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Deep Habits: The Danger of Pseudo-Depth

December 12th, 2015 · 55 comments

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Depth Deception

A difficulty I’ve faced in promoting the practice of deep work is that many people think they engage in this activity regularly (and don’t get much out of it), even though what they’re really doing is far from true depth.

To better understand this possibility, consider the following two hypothetical scenarios:

  • Scenario #1: Alice has to write a difficult client proposal. She decides to work away from her office for the first half of the day. She begins by going for a long walk to clear her head and play around with the different proposal pieces. She ends up at the local library, where she settles into a quiet corner for an hour and tries to write a rough draft. She feels the pitch is still too muddled, so she walks to a nearby coffee shop for more caffeine and works the outline over and over on paper. Finally she hits a configuration she likes and returns to the library to work it into the draft. After another hour she has something special. For the first time that day, she checks her e-mail before heading into the office.
  • Scenario #2: Alice has to write a difficult client proposal. She checks her e-mail, sends off some replies, then drives into work. At the office she closes her door to work on the proposal. She finds it hard going, but sticks with for a couple hours. She only checks her e-mail a few times an hour during this period (much less than normal) and peeks at Facebook to relieve her boredom only once. She does take a break halfway through to gripe about an unrelated manner in the office kitchen with a colleague.

In both scenarios, Alice dedicated a good stretch of time to working on a cognitively demanding task. Many people, new to the concept, would therefore consider both scenarios to describe deep work.

But they would be wrong.

Pseudo-Depth

Here’s the key observation about this example: in the second scenario, Alice never went more than twenty minutes or so without switching her attention away from her primary task to something else. It’s tempting to dismiss these breaks because they’re so fleeting — lost in the standard background noise of knowledge work — but their cost is substantial.

Something that came up again and again when I was researching my book on this topic, is that switching your attention — even if only for a minute or two — can significantly impede your cognitive function for a long time to follow.

More bluntly: context switches gunk up your brain.

This effect has been validated from many angles in academic psychology and related fields, spanning the work of Bluma Zeigarnik, Clifford Nass, Gloria Mark and Sophie Leory (whose theory of attention residue I write more about here).

In the first scenario, by contrast, Alice gives herself the time required to really let her brain get up to speed on the demanding problem and then stay in high gear long enough to make progress.

Having studied and experimented with deep work for years, I can tell you with confidence that the session described in the first scenario has the potential to produce an outcome an order of magnitude more compelling and effective than what Alice could produce in the state of pseudo-depth described in the second scenario. The former also describes a more satisfying work experience.

I try to put aside one day per week to spend a stretch of six to seven hours straight without distraction — no e-mail, no Internet, lots of walking (some in the woods), too much coffee — all focused on a small number of crucial, hard work tasks. This week I managed this on two different days.

It was a good week.

The bottom line is that if you’re intrigued by depth, give real depth a try, by which I mean giving yourself at least two or three hours with zero distractions. Let the hard task sink in and marinate. Push through the initial barrier of boredom and get to a point where your brain can do what it’s probably increasingly craving in our distracted world: to think deeply.

(Photo by Luis Marina)

55 thoughts on “Deep Habits: The Danger of Pseudo-Depth

  1. S. says:

    You mentioned in the Straight-A book that it is recommended to take breaks after every hour or so. Is deep work about taking no breaks? How do I reconcile the advice in Straight-A and this?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Breaks are fine. But as suggested in STRAIGHT-A as well, they need to be boring breaks: no Internet, nothing work related. In my long deep work sessions I tend to switch locations every hour or so. The walking from one location to another gives me a chance to power down my mind some and regain some energy.

      1. Carl says:

        This is an interesting correlation for me because when I was in the military studying electronics, we sat alone and learned via self-paced modules. It was mandated however that we take a 5 minute break every hour. They had deep learning down to a what-works science–and that was in the mid 1970’s.

  2. Dan says:

    This applies to other areas as well, namely travel. It’s easier to pack up and move than it is deal with the emotional discomfort required for “facing the facts” and experiencing internal change.

