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Knowledge Workers are Bad at Working (and Here’s What to Do About It…)

An Inconvenient Observation

Knowledge workers are bad at working.

I say this because unlike every other skilled labor class in the history of skilled labor, we lack a culture of systematic improvement.

If you’re a professional chess player, you’ll spend thousands of hours dissecting the games of better players.

If you’re a promising young violin player, you’ll attend programs like Meadowmount’s brutal 7-week crash course, where you’ll learn how to wring every last drop of value from your practicing.

If you’re a veteran knowledge worker, you’ll spend most of your day answering e-mail.

As I’ve argued here in my new book, this represents a huge opportunity for knowledge workers. If you can adopt a culture of systematic improvement, similar to what’s common in other skilled fields, you can potentially accelerate your career far beyond your inbox-dwelling, discomfort-avoiding peers (and cultivate passion for your livelihood in the process).

But how do you adopt this approach in your specific job? This is the most common question I’m asked in response to this idea.

In this post, I want to propose a (tentative) answer…

Deep Work (v.1)

Knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on). This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling in responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant).

But this type of work is ultimately empty. We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicatable, nor can we expect such efforts to be the foundation of a remarkable career.

With this in mind, I argue that we need to spend more time engaged in deep work — cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.

Deep work, if made the centerpiece of your knowledge work schedule, generates three key benefits:

  1. Continuous improvement of the value of your work output.
  2. An increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.
  3. Deeper satisfaction (aka., “passion”) for your work.

A working life dedicated to deep work, in other words, is a working life well-lived (a point I argue in detail in Rules 1 and 2 of my book). The question, therefore, is how to integrate deep work into your specific job.

Below I describe four steps for accomplishing this goal in almost any knowledge work profession…

Step #1: Prepare

Deep work is energy intensive. Our brains are stingy when it comes to expending energy, so you shouldn’t expect to casually switch over to a deep work mindset. It helps to instead cultivate a ritual that transitions you from normal shallow work to the deep variety.

This strategy works because it’s easier to convince your mind to do the first step of a simple ritual than to dive straight into intense contemplation. But once a ritual is begun, you’ve engaged your habit circuitry, and can expect to come out on the other side ready to focus.

In my own job as an academic theoretician, for example, this ritual might involve: shutting down my computer, shutting down my overhead lights (leaving on only my desk lamp), brewing a cup of coffee, and putting a “do not disturb” sign on my door.

Step #2: Clarify

Deep work requires a clear image of the outcome you’re seeking and a clear understanding of why it’s valuable. A hazy goal is not enough to sustain your concentration at the needed levels.

Be specific about what success will look like and why that success is important.  Keep in mind that it can take a surprising amount of research to define a good goal, so give this step the attention it requires.

In my own job, I’ve found that it’s easy to come up with reasonable sounding problems, but that these problems often fail to hold my attention. In order to achieve consistent deep work, I usually need to first immerse myself in the relevant research literature, seeking a problem that it is recognized as important, unanswered, but probably answerable with my skill set. This is not easy.

Step #3: Stretch

Take your clear overall goal from the previous step and identify the next logical chunk of work (we’re talking about a chunk that can be accomplished in a small number of sessions, whereas the overall goal might take weeks to complete). When you tackle this chunk, push for a result that is beyond — but not too far beyond — what’s comfortable for your current skill level.

This is the cornerstone of the whole philosophy, so let’s take this slow…

If you can breeze through this chunk like you’re cranking a widget, then you’re not stretching yourself enough.

You need to design this chunk to feature enough difficulty that you quickly get stuck. At this point, you should slow down, and advance deliberately, in a state of real mental strain. This is where you might need to bring in expert coaching — e.g., turn to a textbook or ask a colleague.

This stretch is important to: (a) extract the most out of your current abilities; and (b) ensure that your abilities continue to improve.

Finding chunks that require stretch, but are not so hard that you get permanently blocked, is non-trivival, but is also something that will improve with practice. Keep in mind that most knowledge workers implicitly go out of their way to avoid a feeling of stretch at all costs (because it’s uncomfortable and much less fun than replying to some more e-mails) so by seeking it out, you’ve already put yourself on a much more ambitious trajectory.

