scholarly paper into three discrete tasks: analyzing the data, writing a full draft, and editing the draft into something publishable.)

Following law of productivity: High- Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.

Chapter 2: Deep Work Is Rare

Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old- fashioned and nontechnological.

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.

Chapter 3: Deep Work Is Meaningful

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

“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.”

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.

“Jobs should be redesigned so that they resemble as closely as possible flow activities.”

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

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.

PART 2: The Rules

Rule #1: Work Deeply

You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

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.

The famed computer scientist Donald Knuth cares about deep work. As he explains on his website: “What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”

You must be careful to choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances, as a mismatch here can derail your deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify.

The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.

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.

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.

The rhythmic 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.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a dissertation with no one pressuring you to get it done, the habitual nature of the rhythmic philosophy might be necessary to maintain progress.

I call this approach, in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule, the journalist philosophy. This name is a nod to the fact that journalists, like Walter Isaacson, are trained to shift into a writing mode on a moment’s notice, as is required by the deadline- driven nature of their profession.

An often- overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.

“[ Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”

These gestures push your deep goal to a level of mental priority that helps unlock the needed mental resources. Sometimes to go deep, you must first go big.

The whiteboard effect: For some types of problems, working with someone else at the proverbial shared whiteboard can push you deeper than if you were working alone. The presence of the other party waiting for your next insight— be it someone physically in the same room or collaborating with you virtually— can short- circuit the natural instinct to avoid depth.

Grove cut him off with a gruff reply: “You are such a naïve academic. I asked you how to do it, and you told me what I should do. I know what I need to do. I just don’t know how to do it.” As Christensen later explained, this division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world. It’s often straightforward to identify a strategy needed to achieve a goal, but what trips up companies is figuring out how to execute the strategy once identified.

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.

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.” This simplicity will help focus an organization’s energy to a sufficient intensity to ignite real results.

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.”

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.

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. This is a number you can directly increase by giving out more samples. As you increase this number, your lag measures will likely eventually improve as well. In other words, lead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long- term goals.

For 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.

Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard “People play differently when they’re keeping score,”

Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

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.

Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights

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.

Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply

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.

Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important

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 conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.

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.

two goals: improving your ability to concentrate intensely and overcoming your desire for distraction.

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.

Point #1: This strategy works even if your job requires lots of Internet use and/ or prompt e- mail replies.

Point #2: Regardless of how you schedule your Internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use.

Point #3: Scheduling Internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Suggestion #2: Structure Your 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.

Once the relevant variables are identified, define the specific next- step question you need to answer using these variables.

the final step of this structured approach to deep thinking is to consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified.

In particular, it asks you to learn a standard but quite impressive skill in the repertoire of most mental athletes: the ability to memorize a shuffled deck of cards.

To prepare for this high- volume memorization task, White recommends that you begin by cementing in your mind the mental image of walking through five rooms in your home. Perhaps you come in the door, walk through your front hallway, then turn into the downstairs bathroom, walk out the door and enter the guest bedroom, walk into the kitchen, and then head down the stairs into your basement.

Practice this mental exercise of walking through the rooms, and looking at items in each room, in a set order.

The second step in preparing to memorize a deck of cards is to associate a memorable person or thing with each of the fifty- two possible cards. To make this process easier, try to maintain some logical association between the card and the corresponding image.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

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.

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.

Smith Meadows now purchases all the hay it uses.

He began with a clear baseline— in his case, that soil health is of fundamental importance to his professional success— and then built off this foundation toward a final call on whether to use a particular tool.

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.

It simply asks that you give any particular network tool the same type of measured, nuanced accounting that tools in other trades have been subjected to throughout the history of skilled labor.

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

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.

