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One of my favorite books on the value of focus. To acquire skills for today’s and tomorrow’s information economy requires that we spend our time doing deep work, which is rare and valuable, while avoiding shallow work which is common and dispensable.

My Notes

Deep Work. Professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive abilities. These efforts create value and improve your skills. Deep work is necessary to wring out the last drop of value from your current intellectual capacity.

Carl Jung spent two hours writing undisturbed every morning. Then he spent the afternoon meditating and taking long walks in the countryside.

“Think weeks”

Bill Gates conducted “think weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.

Uninterrupted time-chunks

Neal Stephenson once explained his omission: “If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time … there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.”

Watch out for network tools

The reason why knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is because of modern network tools. This is a broad category that capture services like email and SMS, social media networks, and infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit. The use of these tools lead to fragmented attention.

Shallow work. Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed in a distracted state. These tasks are easy to replicate and doesn’t bring much value in the world.

  • To remains valuable in our economy today, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.
  • Deep work can be considered the super power of the 21st century.
  • Once the talent market is made universally accessible, those at the peak of the market will thrive while the rest will suffer.

The core qualities 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.

Myelin is a fatty tissue that grows around the neurons, allowing the cells to fire faster and cleaner. As you get better at a skill you develop more myelin. You want to isolate the relevant neurological circuit to fire over and over to trigger useful myelination. This is what focus is all about.

Attention residue

When you switch tasks, your attention doesn’t automatically follow. Part of your attention is still sticking on to your old task. Task switching has a mental cost. Working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance.

Busyness as a proxy for value

Knowledge workers are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way of demonstrating their value. Extracting value from information is an activity that’s often at odds with busyness, not supported by it.

  1. Systematically develop your ability to go deep.
  2. Do one thing exceptionally well.

The bimodal philosophy

Divide your time between deep work and shallow work. Dedicate some clearly defined stretches of time for deep pursuits and leave the rest open to everything else.

The rhythmic philosophy

The rhythmic philosophy supports deep work with rock-solid routines that make sure a little bit gets done in a regular basis. The rhythmic scheduler will often log a larger total number of deep work per year.

The journalistic philosophy

The journalistic philosophy - You find deep work stretches wherever you can find it. But waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan.

The grand gesture

By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, all dedicated to supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate.

The 4DX framework

  1. Focus on the wildly important.
  2. Act on the lead measures.
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability.

Downtime aids insight

Concentrating requires directed attention. This resource is finite, if you exhaust it you will struggle to concentrate. Trying to squeeze out a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day, enough that you end up getting less done.

The Zeigarnik effect

Named after the twenty-century psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.

Productive meditation

  • The idea of the productive meditation practice is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.
  • Productive meditation helps strengthening your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it strengthens your ability to concentrate.
  • But be vary of distraction and looping. When your mind is looping, it just keeps going over what you already know. It can block you from moving forward in your productive meditation practice.

The any-benefit mindset

Identifies any possible benefit as sufficient justification for using a network tool. Treat your tool selection with the same level of care as other skilled craftsmen, such as farmers. Tools are ultimately aids to the larger goal’s of one’s craft.

Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself

See your 16 free hours in a day as “day-within-a-day.” During those hours you are free. Use those hours to perform rigorous self-improvement. The quality of leisure time has degraded. Put more thought into your leisure time.

  • For someone new to deliberate focus practice, an hour a day is a reasonable limit. But as you gain experience, the limit expands to something like four hours, but rarely more. Once you hit your deep work limit, you’ll experience diminishing rewards if you try to cram in more.
  • Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday.
  • “What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?”
  • In the end, a business’s goal is always to generate value, not to make sure its employees’ lives are as easy as possible.
  • Establish the healthy habit of trying to get the most out of the time you set aside for shallow work.

Use process-centric responses to email

In crafting your email response to someone’s request, take a minute or two to think through a process that gets you from the current state to a desired outcome with a minimum of messages required.


If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time … there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.

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In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.

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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.

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

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The problem this research identifies with this work strategy is that 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.

