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.

6 Wastes of Time In Your 20s

As humans, we’re all born to different circumstances, but the one commonality we share is time. What we do and where we end up in life is most impacted by how we spend this incredibly valuable asset.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to fully appreciate this asset in your early 20s and prior, precisely because it’s so abundant at this age. And yet how we spend our time during these formative years is so important; an early investment of time in something can pay dividends for years and decades down the road.

After thinking about the various ways in which I’ve wasted and waste time, I’ve come up with the list below.

The problem with the following items is that they feel good in the moment, but don’t actually generate much happiness/utility/benefit after the fact. They’re forms of instant gratification, much like candy. You could eat five bags of candy in one sitting and feel great while doing so, but almost immediately after regret your decision to do so. I’ve found I react the same way to the following activities.

And to those who say time enjoyed is not time wasted, I agree…but only to an extent. Take an extreme example: I could do drugs all day and have the time of my life – yet we can all agree that that “time enjoyed” was certainly wasted, unproductive, and even harmful.

So, on to what I think the biggest time wasters are:

Alcohol
Consider a typical night out in college:

Pre-game for an hour, head out to the bar to drink for a couple hours, go to an after-party/club for another couple hours, find a pizza joint after and spend another hour eating/chatting, finally head home at 3-4 am, then wake up hungover the next day and stay in bed half the day nursing a headache.

When you repeat the above multiple times a week for several years, the hours quickly add up.

Now, yes, you may argue that all that going out serves a purpose: to meet new people and develop relationships with. But let’s face it: most people in their early 20s go out for the sake of getting drunk with a close-knit circle.

I realized pretty early on in college that I didn’t enjoy getting sloshed to the extent my peers did. So I simply stopped accepting invites to go out when I knew the event centered around consuming as much alcohol as one could. Once I came to terms with not letting these feelings of pressure / societal expectations dictate my evenings, I was free to spend my nights on other hobbies or events – reading, writing, playing poker, trying board games with friends, learning new skills, playing intramural league, or just sleeping early.

Now, none of this isn’t to say I think alcohol is bad or that I never drink – I just think it’s important to have a good relationship with it.

It’s still too early to say how this will impact my future, but I can say for certain that had I gone out more this past year, I would not have had the time to read 80+ books, learn copywriting & direct marketing, generate income from poker, and spend as much quality time with friends.

I’m also comforted by the fact that others have echoed this idea. For instance: Ryan Holiday recently credited not drinking as instrumental for his success at an early age.

Bad Relationships
Just glance at all the relationship questions on Quora and you’ll see bad relationships are one of the biggest headaches and timesucks for people in their 20s.

People stick around too long in bad relationships and try to make it work with the wrong people. This doesn’t just mean incompatible boyfriends/girlfriends – it includes negative people, people who drain you of your energy, compulsive complainers/whiners, abusive family members, etc.

Realize that you are allowed to cut people out from your life. You can stop accepting invites to go out. You don’t have to try and salvage every relationship and every friendship. As you get older, you’ll naturally be more exclusive with who you associate with. I think the sooner one realizes this, the better.

Video Games
I spent my entire teenage life playing games. I easily racked up hundreds, if not a thousand, hours of playing video games. In first year college, I would routinely stay up playing Heroes of Newerth with friends over Skype. I actually essentially lost money while I was playing because at the time, my hourly rate playing online poker was $100-200 – a huge opportunity cost. The addiction was real.

I not only played for hours every night, I also studied my past games, watched streams, and read guides all in the name of improving myself. That took up another few hours every day.

Were there benefits from all this? I really can’t say at the moment. I want to believe that this compulsive drive to better myself at anything I do translates into other endeavors. But what if I had simply put my time and energy into something else to begin with?

Yes, I enjoyed playing video games in the heat of the moment. But once in a while, there would be a hollow feeling inside me. Did 3 hours really just go by? And think of all the things I’m procrastinating on… Eventually, I realized gaming didn’t align with my future goals at all. I slowly eased off of it and eventually quit for the most part.

When it comes to determining whether gaming is a waste of time or not, it helps to decide which side of the “# hours played” curve you wish to be on. On one side, you have 1000+ hours – this is if you have ambitions to go pro, enter the competitive scene, become a prominent YouTuber, start a Twitch stream, or some other way to monetize your gaming. On the other side is <100 hours – think of the casual gamer who plays for an hour every couple of days after work to unwind.

Falling on polar ends of this spectrum seems to be ideal for optimizing your time. Either you make gaming your life’s work or you use it as a relaxation tool. The problem area is the middle area in between these two poles – where you spend so much time gaming that it interferes with your regular life but you don’t spend enough time to reach the top or monetize your gaming hobby.

When it came to HoN, I fell in that middle area. I was good but not top-tier and frankly, never really thought about going pro. I spent a lot of time playing and studying, but not enough that I could monetize that time. However, it was enough time that the game affected my sleep schedule, study habits, and social life to some degree.

