Deep Work Habits

by on May 17, 2019  •  In Miscellaneous

Given the mentally strenuous demands of investing, and the finite nature of time and mental capacity, effective time and mental capacity allocation is subject on which I’m constantly seeking wisdom and improvement. A book called Deep Work by Cal Newport, recommended by David Giroux of T. Rowe Price in an interview with Consuelo Mack offered some extremely helpful suggestions. Key highlights are below, but I highly recommend you read the book to glean insights directly from the source.

General Idea:

“Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech…network tools are not exceptional; they’re tools, no different from a blacksmith’s hammer or an artists’ brush, used by skilled laborers to do their jobs better…adopt a tool only if its positive impact…substantially outweighs its negative impacts…The shallow work that increasingly dominates the time and attention of knowledge workers is less vital than it often seems in the moment…ruthlessly identify the shallowness in your current schedule, then cull it down to minimum levels – leaving more time for the deep efforts that ultimately matter most.”

“…all activities, regardless of their importance, consume your same limited store of time and attention. If you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game. And because your time returns substantially more rewards when invested in high-impact activities than when invested in low-impact activities, the more if it you shift to the latter, the lower your overall benefit.”

“…a phone goes off in the background, it ruins what you are concentrating on…even though you are not aware at the time, the brain responds to distractions.”

“…research identifies…that when you switch from some Task A to another Task B, you attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task…By working on a single hard tasks for along time without switching…minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from…other obligations, allowing…to maximize performance of this one task.”

“I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time chunks…I’ve invested significant effort to minimize the shallow in my life while making sure I get the most out of the time this frees up. I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule.”

Deliberate Practice:

“…the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain…To master a cognitively demanding task requires this specific form of practice – there are few exceptions made for natural talent…‘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.’”

“The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained…it’s common to treat undistracted concentration as habit like flossing – something that you know how to do and now is good for you, but…neglecting due to lack of motivation. This mindset is appealing because it implies you can transform your working life from distracted to focused overnight if you can simply muster enough motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your ‘mental muscle.’”

“…in the research of Clifford Nass…study of behavior in the digital age…The people we talk with continually said ‘look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am lase-focused.’ And unfortunately they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.”

“once your brain has become accustomed to on demand distraction…it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate…key idea…getting the most out of your deep work habit requires training…must address two goals: improving your ability to concentrate intensely and overcoming your desire for distraction…once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it.”

“…to succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. This doesn’t mean that you have to eliminate distracting behaviors; it’s sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviors to hijack your attention.”


“…when it comes to replacing distractions with focus, matters are not so simple…one of the main obstacles of going deep: the urge to turn your attention towards some more superficial. Most people recognize…this urge…but most underestimate its regularity and strength…You might respond at this point that you will succeed…because you understand the importance of depth and will therefore be more rigorous in your will to remain concentrated. This is a noble sentiment but decades of research…underscore its futility.”

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it. Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires…over time…distractions drained their finite pool of willpower until they could no longer resist. The same will happen to you, regardless of your intentions – unless…you’re smart about your habits.”

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

“…Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which claims that spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate…To concentrate requires…directed attention. This resource is finite: If you exhaust it, you’ll struggle to concentrate…Walking through nature…exposes you to…‘inherently fascinating stimuli…invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanism a chance to replenish’…freed from having to direct your attention as there are few challenges to navigate…and experience enough interesting stimuli to keep your mind sufficiently occupied to avoid the need to actively aim your attention. This state allows your directed attention resources time to replenish. After fifty minds of such replenishment, the subjects enjoyed a boost in their concentration…ART expands beyond the benefits of nature. The core mechanism of this theory is the idea that you can restore your ability to direct your attention if you give this active a rest.”

“…an individual’s capacity for cognitively demanding work…for a novice [is] somewhere around an hour a day…for experts this number can expand to as many as for hours – but rarely more.”


Below is a framework with rules and constructs I’ve outlined for myself to promote better work and time management habits. However, everyone’s circumstance and mental makeup is unique, so I highly recommend you read the book and build your own framework tailored to your specific psychology and situation.

  • Deep Work = When decide to work, don’t waste time, and work efficiently. Intention & awareness is not enough.
  • Weekly review of pre-defined goals, scheduling commitments, or other urgent items requiring attention
    • Be more aware of how spending time – notice the shallow vs. depth – cull the shallows
      • Depth = what I want to focus my attention on, what’s actually important
      • Shallow = anything not necessary to advancing pre-defined goals
    • Keep a list of what’s most important / long-term – make sure time spent matters. Re-examine goals & always keep them in mind when planning how to spend time.
    • Checking something off list doesn’t make it important — avoid focusing on checking item off list, because then tempted to do only shallow easier items first.
  • Develop a consistent work schedule/routine that “removes the need for you to invest energy in decided if and when you’re going to” do deep work.
    • Batch hard/important/mentally taxing work into long, uninterrupted stretches. 90 mins, break. Repeated 2-3x each day = 3-5 hours of concentrated work, more than most people capable of doing in a day.
    • Plan Ahead:
      1. Where will you work?
      2. For how long? Finite Start. Finite Finish.
      3. Give “the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.” Define a goal (however small) for each session, dangling reward carrot in form of joy felt in achieving a goal.
      4. How long do you need to accomplish this task? Cut time in half – set an ambitious goal.
      5. What resources do you need to stay in this work session – water, snacks, bathrooms, etc.? Prep accordingly, so the acquisition of those resources do not intersect with possible distractions.
      6. Attack task with every free neuron. Be mindful of task trying to accomplish and focus only on that task — no switching, no distractions! Helpful ways to prevent distraction:
        • White noise / music to block out disrupting sounds.
        • Keep email (and other distracting) windows closed until time to check & process emails
        • Batch Scheduled Meetings & Calls – avoids attention fragmentation
        • Schedule Internet Use, Pull Necessary Docs & Filings Ahead of Time
        • Avoid social media unless aware & scheduled
    • Batch smaller/unimportant shallow work (email, administrative tasks, etc.) into short stretches at peripherals of the schedule (or parts of day more prone to interruptions, such as in between meetings/calls/appointments).
  • Before embarking on a new difficult task, clear mind (shower, take a walk/hike, workout) beforehand to eliminate residual attention still focused on previous task.
  • If have pressing/tangled problem, don’t force it, collect your thoughts and make note of where you’re stuck, come back to it later. Schedule session of productive meditation (mull it over while hiking, running, etc.).
  • Daily shutdown exercise. Did you accomplish everything set out at beginning of work day? Anything else require address before end of day? If so, address. If not, scan plan for next day. Exercise reduces ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention. “The idea that you can ever reach a point where all your obligations are handled is a fantasy. Fortunately, we don’t need to complete a task to get it off our minds.” When not working, don’t think about it. Let the mind rest.

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