Even if you accept this result, however, you still might argue that you shouldn’t ignore the other 80 percent of possible beneficial activities. It’s true that these less important activities don’t contribute nearly as much to your goal as your top one or two, but they can provide some benefit, so why not keep them in the mix? As long as you don’t ignore the more important activities, it seems like it can’t hurt to also support some of the less important alternatives. This argument, however, misses the key point that all activities, regardless of their importance, consume your same limited store of time and attention. If you service low- impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher- impact activities. It’s a zero- sum game. And because your time returns substantially more rewards when invested in high- impact activities than when invested in low- impact activities, the more of it you shift to the latter, the lower your overall benefit.

If 80 percent of their profits come from 20 percent of their clients, then they make more money by redirecting the energy from low- revenue clients to better service the small number of lucrative contracts— each hour spent on the latter returns more revenue than each hour spent on the former.

You should take this same care in deciding which tools you allow to claim your own limited time and attention.

faced with a specific act of elimination it’s easy to worry, “What if I need this one day?,” and then use this worry as an excuse to keep the item in question sitting around.

If your answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service permanently. If your answer was a clear “yes,” then return to using the service. If your answers are qualified or ambiguous, it’s up to you whether you return to the service, though I would encourage you to lean toward quitting.

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.”

But the logical foundation of his proposal, that you both should and can make deliberate use of your time outside work, remains relevant today— especially with respect to the goal of this rule, which is to reduce the impact of network tools on your ability to perform deep work.

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.”

Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific actions with specific goals to fill your time. A set program of reading, à la Bennett, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is also a good option, as is, of course, exercise or the enjoyment of good (in- person) company.

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.

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.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

“How can we afford to put our business on hold for a month to ‘mess around’ with new ideas?” Fried asked rhetorically. “How can we afford not to?”

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.

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?”

It will soon prove indispensable in your quest to take full advantage of the value of deep work: Schedule every minute of your day.

Schedule every minute of your day.

You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.

It’s here, of course, that most people will begin to run into trouble. Two things can (and likely will) go wrong with your schedule once the day progresses. The first is that your estimates will prove wrong. You might put aside two hours for writing a press release, for example, and in reality it takes two and a half hours. The second problem is that you’ll be interrupted and new obligations will unexpectedly appear on your plate. These events will also break your schedule. This is okay. If your schedule is disrupted, you should, at the next available moment, take a few minutes to create a revised schedule for the time that remains in the day.

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.

The second tactic that helps is the use of overflow conditional blocks. If you’re not sure how long a given activity might take, block off the expected time, then follow this with an additional block that has a split purpose. If you need more time for the preceding activity, use this additional block to keep working on

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?”

“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.

I would go so far as to argue that someone following this combination of comprehensive scheduling and a willingness to adapt or modify the plan as needed will likely experience more creative insights than someone who adopts a more traditionally “spontaneous” approach where the day is left open and unstructured. Without structure, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow— e- mail, social media, Web surfing.

Without structure, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow— e- mail, social media, Web surfing. This type of shallow behavior, though satisfying in the moment, is not conducive to creativity.

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.

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?

They return more value per time spent, and they stretch your abilities, leading to improvement. On the other hand, a task that our hypothetical college graduate can pick up quickly is one that does not leverage expertise, and therefore it can be understood as shallow.

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. (The strategies that precede and follow this one will help you achieve this goal.)

What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?

By instead picking and sticking with a shallow- to- deep ratio, you can replace this guilt- driven unconditional acceptance with the more healthy habit of trying to get the most out of the time you put aside for shallow work

Finish Your Work by Five Thirty

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

A clean break is best.

Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E- mails

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?

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.

Second, to steal terminology from David Allen, a good process- centric message immediately “closes the loop” with respect to the project at hand.

Tip #3: Don’t Respond

Professorial E- mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e- mail message if any of the following applies: It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response. It’s not a question or proposal that interests you. Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.

As the author Tim Ferriss once wrote: “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life- changing big things.”

Conclusion

“The one trait that differentiated [Gates from Allen] was focus. Allen’s mind would flit between many ideas and passions, but Gates was a serial obsessor.”

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