I could write a lot more on this topic (and probably will in the future), but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Living Someone Else’s Life

For the better part of our entire lives up to our 20s, we largely follow the instructions of others – our parents, our teachers, our peers, the media…rarely do we make a major decision without influence from others.

Left unquestioned, the result is we spend a large part of our lives living in a way that doesn’t resonate with who we really are. We may choose to do things based on what others think is best for us and discard the very things that could have led us to genuine happiness.

I have a friend who was pushed all his life to become a doctor. He studied all the sciences in high school, majored in biochem in undergrad, then entered medical school. A couple years in now, he’s come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t truly enjoy what he’s learning or the path he’s taken. Yet he feels like he’s spent too much time, effort, and money already not to continue on.

Realize that what others say you should be is based upon their own experiences and how they feel you’d be of more value to them. Neither should be the basis for determining how you should live your life.

The early 20s are a great time to question the ‘truths’ you’ve been taught growing up and figuring out who you are, what you really enjoy, and how you want to live your life. Taking the time to do so can be really rewarding and prevent time wasted living someone else’s life.

Accepting Complacency
It’s supremely easy after you graduate college and get a full-time job to fall into a state of complacency. You’re making decent money, your schedule is largely fixed, you have a daily routine, and you mostly associate with the same people. Life is pretty good for the most part, and it’s easy to just coast along.

As humans, we seek this kind of comfort and stability. We wouldn’t have survived as a species till now otherwise. But comfort breeds complacency, and complacency can be dangerous. It hinders personal growth, which to me is an important aspect of life. Even moreso in your 20s, when time and energy is abundant and responsibilities are still relatively few. At no other time in your life will you have the same kind of opportunity – accepting complacency at this age can only lead to mediocrity.

What’s especially dangerous about complacency is that it’s a non-obvious timesink. You may feel “stuck” but choose to continue living within the status quo simply because it’s safe: an OK job without advancement potential because it pays the bills; a mediocre long-term relationship that you’re staying in for convenience and obligation (“I’ve already invested 5 years into this, easier to ride it out”); pursuing a degree in something half-heartedly on behalf of your parents.

Next thing you know, several years have gone by and you’re stuck in the same job or relationship or major in college discontent, wondering where the time went.

Do Something

This past weekend, I was running behind schedule to go to the gym. It closes at 7pm, and at 6:30pm I hadn’t even left the house. It takes me about 15 minutes to walk there.

I had a decision to make: do I go to the gym, with about 15 minutes to do a workout, or do I give in and tell myself I’ll do it the next day?

It seems like a somewhat trivial decision at first glance. After all, missing one workout a week won’t make or break me.

But throughout our lives, these kinds of decisions occur thousands of times. The choices you make in these moments compound and can have an enormous impact in the long run. Sure, missing one workout won’t have much of an impact on my health or body. But that one workout missed just once a week amounts to 52 missed in a year. And hundreds missed in several years.

Plus, once you miss that first workout, you rationalize to yourself it’s OK to miss the next one. And then the next. When you accept that first excuse you tell yourself, it gets easier and easier to accept the next ones. You train yourself for complacency. You hold yourself accountable less and less.

Thus I think this seemingly trivial decision was, and is, very important.

So back to the story…at 6:35 pm, I finally left the house. Instead of walking there, like I usually do, I half-sprinted there. I got there in about 5 minutes. 6:40 pm.

When I walked in, the staff were already beginning to pack up. I handed the guy at the counter my card, to which he said, “Uh, you know we’re closing at 7, right?”

“Yeah. Going to do a quick workout.”

And I did. I superset all my exercises back-to-back-to-back. It wasn’t the workout that I had planned on doing, but I got it done nonetheless in about 20 minutes (Parkinson’s Law, anybody?).

Why do I think this story is important? Well, this decision is like a microcosm of a philosophy I try to apply in my life.

It’s called the do something principle: When faced with a choice between doing something and not, doing something is better than doing nothing.

It sounds so obvious it’s not even worth mentioning.

But it’s often the most obvious or trite advice – sayings we’ve heard millions of times they’ve lost their impact – that are actually the most powerful.

A mediocre workout is better than no workout at all.

Writing just 100 words a day is better than writing nothing at all.

Reading five pages a day is better than not reading at all.

Practising the piano for 10 minutes is better than not practising at all.

Again, obvious, right? Yet for many of us this principle is actually difficult to apply.

We look at starting something new and think that we immediately have to go from 0 to 100, otherwise there’s no point to doing it at all.

A friend of mine wanted to start running every night for half an hour. She bought all the right equipment and clothes to get started. But she eventually realized she couldn’t dedicate the full half hour she wanted to. She didn’t think there was a point to run for just ten minutes a night. So she gave up entirely.

So despite the obviousness of the concept, it’s a handy one to keep in mind. The next time you want to forgo your workout, or are procrastinating on something, just do something. You’ll be glad you did. And it’s infinitely better than doing nothing.