Deep Work

I’ve become interested in the way I work when I started programming. Before, the term “flow” or the phrase “getting lost in your work” didn’t mean much to me, but when I’m programming this is exactly what happens: I look up and several hours have passed. I’ve even adopted the habit of setting a timer to remind myself that I need to get up and move once in a while.

Unfortunately, this never happens to me with any other kind of work like reading or writing papers or solving math problems. The book I want to present here tries to convince you that it is almost always possible to work this way, regardless of the thing you are trying to do, and that it is both the most effective and most fun way to go about it, which confirms a suspicion I had from the beginning.

Once you are on board, the second part of the book tries to give you some tips and tools on how to achieve this (go ahead and skip part one if you already have a good idea what Deep Work is and and are convinced that it makes sense but struggle to actually do it. In fact, you can even skip part two if you are of the super efficient type and go straight to the 5 minutes blitz). If this sounds awfully American to you, rest assured, it is. In fact, the writing style and motivational reasons are the books weakest point in my opinion. Way too much focus lies on aspects like excelling in your domain, getting ahead and being successful while the to me much more convincing arguments like having fun and deriving meaning from your work are—while being mentioned—branded as “lofty philosophical”.

Anyway, the message being delivered is nonetheless interesting and worth sharing, which I’ll try to do in the upcoming paragraphs. This article is neither meant as a classic book review or summary, but rather as a somewhat condensed “best of” and a reference for quickly looking up specifics you intend to incorporate into your own way of doing things.

Part 1: What is Deep Work and why should you care?

Deep Work

Before we can continue talking about Deep Work we first need to know what it is. While I’m sure you have a pretty good idea what is meant by the term, here is the definition given in the book:

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.

Here are some possible examples of deep work (possibly biased towards my own profession and interests):

  • Computer programming
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Writing a book or paper
  • Producing something complicated with your own hands (e.g. pottery or carpentry)

Okay, let’s also have a quick look at the antonym, just to make sure:

Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

  • Surfing the Internet for information
  • […] [S]ending and receiving e-mail like a human network router[…]
  • Formatting existing text and filling Excell tables

Here is the proposed shorthand to differentiate the two kinds of work in ambiguous cases. Simply ask yourself:

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate student with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?

If the answers is “one or two” it most likely isn’t that deep of an activity (though those month might require a lot of deep work from the student to get there).

Why you should care

I think deep work has always been important and most impressive things have been created by people practicing it. Be it great literature, music, art or inventions (though, especially in science, a fair amount of luck as well, which is regularly overlooked). The growing necessity of deep work is, however, new. This is of course due to the “shift to an information economy” where “more and more of our population are knowledge workers”. Therefore, Newport proclaims deep work to be “the superpower of the 21st century”. Here is his hypothesis:

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 who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

There are, as mentioned in the beginning, several paths of reasoning to come to this conclusion.

1. Economic reasons

To thrive in the current and future information economy you need at least the following two core abilities which both depend on your ability to perform deep work:

  • The ability to quickly master hard things. “If you can’t learn, you can’t thrive”.
  • The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

The Intellectual Life by Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges: [Wo]Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they had decided to show their full measure.

You can formulate productivity as a scientific problem to then systematically solve it: \(\mathrm{High\ Quality\ Work\ Produced} = \mathrm{Time\ Spent} \times \mathrm{Intesity\ of\ Focus}\) As no one wants to waste time, your only other option to be more productive is to increase you intensity of focus. This, of course, is easier said than done. Interruptions are an especially fierce enemy of deep work, as it was found that your attention partly rests with the previous task when you switch, so you will never be able to “bring all [your] power to bear on the point on which [you] had decided to show [your] full measure”. So much for multi-tasking.

Only knowing this one fact allows you to critically observe many of your potential habits, like constantly checking your mail or social media, or your work setup, e.g. whether you work in an open office or not (which might create more opportunities for collaboration but do so at the cost of massive distraction). Another enemy of deep work:

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 other words, if there are no incentives to work deeply, you will prefer shallow work. Here is one possible explanation for this behavior:

Busyness as a 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.