    Curious – what is meant by the term “deep habits”?

  3. Tsung says:

    Cal, these are great scenarios contrasting depth of focus and lack of depth. I’ve certainly experienced both!

    Thanks for posting this, I’ve experienced the cognitive cost of distraction a lot.

    As an extra, I’ve found checking my phone in the last half hour (especially immediately) prior to bed, makes a deeply focused next morning and day really hard.

  4. Chris says:

    I’ve had great success working for 25 minutes getting up and moving around then repeating until the task is finished: pomodoros. Are you saying these frequent breaks are actually inhibiting the thinking process or is it cognitive distraction during the breaks which causes the issues?

    1. Frank says:

      I use pomodoro very successfully as well. It’s good to routine tasks and some intelectual tasks as well. But sometimes, I’m so focused on a deep problem that I ignore the pomodoro break. I would lose momentum if I take a break on that moment.

      When you reach a flow state, you have to take advantage of that extra focus!

  5. Raphael says:

    How do you reconcile this idea of deep work with the concept of interleaving?

    Research on learning has shown that interleaving between different task (1 hour of math then one hour of programming for example) produce better learning in the long run. The rationale is that switching activities like that requires more effort and this added cognitive effort makes deeper neural connections. It’s the same idea behind spaced repetition as well.

    On the other side of the coin, long streaks of single minded focus produce better immediate performance. (Plus you get in flow)

    So could we summarize it like that: Deep work when you need immediate results and interleaved and spaced practice for long term learning?

    1. ziqd says:

      I’m wondering the exact same thing.
      Would be curious if there any thoughts on this.

      The 2 – 3 hours of deep work seem similar to what would be called blocking/massing.

  6. Bartlett says:

    Both Chris and “S” raise a valid query: how do you reconcile this notion of deep work with the idea that very short breaks after periods of focus (Depending on who you ask, anywhere between 25 minutes to an hour per period) are a good thing?

    1. Nico says:

      As Cal commented above (you may have seen it already), it is about the type of break.
      A walk or some other ‘boring’ activity, planned before as in the pomodoro technique, is fine.
      The problem is checking emails or Facebook, which is often spontaneous (most people just do it when they are bored) and is not part of the ‘boring’ activities.

      So breaks are good, but they need to be ‘boring’ breaks, not typical procrastination breaks.

  7. Claudia says:

    AMAZING!
    Just marked a “HARD WORK TASKS ZERO DISTRACTION TIME” in my calendar. Wednesday 8-12am. Thanks for sharing!!!

  8. How can Deep Work apply to learning something new? For instance, I’m trying to move some web services to AWS. The documentation is sparse and I find myself ‘googling around’ for answers and then get distracted. Walking around the woods thinking about the AWS tech (Kinesis and Lambda) wouldn’t get me far since I still have a lot to learn about it.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Learning something hard requires a state of deep work, as if you don’t give something full concentration, it’s difficult to internalize it. Probably you’d be helped by separating the search for good documentation from learning and applying it.

  9. X. says:

    This is something because all this “deep” stuff is only well suited to small number of people. We are all work in different ways, some people are quite disorganised, unplanned and distracted, yet they reach the top levels. Because this is their nature. Actually many people are quite successful at applying Scenario 1 to all sorts of problems.

    So promoting this idea of deepness again and again, as a general idea, is dangerous. It is natural that people who can not live in this way, when they try to adopt your principles, will become fooled and you should be much more explicit about this if you are genuine about helping people.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I disagree. Deep work applies to any job in which you are required to learn skills and apply them to produce valuable things. It is both satisfying and effective. The alternative is stressful and much less effective.

      I don’t buy the idea that some knowledge workers just naturally do better when they’re disorganized and distracted. To me, it’s like a professional runner saying he performs better with clunky, heavy shoes.

      1. X. says:

        Please don’t go to meaningless analogies. I don’t say, these disorganised people are not working deeply. Of course they do intermittently but in a disorganised way. Otherwise they are distracted, they don’t do plans.

