My Kindle highlights from Deep Work by Cal Newport
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.
A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.
Shallow Work: Non-cognitively 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Grant also batches his attention on a smaller time scale. Within a semester dedicated to research, he alternates between periods where his door is open to students and colleagues, and periods where he isolates himself to focus completely and without distraction on a single research task.
By batching his teaching in the fall, Grant can then turn his attention fully to research in the spring and summer, and tackle this work with less distraction.
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.
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.
By seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens 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.
…because the lifestyle of such executives is famously and unavoidably distracted. Here’s Kerry Trainor, CEO of Vimeo, trying to answer the question of how long he can go without e-mail: “I can go a good solid Saturday without, without… well, most of the daytime without it… I mean, I’ll check it, but I won’t necessarily respond.”
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. It’s bad enough that so many trends are prioritized ahead of deep work, but to add insult to injury, many of these trends actively decrease one’s ability to go deep.
E-mail inboxes, in theory, can distract you only when you choose to open them, whereas instant messenger systems are meant to be always active—magnifying the impact of interruption.
Even though we abstractly accept that distraction has costs and depth has value, these impacts, as Tom Cochran discovered, are difficult to measure. This isn’t a trait unique to habits related to distraction and depth: 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.
If you work in an environment where you can get an answer to a question or a specific piece of information immediately when the need arises, this makes your life easier—at least, in the moment. If you couldn’t count on this quick response time you’d instead have to do more advance planning for your work, be more organized, and be prepared to put things aside for a while and turn your attention elsewhere while waiting for what you requested. All of this would make the day to day of your working life harder (even if it produced more satisfaction and a better outcome in the long term).
The second reason that a culture of connectivity makes life easier is that it creates an environment where it becomes acceptable to run your day out of your inbox—responding to the latest missive with alacrity while others pile up behind it, all the while feeling satisfyingly productive (more on this soon). If e-mail were to move to the periphery of your workday, you’d be required to deploy a more thoughtful approach to figuring out what you should be working on and for how long.
For many, these standing meetings become a simple (but blunt) form of personal organization. Instead of trying to manage their time and obligations themselves, they let the impending meeting each week force them to take some action on a given project and more generally provide a highly visible simulacrum of progress.
consider the common practice of setting up regularly occurring meetings for projects. These meetings tend to pile up and fracture schedules to the point where sustained focus during the day becomes impossible.
Also consider the frustratingly common practice of forwarding an e-mail to one or more colleagues, labeled with a short open-ended interrogative, such as: “Thoughts?” These e-mails take the sender only a handful of seconds to write but can command many minutes (if not hours, in some cases) of time and attention from their recipients to work toward a coherent response. A little more care in crafting the message by the sender could reduce the overall time spent by all parties by a significant fraction. So why are these easily avoidable and time-sucking e-mails so common? From the sender’s perspective, they’re easier. It’s a way to clear something out of their inbox—at least, temporarily—with a minimum amount of energy invested.
The Principle of Least Resistance, protected from scrutiny by the metric black hole, supports work cultures that save us from the short-term discomfort of concentration and planning, at the expense of long-term satisfaction and the production of real value.
Feynman was adamant in avoiding administrative duties because he knew they would only decrease his ability to do the one thing that mattered most in his professional life: “to do real good physics work.”
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 send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter—all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.
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. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech.
anything Internet related is understood by default to be innovative and necessary. Depth-destroying behaviors such as immediate e-mail responses and an active social media presence are lauded, while avoidance of these trends generates suspicion. No one would fault Ric Furrer for not using Facebook, but if a knowledge worker makes this same decision, then he’s labeled an eccentric
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.
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.”
After a bad or disrupting occurrence in your life, Fredrickson’s research shows, what you choose to focus on exerts significant leverage on your attitude going forward.
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.
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.
“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
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.
To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.
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. 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.
Deep work, therefore, is key to extracting meaning from your profession in the manner described by Dreyfus and Kelly. 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.
Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires.
[O]ver time these distractions drained their finite pool of willpower until they could no longer resist. The same will happen to you, regardless of your intentions—unless, that is, you’re smart about your habits.
Knuth deploys what I call the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling. This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations. 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. It’s this clarity that helps them eliminate the thicket of shallow concerns that tend to trip up those whose value proposition in the working world is more varied.
If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.
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. 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 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 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.
