More on Cultivating a Deep Life: Mindset

In yesterday’s post, I discussed an approach for systematically increasing the depth in your life. It involved creating a monthly plan that identifies specific behaviors designed to amplify things that matter and reduce the things that distract you from these values.

Today, I want to add a caveat. In my many years experimenting (often publicly) with the elements of the deep life, I’ve come to accept that the right mindset is just as important as the right plan.

You can have a well-designed checklist of meaningful activities you’re trying to integrate into your routine, but if your background hum of activity is still oscillating wildly between frenetic stress and numbing distraction, your life is anything but deep. You need instead to see your entire day differently.

This mindset is well-summarized by the advice I’ve been giving off and on since the early days of this blog:

  • Do less.
  • Do better.
  • Know why.

Let’s elaborate the elements of this self-improvement catechism one by one:

To “do less” is to slow down. Focus on one activity at a time. Do less total activities. Be willing to pass through occasional interludes of full non-productivity. Who first comes to mind when you ponder meaningful living? If you’re like most people, it’s probably someone who, in the spirit of Thoreau, approaches life deliberately, doing a small number of things, but each with full focus (often somewhere scenic).

To “do better” is to direct your focused energy toward quality activities, when possible. Given the same scraps of weekend free time, you could either painfully coax a garden irrigation system into efficient operation (see above), or you could binge Netflix. In their book All Things Shining, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly note that the appreciation of quality — especially once refined — can provide a source if sacredness in an otherwise de-romanticized world.

Finally, to “know why” is to get at the very core of the deep life mindset. Working backwards from your values to determine your activities creates a lifestyle dramatically more meaningful than working forward from whatever seems appealing in the moment. It’s the difference between resilience and anxiety; satisfaction and distraction. As I argue in Digital Minimalism, the fight to “know why” has been made harder in recent years due to the engineered compulsion of the attention economy. But, in a way I never could have imagined when I was writing that book, we now find ourselves in a circumstance where the shallowness of these diversions is being made unmistakably clear as our hunger for something greater increasingly gnaws.

The deep life is not an ambitious one-shot goal, like completing a marathon, that you work hard at until you one day obtain it all at once. It’s a state of being with which you become increasingly comfortable. A process that starts with your mind.

51 thoughts on “More on Cultivating a Deep Life: Mindset”

  1. This is great Cal. Just today I decided I wanted to grow Roses from some clippings from my late grandmother’s 50 year old bush my late grandfather planted for her. My reason is to keep this beautiful legacy alive at my own home with my family. And I simply love Roses and see myself as the creatrix of an exquisite garden filled with Roses. I immersed myself in beginning stage information acquisition on best practices, techniques, and tutorials of getting them started. This will continue as I add the hands on work and depth to the project. It’s so important, as you share here, to slow down, focus, and know why. I am glad I came across your work and am deciding day by day to choose another way…

  2. Cal, what an amazing essay! I’m at the crossroads in my life. Learning to discover my true “why” is one of the toughest pursuits for finding peace and tranquility. And, in this world of attention economy and knowledge work overload, it is a worthy pursuit. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  3. On point. I’ve been thinking about the combination of goals & mindset for the past few months while perusing several long term goals. Goals are very effective on a daily/weekly basis. however goals may and will fail at some points. But if they are wrapped around a mindset then as long as you are on the right “vector” you will still feel accomplishment and keep going even while missing your targets.

    Loosing 1Lb a week is a critical goal, but the mindset is to be a healthier person in control of their eating and exercising habits. Without a mindset, failed goals cause quitting. Without goals a mindset is just a feel good experience deprived of definite actions.

    Both you and Scott Young have that point nailed down. Great article. Please expand on that in future articles. If possible – how do you build and craft your unique mindset.


  4. I have been reading this blog for some years and have grown with the blog. But recent posts seem to be increasingly divorced from many people’s reality. I am a freelance journalist and I am happy to be in this job: it offers freedom and variation with plenty of feedback and meaning. I have my own personal ambitions: writing fiction and literary nonfiction. It is clear that I could be more disciplined with my time using techniques such as batching, pomodoro, etc.

