Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
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.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.
network tools are distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused.
Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow (whether 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.
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.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee call the group personified by Nate Silver the “high-skilled” workers. Advances such as robotics and voice recognition are automating many low-skilled positions, but as these economists emphasize, “other technologies like data visualization, analytics, high speed communications, and rapid prototyping have augmented the contributions of more abstract and data-driven reasoning, increasing the values of these jobs.” In other words, those with the oracular ability to work with and tease valuable results out of increasingly complex machines will thrive. Tyler Cowen summarizes this reality more bluntly: “The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?”
The Great Restructuring, unlike the postwar period, is a particularly good time to have access to capital. To understand why, first recall that bargaining theory, a key component in standard economic thinking, argues that when money is made through the combination of capital investment and labor, the rewards are returned, roughly speaking, proportional to the input. 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.
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.
Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.
The two core abilities just described depend on your ability to perform deep work.
“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.”
in The Intellectual Life, Sertillanges argues that to advance your understanding of your field you must tackle the relevant topics systematically, allowing your “converging rays of attention” to uncover the truth latent in each. In other words, he teaches: To learn requires intense concentration.
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.
To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.
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.
The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration—radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.
The problem this research identifies with this work strategy is that when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.
By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, Grant minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from his other obligations, allowing him to maximize performance on this one task.
the attention residue concept is still telling because it implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance.
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.
A 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.
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.
Just how much time were employees of Atlantic Media spending moving around information instead of focusing on the specialized tasks they were hired to perform?
Generally speaking, as knowledge work makes more complex demands of the labor force, it becomes harder to measure the value of an individual’s efforts.
None of these behaviors would survive long if it was clear that they were hurting the bottom line, but the metric black hole prevents this clarity and allows the shift toward distraction we increasingly encounter in the professional world.
The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
similar reality creates problems for many knowledge workers. They want to prove that they’re productive members of the team and are earning their keep, but they’re not entirely clear what this goal constitutes.
Knowledge workers, I’m arguing, are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value.
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.
This potent mixture of job ambiguity and lack of metrics to measure the effectiveness of different strategies allows behavior that can seem ridiculous when viewed objectively to thrive in the increasingly bewildering psychic landscape of our daily work.
“Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World,” he argued in his 1993 book on the topic. “It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant.”
In Morozov’s critique, we’ve made “the Internet” synonymous with the revolutionary future of business and government. To make your company more like “the Internet” is to be with the times, and to ignore these trends is to be the proverbial buggy-whip maker in an automotive age.
This Internet-centrism (to steal another Morozov term) is what technopoly looks like today.
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.
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.
Depth-destroying behaviors such as immediate e-mail responses and an active social media presence are lauded, while avoidance of these trends generates suspicion.
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.
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.”
Fredrickson’s research shows, what you choose to focus on exerts significant leverage on your attitude going forward. These simple choices can provide a “reset button” to your emotions.
These elderly subjects were not happier because their life circumstances were better than those of the young subjects; they were instead happier because they had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive. By skillfully managing their attention, they improved their world without changing anything concrete about it.
consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors. There’s a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work—whether you’re Ric Furrer smithing a sword or a computer programmer optimizing an algorithm. Gallagher’s theory, therefore, predicts that if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.
(The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whom we’ll learn more about in the next section, explicitly identifies this advantage when he emphasizes the advantage of cultivating “concentration so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.”)
Many knowledge workers spend most of their working day interacting with these types of shallow concerns. Even when they’re required to complete something more involved, the habit of frequently checking inboxes ensures that these issues remain at the forefront of their attention. Gallagher teaches us that this is a foolhardy way to go about your day, as it ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that’s dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.
Among them is the notion that] ‘the idle mind is the devil’s workshop’… when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right.”
The implication of these findings is clear. In work (and especially knowledge work), to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.
“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.
Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.
Csikszentmihalyi then explains that it’s even more important that the individual learn how to seek out opportunities for flow. This, ultimately, is the lesson to come away with from our brief foray into the world of experimental psychology: To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
From Descartes’s skepticism came the radical belief that the individual seeking certainty trumped a God or king bestowing truth. The resulting Enlightenment, of course, led to the concept of human rights and freed many from oppression. But as Dreyfus and Kelly emphasize, for all its good in the political arena, in the domain of the metaphysical this thinking stripped the world of the order and sacredness essential to creating meaning.
In a post-Enlightenment world we have tasked ourselves to identify what’s meaningful and what’s not, an exercise that can seem arbitrary and induce a creeping nihilism. “The Enlightenment’s metaphysical embrace of the autonomous individual leads not just to a boring life,” Dreyfus and Kelly worry; “it leads almost inevitably to a nearly unlivable one.”
Craftsmanship, Dreyfus and Kelly argue in their book’s conclusion, provides a key to reopening a sense of sacredness in a responsible manner.
The task of a craftsman, they conclude, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.”
There’s nothing intrinsic about the manual trades when it comes to generating this particular source of meaning. Any pursuit—be it physical or cognitive—that supports high levels of skill can also generate a sense of sacredness.
“We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.”
Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.
The meaning uncovered by such efforts is due to the skill and appreciation inherent in craftsmanship—not the outcomes of their work.
You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.
It follows that to embrace deep work in your own career, and to direct it toward cultivating your skill, is an effort that can transform a knowledge work job from a distracted, draining obligation into something satisfying—a portal to a world full of shining, wondrous things.
deep work is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy at the same time that it also is becoming increasingly rare
A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.