Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport
August 12, 2016
This installment of Kathy’s CliffNotes is on the book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Cal has written a number of top selling books. He is a computer science professor at Georgetown (my MBA alma matter…NBD) who writes about how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age. You can find out more information on him and his books here: www.calnewport.com
These CliffNotes also includes an embedded BONUS summary of the book: 4 Disciplines of Execution: Getting Strategy Done by Chris McChesney, Jim Huling, and Sean Covey and ties back the key learnings from 4 Disciplines of Execution to Deep Work. Which means this 12 pages summary covers the goods from 600 quality pages of two top selling books. #yourewelcome
Deep Work Book Summary:
ONE OF THE MOST VALUABLE SKILLS IN OUR ECONOMY IS BECOMING INCREASINGLY RARE. IF YOU MASTER THIS SKILL, YOU’LL ACHIEVE EXTRAORDINARY RESULTS.
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.
Introduction & Definitions:
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.
Ask this question to determine if a project/task is deep work: 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. Tasks that leverage your expertise tend to be deep tasks and they can therefore provide a double benefit: They return more value per time spent, and they stretch your abilities, leading to improvement.
Deep work required deliberate practice. The core components of deliberate practice 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.
Allow for deep work by batching the hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.
An important reality about deep work: The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. The below notes give specific ways to train the deep work skill and how to schedule deep work into your working life.
Why Deep Work is Important:
To remain valuable in our economy, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work.
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. And because technologies change rapidly, this process of mastering hard things never ends: You must be able to do it quickly, again and again.
If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.
Deep Work Can Make You Happier (Research Shows):
A deep life is not just economically lucrative, but also a life well lived. Our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. [In this study] 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.
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.” Csikszentmihalyi calls this mental state flow (which is attained during deep work).
Human beings are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging. The act of going deep orders the consciousness in a way that makes life worthwhile. To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
Things That Interfere with Deep Work:
Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work. This implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance.
Kathy’s Note: this implies negative effects from multitasking. Also, the negative consequences on attention as a result of the constant need for stimulation that most people have now, due to smart phones, etc.
Many other ideas are being prioritized as more important than deep work in the business world, including serendipitous collaboration (open floor plans), rapid communication (importance of email response speed), and an active presence on social media (continual fragmented attention). Many of these trends actively decrease one’s ability to go deep. Open offices, for example, might create more opportunities for collaboration, but they do so at the cost of massive distraction.
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.
Kathy’s Note: turning off email pop up alerts, and blocking off dedicated time to check email (not checking it in between those times) will help you maintain focus during non-email times.
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.
The Importance of Establishing Clear Goals: 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.
Implications for Office Set Up:
Both intuition and a growing body of research underscore the reality that sharing a workspace with a large number of coworkers is incredibly distracting—creating an environment that thwarts attempts to think seriously. In a 2013 article summarizing recent research on this topic, Bloomberg Businessweek went so far as to call for an end to the “tyranny of the open-plan office.”
Best office layout approach: The combination of soundproofed offices connected to large common areas yields a hub-and-spoke architecture of innovation in which both serendipitous encounter and isolated deep thinking are supported. It’s a setup that straddles a spectrum where on one extreme we find the solo thinker, isolated from inspiration but free from distraction, and on the other extreme, we find the fully collaborative thinker in an open office, flush with inspiration but struggling to support the deep thinking needed to build on it.* If we turn our attention back to Building 20 and Bell Labs, we see that this is the architecture they deployed as well. Neither building offered anything resembling a modern open office plan. They were instead constructed using the standard layout of private offices connected to shared hallways.
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, even when you retreat to a spoke to think deeply, when it’s reasonable to leverage the whiteboard effect, do so. By working side by side with someone on a problem, you can push each other toward deeper levels of depth
Four “rules,” for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.
Rule #1: Work Deeply – Develop Rituals
An important (and at the time, unexpected) truth about willpower: 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.
A few philosophical approaches to deep work:
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.
