In the Swiss canton of St. Gallen, near the northern banks of Lake Zurich, is a village named Bollingen. In 1922, the psychiatrist Carl Jung chose this spot to begin building a retreat. He began with a basic two-story stone house he called the Tower. After returning from a trip to India, where he observed the practice of adding meditation rooms to homes, he expanded the complex to include a private office. “In my retiring room I am by myself,” Jung said of the space. “I keep the key with me all the time; no one else is allowed in there except with my permission.”
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.
Indeed, if you study the lives of other influential figures from both distant and recent history, you’ll find that a commitment to deep work is a common theme. The sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, for example, prefigured Jung by working in a private library he built in the southern tower guarding the stone walls of his French château, while Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer. Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention for meals.
Deep work, of course, is not limited to the historical or technophobic. 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. It was during a 1995 Think Week that Gates wrote his famous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo that turned Microsoft’s attention to an upstart company called Netscape Communications.
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.
Jason Benn’s story highlights a crucial lesson: Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers. It’s instead a skill that has great value today.
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.
On the other hand, my commitment to depth has rewarded me. In the ten-year period following my college graduation, I published four books, earned a PhD, wrote peer-reviewed academic papers at a high rate, and was hired as a tenure-track professor at Georgetown University. I maintained this voluminous production while rarely working past five or six p.m. during the workweek. This compressed schedule is possible because 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.
In a seminal 1981 paper, the economist Sherwin Rosen worked out the mathematics behind these “winner-take-all” markets. One of his key insights was to explicitly model talent—labeled, innocuously, with the variable q in his formulas—as a factor with “imperfect substitution,” which Rosen explains as follows: “Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” In other words, talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best. Therefore, if you’re in a marketplace where the consumer has access to all performers, and everyone’s q value is clear, the consumer will choose the very best. Even if the talent advantage of the best is small compared to the next rung down on the skill ladder, the superstars still win the bulk of the market.
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.
The ability to quickly master hard things. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
Now consider the second core ability from the list shown earlier: producing at an elite level. If you want to become a superstar, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You must then transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value. Many developers, for example, can program computers well, but David Hansson, our example superstar from earlier, leveraged this ability to produce Ruby on Rails, the project that made his reputation. Ruby on Rails required Hansson to push his current skills to their limit and produce unambiguously valuable and concrete results.
This provides another general observation for joining the ranks of winners in our economy: If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.
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.
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
This is not the first time I’ve encountered this formulaic conception of productivity. It first came to my attention when I was researching my second book, How to Become a Straight-A Student, many years earlier. During that research process, I interviewed around fifty ultra-high-scoring college undergraduates from some of the country’s most competitive schools. Something I noticed in these interviews is that the very best students often studied less than the group of students right below them on the GPA rankings. One of the explanations for this phenomenon turned out to be the formula detailed earlier: 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.
Indeed, many software companies now deploy the Scrum project management methodology, which replaces a lot of this ad hoc messaging with regular, highly structured, and ruthlessly efficient status meetings (often held standing up to minimize the urge to bloviate). This approach frees up more managerial time for thinking deeply about the problems their teams are tackling, often improving the overall value of what they produce.
So like any good techie, he decided to quantify this unease.
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.
This motivates an interesting question: Why do so many follow the lead of the Boston Consulting Group and foster a culture of connectivity even though it’s likely, as Perlow found in her study, that it hurts employees’ well-being and productivity, and probably doesn’t help the bottom line? I think the answer can be found in the following reality of workplace behavior. 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.
In Taylor’s era, productivity was unambiguous: widgets created per unit of time. It seems that in today’s business landscape, many knowledge workers, bereft of other ideas, are turning toward this old definition of productivity in trying to solidify their value in the otherwise bewildering landscape of their professional lives. (David Allen, for example, even uses the specific phrase “cranking widgets” to describe a productive work flow.) Knowledge workers, I’m arguing, are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value. Let’s give this tendency a name. 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 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.
The myopia of your peers and employers uncovers a great personal advantage. Assuming the trends outlined here continue, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable. Having just established that there’s nothing fundamentally flawed about deep work and nothing fundamentally necessary about the distracting behaviors that displace it, you can therefore continue with confidence with the ultimate goal of this book: to systematically develop your personal ability to go deep—and by doing so, reap great rewards.
Ric Furrer is a master craftsman whose work requires him to spend most of his day in a state of depth—even a small slip in concentration can ruin dozens of hours of effort. He’s also someone who clearly finds great meaning in his profession. This connection between deep work and a good life is familiar and widely accepted when considering the world of craftsmen. “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy,” explains Matthew Crawford. And we believe him.
