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 not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
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.
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.
A deep life is a good life.
PART 1: THE IDEA
Deep Work Is Valuable
Current economic thinking, as I've surveyed, argues that the unprecedented growth and impact of technology are creating a massive restructuring of our economy. 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: The ability to quickly master hard things. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. The two core abilities just described depend on your ability to perform deep work.
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
Deep Work Is Rare
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.
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 Is Meaningful
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.
PART 2: THE RULES
Decide on Your Depth Philosophy
The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. Practitioners of the monastic philosophy tend to have a well-defined and highly valued professional goal that they're pursuing, and the bulk of their professional success comes from doing this one thing exceptionally well.
The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. This division of time between deep and open can happen on multiple scales. For example, on the scale of a week, you might dedicate a four-day weekend to depth and the rest to open time. Similarly, on the scale of a year, you might dedicate one season to contain most of your deep stretches (as many academics do over the summer or while on sabbatical). The bimodal philosophy believes that deep work can produce extreme productivity, but only if the subject dedicates enough time to such endeavors to reach maximum cognitive intensity--the state in which real breakthroughs occur. This is why the minimum unit of time for deep work in this philosophy tends to be at least one full day. To put aside a few hours in the morning, for example, is too short to count as a deep work stretch for an adherent of this approach.
The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. By supporting deep work with rock-solid routines that make sure a little bit gets done on a regular basis, the rhythmic scheduler will often log a larger total number of deep hours per year.
The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling. This approach is not for the deep work novice. As I established in the opening to this rule, the ability to rapidly switch your mind from shallow to deep mode doesn't come naturally.
Rule #1: Ritualize
Where you'll work and for how long.
How you'll work once you start to work. 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
How you'll support your work.
Make Grand Gestures
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.
Don't Work Alone
Consider the use of collaboration when appropriate, as it can push your results to a new level. At the same time, don't lionize this quest for interaction and positive randomness to the point where it crowds out the unbroken concentration ultimately required to wring something useful out of the swirl of ideas all around us. Separate your pursuit of serendipitous encounters from your efforts to think deeply and build on these inspirations. You should try to optimize each effort separately, as opposed to mixing them together into a sludge that impedes both goals.
Execute Like a Business
Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important. You should identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours.
Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures. 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. 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. I use 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.
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.
Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important
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. 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 first thing I do is take a final look at my e-mail inbox to ensure that there's nothing requiring an urgent response before the day ends. The next thing I do is transfer any new tasks that are on my mind or were scribbled down earlier in the day into my official task lists. (I use Google Docs for storing my task lists, as I like the ability to access them from any computer--but the technology here isn't really relevant.) Once I have these task lists open, I quickly skim every task in every list, and then look at the next few days on my calendar. These two actions ensure that there's nothing urgent I'm forgetting or any important deadlines or appointments sneaking up on me. I have, at this point, reviewed everything that's on my professional plate. To end the ritual, I use this information to make a rough plan for the next day. Once the plan is created, I say, "Shutdown complete," and my work thoughts are done for the day.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.
Don't Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead Take Breaks from Focus.
Schedule in advance when you'll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. I suggest that you keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you're allowed to use the Internet. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed--no matter how tempting.
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.
Work Like Teddy Roosevelt
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. 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.
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.
Suggestion #1: Be Wary of Distractions and Looping Suggestion #2: Structure Your Deep Thinking. 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.
Rule #3 Quit Social Media
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.
Don't Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself
It's crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you're going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. 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. 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.
Rule #4 Drain the Shallows
Schedule Every Minute of Your Day
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.
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. You can turn to a new page. You can erase and redraw blocks. Or do as I do: Cross out the blocks for the remainder of the day and create new blocks to the right of the old ones on the page (I draw my blocks skinny so I have room for several revisions). 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.
Quantify the Depth of Every Activity
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?
Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget
If you work for yourself, this exercise will force you to confront the reality of how little time in your "busy" schedule you're actually producing value. These hard numbers will provide you the confidence needed to start scaling back on the shallow activities that are sapping your time.
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.
Become Hard to Reach
Tip #1: Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work.
"If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting [at] calnewport.com. For the reasons stated above, I'll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests." The inbox is now a collection of opportunities that you can glance at when you have the free time--seeking out those that make sense for you to engage. But the pile of unread messages no longer generates a sense of obligation. You could, if you wanted to, ignore them all, and nothing bad would happen. Psychologically, this can be freeing.
Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails The process-centric approach to e-mail: 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?
Tip #3: Don't Respond