Another common way to implement the rhythmic philosophy is to replace the visual aid of the chain method with a set starting time that you use every day for deep work. In much the same way that maintaining visual indicators of your work progress can reduce the barrier to entry for going deep, eliminating even the simplest scheduling decisions, such as when during the day to do the work, also reduces this barrier.
Chappell began by attempting a vague commitment to deep work. He made a rule that deep work needed to happen in ninety-minute chunks (recognizing correctly that it takes time to ease into a state of concentration) and he decided he would try to schedule these chunks in an ad hoc manner whenever appropriate openings in his schedule arose. Not surprisingly, this strategy didn’t yield much productivity.
He made a rule that he would wake up and start working by five thirty every morning. He would then work until seven thirty, make breakfast, and go to work already done with his dissertation obligations for the day. Pleased by early progress, he soon pushed his wake-up time to four forty-five to squeeze out even more morning depth.
The rhythmic philosophy provides an interesting contrast to the bimodal philosophy. 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.
For many, however, it’s not just self-control issues that bias them toward the rhythmic philosophy, but also the reality that some jobs don’t allow you to disappear for days at a time when the need to go deep arises.
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. 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.
Without practice, such switches can seriously deplete your finite willpower reserves. This habit also requires a sense of confidence in your abilities—a conviction that what you’re doing is important and will succeed. This type of conviction is typically built on a foundation of existing professional accomplishment. Isaacson, for example, likely had an easier time switching to writing mode than, say, a first-time novelist, because Isaacson had worked himself up to become a respected writer by this point. He knew he had the capacity to write an epic biography and understood it to be a key task in his professional advancement. This confidence goes a long way in motivating hard efforts.
I don’t, for example, make all my deep work decisions on a moment-to-moment basis. I instead tend to 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 … By reducing the need to make decisions about deep work moment by moment, I can preserve more mental energy for the deep thinking itself.
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.
Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer. If they had instead waited for inspiration to strike before settling in to serious work, their accomplishments would likely have been greatly reduced.
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.”
Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door shut and desk cleaned off (a colleague of mine likes to put a hotel-style “do not disturb” sign on his office door when he’s tackling something difficult). If it’s possible to identify a location used only for depth—for instance, a conference room or quiet library—the positive effect can be even greater. (If you work in an open office plan, this need to find a deep work retreat becomes particularly important.) Regardless of where you work, be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.
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 and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.
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 to help keep the mind clear. (As Nietzsche said: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”) This support might also include environmental factors, such as organizing the raw materials of your work to minimize energy-dissipating friction (as we saw with Caro’s example). To maximize your success, you need to support your efforts to go deep. At the same time, this support needs to be systematized so that you don’t waste mental energy figuring out what you need in the moment.
[T]he 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.
The key is to maintain both in a hub-and-spoke-style arrangement: Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply on what you encounter.
[T]he 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.
[T]his 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.
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. The general exhortation to “spend more time working deeply” doesn’t spark a lot of enthusiasm. To instead have a specific goal that would return tangible and substantial professional benefits will generate a steadier stream of enthusiasm.
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.
These measures, however, lacked influence on my day-to-day behavior because there was nothing I could do in the short term that could immediately generate a noticeable change to this long-term metric. When I shifted to tracking deep work hours, suddenly these measures became relevant to my day-to-day: Every hour extra of deep work was immediately reflected in my tally.
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.”
This strategy argues that you should follow Kreider’s lead by injecting regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day, providing you with the idleness paradoxically required to get (deep) work done.
When Kreider talks of getting work done, of course, he’s not referencing shallow tasks. For the most part, the more time you can spend immersed in shallow work the more of it that gets accomplished. As a writer and artist, however, Kreider is instead concerned with deep work—the serious efforts that produce things the world values. These efforts, he’s convinced, need the support of a mind regularly released to leisure.
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.
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. At a high level, this theory proposes that for decisions that require the application of strict rules, the conscious mind must be involved. For example, if you need to do a math calculation, only your conscious mind is able to follow the precise arithmetic rules needed for correctness. On the other hand, for decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague, and perhaps even conflicting, constraints, your unconscious mind is well suited to tackle the issue.
[A]ttention restoration theory (ART) … 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.
On the other hand, if you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration. Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur. Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow. 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.
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.
[D]eliberate practice is the systematic stretching of your ability for a given skill. It is the activity required to get better at something. Deep work and deliberate practice, as I’ve argued, overlap substantially. For our purposes here we can use deliberate practice as a general-purpose stand-in for cognitively demanding efforts.
