Deep Work

I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task — it is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive economy.

Our culture is pushing us toward shallow, distracted work. Hence we end up doing email during interrupted time-chunks. And it gets worse, the more time you spend in a state of shallowness, the more you reduce your capacity to perform deep work.

For this reason, we’ve even come up with the idea of busyness as a proxy for productivity. Where in the absence of clear indicators, we reverse toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy.

Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.

Yet here’s a curious paradox: the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy.

Our work culture’s shift toward the shallow is exposing a massive personal opportunity for the few who recognize the potential of resisting this trend and prioritizing depth.

Talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels. A bunch of mediocre writers does not add up to a master writer. There’s a premium to being the best.

Deliberate practice

If you’re trying to learn a complex new skill, you should aim for deliberate practice without distraction. Focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction.

This repetitive use of a specific circuit will end up cementing the skill.

  1. Focus your attention on the specific skill you’re trying to improve.
  2. Receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keeping your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
  3. Repeat.

Keep repeating this pattern and you’ll get better at learning: to learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.

Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.

The goal is to achieve Eudaimonia: a state in which you’re achieving your full human potential, also human flourishing, prosperity, and ‘blessedness’.

Deep work is the only choice in an ever-demanding society. If you’re comfortable going deep, you’ll be comfortable mastering the increasingly complex systems and skills needed to thrive in our economy.

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Habits and routines

The amount of willpower you get during the day is limited. Move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

Waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan.

Be smart about your habits and choose a strategy that fits your circumstances. Avoid distractions and create your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life.

Commit to a particular pattern for scheduling this work and develop rituals to sharpen your concentration before starting each session.

An example that would better fit our current society would be the bimodal philosophy: typically deployed by people who cannot succeed in the absence of substantial commitments to non-deep pursuits.

Build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work and treat your work as your craft, your masterpiece.


Be selective about the work you pursue: identify a small number of ambitious outcomes.

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important: say “no”. The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.
  2. Act on the Lead Measures (not lag measures) to track your success — i.e. tracking deep work hours.
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard: helps calibrate expectations for how many hours of deep work were needed per result.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability: a weekly review in which you make a plan for the work week ahead.

Seek time to release your mind — some decisions are better left to the unconscious. For decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague, and perhaps even conflicting, constraints, use your unconscious.

Develop a shutdown ritual after the workday. Once you’ve hit your work capacity for the day, stop. No email, no mindless tasks, nothing. You’re beyond the point where you can continue to effectively work deeply.

However, if after the “shut down”, you keep interrupting your evening to check email, you’re robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration.

Once your workday shuts down, you cannot allow even the smallest incursion of professional concerns, or blue-lighted screen, into your field of attention.

We spend much of our day on autopilot — not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time.

We’ve lost our ability to be bored. If every moment of potential boredom is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where it’s not ready for deep work — even if you regularly schedule a time to practice this concentration.

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.

First published on October 09, 2020