I’m always looking for particularly inspiring or exotic examples of deep work habits. With this in mind, I was pleased when an alert reader named Stepan recently sent me an interesting case study concerning the Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman.
The following quote is taken from an interview with Friedman published in a macroeconomics textbook:
“[W]e typically spent three solid months in the country at our second home in New Hampshire to begin with and later on in Vermont. Then later on I split my life 50–50: we spent six months a year in Chicago and six months a year in Vermont. Almost all of my writing was done in Vermont or in New Hampshire, relatively little during the actual school year.”
Friedman goes on to elaborate how he maximized depth during his periods away from Chicago:
“I managed pretty much to keep down outside activities. I didn’t go away from Vermont or New Hampshire to make speeches or to address committee meetings or hearings. There were occasional exceptions but for the most part I made it an absolute rule. When I look at my remaining diaries from that period I am shocked by how full the pages are when I am in Chicago and how empty they are when I’m up in Vermont or New Hampshire [laughter]. So that’s the only reason I was able to write as much as I did.“
It also reminds me of my time at MIT. When summer rolled around, it sometimes seemed as if most every important professor at Harvard and MIT would decamp to northern New England to do the type of thinking that made them important professors in the first place.
It has always surprised me that these bimodal rhythms aren’t more widely used in other fields were elite level deep thinking produces high value results. Put another way, the key in the above quotes is not how much work Friedman accomplished at his country house, but is instead how little was accomplished at his office.
P.S., for another interesting discussion of deep work, listen to Tim Ferriss’s recent interview with Jamie Foxx. About an hour into the interview, Ferriss details his theory about how social media is hurting some high-level creatives more than it helps them by crippling their ability to go deep. Foxx, who knows a little something about high-level creative output, enthusiastically agrees.