The rhythmic philosophy provides an interesting contrast to the bimodal philosophy (blocking off 90 minute units of time for deep work, possibly multiple times a day). It perhaps fails to achieve the most intense levels of deep thinking sought in the daylong concentration sessions favored by the bimodalist. The trade-off, however, is that this approach works better with the reality of human nature. 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.
A nontrivial amount of shallow work is needed to maintain most knowledge work jobs. The goal is taming shallow work’s footprint in your schedule, not eliminating it. Then there’s the issue of cognitive capacity. Deep work is exhausting because it pushes you toward the limit of your abilities. Performance psychologists have extensively studied how much such efforts can be sustained by an individual in a given day. 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.
Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated. This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact.
Scheduling Your Week & Day to Stay Focused and Make Time for Deep Work
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.
I map out when I’ll work deeply during each week at the beginning of the week, and then refine these decisions, as needed, at the beginning of each day
Identify where you’ll work and for how long. Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. If you work in an open office plan, this need to find a deep work retreat becomes particularly important. Then give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.
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.
Decide 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,
An 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. Examples are JK Rowling renting a room at an expensive hotel to work every day in order to finish the last book in the Harry Potter series. Another author bought a round trip ticket to Japan from LA to disconnect himself and have undistracted time. He wrote the entire way there, had an hour layover and a cup of coffee and wrote the entire way back. Extreme efforts, but highly effective.
Schedule every minute of your day. 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. When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. 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. 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. Almost definitely you’re going to underestimate at first how much time you require for most things.
In my own daily scheduling discipline, in addition to regularly scheduling significant blocks of time for speculative thinking and discussion, I maintain a rule that if I stumble onto an important insight, then this is a perfectly valid reason to ignore the rest of my schedule for the day (with the exception, of course, of things that cannot be skipped). I can then stick with this unexpected insight until it loses steam. At this point, I’ll step back and rebuild my schedule for any time that remains in the day. In other words, I not only allow spontaneity in my schedule; I encourage it.
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.
The recognition that a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect.
4 Disciplines of Execution ( is a different book that this book summarizes as follows with implications for deep work):
The 4DX framework is based on the fundamental premise that execution is more difficult than strategizing. After hundreds and hundreds of case studies, its inventors managed to isolate a few basic disciplines that seem to work particularly well in conquering this difficulty.
What trips up companies is figuring out how to execute the strategy once identified. The book titled The 4 Disciplines of Execution built on extensive consulting case studies to describe four “disciplines” (abbreviated, 4DX) for helping companies successfully implement high-level strategies.
Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important As 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.” This simplicity will help focus an organization’s energy to a sufficient intensity to ignite real results. 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.
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. 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.
Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard “People play differently when they’re keeping score,” the 4DX authors explain. They then elaborate that 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.
Kathy Note: What gets measured gets done. The importance of simplifying objectives and aligning incentives.
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. They note that this review can be condensed to only a few minutes, but it must be regular for its effect to be felt. The authors argue that it’s this discipline where “execution really happens.” As it related to dep work, I use a weekly review to look over my scoreboard of how much time was spend doing deep work 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.
Whereas I used to cluster my deep thinking near paper submission deadlines, the 4DX habit kept my mind concentrated throughout the full year.
(Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Deep Work Book Summary)
Importance of Shutting off Work at the end of the Work Day:
Injecting regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day, providing you with the idleness paradoxically required to get (deep) work done. There are many ways to accomplish this goal. One way is 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
Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights. The implication of this line of research is that providing your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges. A shutdown habit, therefore, is not necessarily reducing the amount of time you’re engaged in productive work, but is instead diversifying the type of work you deploy.
Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply. Attention restoration theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. 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. 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 than if you had instead respected a shutdown.
Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important. There is a limit to 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. 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.
Establishing a Shut Down Ritual at the end of the Day:
A 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.
Zeigarnik effect describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention
“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.”
Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they’re necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness summarized previously. From my experience, it should take a week or two before the shutdown habit sticks—that is, until your mind trusts your ritual enough to actually begin to release work-related thoughts in the evening. But once it does stick, the ritual will become a permanent fixture in your life—to the point that skipping the routine will fill you with a sense of unease.
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.
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.
Schedule Internet Usage:
Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.
Point #1: This strategy works even if your job requires lots of Internet use and/or prompt e-mail replies. The total number or duration of your Internet blocks doesn’t matter nearly as much as making sure that the integrity of your offline blocks remains intact.
Point #2: Regardless of how you schedule your Internet blocks, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use. You must resist this temptation! The Internet is seductive: You may think you’re just retrieving a single key e-mail from your inbox, but you’ll find it hard to not glance at the other “urgent” messages that have recently arrived. It doesn’t take many of these exceptions before your mind begins to treat the barrier between Internet and offline blocks as permeable—diminishing.
Point #3: Scheduling Internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training. If you find yourself glued to a smartphone or laptop throughout your evenings and weekends, then it’s likely that your behavior outside of work is undoing many of your attempts during the workday to rewire your brain. The key here isn’t to avoid or even to reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.
Leverage Tight Timelines to Decrease Distraction:
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
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).
Utilize Productive Meditation to Train your Brain:
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. 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. By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration. To succeed with productive meditation, it’s important to recognize that, like any form of meditation, it requires practice to do well.
Suggestion #1: Be Wary of Distractions and Looping. As a novice, when you begin a productive meditation session, your mind’s first act of rebellion will be to offer unrelated but seemingly more interesting thoughts. 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. When faced with a distraction-free mental landscape, a hard problem, and time to think, the next steps can become surprisingly non-obvious. In my experience, it helps to have some structure for this deep thinking process. I suggest starting with a careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem. Once the relevant variables are identified, define the specific next-step question you need to answer using these variables. With the relevant variables stored and the next-step question identified, you now have a specific target for your attention. This cycle of reviewing and storing variables, identifying and tackling the next-step question, then consolidating your gains is like an intense workout routine for your concentration ability. It will help you get more out of your productive meditation sessions and accelerate the pace at which you improve your ability to go deep.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
Networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and infotainment sites like Business Insider and BuzzFeed—two categories of online distraction that I will collectively call “network tools” in the pages ahead. The first point is that we increasingly recognize that these tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate. This reality no longer generates much debate; we all feel it. 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).
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.
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 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
Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget Here’s an important question that’s rarely asked: What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work? Gain Alignment with Your Manager.
For most people in most non-entry-level knowledge work jobs, the answer to the question will be somewhere in the 30 to 50 percent range (there’s a psychological distaste surrounding the idea of spending the majority of your time on unskilled tasks, so 50 percent is a natural upper limit, while at the same time most bosses will begin to worry that if this percentage gets too much lower than 30 percent you’ll be reduced to a knowledge work hermit who thinks big thoughts but never responds to e-mails). Obeying this budget will likely require changes to your behavior.
(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—ruthlessly capping the shallow while protecting the deep efforts. A commitment to fixed-schedule productivity, however, shifts you into a scarcity mind-set. Suddenly any obligation beyond your deepest efforts is suspect and seen as potentially disruptive. Your default answer becomes no, the bar for gaining access to your time and attention rises precipitously, and you begin to organize the efforts that pass these obstacles with a ruthless efficiency.
How To Make Emailing More Effective:
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 email 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.
For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better
Deep work, though a burden to prioritize, was crucial for Bill Gates’ goal of changing the world. 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.
The journalist Mason Currey, who spent half a decade cataloging the habits of famous thinkers and writers summarized this tendency toward systematization as follows: There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where… but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration. In a New York Times column on the topic, David Brooks summarizes this reality more bluntly: “[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”
37signals (now called Basecamp) launched an experiment: They shortened their workweek from five days to four. Their employees seemed to accomplish the same amount of work with one less day, so they made this change permanent. 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. 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. “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?”