    But I don’t always have the mental energy to do it all. The nature of freelance journalism means the work can be essentially fragmentary. I have to always be pitching new article ideas. If I am successful in getting everything commissioned (if only!) that means I have to work on multiple projects with different timelines. I simply cannot afford to do less. I have to earn money.

    An academic with a comfortable salary, or Thoreau, with his comfortable backup, or Kerouac, with his aunt sending him money, needn’t worry about these things. They can focus on writing the next great book, without worrying about the piecemeal articles that sustain them. It’s energy-sapping having to think about earning enough.

    I think it’s easier to achieve; to “do less. Do them better” when you have a comfortable platform already. And energy is an important thing that not everyone has in equal amounts. Otherwise we’d all be 20-hour workers like Bezos or Musk. I guess what I’m saying is, this is all much easier to implement when you earn enough not to worry about paying your bills.

    • I think Cal is suggesting that one should take up projects with a minimalist mindset.
      Resources like time and energy are limited, so it makes sense to be careful in deciding where to invest them especially when you can’t afford fruitless investments.
      The assumption here is that some projects can have a greater impact than others, you would not want to steal the much needed resources from these high-yield projects to invest in fruitless ones.
      It is much more efficient to try and approximately identify these critical projects than the brute force approach of trying everything.

    • Lu, great point.

      I’m a sales manager with a side business (freelance sales & podcast production). My salary is literally built on distracting platforms (constant LinkedIn, Email and calls that arrive sporadically and many times outside work hours). I know exactly how you feel.

      If I do a recap of my best sales months and most productive productions it’s when Cal’s principles were implemented. If anything, deep work and mindset helped me block off time to not answer emails every 13 min, and with the free time I spent on actually improving my craft.

      You are right though, life in academia (or for any non freelance workers) offers more “On/off” time with their working life. It requires much more discipline and effort but at the end of the day both you and I are judged only by our output (instead of office/ academic politics).

      The more and the better your articles are the more control and profitable you’ll be, and my boss & clients couldn’t care less how fast I answer emails if I don’t reach and exceed sales goals.

      I’ve found that having “off days” , (mainly Shabbat ) are a very good start to understand how much actual control you have over your thought process and schedule.

      • Thanks Joe for your considered reply. It is appreciated and I am curious about which of Cal’s methods you found most effective and how you implemented. Of course I try to write better articles all the time, but they do not necessarily earn more money. Some freelance magazine journalists have to supplement their income with other gigs.

        Your point about academia and those in “on/off” jobs is well said and more what I was driving at. I think for someone ensconced in an academic environment or without needing to think about using their time to earn more money all the time can more readily focus on their side projects.

        I’ve always understood Cal’s ideas to be about control; self-mastery; producing the biggest impact by investing in hard-to-replicate output. I am lucky in that I have a great deal of autonomy, but it can hard to carve out the time and energy to work on the projects I care about the most, as well as keep up with my income earning work, without eventually feeling drained. There is something deeper here — and that is the work we most value sometimes doesn’t receive the remuneration we need to produce it in the first place.

        • Specifically in my field:

          1. Blocking off time. There are hours and times you are not working. I’m very available for clients, it’s my job. But when I spend time without a phone thoughts ideas and relaxation start bubbling.
          2. Block tasks. Especially hard for me, when done right , very powerful. In sales (or any ‘convincing’ trade) there are a lot of emails. Answering/crafting emails every 20 min harms me twice. 1 because I get distracted and stressed. 2. because the quality of my work (both emails and other) diminishes. On the days I spend 2 hrs on emails/ admin and the rest for actual bottom-line-changing work, both aspects improve.

    • “Do less, do better” can also be the source of comfortable positions, as quality scales much more sharply than quantity (e.g., being twice as good at something yield significantly more rewards than doing it twice as much).

      A few random recommendations (not all my apply):

      * Embrace time structuring (daily time blocking; weekly planning) to help organize your efforts, and to provide clear endpoints to your day to enable other restorative activities. Also become very structured about attention-sapping activities like social media. Many freelancers use the vaguely true idea that their social media presence plays a role in getting jobs as an excuse to casually use social media throughout their entire day. If you need to use social media for professional purposes, do so on your computer and not your phone, and get in and get out in once or twice a day with surgical strikes.