        What you miss in your work is unpredictability of the discovery process. A scientist can not simply sit and “do the job” because it is not same with signing a bunch of documents which you can do just by forcing yourself to do it. Discovery process is unpredictable, you could find yourself distracted when you plan to work or focused when you don’t plan to work. Any reasonable person knows this unpredictability.

        Rather than taming it (you can not), some people need to live it, and only go deep when they need it. Otherwise let me say what happens: A bunch of people obsessed by getting things done, sit and try to do stuff, and eventually couldn’t do it, and then blame themselves.

        Your techniques could be useful to many people but if you do not make it clear that it could be useless for another group, you will create some desperate people who blame themselves. Have some respect to different people, you didn’t invent “the way” to work and create.

        1. Misha says:

          I guess Cal’s point is exactly that a scientist can just sit down and “do the job”, the job being get deeply focused on the subject. Discovery is unpredictable, but one is in full control of the focused effort towards making the discovery.

          “Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”” ~ Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

        2. Elias says:

          Which one to believe? Random guy with baseless opinion vs acclaimed author/professor making well researched claim.

  10. JD Moyer says:

    In my experience taking physical breaks (walking, stretching, 20 reps of whatever, etc.) doesn’t break concentration. Cognitive breaks (reading, conversing, switching to other tasks) do. I don’t think Cal is recommending that we sit perfectly still for hours.

    1. J Araujo says:

      That’s how I interpreted it too. After all, it is not physically healthy to sit in one position for long periods, and we don’t want to add the discomfort of a bad back to our distractions. A walk, or moving locations, or just standing up to put the kettle on, every so often, sounds vital, and is what Cal recommends in his post I think. So yes, breaks are in, but it seems the type of break you choose can either help or hinder your deep thinking.

  11. Brendon Robinson says:

    Some commentators point out the published evidence in favor of frequent breaks. Is there similar evidence supporting this deep work strategy or is it anecdotal?

  12. Agustin Barboza says:

    Cal,

    I usually engage in deep work for several hourse. What I normally do in a day, is two stretches of an hour and a half with a fifteen minutes break in between. Although i feel totally immersed in the work, during the break i normally use internet to distract myself from the work. Reading this now, how do you recommend me approaching my breaks?

    PD: I’m entering college next year. I chose economics as my major but due to my great interest in math, i decided to study that also but as a minor. I know your thoughts about double majors, but what do you think about minors?

    Thanks and congratulations for the great blog, I’ve already pre-ordered the book.

  13. David says:

    What do you make of the reports that von Neumann liked to work with music playing, or sitting in the living room with the television on?

    1. Carl says:

      Music which has no words can increase concentration, especially music which is not melodic — late romantic classical, ambient, New Age. Nature sounds are also useful. Such sound — if not played too loud — can mask more distracting noises.

  14. Maarten says:

    Cal, how do you deal with situations where you have to allow certain distractions? During office hours I need to answer the phone to answer queries from clients (in my case, I am just not able to call them back later or to let a colleague take the calls or whatever), but in between phone calls I have a lot of idle time that I can use for deep work. What is your strategy to regain focus after you have been disrupted from your ‘deep work’ flow?

  15. Daniel says:

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on deep work for children (which the approaches of Maria Montessori and Magda Gerber allow for).

  16. Kristy says:

    Hi Cal,

    I have been an avid follower of your blog and have read all of your books faithfully. I find them all really useful and efficient and have been trying to apply them consistently. However, as a PhD student and a mother of twin four-year-olds, I find that the idea of deep work is the most challenging one for me. The reason is simply logistics, it is rare I could find/afford a straight seven hours stretch of work time before I have to take care my children as they are not yet in school age. Perhaps this is also why most of female writers on PhD study skills/time management tend promote the advantage of writing/working in small bursts of time instead. Surely I hope there will be more study about deep work for mothers with young children, however for now on I should strive to keep myself from switching attention when at work as much as possible. Thanks for this great post 🙂

  17. Marc says:

    Hi Cal,

    How do you apply your deep work walking strategy with cold weather? Just switching locations?

