Milton Friedman’s Deep Work Seasons

Deep Economics

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.

Readers of Deep Work will recognize this as an extreme version of the bimodal method deployed by deep thinkers as varied as Adam Grant to Carl Jung.

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.


23 thoughts on “Milton Friedman’s Deep Work Seasons”

    • Listening to music can help block distractions or be part of an effective depth ritual, but it requires practice. That is, at first music will be distracting. If you practice with it, the distraction fades. I once profiled a prolific novelist who trained himself to write with Metallica music blaring through his headphones.

      • I am from kroea. I am just normal korean student. But I want study well, so I search goole and I found this website and I am happy. However, here is English site therefor I think our studnets don’t think really study. I was sad and I want little korean in this site because I really want know well this site. I know I am not very well English ability but please understand me. Just speak one thing, I like project like something. For this reason, I comment a project post. I think koera education to change like America. Thank you

      • Dear Cal, I am an Engineer running my family business in India. Reading DEEP WORK has helped me reclaim my life. My profession needs deep work but emails and social media was reducing my attention span drastically. I had been trying to complete pending work on an invention for last six months and failing as I could not put in the ‘deep work’s necessary. I bought your book as an afterthought after buying a number of other books including new book by Adam Grant. To put it simply, your book has changed my life and will change the lives of my family. Thank you. Gaurav

  1. Does “bimodal” mean splitting your year into two halves? I think the concept of adapting your work habits, priorities, and focus, to the seasons, or even monthly is interesting. Right now I am in Beijing and it is sweltering. I just want to unwind and do summery things. Perhaps it would be better to leave work for cooler months?

    • Doesn’t have to be halves, just two primary chunks. “Bimodal” means what it looks like: two modes. One mode is standard work and the other is deep work. I point Cal makes frequently is that the modes can be of any frequency, really (with the caveat that they’re of sufficient length). You can have two modes a day, or a week, or a month–whatever works for you. Go for the seasonal modes!

  2. Cal — we would love to hear you on Tim Ferriss’s podcast — and ideally even bigger ones some day like Lewis Howes’.

  3. As a scholar I have realized that when I am alone driving or walking or any other opportunity when I am alone as a time and environment when I deeply reflect on an issue. The issue shouldn’t be necessarily academic but I gain more on academic issues. I am not sure of deep thinking but I am sure that a good environment can give me opportunity to clarify my thoughts– from vague to clarity.

  4. Peter Phillips, one of the most productive econometricians in recent years, has made similar comments:

    “Growing demands at the office have meant that it is more than a decade since I’ve been able to do research at the university. This seems like a sad commentary on university life in the 80s and 90s but I am afraid that it is true. There are few periods in my office at work that go uninterrupted — even 15 minutes peace is unusual these days — and painstaking technical work is simply impossible in such an environment.”

    “For my personal research work, time at home has become a precious commodity that I like to manage very carefully.”

    “Technical work I like to keep for periods when I have a long stretch of uninterrupted time. And often that means working at night, sometimes late.”

  5. Deep thoughts about anything is a great ability. It needs a in depth thinking ability. I love to think in-depth on any topic, article etc. I can suggest myself in the transition phase as of now. I got this ability after reading this book.

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  6. As I’m reading Friedman, it seems like much of his argument is based on the premise that “Big Government is bad because it could lead to totalitarianism and end ‘free market’ capitalism, so anything lessening the government’s overreach is better because free market capitalism is good.” He also doesn’t even bother defining or explains what capitalism is besides saying ‘free market’.

  7. To the question of working with music, as a student I studied to jazz or classical music. If the music had words, the words in the music interrupted the words on the page or in my head. As I age, I prefer silence. That is just me. You might be different.

  8. I have heard people say that 4 hours is approximately the maximum amount for deep work per day, but then also the bimodal philosophy argues that you can possibly spend days in a state of deep work…..I don’t quite get this. How is 4 hours the max, if you are spending “days” in a state of deep work.

    I know this isn’t an exact science but I find this a bit confusing. I am a musician and when I am mixing, recording or writing songs, I know that I have sometimes spent 10+ hours a day in periods of high focus, so where does that 4hrs a day max thing even come from? Cheers


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