      * Begin each day with a “training” block, in which you’re working to sharpen a craft that can gain you more breathing moving forward (in your case, this might be working on the book proposal you mention; or a novel manuscript); get in the habit of doing this every day.

      * You’re probably already doing this, but start thinking more about what you brand/speciality as a freelancer will be, and begin systematically moving your pitches in that direction.

      * To offset the energy drain of hustling, take health and fitness very seriously; it really helps.

      • ‘“Do less, do better’ can also be the source of comfortable positions, as quality scales much more sharply than quantity” >>

        This is an excellent insight belying its seeming simplicity. Applying it to my specific field it has obvious truth – those journalists who conduct impactful investigations or write longform features *can* make a splash for themselves, creating more opportunities for themselves further down the line. However, you cannot always predict that splash. There are certain journalists I know who are excellent but can never seem to break through. I think this is a systemic problem owing to a limited number of positions available for those really high-paying journo gigs.

        ‘* Begin each day with a “training” block, in which you’re working to sharpen a craft that can gain you more breathing moving forward…get in the habit of doing this every day.’
        >> This is a practice that looks sure to produce more impact. Thank you.

        ‘* You’re probably already doing this, but start thinking more about what you brand/speciality as a freelancer will be, and begin systematically moving your pitches in that direction.’ >> Actually this is something I’ve been thinking about for some time. I love having a diversity of subjects to write about, because I just have a lot of different things I’m curious about/interested in. But, yes, this is something I’ve thought about for a long time, because having a niche as a journalist/writer can really propel you upwards. Thanks so much Cal for driving this point so clearly.

        ‘* To offset the energy drain of hustling, take health and fitness very seriously; it really helps.’ >> So true!

    • You make a valid point Lu. As income grows (depending on your job or business) it really can be much easier to control your time and energy. There is a lot of advice or concepts that you won’t be able to implement if your time freedom and energy freedom is severely limited.

      • Thanks Daniel. In my specific industry (but I guess it pertains to a lot of industries) there is a lot of debate about how to get people from less privileged backgrounds into the industry. For those who come from more comfortable backgrounds and positions, they can adopt more clear-headed thinking about how to best make use of their energies/time.

    • I’m an indie fiction writer/publisher with a crazy knowledge management job. I’ve been following this with interest.

      One of the challenges from work is that everyone has this attitude: “There is never enough time to do it right the first time, but there is always enough time to do it over.” Problem is that it also shows up for writers and a perfect example of where they aren’t doing less, doing better–and actually adding more work.

      A lot of fiction writers tend to write sloppy in their first drafts. That requires them to do multiple revisions, and revision is not creative work. The technology practically encourages this. In the days of pulp writing, writers produced a tremendous amount of stories on manual typewriters. They learned, essentially, how to do less and do better because of the sheer amount of work retyping a manuscript. Today, computers make it easy to do multiple revisions, so there’s no incentive to do it better at the stage where the writer is creating.

      Worse, for creating, everything is often presented as a one size fits all when none of it is. I was working through a couple of lessons on the L Ron Hubbard online course this morning and ran across this: We often treat writing like we’re an apprentice. We adapt someone else’s tools and processes and don’t take the time to find our own. Example: I don’t outline or do much prep before writing. Yet, most craft books list outlining as a requirement *because* the author of the book can’t separate their tools from the craft.

      So I think the heart of deep work is finding out what we need as creatives. (Link for course: It’s free.)

    • Thanks to LU for bringing this up, because I’ve also been feeling conflicted about the “Do Less, Do Better” part of this. I think #3 Know Why is the most important part and #1 and #2 are derivatives of that, that work for some, but not all people. I think there is a large group of people who have multiple interests and thrive when they have a bunch of different projects going on at once. For myself, I’ve found having 2-3 different projects at one time is ideal, in part because inevitably when I’m stuck or tired of working on one, I can switch to the others. Also, I don’t think it’s realistic to be expect everyone to be all deep all the time. Sometimes, binge-watching trashy TV for a couple hours is exactly what you need.