In my own job, this is where I need the most improvement. I’ve observed that when I’m working on a proof intuition, if the math needed to formalize the idea gets tricky, I flee the strain, mark the intuition as “probably right,” and move on to something else. Step #3 tells me that this is exactly where I need to slow down and move deliberately, embracing the strain generated by reducing intuition to algebra (a process that often sends me back to my basic textbooks or pestering colleagues). This feeling of strain is the feeling of getting better at my profession, which is why I’m dedicating so much attention toward learning to embrace it.

Step #4: Obsess

The nice thing about deep work is that it’s a clear state of mind. You begin a session with a well-defined ritual, you work on a stretch chunk for 1 – 3 hours, then you finish and go rest. This clarity allows you to track how much time you spend in the state. This tracking gives you a number to try to improve.

You’ll be surprised by how little time you naturally spend doing deep work. You’ll also be surprised by how quickly you can increase these numbers once you know what you’re looking for and are keeping track of what you’re doing.

In my own job, I’ve occasionally used an hour tally to keep track of how much time I spend working on hard research projects. I’ve found, however, that this strategy was often too vague, as I could pump up those counts doing what was essentially shallow work related to a hard project. The specificity of the deep work routine described above, however, eliminates such abuses. The only time I now track is the time spent in this state of deep contemplation. If I can increase the time spent in this state, I’m confident that good things will follow.

(Photo by sparre.enger)


213 thoughts on “Knowledge Workers are Bad at Working (and Here’s What to Do About It…)”

  1. Really interesting post today, Cal. I just want to add that I don’t believe all “hard work” needs to be really hard. For example, as a writer who is intent on doing more deep work, I have recently (a month ago) committed to copying the work of another writer for five minutes a day. Originally, I had tried to do this once a month for an hour — but I could never remember to do it. If I plan on doing something daily, however, I never miss it.

    Anyway, this task is really easy to do but it’s had profound results for me. (Even at only five minutes per day!) I’ve found myself learning more about sentence length, skillful transitions, how to manage quotes etc. etc. I’m not saying that this is the ONLY deep work I do — it’s not. But I just want to emphasize that SOME deep work doesn’t have to be particularly hard.

  2. Obviously, dear Cal,

    there is no adaptive process in place that rigorously unveils deficits of “non hard working” knowledge workers. The results achieved by “not so hard” work seem to be enough — otherwise, knowledge workers would be very much in need to the sharpen their productive skills to stay competitive.



  3. Cal, I stayed up way past bedtime last night marking up your new book, outlining it, and copying quotes from it. Your section on deliberate practice was the best part of the book, IMO – and this post clarifies the process even further.

    I’ve been guilty of approaching work and learning in a very productivity-centered way, which often means taking shortcuts and calling my work “good enough” when it’s really not.

    This morning when spending my usual hour on learning JavaScript, I slowed down and really thought hard when I got stuck instead of just searching for the solution in a forum somewhere. I was surprised at how often I was able to work my way out of the glitch just by focusing.

    Your book is one of the best I’ve read this year, I’ve already two of my siblings read it and I’m on my third reading.

  4. I try and spend two hours every morning learning new skills using deliberate practice. This works for me because unlike a lot of people I work best early in the morning, and often this is a time that is free from meetings.

    For me, and I suspect a lot of knowledge workers, meetings are the biggest obstacle in the way of hard focus. Typically my attention is required for only a few minutes but I’ll still have to sit through a couple of hours.

    Regardless, my strategy of deliberate practice every morning has had a big effect on my productivity. I’ve mastered a lot of skills that are a huge help everyday, and that I would never have developed if I hadn’t taken time to focus and improve.

    By the way, when is your book going to be released in the UK? I tried to order it but I’ve been told that publication was abandoned?

  5. Anyway, this task is really easy to do but it’s had profound results for me. (Even at only five minutes per day!) I’ve found myself learning more about sentence length, skillful transitions, how to manage quotes etc. etc. I’m not saying that this is the ONLY deep work I do — it’s not. But I just want to emphasize that SOME deep work doesn’t have to be particularly hard.

    Actually, Daphne, if you think about it, what you are doing really does fit the bill of “hard work” even if it’s for 5 minutes a day. True, you aren’t beading sweat on your forehead doing it, but you ARE stretching your abilities in a consistent matter. So your “only 5 minutes a day” are actually adding up to 2.5 hours per month, and 30 hours per year in stretching your abilities. This is much more than most put into improving their vocation, I can tell you.