2. The idle mind is the devil’s workshop

With the boring stuff out of the way, let’s now look a more interesting reason to favor deep over shallow work: It’s simply more fun. If you are anything like me, you know the satisfaction from doing something manual, with your own two hands. Be it the renovation of an old piece of furniture, repairing your bike, building something or baking bread. Those activities seem inherently meaningful. Why is it then, you might ask, I rarely get this feeling from my professional work? As it turns out, it might be, that you are simply not equally immersed into those tasks.

Our brains […] construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.

The task of a craftsman, and that’s you when doing something crafty, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself [or herself] the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there.” In other words, the meaning is already present in any demanding work, you just need to pay more attention at what you are doing instead of flicking back and forth between a million distracting whims. That can even be true for simple tasks though, as long as there is something to work towards.

We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.

Luckily, we can exploit one useful property: Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time! This is because, as mentioned above, being in a state of flow, fully focusing on an interesting problem, is tremendously pleasing, and work is inherently flow-conducive as it features “built-in goals, feedback rules and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed”.

That’s certainly something I noticed when traveling alone through Canada after finishing my Bachelor’s degree, where each day I was entirely free to do whatever I liked. A state which quickly became quite burdensome, as all the responsibility of having a good day was entirely up to me and me alone. And of course I was expecting nothing less of myself than having the best time of my life. In the end I resolved this calamity by doing volunteer work, an activity that felt much more meaningful, and therefore more enjoyable, than traveling aimlessly from one town to the next.

Part 2: Becoming a deep worker

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

You have diligently worked your way through the elevating prose or boldly skipped the first part of this article and are now eager to get something tangible? Either way, let’s cut to the chase: What follows are rules, tips and propositions to do better work and simultaneously have more fun doing so (click on the arrows to read more).

Rule 1: Work deeply

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

You should therefore build yourself a daily routine to work by, which helps to spend less energy on organizing your work and more time on actually doing the work. This means you should schedule your deep work efforts. Consider using one of these options:

  1. The monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling: If your work is defined by one primary discrete goal and your success depends on doing this one thing exceptionally well–like writing books or articles if you are a writer–this might be for you.

    The idea is as radical as it is simple: While you work, eliminate all influences that could interfere with your goal to get as much uninterrupted time as possible. This could mean going completely of the grid and even hiding from the world by going to a remote location—e.g. a small house on a Scottish island–for the time you need to complete you next project.

    If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.

  2. The bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling: If your work consists of tasks which require high levels of concentration for long consecutive time chunks but at the same time high degrees of interaction with world you might consider scheduling your deep work in this way. Among those employing this strategy might be academics, who need to write papers which push the boundary of what is currently known but at the same time have to collaborate with other researchers, attend conferences or give classes.

    To do so, divide your time into stretches of uninterrupted deep work and leave the rest of your time open for everything else. This could mean that, for some days, you refrain from checking your email or other media, retreat to a quiet place to work and concentrate on your complicated tasks until you are satisfied, then reemerge. This division of time can happen on multiple scales such that you dedicate four days a week or one week a month, or one season of a year to your deep work. It should be compatible with a large proportion of knowledge worker jobs but might require some adjustments in coworker expectations and clear communication.

  3. The rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling: If you can’t even disconnect for one or two days (and remember, we are only talking about your work life here), this might be the way to go. The only thing asked from you here is consistency. Dedicate a certain proportion of your day to deep work and then stick to it. Every day. The idea is that your form a habit of working deeply such that you don’t need to think about setting it up. You could probably also use this strategy as an entry level effort to work deeply and see where it gets you as it is also likely the most straight forward method of incorporating deep work into your normal schedule.

    It the philosophy I’ve chosen for my own work. I’ll stay disconnected in the morning, focus on complicated work till lunch and only then go online to check my email and indulge in other shallow activities.

  4. The journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling: Finally, if you can’t actually schedule your deep work reliably in any other way, just switch into deep work mode immediately whenever an opportunity pops up! This comes with a big caveat though: “just switch into deep work mode immediately” is just not an option for most people. As discussed earlier, efficiently switching between tasks is neurologically problematic and will deplete your finite willpower reserve. If possible at all, it requires a lot of training, so this strategy is definitely not recommended for the deep work novice. If you want to give it a try, at least try to think about possible deep work windows in advance on e.g. a weekly basis.