    • Have you ever thought about not making less money?

      Why choose a field that puts you in a position to constantly worry about your next paycheck?

      Since you commented on this post, there must be something that interest you about this lifestyle.

      Maybe your DeepWork project could be a search for meaningful work that pays more money to live a DeepLife.

      You already said that constantly thinking about making money is stressful. Why choose to continue living that way?

    • Extrapolating the trend of Cal writing books which correspond to his position in life at the time of writing, I was expecting a “Deep Work 2”.
      Cal established the importance of skill building in So Good, the importance focused work and an aspect of a focused life in Deep Work and Digital Minimalism but I feel there is a gaping hole here.
      We know skill-building is crucial, Deep Work is the way to get optimal results from your efforts and a digitally minimalist lifestyle supports and strengthens this focused way of life. The next question is what is the optimal approach towards skill-building i.e how to become so good they can’t ignore you?
      I think that Deep Work partially answers that question and Cal does touch upon deliberate practice but I feel that more exploration is needed and might lead to the sequel of Deep Work.
      Then we can expect “Deep Life”.

  5. Hi Cal,

    Thanks for all your writing on Deep work and deep living.

    Have you heard of BJ Fogg’s new book “Tiny Habits”? I am trying to find a way to make deep work a habit in my life, his idea of untangling bad habits and creating new habits – reducing and amplifying, seems to connect with what you are writing now, building the behaviors you want consciously and stopping less conscious behaviors that pull people away from living and working deeply. I think your writing on deep work / so good they can’t ignore you, Scott Young’s book on ultra learning, and Fogg’s book Tiny Habits are a good way to start consciously building a deep work and deep life. Also – Fogg has worked with Tristan Harris on some of his stuff. Thanks again for your writing!

  6. Honest, well-meaning question: who is doing the bulk of the childcare right now? For many women, the loss of school or other options has meant that the opportunities for the pursuits you noted above have become quite slim.

    I’m really curious how things are currently being divided in the Newport household.

    • With all three of my boys home full time at the moment there’s definitely a lot more childcare going on as compared to other times. But I’ve found that this mindset applies really well to childcare. When I try to come up with overly-packed and ambitious homeschool/activity schedules for the kids, the result is often frustration. When we instead slow down, and just focus on what we’re doing now, and try to do it with full attention and intention, the days seem much deeper.

      • Thank you for responding. I will admit I find it easier to get into a deep thinking flow state without my kids around. I would love it if this topic is something you could address on your blog! I know not everyone has children, but probably a substantial portion of your readers do have to content with this challenge which feels even more acute lately.

        • I will second this! My wife and I set up a home office and are tag teaming parenting/homeschooling during the day, but there are not enough hours in the day for both of us to do all our work, so we have to “sneak” some in while on parenting duty. Not all that conducive to depth!

          To the extent possible, I’m trying to batch shallow tasks into my dual-role time.

          • I am also struggling with finding any amount of time for concentrated work and would love to see a follow-up post about this.

      • That response didn’t really answer the question about division of labor in your household! Spending kid time intentionally is great, but deep kid time is not the same as engaging in our own deep work. Does your wife get as much deep work time (with no child care responsibilities) as you do? If so, how do the two of you make that happen logistically with young children at home? If not, how was that decision made?

        • He did post about his particular schedule in a recent post. I think he writes, then child care while his wife works, then deep works while she looks after them. (that’s basic, he does spell it out more in the article. Not sure which sorry but it was recent)

  7. Hey Cal, Is the Deep life like becoming one with the experience? Like bringing the mind to here and now with the experience as it flows? 🙂 Peace

  8. The last two days of posts here have made the term “process oriented” come to mind. I have read Digital Minimalism twice (and parts of it regularly) and did so with the hopes that after reading, I’d magically be different and do things automatically in a different way.

    It’s become clear that like digital minimalism, a deep life is a process and not a finish line. I tend to be results oriented and can get frustrated if my goal progress doesn’t look as I dreamed. What I’m learning from Mr. Newport is that bit by bit, trying again and again, the willingness to minimize digital fluff or have a more focused life, whether done perfectly or not, is engaging in such constucts, even if I “fail” or succumb to a less meaningful day or moment.