    I would suggest to others that we not be so focused on making sure we are suffering under the burden of improvement and spend more time stretching yourself on a consistent basis, and let the struggle take care of itself.

  6. Regardless, my strategy of deliberate practice every morning has had a big effect on my productivity. I’ve mastered a lot of skills that are a huge help everyday, and that I would never have developed if I hadn’t taken time to focus and improve.

    Can you give us some examples of the skills you learned and ho you learned them?

  7. Hi Cal,

    Thanks for this insight. I have been trying to steer away from my inbox to get some hard work done. The biggest problem I face is being disturbed by coworkers and an overload of work that needs to be done that day (most of it shallow – but it still has to be done). My biggest problem is the (perceived) timepressure that leaves me no time to really immerse myself in hard work.
    I’ve tried some different things to make the time for hard work. I’ve stopped answering every email on the spot, I keep a list of task still to do (usually it holds around 110 tasks for the coming months) and everyday I try to name two big tasks that need to be done.
    I have found that if I need to do really hard work, I have to find a different desk, so I can’t be found by coworkers. With your guidelines on how to approach a hard task I’m confident that my output will even be better.

  8. Cal
    the question is a little unrelated to the post.
    i want to start my own business.i have the sector in mind but i dont have a solid idea of what i should i offer as the product or service . how should i go about researching for ideas?

  9. Project Management in SEO, PPC, re-marketing, etc is where I am as a knowledge based worker.

    Deliberate Practice example would for me in SEO as an example would be to look at all the possible hypothesis and practices that exist out there and test these theories practically myself prior to sourcing the work to developers.

    Since the Panda and Penguin updates by Google the industry has created phenomenal amount of material of what these means to the SEO industry.

    However I have chosen the route of only observing this information and following the methodology for search ranking off the sites that I have created.

    To dwell on this in more detail; I was reading the patent for Google on how its algorithm ranked sites. I further researched what was the preferred layout of these sites that ranked in the early stages of Google. I then made a comparison of current sites with previous sites (either in existent still using for a historical view).

    Using this knowledge I created websites that had variations of design and content elements to see how effective they will be in ranking.

    One design and content layout has achieved a first page listing in Google for a competitive brand term.

    I am convinced that with deliberate practice which requires a lot of design and content testing I will be able to create an ideal web layout that is compatible to mobile, table and desktop (responsive web design) that will increase ranking in search and have higher conversion rates.

    This could not be achieved without constant research, creating/updating of websites, tweaking and monitoring

  10. Cal, today I woke up to attend a Tim Ferriss webinar. Another interview of his landed on my inbox as I follow the blog Zen Habits. Tim is getting around as he is promoting his new book the 4 hour chef which is a cookbook about learning. Tim says that you can be in the top 10% percentile of the general population if you put in 3-6 months of focused studying of how to get there i.e. a recipe of how the process can be repeated to get world class.

    He also addressed deliberate practice by stating “Practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent. This is where I take issue with the 10,000 hour rule and deliberate practice. Not all practice is created equal. I would rather practice less but correctly and intelligently than practice more and develop indirect and direct bad habits.” Seth Godin also stated in an interview how he saw life as experiments; just like hollywood he rather create a movie and then move on to something else which is creative than do the same thing all his life.

    When I read your book recently you stated how Tim’s lifestyle design followers often fail because they haven’t built the career capital required to trade for the autonomy, creativity and control which leads to work life satisfaction.

    The 2 philosophies are in such an opposing end of the spectrum that it has honestly left me a little perplexed. Can you please shed some light to bring clarity to my thoughts? Why do one thing for the rest of your life instead of many things?

    • I have, at various times during my career, been a retail manager, a software developer, a learning and development manager, an HR director, an employee relations advisor, a negotiation consultant, a freelance trainer, a business coach, a web designer, a marketing consultant and a property developer.

      I do not have a college degree, and I have no relevant qualifications for any of these roles. In most cases, I also had zero experience in the role before I took it on.

      What has carried me through this extremely varied career path is the ability to deeply study what makes people successful in these roles, and systematize it so that I can rapidly replicate it.

      With hindsight, and without knowing it at the time, this process involved the ability to shut out distractions and and challenge my cognitive abilities to the limit – what we now know is deep work.

      So I don’t see these philosophies as incompatible. Tim Ferriss’s comments reflect the truth that most people in most jobs are really not very good at them.