    Thank you,
    Isaac

    1. Brenda says:

      Warm clothes and maybe a pair of snowshoes.

    2. J Araujo says:

      Personally I have always embraced this useful saying: “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”. I live in Scotland, and if I waited for a dry, warm day I’d never leave the house. Wellies, waterproofs, thermals all help. Walk fast and you soon warm up. If you live in a country with crazy -40deg winters and cannot possibly go outside without risk of death, maybe do some press-ups?

  18. Brian Saturnino says:

    Cal,

    I’ve been reading a lot of your past articles and even all of your books within the past 12 months, and I feel this book called “15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management” by Kevin Kruse shares a lot of your ideas. You should consider looking into it.

    I’m finding your deep work and fixed-schedule productivity a highly underrated yet extremely powerful system to implement in one’s life.

  19. Amanda says:

    Hi Cal,

    How then does one move from Scenario #2 to Scenario #1? In today’s culture with social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., it is getting hard to discipline our mind to focus on one task in a long stretch, like six to seven hours without distraction.

  20. Maria says:

    Hi Cal,
    What do you think of using a method like the Pomodoro technique for deep work for which one would take breaks every 25 minutes but continue to work on a singular project for a length of time say about 3 hours or so? What about sustaining concentration for the period of eleven hours like you said? I find that very difficult and find that the quality of my work drops off after about 4 hours of sustained attention. What are your recommendations for handling this (without caffeine)?

  21. James Fadden says:

    Is there an RSS feed for this blog? (I happen to find RSS feeds helpful for productivity as it gathers all the blogs I follow in one interface so I can schedule when to review them. This fits with your idea of fixed-schedule productivity.)

  22. Cal,
    You probably cover this in detail in your book, but I’m curious what kinds of distractions you think are acceptable during deep work. For example, you say you work in coffee shops, which seem potentially distracting (but not in a work-related way, maybe.) What about background music? One of my art teachers advocates complete silence, one watches movies on his second screen when doing art.

    I realize the acceptable types of distraction is subjective and personal, but do you advocate a heuristic for deciding when a stimulus is acceptable? “If it makes you think about ______ then it’s going to affect performance.”

  23. McClain says:

    “Nothing can be accomplished without solitude.” — Pablo Picasso.
    Saw that on Quote Investigator, and it reminded me of this discussion.
    Here’s the link with citation sources: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/12/16/solitude/#more-12638

  24. AG says:

    Hi Cal,

    On advice to become a straight A student in your book as well as on your blog here (http://calnewport.com/blog/2007/07/26/the-straight-a-gospels-pseudo-work-does-not-equal-work/), you claim that focus drops after 2 to 3 hours of work and that students should ideally not work longer than that on one task in a day. How do you reconcile that advice with the one you give here for deep work? I am soon to be a graduate student(PhD candidate) and am keen to figure out the best way to approach graduate school.

    Thanks,
    AG

  25. Jasleen Kaur says:

    Can, I subscribe feed on this blog? Thank you!

  26. Thomas says:

    I think the key fact that many of us miss is, all work isn’t deep work. Sometimes work is just work, and it needs to get done. It’s often tedious, doesn’t require much deep thought, but still can leave you drained physically and mentally. A break every so often makes it bearable.

    On the other hand, deep work can also be tedious, but the difference is you’re using your mind to discover new ideas or make new connections with things you didn’t understand before. Getting in that “zone” takes time at the beginning, but once your’re there you actually don’t want to stop. When ideas start to click and what you didn’t understand before starts to makes sense, you want more. (At least in my case this is how it works lol)

  27. Neil says:

    Except that Evolution has been tested and verified by scientists and biologist from around the world honing it, improving it, and using it to make valid predictions.

  28. ms_mkm says:

    I’ve been applying deep practice to my fiction writing. I’ve discovered I need a significant period of time (at least 4 hours; 7 hours is perfect!) to do the deep work necessary to pull a chapter together. I take regular breaks–usually to make food/ replenish beverages, and on the odd occasion, to do housework, but my mind doesn’t stray far from the in-progress chapter.

    However, I’ve noticed that I lose focus–and flow–when I turn my mind to research mid- draft. Your post has highlighted that when I do this, I’m essentially switching cognitive attention, hence the lose of focus and flow.

    I’m super keen to make this adjustment–of leaving research until the end of the first draft.

    Thanks!

    1. Frank SanPietro says:

      I think that this post is providing a simple method to achieve extraordinarily improved results. I am a doctoral student in Finance at the University of Memphis and can definitely attest to the critical value of non interrupted focus.

      Keep up the great work, Cal.

  29. UGC NET tips says:

    Nice Job, I really liked this article. Specially the # Scenario thing was pertinent with the beginning of the article.

  30. @hepidad says:

    Hello. Glad to know that what I did was right. I was in final stage of my life on college. When stuck on… you know, I just going to the library in every Friday, drank hot coffee from vending machine, and just listening mp3m , code with standing. Somehow this “break” works. The achievements of this are 3 paper in just one month. Because I am deadly curious with Cal-sensei lesson about deep work, just 5 minutes ago check out the book from Amazon japan. Yay!.

  31. Sam says:

    Hey Cal,

    What have you got to say about “perception management” in the corporate environment that produces pseudo-deep work?

    2 examples that come to mind:

    1) Instant messenger. We have to be on it or it *looks* like we’re not at our desk and working. The downside is anyone can IM us at any moment and interrupt any attempt at a deep work session. I’m not sure the culture allows one to take their time in replying to IM, like one can perhaps do with email. It seems to be like texting in that the expectation is an immediate response.
    2) People Walking past cubicle constantly. In this situation, I’ve found that I have to be constantly *doing* something, such as typing (email, document, or whatever), speaking with someone on the phone, or engaged with a S/W program of some kind (design software, coding software, etc.). If I sit back and allow myself to reflect, I suddenly am hyper conscience of the fact that I don’t *look* productive. I find myself shuffling physical papers or digital windows on my machine to appear productive, or toggling away from my internet browser every single time I hear footsteps approaching behind me because–while I may genuinely be doing research for work–I’m on a website that doesn’t *look* like it’s work-related. This means I’ve spent the bulk of my years at this company *looking* productive, rather than being productive. (Somehow I’ve still managed to get my work done, but I’m definitely not reaching my full potential.)

    1. Sam says:

      A 3rd example came to mind:

      3) Sharing an office. Not only does one a) focus a lot of cognitive effort in succumbing to the pressures of being “perceived” as productive in a shared office environment where there are constant eyes on you and your computer screen (imagine 1 office bay with 2-4 people at the corners, backs facing in), but what about b) the loss of concentration do to distractions inherent in having ever-present officemates?

      How does one go about conducting deep work in such an environment (either this, or the dreaded cubicle farm)?

  32. Daniel Davis says:

    Very interesting concept, I hope I can implement this into my life. I’ve notice multiple times when I get stuck on a big project where I don’t know where to start, I take about 3 breaks every 10 minutes. The project gets delayed and It takes 3 times longer to get anything done and it just creates more stress.

  33. Daniel Hull says:

    Your podcast with Thomas Frank was incredibly powerful.

    Would you say listening to music counts as a distraction when trying to enter the ‘deep work’ phase?

    Daniel

  34. You define deep work as stretching you intellectually, and in this post you suggest deep work is without distraction. What qualifies as deep work vs. shallow work on a deeper project?
    i. Is writing a newsletter deep work?
    ii. Is revising a client onboarding program, based on new best practices discovered in a recent book?
    iii. Or is deep work only learning a skill, such as developing the ability to write more effectively?

    Put a different way, I have a project that requires time and focus to accomplish, but it isn’t necessarily new or novel. For example, writing a summary of a meeting requires focus for a long duration, but doesn’t necessarily stretch me.

    Or is the distinction that deep work requires the ability ideate, making connections between disparate concepts to create new insights?

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