    As Lu expressed above, it’s challenging to create a deep life when key parts of one’s life (work, child rearing, making money) have a frantic or frenetic quality. I’m also challenged by this as a small business owner and feature writer at a local newspaper. My work life is project based which makes sewing it up into something focused and deep some days impossible. But my mindset, as discussed in this post, is what keeps me re-reading parts of Digital Minimalism and this blog. Small steps to cultivate the mind so my body will follow.

    Today for example, I’m going to try time blocking. Even if if doesn’t work for me, I have spent time working while also being in the deep life mindset. We’ll see how it goes.

    • This is beautifully expressed. The mindset is what’s important, I agree.

      “it’s challenging to create a deep life when key parts of one’s life (work, child rearing, making money) have a frantic or frenetic quality.”

      >> Yes, the frantic and frenetic quality… I wonder how to reduce this when one’s job is essentially formed of this quality (not all the time but a lot of the time). I guess carving out time during the mornings is probably one of the best ways to go? Plus going to bed earlier and exercising better. We will have to become more “perfect” aha.

  9. Thanks for this insightful post. One of the areas I personally struggle with is “doing less.” There’s simply a lot of things I find interesting, and it can be difficult to stop myself from pursing something even when I know it might lead to overwhelm. With that said, I’ve noticed that you appear to have quite a few commitments yourself. You mentioned in a previous post that you have four professional roles: writer, teacher, researcher, and director of graduate studies. I’d be very interested to hear more about how you define “doing less” within the context of assuming these four professional roles. How do you balance these commitments, and do you ever feel overwhelmed by them?

  10. I think your writing is improving with increased frequency Cal.

    A very rousing crescendo and a nice finish. A very thoughtful and reflective post, and a nice summary of a decade of thinking.

  11. Cal, have you read Mark Manson’s books? They echo a lot of similar sentiments as your writing – it would be interesting to read your response to his opinions.

  12. Hello Cal,

    Fan of your books for the last few years, recently just dove into your blog.

    “Do less. Do better. Know why.”

    This mindset has had a huge impact on me.

    Like you – I’ve found using GTD exclusively as a productivity system wasn’t cutting it for me.

    After incorporating deep work time-blocking, shallow project batching, daily + weekly planning, and fixed-schedule productivity my life is on a completely different trajectory.

    I’m also finding that having a max of 3 professional projects running at time to be optimal. Again, less is more.

    All that being said, all those tools and techniques really sit on top of that mindset of “Do less. Do Better. Know Why” and help bring those values into my day to day life.

    Thanks again Cal

    • This is exactly how I felt after reading and starting to practice David Allen’s “GTD”. Like you, I needed to incorporate other techniques to help me with productivity and slowly eliminate procrastination. This is where I found Deep Work and Cal’s other book – So Good They Can’t Ignore You – helps.

      I am no way near being an expert at this, but I am trying. Adopting the Craftsmanship mentality is my next development skill I want to re-acquire. I had it during my PhD and early in my now research career, but I lost my way. I am hoping by merging a few techniques, and incorporating my own nuances I will find some success!

  13. >. Finally, to “know why” is to get at the very core of the deep life mindset.

    Any tips on the above? I’ve worked to become so good they cannot ignore me in a certain field but lately I’ve been unable to push myself to work because I don’t feel like I’m really working toward something?

    I guess the most obvious thing has been for learning opportunities and skills, the money has come with that.

    Right now I cannot make myself see the point in effort at work. I can see the point in clearing the garage for my family, it has clear benefits that satisfy my brain. However, completing a work document that I believe few people will read….not so much.

    There are some shallow reasons I can see, to not get fired, to help co-workers but for some reason, it doesn’t seem ‘enough’ for my brain right now.

    any ideas? No idea how to course correct right now.

  14. Just finished Deep Work; loved it!

    I have a question on productive meditation, though; I can’t fully wrap my mind on doing deep thinking while doing some mundane tasks such as driving or exercising. