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Resolve to Live a Deep Life

December 31st, 2015 · 35 comments

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A Deep Omission

In preparation for the upcoming release of my new book, I’m doing a lot of interviews about deep work. This process of talking about depth again and again helped me identify a shortcoming in my treatment of this skill here on Study Hacks.

I realized that I spend a lot of time explaining the importance of intense focus and detailing strategies to help you focus better, but I’ve neglected the big picture questions about what it really means to prioritize this skill in your life; e.g.,

  • What are the major changes to your life required by a commitment to deep work?
  • What are the large scale goals you should be striving to achieve using the types of small scale habits and strategies I so often discuss?
  • What, in other words, is the sixty-second summary of what it means to live a deep life?

In this post, I’ll try to answer these questions…

A Deep Life

To me, to live a deep life is to embrace the following three general commitments:

  • You systematically train your ability to concentrate intensely. Focus is a skill that must be practiced, and therefore, most people are not very good at it. Those who train themselves to concentrate intensely, however, produce at a level that can seem superhuman to their peers.
    To be more concrete: At any given point, you should be able to describe your current cognitive calisthenics routine just as you might describe your current exercise routine.
  • You build your workweek around protecting and supporting many occasions to work deeply. Most knowledge workers rarely stumble into long blocks of uninterrupted time in their schedule. If you want to work deeply on a regular basis, you have to fight for it. The deep life requires, in other words, that you invest the effort needed to hold back time for depth despite the ever-encroaching pressure of the shallow.
    To be more concrete: Start with the goal of having five hours per week protected on your calendar for deep work. Each session should be at least 90 minutes long.
  • You take bold measures to demonstrate respect for your attention. Deep work wields your attention like a well-honed tool. To be serious about this craft you need to be serious about how you treat your attention, much like professional athletes are serious about their physical health. This might mean that you quit social media, or lock away your phone after dinner, or take up meditation, or spend more time outside each day. The details don’t matter as much as the intention.
    To be more concrete: Make one non-trivial change in your life that demonstrates to yourself that you prioritize your attention over more superficial activities.

There are many ways to act on the three commitments above. Depending on your situation different strategies might be more appropriate than others.

For example: one way I train my focus is to regularly use an outdoor office; one way I protect deep work in my week is to schedule it on Monday morning on my calendar like any other inviolable appointment; and one way I demonstrate respect for my attention is that I’ve never had a social media account.

For some, my approach to the deep life might work well, while for others, it might be completely unworkable.

But what I strongly believe is that for most skilled knowledge work positions, if commit to the three general ideas above, and find ways to act on these commitments that work for your life, you will thrive — not only will you experience significantly more success, you’ll also find your work more meaningful and your mind less cluttered and anxious.

A Deep Resolution

I end my new book on deep work with a quote from science writer Winifred Gallagher:

“I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”

As you make your New Year’s resolutions this week, consider accepting Gallagher’s conclusion and committing to depth. A deep life is a good life, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

(Photo by Hernan Pinera)

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A brief administrative note: On Wednesday, January 6th, at 3 pm ET, I’ll be doing a live Ask Me Anything chat for Product Hunt about my new book on deep work. This is a chance for you to ask me live any question you want about deep work, productivity, or any other topic. To attend simply go to this page at 3 pm ET on January 6th.

35 thoughts on “Resolve to Live a Deep Life

  1. Hi Cal,

    I just bought Deep Work a couple days ago. Can’t wait to start reading it. Seems like the perfect book to read at the start of the new year.

    Happy New Year!
    ~Christine

  2. Troy D says:

    A very apropos blog post to close out the year. Great stuff, Cal. I always appreciate that you incorporate the details of how you implement these techniques successfully in your own life. Very much looking forward to reading Deep Work. May you have a deep and prosperous 2016!

  3. Win Thornton says:

    Great thoughts to start a new year. I am a subject matter expert in offshore decommissioning and am looking for ways to hone my expertise. This approach is perfect for approaching the new year and taking concrete actions for deepening my knowledge.

  4. prfje says:

    Happy new year! Allow me to take the occassion for the following off-topic: I have read your books and there is another question that I always had but was afraid to ask: While super effective, commitment to presented strategies and be successful requires a good amount of drive. Your work seems to take this for granted (and for good reason, you have to draw the line somewhere). Do you have any thoughts on this, is it worthwhile for creating a good life to focus on developing drive as well?

  5. Chad says:

    Hi Cal –

    You have just partly answered my question regarding if “deep work” is an inherent skill, such as an innate behavior, or can it be learned. As someone who struggles with the issues of focusing, sticking with things can be tough at times. If there was some “magic potion” for obtaining endless willpower, I would be the first in line! 😉 Thanks and can’t wait for the new book! – Chad

  6. Dave Small says:

    Congratulations on your new book Cal. Your previous book is excellent. After several decades in leadership, I thought it was the best treatment of career development I’ve seen. I recommend it often.

    Regarding your blog post, what a great formula for high-quality work:
    1) A training plan to cultivate intense concentration.
    2) Schedule our most important work.
    3) Replace something superficial with something better and deeper.