Don’t work from inspiration

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.

As it turns out, most important thinkers and great minds didn’t wait for inspiration to strike but instead employed rituals designed to actively encourage their brains to be productive.

The argument is in the same vain as used above: ritualizing, i.e. forming a habit, helps to minimize the friction in the transition to depth. There is not one correct deep work ritual, but some general points should nonetheless be addressed:

  1. Where you’ll work and for how long: We did already discuss the when above: Regardless of where you work, set yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open ended slog. The where should be a quiet, tidy place; even better if used exclusively for deep work.
  2. How you’ll work once you start: Give yourself rules extending the basic deep work definition. This might be a ban of Internet use or a metric like words produced per twenty minutes. Without clear rules and goals you’ll waste energy and willpower on thinking about how to work while you work.
  3. How you’ll support your work: How well you can focus doesn’t only depend on your environment, but also on other factors like how you feel. You might want to have a ritual to settle into your deep work like a good cup of coffee before you start or some meditation, yoga or exercise. This might also include organizing the raw materials, like paper and pen, before starting.

Finding your personal deep work habit might take some time and experimentation, but is definitely worth it, because the more you use it, the more it will rewire your brain such that simply following your ritual brings you into a state of intense concentration.

Make grand gestures

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.

This somehow mimics the effect an external deadline or exam date has on most people, but, because it is created by you artificially, can be utilized whenever you need it.

Don’t work alone

While the relationship between deep work and collaboration is tricky, it is often still worth trying to work out a problem with a partner. If you’ve ever discussed various approaches to a problem in front of a black or white board in preparation of a tough exam you know what this is about.

The key for this to work is often the ability to work deeply on the problem on your own first and then discuss it with someone else. This is also why open offices often degrade productivity but the ability to meet people in between work, e.g. during a coffee or lunch break, is extremely helpful.

Execute like a business

You are such a naive 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.

The division between what and how is crucial but is often overlooked. It’s often much easier to identify a strategy for achieving a goal than figuring out how to actually execute it once identified.

Say you want to become a great climber. Well, that’s easy! Just go climbing a lot and do lots of training. The difficult part is how to incorporate this into your life so that you have the time and motivation to pull through with it.

Enter The 4 Disciplines of Execution:

  1. Focus on the wildly important: The more you try to do at once, the less you will accomplish. You should therefore concentrate only on the wildly important goals. In our case this is to work deeply. But because the general credo to spend more time working deeply doesn’t spark a lot of enthusiasm, you are better of setting yourself a specific, tangible goal like publishing five high-quality peer-reviewed papers in one year if you’re an academic.

    If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say ‘no’ to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.

  2. Act on the lead measures: Okay, so you have identified your wildly important goal, but now you need to measure your success. There are two ways to look at this. (1) Have I achieved my goal? (2) Am I on the right track to achieving my goal i.e. is my environment and behavior conducive to making progress towards my goal?

    Is one of these angles superior? It turns out, it is. We might call the first approach the goal measure and the second one the process measure (they are sometimes also called lag and lead measure). The problem with the first approach is, that the feedback comes too late to change your behavior. Once the year is over and you look at your performance, it is already too late to change anything. The goal measure lacks impact on your day-to-day behavior.

    The second approach measures your success indirectly, but constantly, so you can tweak your behavior if needed. A good example for the process measure might be the time you spend each day working deeply. The more it is, the more you probably get done in a day, which has an indirect positive effect on you actual goal.

  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard: I think of this discipline as a way of gameification. You set up some visual way of recording your achievements such that it is immediately visible how well you’re doing and that it would feel terrible to destroy your two weeks run of daily deep work or that you feel compelled to keep increasing this deep work counter.

  4. Create a cadence of accountability: Keep yourself accountable. Plan your day (and if possible week) ahead of time and record your progress. At the end of the day (or week), review your work, celebrating when you did well (I’m proud of you son) and analyzing what went wrong so you can adapt your plan for the next day(s).

Be lazy

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner email check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.

  • Downtime aids insight: Interestingly, some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind (have a look at Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a fantastic book on behavioral psychology, if you want to know more). You’re probably familiar with the lightning bold of insight that strikes you unprepared in the middle of the night, or while running or while commuting but usually not at precisely the moment when you think about the problem the most. So just sit back and let your brain sift through and untangle some of the information for you.

  • Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply: Your capability to concentrate and pay attention is a finite resource. You need to give it time to recharge. This works best by going outside and getting some fresh air, sun and exercise. No surprises here. A park or forest is especially well suited, as it is simple enough to navigate (no streets, cars and traffic lights) so that you don’t further deplete your attention reserves but at the same time intriguing enough to distract you from returning to your problems.

    “Only ideas won by walking have any value.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

  • The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important: A novice deep worker can muster somewhere around an hour a day of real, intense concentration while an expert can extend this to about four, but rarely more (if that seems strange to you, check out this paper on the topic). So provided you don’t start your day at 6 pm, the probability that you accomplish something truly valuable in the evening is slim.

Shut it down!

Sometimes its hard to let go of problem, even, or especially if you have been working on it all day without making much progress. We already discussed the importance of being lazy and the marginal likelihood that you will do anything of value at the end of your work day. To help you to disconnect, try to conceive of a shutdown ritual.

It should ensure that every incomplete task, goal or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another. Here is an example:

  1. Check your email on last time to ensure there is nothing that needs an urgent response right away.
  2. Put all open tasks and project into your todo list.
  3. Check all tasks and your calendar for the next few days to ensure you didn’t overlook anything vital.
  4. Use this information to make a rough plan for the next day.

When you’re done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion. Especially the last step might sound weird, but its a mental cue, telling your brain that it’s safe to let go. It could be as simple as “I’m done for today!” or the more eccentric “Shutdown complete”.

If you are not convinced, read up on the Zeigarnik effect (though apparently there is some controversy around the validity of it, I have noticed for myself to have trouble letting go of any unfinished task as long as it isn’t recorded somewhere).

Rule 2: Embrace boredom

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

While this might sound obvious once pointed out, it is common to treat undistracted concentration like a habit that you have just forgotten to pick up on due to lack of motivation but that you can simply switch on if really needed.

There is further an important corollary to this idea of strengthening your mental muscle: Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction—fleeing from the slightest hint of boredom—just like an hypothetical athlete, thwarting all positive effects of training by indulging in mindless eating frenzies in between.

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 it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.

Schedule your use of the Internet

Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break break from focus to give in to distraction.

Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. Of course, this requires some kind of planning beforehand to not get stuck in your work before your scheduled reconnect occurs.

The problem here is not the Internet itself, but the constant switching between low-stimuli/high-value activities (deep work) to high-stimuli/low-value activities (shallow work).

  • If you’re required to spend hours every day online or answer emails quickly, that’s fine: It simply means that your Internet blocks will be more numerous.
  • It doesn’t matter how you schedule your use of the Internet, but once you do, stick to your plan. Try switching to another offline activity when stuck (or even just relax).
  • Also scheduling your Internet use at home can further improve your concentration training.
Give yourself deadlines

Identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time.

If possible, commit publicly to the deadline—for example by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible, motivate yourself by setting a timer.

At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity and without any distraction. A beneficial side effect of this practice is, that you will greatly improve your ability to estimate the time you need to finish any given task.

Productive meditation

Let me begin this section by pointing out that the notion of “productive meditation” is somewhat orthogonal to the practice of actual meditation. While, contrary to popular belief, the “goal” of meditation is not to stop thinking, it also certainly isn’t to be fully distracted by thoughts and “to get things done”. This probably comes down to the difference between complete distraction and complete focus, which, depending which way you look at it, seem to be two remarkably similar states.

Anyway, the goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.

As a mindfulness meditation, you must continue bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.

This practice not only helps to get things done, but also trains your mind to think deeply, sharpening your concentration and strengthening your distraction-resistance muscle.

  • Just like with any form of meditation, be wary of distractions and looping (thinking the same thoughts over and over again, avoiding the strainous activity to actually make progress).
  • Structure your deep thinking by first identifying the relevant variables for solving the problem, (e.g. the main points you want to make in your next book chapter or the actual variables you need for a mathematical proof) then define a specific next-step question to work on (e.g. “how to best open the next chapter?”, “what happens if I assume that this proposition holds?”).
Memorize a shuffled deck of cards

I think of myself having a particularly bad memory so this idea scares me like crazy. Which probably means I should do it.

So if you decide to do it, here are two obvious questions:

  1. Why?: It was found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention. Does this ring a bell? Exactly, apparently we can train our memory by training to pay more attention which in turn helps to work with greater concentration.

  2. How?: Professional memory athletes never attempt to memorize by looking at the information again and again. Incidentally, this is probably the way you (and me) usually try to get stuff into our brain. The problem with this approach is, that it misunderstands how our brain works. We are not wired to quickly internalize abstract information but instead we are really good at remembering scenes. What follows is one possible way to make use of this insight to memorize a large number of abstract things:

    1. Start by imagining a walk through five distinct rooms (or areas) in your home, one after another, keeping the order fixed.

    2. Select 10 items in each room which define its purpose, like the fridge and stove in the kitchen. The items should be large. Add an additional 2 arbitrary items to get to the 52 needed to memorize an entire deck of cards.

    3. Establish an order in which you look at these items (e.g. when coming into the kitchen, you first look at the fridge, then at the stove…)

    4. Practice the mental exercise of walking through your home and looking at the objects. This should feel much easier than doing so with 52 random items, but once you can do it, you have already successfully memorized 52 random things!

    5. (Optional): Associate each of the 52 cards with a person or thing. The association should feel somewhat intuitive or logical like Queen Elizabeth with the queen of hearts or Donald Trump with the king of diamonds. I find this step somewhat difficult, because I’m not good at memorizing people and it feels like I need to memorize twice as much.

      Practice these associations until you can immediately recall the person for a randomly chosen card.

    6. Final step: Begin your walk-through of your home. As you encounter each item, look at the next card from the shuffled deck, and imagine the corresponding memorable person or thing doing something memorable near or with that item. This might be Donald Trump watching some Fox News on your TV in the living room if the current card is the king of diamonds.

    The cool thing is, that you need to do steps 1 to 5 only once and can then make use of them whenever you need. It still feels super difficult in my opinion, but I’ll give it a try soon.

Rule 3: Quit social media

I’ll pay attention to you what you say if you pay attention to what I say—regardless of its value.

Most people have recognized by now, that network tools, like social media, fragment their time and reduce their ability to concentrate1—a notion confirmed by a large and growing corpus of research on the subject—and that this can be a cause of distress and even depression.

On the other hand, those tools are neither inherently evil nor inherently benevolent. The question is therefore not whether to use them or not, but rather which to use and how much time to devote to them.

How to approach network tools

You might get defensive when reading a title like “quit social media” or even when asked to merely tone done your usage a little. Your arguments might be along the line of “it helps me to stay connected to my friends” or “it helps me to discover new groups and events I otherwise wouldn’t know about” and they are valid; for someone new to a city, job or university. But once you’ve settled in and identified that your work is also important to you, they seem to be rather superficial.

It’s not like you wouldn’t have other entertainment options if deprived of social media. And are those friends you merely meet online really that important to you? In other words, are they central to your social life? How does chatting with someone compare to actually meeting this person? It’s of course up to you to answer those questions for yourself, but try not to fall into the following trap:

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.

This line of thought completely ignores the potential downsides of the given tool, which, as discussed before, can be severe. It is also interesting to contrast this approach with another, utilized by any skilled laborer throughout history:

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.

Can you imagine buying a new phone, tv, drill or or bike without thinking about the downsides but by simply relying on the heuristic: “It could be of some use to me, so I must have it.”—No. So why not apply this approach to digital tools as well?

The law of the vital few

Here is how you could go about sifting through your bag of tools:

  1. Identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and personal life: These could involve being an effective researcher and a good teacher and mentor if you are a professor, writing great stories if you are a writer, as well as spending a lot of time with your friends, partner, kids or family.

  2. List for each of those goals the three most important activities: This could be “regularly read and understand the cutting-edge results in my field” and “finish work at 4 pm so I have the rest of the day for my friends and family”.

  3. Go through your list of network tools. Ask yourself whether it has a substantially positive, substantially negative or little impact on your regular and successful participation in these activities.

  4. Finally, only keep using the tool if it has a substantially positive impact which outweighs any negative ones. You can of course go back and adjust your goals, but once you are certain about what you want, there is simply no good reason to keep stuff around that’s not actively contributing to it or even hurts it.

In doing so, you make use of

The law of the vital few: In many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes.

in that probably only around $20\%$ of your activities are responsible for $80\%$ of your wellbeing and a mere $20\%$ of the network tools you are using makes up for $80\%$ of the positive impact on succeeding in these activities.

As your life is a zero-sum game, time invested in one activity will be subtracted from the time invested in all others, it makes sense to focus all your time and attention on those activities and tools that provide the greatest benefit.

Getting rid of unnecessary things

Here is an idea to muck out all the unnecessary stuff once and for all: Pack it all up like you are going to move, then spend a normal week, only unpacking whatever you need and put it back where it used to go. At the end of the week, get rid of whatever is left in the boxes.

Admittedly, this is a rather radical approach, but we can translate it into a way of getting rid of unnecessary network tools. Instead of packing them, don’t use them for a month. All of them. Don’t deactivate them, and don’t tell anyone2. Just stop using them. Explain what you are doing if necessary (e.g. someone reaches out to you by other means because (s)he worries about what happened to you). Then, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Would the last 30 days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

If your answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service permanently.

Don't use the Internet to entertain yourself

The quintessence of this idea is: “Put more thought into your leisure time”. This simply means, that you can and should actively decide what you want to do once you’ve stopped working instead of getting captured by whatever catches your attention at this moment. Addictive websites are just one of those attention traps.

If you’ve planned to watch the newest video of your favorite YouTuber, that’s of course completely fine. Just try not to get drawn into the maelstrom. As mentioned before, work can be surprisingly pleasing due to its inherent feedback and reward cycles. In planning your free time as well, you can transfer some of those benefits and you will end your day feeling more fulfilled.

Rule 4: Drain the shallows

Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.

Account for every minute of your workday

While this might at first sound overly bureaucratic, the idea is similar to mindfulness meditation: Pay attention to what you are doing instead of relying on your autopilot who is usually pretty lenient towards the trivial creeping in.

If, like me, you are not a mindfulness master yet, it helps to make a concrete plan for the day. This one can be a lot more detailed than the simple allocation of tasks you did the night before. If you don’t know exactly what you will be doing at, say, 2 pm, make your best guess or use a broad label like “administrative tasks”.

The important thing here is not that you manage to follow your plan to the minute—you can always revise it if needed—but that planning in this way lends some structure to your day and prevents you from wasting precious motivation on constantly figuring out what to do next. Treat your time with respect.

Again, the goal of the a schedule is not to force you into a rigid plan but rather to make you think about what you actually want. It’s not about constraint but about thoughtfulness. And you might even be more creative than someone employing the more traditional “spontaneous” approach (Don’t work from inspiration)

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

If you work for someone else, ask him or her this question, if you work for yourself, ask yourself. Whatever number you settle on, try to stick to this budget.

If you have no clue, start from the extremes and work yourself towards a reasonable answer. $0\%$? No. $100\%$? No. $50\%$? Still a bit much, you didn’t spend that much time studying or in training to waste half your day on easy to replicate, low-value stuff, right? You get the gist.

Be aware though, that this will most likely require you to change your habits around taking on work infused with shallowness and your availability.

Remember, try to avoid falling into the any benefit trap.

Fixed-schedule productivity

Deliberately do specific things to preserve your happiness.

Give yourself a fixed deadline for when to stop working and stick to it. This not only helps to make sure you have enough time for other activities and to preserve and replenish your energy to work deeply but further motivates you to actually focus on your work and avoid distractions.

For the above suggestion to work you’ll need to prioritize certain tasks and turn down others. Being more productive by being more focused has it’s limits so don’t blindly take on board anything that comes floating by.

Be incredibly cautious about your use of the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes”.

Become hard to reach

The biggest burden on your concentration is probably your constant availability. We have already discussed social media, so here are some tips specifically targeted at email.

  • Tip 1: Make people who send you email do more work. If you have a public place advertising your email address and you get bombarded with messages asking for advice, adding a sender filter can help a lot. Simply put a small text around your address, explaining what sort of message you would like to receive and also what sort of message will likely end up being answered by you. This way, the burden is on the sender to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile.

  • Tip 2: Do more work when you send or reply to emails. You know those two line emails along the line of: “I took a stab at that article we discussed. It’s attached. Thoughts? This took the “author” a few seconds to draft and certainly must have felt good—one more email dealt with—but potentially asks hours of your time in return. Don’t be that person. Instead, think about how you make life easier for your correspondence, for example by sharing a summary of this article in question, highlighting certain points and giving your own opinion in advance.

    The process-centric approach to email: What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?

  • Tip 3: Don’t respond. Again: It’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile. If it’s not, don’t.

Closing thoughts

And there you have it. I hope you could take away one or two useful crumbs to incorporate into your working habits. A lot might have felt a little over boarding and rigid, at least it did for me from time to time, but maybe just give it a try and see where it gets you. Before you reject the idea outright, give this final consideration a spin through your neuronal wiring:

There’s […] an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good.

Deep Work: A 5 minutes blitz

The topic interests you but an entire book is overkill and even this article feels like a big commitment? I don’t blame you. Instead, here is a 5 minutes crash course to deep work that you can simply fill out, print and pin next to your desk. There will certainly be rules and tips that sound strange without context so feel free to read up on anything unclear.

and commit to an idea by ticking the next to it.

What is Deep Work?

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.

What is not deep work?

Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

How do you want to work?

For your deep work, you go completely of the grid

  1. Monastic: for extended periods of time (i.e. several weeks/month).
  2. Bimodal: for at least a day at a time.
  3. Rhythmic: for at least an hour a day with a fixed schedule.
  4. Journalistic: at every possible opportunity (not for beginners).

When do you want to work?

Regardless of what you decided above, choose a specific timeslot for you deep work:

Where do you want to work?

It should be a quiet, tidy place; even better if used exclusively for deep work.

Which rules do you follow?

How will you support your work?

What’s your emergency plan?

To boost your motivation on this wildly important task:

It’s not about what you need to do but how to do it.

  1. I’ll focus on the following wildly important goal:
  2. Ill use the following strategy to get there:
  3. I’ll track my success each day using:
  4. I’ll keep myself accountable by:

What’s your shutdown ritual?

How will you schedule your use of the Internet?


  • I promise not to think about work once I’ve stopped.

  • I’ll give myself a competitive deadline for all of my tasks.

  • I’ll use the time commuting to make progress on a specific problem.

  • I’ll learn to memorize a shuffled deck of cards to train my memory.

  • I’ll make use of the Craftsman Approach to Network Tool Selection

    Sure, but what's that?

    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.

    1. What is the main high-level goal in your professional/personal life?
      • Prof.:
      • Personal:
    2. What are the three most important activities to succeed with each goal?
      • Professional:
      • Personal:
    3. Ask yourself for each network tool you’re using: Which has a substantially positive/negative or neutral effect on those activities?
    4. Only keep using the tool if it has a substantially positive impact which outweighs any negative ones.
  • I’ll stop using all of social media for 30 days.


    Then ask yourself:

    1. Would the last 30 days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
    2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

    Quit each service for which the answer to both questions is “no”.

  • I’ll put more thought into my leisure time. (don’t do what’s easiest right now)

  • At the end of each day and each week I’ll plan the following one.

  • What’s your shallow work budget each day?

  • I’ll stop working at each day.

  • I’ll be more mindful of other peoples time and put more work into my emails.

Congratulations, you are on the way of becoming a real deep worker! If you like, print this overview3 to remind yourself.

  1. Among other problems like anxiety to miss out and due to constantly comparing yourself to others as well as data privacy concerns. 

  2. It is part of the seductive quality of social media that they make you think that people want to hear what you have to say. You’ll soon find out. 

  3. It will not be saved! 

Written on June 4, 2020