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 … 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; your efforts will instead likely be confined to low-value shallow tasks (executed at a slow, low-energy pace). By deferring evening work, in other words, you’re not missing out on much of importance.
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.
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. In both cases, even a brief intrusion of work can generate a self-reinforcing stream of distraction that impedes the shutdown advantages described earlier for a long time to follow
[E]xperimental work of the early-twentieth-century psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. It tells us that if you simply stop whatever you are doing at five p.m. and declare, “I’m done with work until tomorrow,” you’ll likely struggle to keep your mind clear of professional issues, as the many obligations left unresolved in your mind will, as in Bluma Zeigarnik’s experiments, keep battling for your attention throughout the evening (a battle that they’ll often win).
Decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point toward 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.
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.
The creative insights that Adam Marlin now experiences in his professional life, in other words, have little to do with a onetime decision to think deeper, and much to do with a commitment to training this ability early every morning.
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.
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.
[T]raining must address two goals: improving your ability to concentrate intensely and overcoming your desire for distraction.
Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.
[T]he 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.
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.
An inevitable issue you’ll face when executing this strategy is realizing early on in an offline block that there’s some crucial piece of information online that you need to retrieve to continue making progress on your current task. If your next Internet block doesn’t start for a while, you might end up stuck. The temptation in this situation is to quickly give in, look up the information, then return to your offline block. 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 the benefits of this strategy.
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 (which makes little distinction between the two settings). In this case, I would suggest that you maintain the strategy of scheduling Internet use even after the workday is over.
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.
[T]o 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. The simple strategy proposed here of scheduling Internet blocks goes a long way toward helping you regain this attention autonomy.
One place where this strategy becomes particularly difficult outside work is when you’re forced to wait (for example, standing in line at a store). It’s crucial in these situations that if you’re in an offline block, you simply gird yourself for the temporary boredom, and fight through it with only the company of your thoughts. To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.
[T]hese fragments didn’t usually add up to a large number of total hours, but he would get the most out of them by working only on schoolwork during these periods, and doing so with a blistering intensity. “The amount of time he spent at his desk was comparatively small,” explained Morris, “but his concentration was so intense, and his reading so rapid, that he could afford more time off [from schoolwork] than most.”
[I]nject 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.
Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable. 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).
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.
[Y]ou 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.
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.
When you notice your attention slipping away from the problem at hand, gently remind yourself that you can return to that thought later, then redirect your attention back.
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. 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 notion that you would quit the Internet is, of course, an overstuffed straw man, infeasible for most (unless you’re a journalist writing a piece about distraction). No one is meant to actually follow Baratunde Thurston’s lead—and this reality provides justification for remaining with the only offered alternative: accepting our current distracted state as inevitable.
[T]hese tools are not inherently evil, and that some of them might be quite vital to your success and happiness, but at the same time also accepting that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention (not to mention personal data) should be much more stringent, and that most people should therefore be using many fewer such tools.
The use of network tools can be harmful. If you don’t attempt to weigh pros against cons, but instead use any glimpse of some potential benefit as justification for unrestrained use of a tool, then you’re unwittingly crippling your ability to succeed in the world of knowledge work.
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.
[C]onsider the network tools you currently use. For each such tool, go through the key activities you identified and ask whether the use of the tool has a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity. Now comes the important decision: Keep using this tool only if you concluded that it has substantial positive impacts and that these outweigh the negative impacts.
Of course Facebook offers benefits to your social life, but none are important enough to what really matters to you in this area to justify giving it access to your time and attention.
His focus, therefore, is much more productively applied to the goal of writing the best possible book than instead trying to squeeze out a few extra sales through inefficient author-driven means. In other words, the question is not whether Twitter has some conceivable benefit to Lewis; it’s instead whether Twitter use significantly and positively affects the most important activities in his professional life.
The law of the vital few, however, reminds us that the most important 20 percent or so of these activities provide the bulk of the benefit. Assuming that you could probably list somewhere between ten and fifteen distinct and potentially beneficial activities for each of your life goals, this law says that it’s the top two or three such activities—the number that this strategy asks you to focus on—that make most of the difference in whether or not you succeed with the goal.
[A]ll 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.
[D]eliberate practice cannot exist alongside distraction, and that it instead requires uninterrupted concentration. As Ericsson emphasizes, “Diffused attention is almost antithetical to the focused attention required by deliberate practice”
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.