    An additional thought about the importance of “deep work” and quality (and relevant to your third point). Quality certainly brings personal “success”, but seems to have societal and cultural implications as well. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a practitioner of “deep work”, was imprisoned and executed for his opposition to Hitler. In his Letters and Papers From Prison he wrote, “We need . . . to recover the lost sense of quality and a social order based on quality. Quality is the greatest enemy of any kind of mass-leveling. . . . “Culturally it means a return from the newspaper and the radio to the book, from feverish activity to unhurried leisure, from dispersion to concentration, from sensationalism to reflection, from virtuosity to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation.”

    Happy New Year!

  7. Eric Case says:

    Cal,

    RE: What are the major changes to your life required by a commitment to deep work?

    I wonder if you bring the same attitude (intense/Deep Work) to your non-work life. For example, I plan almost every hour when I go to a conference because I want to see/hear the best. I can imagine you doing the same because it’s part of your professional life. But what about vacations, family reunions, etc., do you draw the line and not work when you’re on vacation and instead take a deep approach to spending quality time with your family? Do you block out the major goals of the vacation, e.g., this park for a half-day, this museum for a day, etc.?

    Thanks
    -Eric

  8. Elizabeth says:

    I pre-ordered your book from my local bookstore, and it arrived on Wednesday. I finished it yesterday, and I think it is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. I’ve decided to dedicate 2016 to implementing the strategies you describe. Thank you for it.

    Also, for you or others interested in the topic of attention, a couple of other books suggestions: The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, M.D. and Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

    Happy New Year everyone.

  9. kyle says:

    Outstanding post. I think this is one of the best posts you’ve written to date that explains both the “why” and “how” to deep work. Even though I was unaware of it at the time, I had better deep habits in grad school. Now in the 9-5 grind, I found I was getting frustrated with and felt anxious on days that were filled with email and endless meetings. Your writing resonates with me and those experiences. Being intentional about deep work makes any day better; not necessarily easier, but I fill fulfilled, energized, and happier. The days also go by much faster.

  10. Prasad says:

    This is a great post to start the New Year Cal! A happy new year to you and yours!

  11. Faith Wallis says:

    Dear Cal,

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I woke this New Year’s morning with a phrase running through my head — “Great Determination”. When I “translated” this rather enigmatic message, it turned out to be a personal recension of your resolution to live a deep life — which I only discovered when I opened my e-mail around 6:00 p.m. You see how following your work has made a huge impact on my life! I have pre-ordered your book and await it with great anticipation. In the meantime, may you have joy in the new year!

    FW

  12. Been off Facebook for a few weeks now and it’s been phenomenal for my work. Something just feels different. Hard to put it into words.

    Can’t wait for the Product Hunt AMA! 🙂

  13. This kind of commitment will surely add tremendous value in our own life.

    Thank you Cal for the post & wish you an awesome year ahead! 🙂

  14. Jason Hughston says:

    Cal – you may not be aware but the webinar replay starts when you opened the room not the actual start of the webinar and there is no way to fast forward. There is 40 minutes of very little.

  15. Jason Hughston says:

    Sorry for the comment above – had not used the webinar software and found the link from Webinar Jam through to Youtube where the controls are available.

  16. David says:

    Cal, you always seem so together, how do you deal with major life disruptions, such as a devastating loss of someone you love, or some work event that really knocks you down?

    Have you ever dealt with tough life situations? How do you work through, or around, that?

    Without getting personal, advice in this area would make your recommendations much more meaningful and practical to me.

    Thx!

  17. Gordie says:

    Cal, you don’t write pablum which is so refreshing! Thank you for your rich mental protein, deep thinking and now, deep work. Your devoted disciple.

  18. Aaron says:

    Just got the book downloaded last night, and I’m already 40 pages into it! Another one hitting it out of the park! Love that you reference Daily Rituals book, the devil is truly in the details.

  19. Andrew says:

    Hi Cal,
    Have there been any scientific studies on deep focus? I know that there have been studies on the generality of working memory – e.g. if someone is very strong at chess and has a good working memory there, can they transfer that skill to some other area. From what I have read, that has been proven false. Do you know of any papers showing that the situation is different for deep focus? Enjoy the blog!
    Best,
    Andrew

  20. Bob Lucore says:

    Cal,
    I just want to say thank you. I finished “Deep Work” yesterday afternoon. It arrived at an opportune time. I decided in reviewing 2015 that my theme for 2016 needs to be “focus.” Your books rules and strategies are going to help with this a great deal.
    Bob

  21. Lisa says:

    I found your blog when I was researching interview questions for the Jefferson Scholars program. Very exciting work and in line with my own passion for encouraging students to go deep, not broad.

  22. johny says:

    Will this help the student by memorizing the facts and being ale to deliver them quickly? I’m curious to how others would do if the student doesn’t finish in time

  23. Geoff says:

    Great post Cal. You’re getting quite famous, hopefully the Social media empire doesn’t mind you ruffling their feathers a bit!

  24. liaocheng says:

    Actually, there’s a kindle version of this book at Amazon US store.

  25. Cal, you don’t compose pablum which is so reviving! Much obliged to you for your rich mental protein, profound thought and now, profound work. Your committed pupil.

  26. Megan says:

    Love the advice. How to you work deeply when you have so many small projects going on at once?

  27. This one is going to keep me up at night, thank you!

  28. Anna says:

    thanks for soving my problem with health and disturbance in mind. i will try and share my experience with you. thnaks a lot and sharing this important blog with us.

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