The Pragmatic Programmer, a well-regarded book in the computer programming field, makes this connection between code and old-style craftsmanship more directly by quoting the medieval quarry worker’s creed in its preface: “We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.” The book then elaborates that computer programmers must see their work in the same way: Within the overall structure of a project there is always room for individuality and craftsmanship … One hundred years from now, our engineering may seem as archaic as the techniques used by medieval cathedral builders seem to today’s civil engineers, while our craftsmanship will still be honored.
The philosophy of Dreyfus and Kelly frees us from such traps. The craftsmen they cite don’t have rarified jobs. Throughout most of human history, to be a blacksmith or a wheelwright wasn’t glamorous. But this doesn’t matter, as the specifics of the work are irrelevant. 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.
He imagines a process in which you spend ninety minutes inside, take a ninety-minute break, and repeat two or three times—at which point your brain will have achieved its limit of concentration for the day.
A doctoral candidate named Brian Chappell, who is a father with a full-time job, also values deep work, as it’s the only way he can make progress on his dissertation given his limited time. Chappell told me that his first encounter with the idea of deep work was “an emotional moment.”
When I interviewed Chappell for this book, he described his rhythmic approach to deep work scheduling as “both astronomically productive and guilt free.” His routine was producing four to five pages of academic prose per day and was capable of generating drafts of thesis chapters at a rate of one chapter every two or three weeks: a phenomenal output for someone who also worked a nine-to-five job. “Who’s to say that I can’t be that prolific?” he concluded. “Why not me?”
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 day-long 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.
Isaacson was methodic: Any time he could find some free time, he would switch into a deep work mode and hammer away at his book. This is how, it turns out, one can write a nine-hundred-page book on the side while spending the bulk of one’s day becoming one of the country’s best magazine writers.
An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits. Consider the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Robert Caro. As revealed in a 2009 magazine profile, “every inch of [Caro’s] New York office is governed by rules.” Where he places his books, how he stacks his notebooks, what he puts on his wall, even what he wears to the office: Everything is specified by a routine that has varied little over Caro’s long career. “I trained myself to be organized,” he explained.
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.”
Where you’ll work and for how long. 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.
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 and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.
• 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 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.
Rowling’s decision to check into a luxurious hotel suite near Edinburgh Castle is an example of a curious but 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.
When you study the habits of other well-known deep workers, the grand gesture strategy comes up often. Bill Gates, for example, was famous during his time as Microsoft CEO for taking Think Weeks during which he would leave behind his normal work and family obligations to retreat to a cabin with a stack of papers and books. His goal was to think deeply, without distraction, about the big issues relevant to his company. It was during one of these weeks, for example, that he famously came to the conclusion that the Internet was going to be a major force in the industry. There was nothing physically stopping Gates from thinking deeply in his office in Microsoft’s Seattle headquarters, but the novelty of his weeklong retreat helped him achieve the desired levels of concentration.
For the sake of discussion, let’s call this principle—that when you allow people to bump into each other smart collaborations and new ideas emerge—the theory of serendipitous creativity. When Mark Zuckerberg decided to build the world’s largest office, we can reasonably conjecture, this theory helped drive his decision, just as it has driven many of the moves toward open workspaces elsewhere in Silicon Valley and beyond. (Other less-exalted factors, like saving money and increasing supervision, also play a role, but they’re not as sexy and are therefore less emphasized.)
This 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.*
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.
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.
The success of Building 20 and Bell Labs indicates that isolation is not required for productive deep work. Indeed, their example indicates that for many types of work—especially when pursuing innovation—collaborative deep work can yield better results.
There is, however, a lesser-known piece to this story. As Christensen recalls, Grove asked him during a break in this meeting, “How do I do this?” Christensen responded with a discussion of business strategy, explaining how Grove could set up a new business unit and so on. Grove cut him off with a gruff reply: “You are such a naïve academic. I asked you how to do it, and you told me what I should do. I know what I need to do. I just don’t know how to do it.”
In the preceding discipline, I argued that for an individual focused on deep work, hours spent working deeply should be the lead measure. It follows, therefore, that the individual’s scoreboard should be a physical artifact in the workspace that displays the individual’s current deep work hour count.
The 4DX framework is based on the fundamental premise that execution is more difficult than strategizing.
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.
In other words, to actively try to work through these decisions will lead to a worse outcome than loading up the relevant information and then moving on to something else while letting the subconscious layers of your mind mull things over.