      If you are able to develop a meta-method for understanding how to be good at any job, it opens up a world of possibilities, because you will find that you can rapidly outperform people with more qualifications and experience than you.

      This would of course exclude fields where a vast body of subject matter knowledge is necessary in order to succeed, such as a pilot or surgeon. But having said that you do read of cases where completely unqualified people have conned their way into operating theatres and successfully performed operations on patients.

      Personally, I think that’s going too far. But in most fields of employment, you can learn the ropes pretty quickly, and by having superior work methods to those around you, of which the ability to focus and concentrate for long periods of time and stretch your abilities is one of them, you can excel in many fields.

  11. This great work convinced me to read your blog more intentionally and also to buy your latest book. It is because I think your right and I think that it speaks for my current situation. Although I think that you only can work so hard and there will be a point where limitations force you to stop. For example the structures within your job/company need to be very flat or at least very embracing to dedicated (self-)improvement.

  12. Why do one thing for the rest of your life instead of many things?

    I’m sure Cal will have a better response to this, but it seems to me that this is partly a personality issue. Some people prefer breadth and novelty over depth. But I also think that going deep yields its own kind of novelty, which isn’t recognized unless you go deep. Staying with one subject or one field only sounds limiting. There are whole worlds within any rich subject. But you have to go deep to discover this.

  13. Interesting article. I have long subscribed to the theory of stretching yourself on a regular basis. But, what I had not considered, and what you bring out in this post, is the need to track whether it is deep work or shallow work (the latter can also be “stretching”, I think). I’ll try the tracking approach you outline at the end and see where it takes me. Thanks.

  14. All i want to say is that what Carl is advertising here on his website and in his books is nothing new – he has just took pieces from this and that systems of ideas that already are out there. Yes of course we should listen to reason and ignore our passions, and just ready ourselves to take part in the assembly line. All of you are worker on the assembly line working/doing something – what atypical humans…

    Lastly, what he states on this websites and in his books is useful to an extend that only thing one would ever know is the mundaneness of human experience, and nothing more!!!

    Wake up, but i guess most humans can’t because they lack the access to that part of reality which will always remain out of reach… So yes go along and listen to Mr. Carl who is just reiterating someone else’s ideas and taking credit for it.

  15. Cal,

    Two things I have practicing.

    1. comics-I draw at least 2 a day. I look at other comics every day because of the experience that can be seen in great artists. This helps my lines and thoughts improve.

    2. Reading- sounds strange, but it is important to read at least 20 pages of a book per day. You can learn so much. This also helps stimulate thoughts, patterns, and improvement for my website.

    Your section in your new book So Good about only spending an hour on email is great. I have written this down “do things that make me better at my job” in my notebook and on a desk note. See it, answer it, do it.

    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving,


  16. Excellent point!

    A big concern too is putting off short-term wins for long-term gains. As knowledge workers, we’re rewarded for keeping up on the little details day to day, but the big wins come from the “deep work” you describe.

    For that, we need to intentionally cut ourselves off from instant responsiveness to the minutia. Saying No to a lot of little things for a BIG Yes.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  17. You lost me at: ‘and putting a “do not disturb” sign on my door.’

    What door? I’m in a cube farm, surrounded by people who simply ask me questions all day whenever they come to a spot they need help. Some of them don’t even get up, they just look in my direction and start asking the question.

  18. excellent post and the topic of deep work is something I have been trying to spend more time on recently. I refer to it as being “wired in” (citation: answering simple emails often gives me a feeling of satisfaction because I “solved a problem” which I enjoy doing, but the majority of these problems could very easily be solved by others. to remedy my desire to always have a clear inbox, I setup a lot of gmail filters this week to push emails directly to subfolders and then process them all at once. for example, I have 20ish personal development blogs that I subscribe to (including yours), and I now have 75 emails from this week to go through, read, learn about, and then post to my waveborn wiki to share with others (

  19. Let me just give another example of a deep work “Ritual.”

    My Deep Work Ritual:

    Step 1) Walk all the way to the corner store and buy an AriZona Rx Energy Herbal Tonic,

    Step 2) Walk all the way back and take a couple sips, and then turn on the Hitman Blood Money Soundtrack. My favorite track is Night Time in New Orleans, I would listen to it and google pictures of New Orleans’ night views, especially the cemeteries.

