On Deep Work

Deep work, as defined by Cal Newport, refers to “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

Be honest, how many hours of deep work do you do per day? I’m guessing the answer for most people is between zero to an hour.

When you think about this, isn’t it a bit sad? We probably spent more time doing deep work in high school and college while studying than we do in our jobs, where we’re supposed to work.

A large part of this, I believe, is due to the typical office environment. The printer is humming at a hundred miles an hour; your co-workers across from you are discussing the latest episode of Game of Thrones; your colleague beside you is having a heated argument with a client on the phone; the talking heads on the flat-screen wall TV are rambling on about Trump’s latest tweet; your boss comes up behind you and asks you how your weekend was…you get the picture.

Why is deep work important? Deep work is what leads to creation: art, writing, music, code – meaningful output of any kind.

Shallow work, characterized by constant distraction and little conscious effort, leads to emails. Hundreds of emails that ultimately produce little value.

Consistent shallow work is more detrimental than first glance though. Studies have shown that 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.”

I see this all the time. I’ll be in a meeting with someone, their phone pings alerting them of an email, and they simply can’t help but glance down. We could be in the middle of an important discussion and their entire train of thought goes out the window – just like that.

If you’ve ever looked back on your day and wondered what you actually accomplished, the solution is to schedule deep work into your day. Block out at least an hour in your calendar and lock yourself in a room with no WiFi. Resist the urge to check your phone or email or surf the Web. Focus on the task at hand.

When I engage in this kind of deep work, usually using the Pomodoro Technique, I’m always surprised by how much I can get done in a short period of time. After a while of doing this, you realize that most people simply do not work as hard as they think they do. Time spent at work or doing busywork is by no means indicative of how much actual work gets done.

Key takeaways:

  • Start scheduling periods of deep work into your day. Start small with just a 20-minute block of absolutely focused work, and slowly increase it.
  • Schedule research and Internet time later, when you’re not doing deep work. A quick tip is to write [TK] in places where you need to come back to later and find it with a Ctrl+F. Few words naturally have TK in them.
  • Be OK feeling ‘bored’. Like Louis CK says, resist that urge to pick up the cell phone when you feel that ping of boredom. This will help deepen your focus when you need to.
  • Avoid multitasking as much as possible. This includes doing shallow work in the evenings when you should be relaxing.

How to Avoid Information Overload

This is a repost of my most popular answer on Quora. It’s apparently been distributed to and read by over a million people. I’m a bit blown away by that, but I suppose it’s an indicator that the topic of information overload is a pressing issue today.

I just re-read the answer and still fully agree with what I wrote. I still have a long way to go before I’ll be happy with my c:p ratio, but like anything incremental improvements will go a long way over time.


Question: I feel like I’m wasting my time when I’m reading. Is that wrong?

I can relate. For many years, I was stuck in the same trap you describe. I spent hours every day just browsing forums, reading various blogs, and consuming a lot of stuff that had no impact on my life.

Eventually it hit me how much time I’d been wasting. I looked at my consumption:production ratio. I was consuming all of this information but not actually doing anything with it – my C:P ratio was completely skewed.

The most successful people in this world have a C:P ratio that is much more heavily favored in the production side. They’re out there creating things, whether it be art, writing, businesses, etc. adding value to others or themselves in some way. They’re the ones writing the blogs and books. They take action.

What I had been consuming had no material impact on my life. It wasn’t like I was implementing things I had read and making vast improvements to better myself. No, I was just going through the same routine of mindlessly browsing the Internet consuming useless info.

I thought I was “learning” but really it was just another way to pass the time. So I made the decision to fix my C:P ratio. I stopped following the news. I deleted my RSS feed of blogs I’d visit. I stopped going onto sites like reddit and Business Insider. I deactivated my Facebook account every so often. I (tried) watching fewer videos on YouTube.

All of this helped reduce the amount of useless information I was taking in, and freed up time for me to work on producing things or learning new skills that would better me.

I also began to read more physical books, as the signal:noise ratio is generally much higher (i.e. more useful information). Still, I’ve come to realize there’s such a thing as information overload when it comes reading books as well after having read 80 books last year. These days I generally read things only if I need the information and will actually take action from what I’ve read.

The conventional wisdom is that it doesn’t matter what you read, because anything you read will benefit you in some way. I disagree. “Junk reading” exists in the same way junk eating does. Just like how junk food contains very little nutritional value and is full of empty calories, junk information contains little actionable advice and fills your brain with useless facts.

Information overload is a real concern these days. It leads to analysis paralysis and a never-ending pursuit of knowledge just for the sake of knowledge. There’s so much info out there it would take many lifetimes just to get through it all – so it’s up to us to filter through it to determine what’s relevant to us.

I’m not saying you have to meticulously plan out what you consume or that you can’t read for entertainment. Once in while, it’s probably even a good idea to venture outside your comfort zone and read/watch something completely outside your usual domain. But always keep in mind your C:P ratio. If you’re unhappy with where you are and how you’re spending your time, it’s best to reduce your consumption.

Note that all information isn’t some binary “useless” or “not useless.” If you’re reading gossip blogs about what Kim Kardashian has been up to lately just for the sake of keeping up with the Kardashians, I’d wager it’s useless. But if you’re an on-air reporter for E! Entertainment TV, then keeping up with the Kardashians is likely one of the most important things you do.