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The fact that Dorsey encourages interruption or Kerry Trainor checks his e-mail constantly doesn’t mean that you’ll share their success if you follow suit: Their behaviors are characteristic of their specific roles as corporate officers.

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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.

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Leslie Perlow found that the professionals she surveyed spent around twenty to twenty-five hours a week outside the office monitoring e-mail—believing it important to answer any e-mail (internal or external) within an hour of its arrival.

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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.

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Knowledge workers, I’m arguing, are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value.

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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.

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Knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from information is an activity that’s often at odds with busyness, not supported by it.

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In such a culture, we should not be surprised that deep work struggles to compete against the shiny thrum of tweets, likes, tagged photos, walls, posts, and all the other behaviors that we’re now taught are necessary for no other reason than that they exist.

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As elaborated in the last chapter, we live in an era where anything Internet related is understood by default to be innovative and necessary.

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Depth-destroying behaviors such as immediate e-mail responses and an active social media presence are lauded, while avoidance of these trends generates suspicion.

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Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.

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This theory tells us that your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors.

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The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.

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Any pursuit—be it physical or cognitive—that supports high levels of skill can also generate a sense of sacredness.

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You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.

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As a reader of this book, in other words, you’re a disciple of depth in a shallow world.

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You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.

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You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life.

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Those who deploy the bimodal philosophy of deep work admire the productivity of the monastics but also respect the value they receive from the shallow behaviors in their working lives.

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“Who’s to say that I can’t be that prolific?” he concluded. “Why not me?

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The decision between rhythmic and bimodal can come down to your self-control in such scheduling matters. If you’re Carl Jung and are engaged in an intellectual dogfight with Sigmund Freud’s supporters, you’ll likely have no trouble recognizing the importance of finding time to focus on your ideas. On the other hand, if you’re writing a dissertation with no one pressuring you to get it done, the habitual nature of the rhythmic philosophy might be necessary to maintain progress.

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To put yourself in an exotic location to focus on a writing project, or to take a week off from work just to think, or to lock yourself in a hotel room until you complete an important invention: These gestures push your deep goal to a level of mental priority that helps unlock the needed mental resources.

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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.

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Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply on what you encounter.

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His move to an undisclosed location was instead motivated by a surprising but practical insight: It made him better at his job.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Your mind, in other words, is released from its duty to keep track of these obligations at every moment—your shutdown ritual has taken over that responsibility.

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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.

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The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.

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In my experience, it’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit like flossing—something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation.

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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.

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Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it.

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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.

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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.

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You must be on your guard for looping, as it can quickly subvert an entire productive meditation session. When you notice it, remark to yourself that you seem to be in a loop, then redirect your attention toward the next step.

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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.

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The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.

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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).

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The notion that identifying some benefit is sufficient to invest money, time, and attention in a tool is near laughable to people in his trade.

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But part of what makes social media insidious is that the companies that profit from your attention have succeeded with a masterful marketing coup: convincing our culture that if you don’t use their products you might miss out.

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Addictive websites of the type mentioned previously thrive in a vacuum: If you haven’t given yourself something to do in a given moment, they’ll always beckon as an appealing option.

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To summarize, I’m asking you to treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.

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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.

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This type of scheduling, however, isn’t about constraint—it’s instead about thoughtfulness.

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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?

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What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?

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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.

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The notion that all messages, regardless of purpose or sender, arrive in the same undifferentiated inbox, and that there’s an expectation that every message deserves a (timely) response, is absurdly unproductive.

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When a project is initiated by an e-mail that you send or receive, it squats in your mental landscape—becoming something that’s “on your plate” in the sense that it has been brought to your attention and eventually needs to be addressed.

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This method closes this open loop as soon as it forms. By working through the whole process, adding to your task lists and calendar any relevant commitments on your part, and bringing the other party up to speed, your mind can reclaim the mental real estate the project once demanded.

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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.

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At some point, I even bought a $50 high-end grid-lined lab notebook to work on mathematical proofs, believing that its expense would induce more care in my thinking.

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To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience.

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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.

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Books I’ve read.

Johannes Holmberg

Tiny summaries on books I’ve read. Sorted by latest read. But you can also sort on top recommendations. Highlights and covers are copyright to their respective authors.