    Step 3) After maybe 10 mins of looking and listening and appreciating New Orleans’ beauty, my imagination is piqued, all the mysteriousness of New Orleans, its creoles, its ghost tales, underground tunnels, abandoned cemeteries, asylums, Tulane, French Quarter, hurricane Katrina… Oh my god…I am now fully energized, and thrilled, so am 100% ready to move on to the next step.

    Step 4) I walk into the bathroom, sit down on the toilet, and then immediately, light up the lavender scented candle nearby with a long reach candle lighter. And then… I wave the fire out…and then…you know what happens.

    As I sit, I would look out the window and stare at the early 19th century style house across the street from my dwelling. That house has long windows, and I keep imagining what would happen if I saw a ghost inside. I fully enjoy this process and I think this is when my transition to deep work mode actually happens.

    Once I’m finished with my stuffs in the toilet, I go to my desk and pull out my real analysis or algebra notes, and then I’ll be simply plugged in.



  20. What door? I’m in a cube farm, surrounded by people who simply ask me questions all day whenever they come to a spot they need help. Some of them don’t even get up, they just look in my direction and start asking the question.

    I feel your pain. I work in a noisy, jumbled, open cube layout that I absolutely despise. Since I’m often in demand for answering questions, I’ve started retraining the drive-by inquisitors by stating that I’m working on another task and I’ll get back to them at X:00, or they can send me an e-mail (for which I’ll block off a specific time to address, if it’s significant enough).

  21. i am having a very hard time controlling any impulse to interrupt my study sessions. i feel like my mind seizes on every possible opportunity to distract itself from the task at hand, and i don’t even realize it at the moment, but suddenly find that an hour (or two, or three) have passed without me accomplishing anything. i have found it also happens when i try to exercise -i’ll start, but after two minutes, an idea comes to mind (i need to check this, i should google that) and before i know it, i am doing something else.
    so my question is, how do you resist those impulses?

  22. Ok, I’m reading and loving your new book, very insightful, thanks a ton! 🙂

    In regards to the passage:

    “But this type of work is ultimately empty. We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicatable, nor can we expect such efforts to be the foundation of a remarkable career.”

    I’m new to the blog, so I apologize in advance if this aspect has been discussed before.

    But I don’t buy the obviousness of the statement. Our whole lives, depending how you see are empty, since we are all going to die anyway.

    I’m not sure what gives us satisfaction, but as most things in life, it doesn’t seem to be simple. After reading “The Compass of Pleasure” (David Linden) I got the impression that the best strategy is a mix of strategies.

    And definitely there is satisfaction in quick gains from “shallow work”, and social interaction, and I would argue that we need that, it should be part of the mix.

    I don’t have data to support that … but I have an anedocte though: I used to work on a research group, with many of the lead researchers in the field. While amazingly interesting, and a great opportunity to learn new things, after a couple of years I was incredibly frustrated for not being able to achieve any meaningful gain (like most in the group). You may know this from PhD, rarely anyone achieve a major breakthrough. And the lack of these simple “shallower work” gains is what I classified as the main reason of my frustration then.

    Again I don’t have data … but I just wouldn’t dismiss “shallow work” that quickly, it is sometimes recharging.

  23. You lost me at: ‘and putting a “do not disturb” sign on my door.’

    What door? I’m in a cube farm, surrounded by people who simply ask me questions all day whenever they come to a spot they need help. Some of them don’t even get up, they just look in my direction and start asking the question.

    If you don’t take charge of your time, you will not be able to schedule your time reliably. Yes, of course, we all get interrupted by “stuff” but there is a balance between urgent and important. If you never spend time on important work, urgent will run your life.

    I intentionally have an hour a week set aside (8:00-9:00AM on Thursdays) to do introspective review of the past week looking for areas of improvement that I or my team can make. When someone tries to interrupt me during those periods, I do what I can to reschedule the interruption. If not, I make a new appointment with myself on the following morning to do that work. The time has produced a tremendous amount of benefit to me, my team and our customers by identifying self-help tools and documentation that gives our customers a virtual (junior) me to work with so I can focus on the more challenging and interesting projects. I have done so much of this, that my co-workers try to keep others from interrupting me as I am doing that work, even when it’s not Thursday morning. I have set myself apart by keeping an eye on the bigger picture.

    I live by the premise that computers are my employees. How can I expect my employees to help me until I train them? I make it a point to both train my employees while staying relevant and ahead of those employees. 🙂

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  25. Hmmm… great post. I was heavily influenced by a program I did with DiMarco and Lister more than 20 years ago. Their book – Peopleware – and Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – makes me think that there are some other skills required to do deep work consistently, consciously and in a planned (rather than accidental) manner.

