‘Deep Work’ is a surprisingly good book, and an easy and fast read.
It’s main message is simple. Find time to focus deeply on your work, every day. The book tells you why this is an important thing to do and offers some strategies to achieve it.
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.
Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. 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. Deep work, in other words, was exactly the type of effort needed to stand out in a cognitively demanding field like academic psychiatry in the early twentieth century.
To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” admitted journalist Nicholas Carr, in an oft-cited 2008 Atlantic article. “[And] I’m not the only one.” Carr expanded this argument into a book, The Shallows, which became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. To write The Shallows, appropriately enough, Carr had to move to a cabin and forcibly disconnect.
Jason Benn’s story highlights a crucial lesson: Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers. It’s instead a skill that has great value today. There are two reasons for this value. The first has to do with learning. We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. Some of the computer languages Benn learned, for example, didn’t exist ten years ago and will likely be outdated ten years from now. Similarly, someone coming up in the field of marketing in the 1990s probably had no idea that today they’d need to master digital analytics. To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.
On the other hand, my commitment to depth has rewarded me. In the ten-year period following my college graduation, I published four books, earned a PhD, wrote peer-reviewed academic papers at a high rate, and was hired as a tenure-track professor at Georgetown University. I maintained this voluminous production while rarely working past five or six p.m. during the workweek. 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. I’m comfortable being bored, and this can be a surprisingly rewarding skill—especially on a lazy D.C. summer night listening to a Nationals game slowly unfold on the radio.
“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-Dalmace 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. Sertillanges wrote the book as a guide to “the development and deepening of the mind” for those called to make a living in the world of ideas. Throughout The Intellectual Life, Sertillanges recognizes the necessity of mastering complicated material and helps prepare the reader for this challenge. For this reason, his book proves useful in our quest to better understand how people quickly master hard (cognitive) skills.
As psychologists, Ericsson and the other researchers in his field are not interested in why deliberate practice works; they’re just identifying it as an effective behavior. In the intervening decades since 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 myelin—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.
This understanding is important because it provides a neurological foundation for why deliberate practice works. By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. 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.
To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy. If you instead remain one of the many for whom depth is uncomfortable and distraction ubiquitous, you shouldn’t expect these systems and skills to come easily to you.
…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.
When we step back from these individual observations, we see a clear argument form: 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. If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally. Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you.
This clarity simplifies decisions about what work habits a professor adopts or abandons. Here, for example, is the late Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman explaining in an interview one of his less orthodox productivity strategies: To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time… it needs a lot of concentration… if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, “no,” I tell them: I’m irresponsible.
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.
If you believe in the value of depth, this reality spells bad news for businesses in general, as it’s leading them to miss out on potentially massive increases in their value production. 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. Having just established that there’s nothing fundamentally flawed about deep work and nothing fundamentally necessary about the distracting behaviors that displace it, you can therefore continue with confidence with the ultimate goal of this book: to systematically develop your personal ability to go deep—and by doing so, reap great rewards.
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.
This concept upends the way most people think about their subjective experience of life. 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. If you focus on a cancer diagnosis, you and your life become unhappy and dark, but if you focus instead on an evening martini, you and your life become more pleasant—even though the circumstances in both scenarios are the same. As Gallagher summarizes: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”
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. When measured empirically, people were happier at work and less happy relaxing than they suspected. And as the ESM studies confirmed, the more such flow experiences that occur in a given week, the higher the subject’s life satisfaction. Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. 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.
This chain method (as some now call it) soon became a hit among writers and fitness enthusiasts—communities that thrive on the ability to do hard things consistently. For our purposes, it provides a specific example of a general approach to integrating depth into your life: the rhythmic philosophy. 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.
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. One of the studies cited, for example, catalogs the practice habits of a group of elite violin players training at Berlin’s Universität der Künste. This study found the elite players average around three and a half hours per day in a state of deliberate practice, usually separated into two distinct periods. The less accomplished players spent less time in a state of depth.
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.
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.
I 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.