In Ericsson’s seminal 1993 paper on the topic, titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” he dedicates a section to reviewing what the research literature reveals about an individual’s capacity for cognitively demanding work.
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. Your average e-mail response time might suffer some, but you’ll more than make up for this with the sheer volume of truly important work produced during the day by your refreshed ability to dive deeper than your exhausted peers.
Though Marlin was exceptionally well educated when he began the practice—he holds three different Ivy League degrees—he soon met fellow adherents who had only ever attended small religious schools but could still “dance intellectual circles” around him. “A number of these people are highly successful [professionally],” he explained to me, “but it wasn’t some fancy school that pushed their intellect higher; it became clear it was instead their daily study that started as early as the fifth grade.”
So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand … they’re pretty much mental wrecks.
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.
As Powers later summarizes in an interview: “Do what Thoreau did, which is learn to have a little disconnectedness within the connected world—don’t run away.”
This rule attempts to break us out of this rut by proposing a third option: accepting that these 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. I won’t ask you, in other words, to quit the Internet altogether like Baratunde Thurston did for twenty-five days back in 2013. But I will ask you to reject the state of distracted hyperconnectedness that drove him to that drastic experiment in the first place. There is a middle ground, and if you’re interested in developing a deep work habit, you must fight to get there.
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.
For a writer like Michael Lewis, however, marketing doesn’t likely merit its own goal when he assesses what’s important in his professional life. This follows because his reputation guarantees that he will receive massive coverage in massively influential media channels, if the book is really good. 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.
At the time of this writing, the most popular examples of such sites include the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, and Reddit. This list will undoubtedly continue to evolve, but what this general category of sites shares is the use of carefully crafted titles and easily digestible content, often honed by algorithms to be maximally attention catching.
Once you’ve landed on one article in one of these sites, links on the side or bottom of the page beckon you to click on another, then another. Every available trick of human psychology, from listing titles as “popular” or “trending,” to the use of arresting photos, is used to keep you engaged. At this particular moment, for example, some of the most popular articles on BuzzFeed include, “17 Words That Mean Something Totally Different When Spelled Backward” and “33 Dogs Winning at Everything.”
If you’re waiting in line, or waiting for the plot to pick up in a TV show, or waiting to finish eating a meal, they provide a cognitive crutch to ensure you eliminate any chance of boredom. As I argued in Rule #2, however, such behavior is dangerous, as it weakens your mind’s general ability to resist distraction, making deep work difficult later when you really want to concentrate.
In my own life, for example, I manage to read a surprising number of books in a typical year, given the demands on my time as a professor, writer, and father (on average, I’m typically reading three to five books at a time). This is possible because one of my favorite preplanned leisure activities after my kids’ bedtime is to read an interesting book. As a result, my smartphone and computer, and the distractions they can offer, typically remain neglected between the end of the workday and the next morning.
In their seminal paper on deliberate practice, Anders Ericsson and his collaborators survey these studies. They note that for 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.
Another study found that people who claimed to work sixty to sixty-four hours per week were actually averaging more like forty-four hours per week, while those claiming to work more than seventy-five hours were actually working less than fifty-five.
No boss will explicitly answer, “One hundred percent of your time should be shallow!” (unless you’re entry level, at which point you need to delay this exercise until you’ve built enough skills to add deep efforts to your official work responsibilities), but a boss might reply, in so many words, “as much shallow work as is needed for you to promptly do whatever we need from you at the moment.” In this case, the answer is still useful, as it tells you that this isn’t a job that supports deep work, and a job that doesn’t support deep work is not a job that can help you succeed in our current information economy. You should, in this case, thank the boss for the feedback, and then promptly start planning how you can transition into a new position that values depth.
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.
In addition to carefully guarding my obligations, I’m incredibly conscientious about managing my time. Because my time is limited each day, I cannot afford to allow a large deadline to creep up on me, or a morning to be wasted on something trivial, because I didn’t take a moment to craft a smart plan. The Damoclean cap on the workday enforced by fixed-schedule productivity has a way of keeping my organization efforts sharp. Without this looming cutoff, I’d likely end up more lax in my habits.
As I emphasized in this book’s introduction, I have no interest in this debate. A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.
As this year progressed, I became a deep work machine—and the result of this transformation caught me off guard. During the same year that I wrote a book and my oldest son entered the terrible twos, I managed to more than double my average academic productivity, publishing nine peer-reviewed papers—all the while maintaining my prohibition on work in the evenings.