    1. An ability to do what you are doing in your latest posts i.e. deliberately upgrading your personal productivity methods to match the latest life challenges. You are 30… so there are lots more upgrades to come as the demands change in nature. Having a baby is just one !

    2. Under that big heading there are finer skills to master such as “Flow management” and “physical space management so that I can do Deep Work” and “new gadget introduction management.”

    3. In terms of one’s own time management system, there are the skills of “evaluating my system,” “setting new performance targets,” “figuring out which new practices/gadgets will fill the gaps,” “creating plans to fill the gaps,” and “managing habit changes to fill the gaps.”

    If you’re weak at any one of these skills in today’s world, you might be able to achieve Deep Work for a while, but life’s demands (which are constantly shifting in nature and growing) will simply overwhelm you.

    It’s not too hard to see that your four steps apply directly to the improvement of time management systems…

    On a personal note, I am up at 4:30 am typing this response – Deep Work has come more consistently for me after a schedule shift that involves early nights to bed and a coffee on waking up at 3:00am. It’s become the best part of each day, and I go to bed with a tingle… because I get to do some “deep work” just as soon as I get up. This isn’t for everyone, but for now… it’s for me! 😉

    • Great insights here about deep work. As a recovering trial lawyer we ate deep work for breakfast and ended in the wee hours with a nightcap of it. As a result, most trial lawyers die early or give up.

      Having worked in the world of martial arts and ontological/phenomenological distinctions for 30 years, the main impediment that must be removed in order to work at depth is not environmental or time allocation. Mastering those is a start.

      The serious barriers are ontological – yet no one ever discusses that or addresses it. As I now work in the world of Agile/Scrum, much work is done to organize. Not so much on the phenomenon of presence of accomplishment itself. Too much process.

      In speaking with Mihaly he noted that people focus on the feeling and process…which is short sighted.

      There is more to life and performance than that.

  26. Nice post, I couldn’t help but notice just how similar some of the concepts were to some blog posts I wrote around the idea of creativity and creative play.

    I was inspired to write the articles after watching a talk by John Cleese and a documentary on Andre Geim. What stood out was their playful nature, where they felt safe to delve into a subject or an area.

    A lot of what you are saying is similar to the posts I wrote.

    1. Prepare… I used John Cleese’s phrase, find your oasis of calm, mentally and physically get yourself into a state where you can focus on the creative problem.

    2. Clarity… I didn’t really tackle the issue of clarity but I completely agree that there should be a clear goal of what you are going.

    3. Stretch… this is what I really called “play”. Probably because we are looking at things from a different perspective. You are in a safe environment where you can make mistakes and try things to solve a problem, you are time boxed to a few hours to limit the stress of becoming tired. When we play there are no rules so we can go off on a tangent, discover a link we had never thought possible or identify something else we need to solve.

    4. Obsess… I never really tackled this, I saw each session of play as something that did not have to directly produce a result. However, once we have a solution to a problem we close ourselves off and dive into implementing that solution until we encounter the next problem. We should have as many 1-2 hour sessions as we need to deliver a result.

  27. Totally agreed, sometimes it is necessary to cut off all hooks and concentrate although it’s pretty hard! But when I look back, those have been really productive!

  28. Hi Cal!
    I want to point out that Erricson talks about deep work in his paper.
    Here’s a quote from his paper Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf T. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.” Psychological review 100.3 (1993): 363.

    “These authors often
    retreat when they are ready to write a book and make writing
    their sole purpose. Almost without exception, they tend to
    schedule 3-4 hr of writing every morning and to spend the rest
    of the day on walking, correspondence, napping, and other less
    demanding activities (Cowley, 1959; Plimpton, 1977).”

  29. So I’m a composer by trade, I engage in deep work almost daily, it’s the only way to truly focus! For me it’s easy to tell when I’m working deeply when because I block out all external noise and I commit myself wholly to what I’m working on. Output is good.

    I have a question relating to step 3 – stretch. I can understand where boundaries are quite clearly defined in scientific endeavours – things like working out a tough proof step by step and finding a solution – stretching past what is comfortable to you is simply finding what is difficult and exceeding your abilities. However, I find in my approach to making music I just work on instinct and develop ideas according to how the pop into my head, I’m not really sure where I would stretch myself, apart from working more quickly and getting more done per session. I find that learning techniques doesn’t necessarily equate good music, they’re more tools of self-expression and therefore not essential, things I find useful, counterpoint, ear training etc. I pick up as I go along or I make a concerted effort OUTSIDE of composition to learn them. So… how do I stretch myself in my composition process? Outside of learning the techniques of your craft, can you even stretch yourself in artistic endeavours?

  30. I think it is also important to mention that the long-term easy knowledge work can be dangerous. Our brain needs to growth every day. People without this expansion have often problems with remembering information.

  31. Hi Cal,

    Which other readings (articles, books, …)would you recommend on deliberate practice

    I have found the “Talent is Overrated” book to be quite useful for some general ideas, but I am trying to find more specific and thorough literature(more like your blogpost and Ericsson’s article on deliberate practice).

    Fantastic article, looking forward to more on this!

  32. My mind tends to go from concrete idea to concrete idea. I can’t seem to land on an idea that I will keep a deep commitment to. Any suggestions with this? Should I just pick something and go for it? My main goal is getting to the point where I can do something on my own that generates enough income that I do not have to go to my typical day job anymore while still supporting my family.

  33. Hello Cal ! First, thanks a lot for your books and your blog, I have learnt a few interesting things here !

    Second, I would like to share something with you. I have read a lot of times that you are obsessed about your concept of “deep work”. I think you may have not noticed that a few people have already written things about this concept, with a lot of research. For me, it is nothing more than the concept of “flow” introduced by the positive psychology father, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

    He has written a few books about how to be there at work, and one about creativity, with interviews of well known business and creative people, asking them their secrets and their routines. I you have not read them yet, I think you should 😉

  34. Is deep work essentially the same as deliberate practice? Or, are these two concepts different? If they are, in what way are they different?

  35. Thank you for this post. I agree with a lot of what was said. I see the value in deep work in order to accomplish any goal in life. However, like you said, we as people often choose shallow work over deep work, and then wonder why we don’t see our “expected” results, or why are goals are never fulfilled.

  36. Hey Cal, I like your thoughts about choosing topics. That seems to be both difficult and key.

    Can you say more, or write a blog post, about the way you find a topic that is
    1. important in your field
    2. difficult for others to solve, and
    3. solvable with your skills set.

    That would be great to hear.

  37. I want to be involved in a career that involves deep work. However, I feel like there is nothing wrong with knowledge work. If that is what you want to do, then do it. I personally just want to have passion for what I do and be happy doing it. I feel that deep work is important to fulfill your goals in life. This post is a great way to know how to think of an idea and how to use it to achieve a goal.

  38. Oh man, this is painfully true. I do spend most of the day answering emails and feeling productive about it :S Really great article. Time to start doing some deeper work.

  39. Remarkable idea, really!
    But, maybe it will be more universal and convictive after analysing detailedly in corgnitive psychology aspect.

  40. Cal
    I rethinked your points and sumed up as follow:
    1. To switch your mind is hard
    2. A final goal is vitual
    3. Chunk is the basic processable part in your philosopy, it should be designed and be designed based on one’s ability
    4. After all, one need to evaluate one’s deep work, and to rethink it.

    The 1. is remarkable for me, because I always see human’s brain as a IPS(information processing system, just like computers or DSPs) and ignore the price paied by our brain in switching.
    But I am also curious about an odd feeling in your theory in 3. which is : if chunk is a processable part, why it need other processable parts to support it? If do need, shouldn’t them be discussed in detail?

  41. Existing without the answers to the difficulties you’ve sorted out
    through this guide is a critical case, as well as the kind which could
    have badly affected my entire career if I had not discovered your

  42. A great article to spend some time to read. I’m working in an Digital Marketing Compnay, which we follow continuous improvement(“kaizen principle” which refers to activities that continuously improve) to generate a value of our work output.

  43. I dont agree that knowledged people are bad at working… I am working under very knowlegable people in my institute Sourcekode they are very cooperative and helpful and well mannered.may be experenced something like that so saying..

  44. Interesting article. I have long subscribed to the theory of stretching yourself on a regular basis. I would suggest to others that we not be so focused on making sure we are suffering under the burden of improvement and spend more time stretching yourself on a consistent basis, and let the struggle take care of itself.thank’s for nice article….


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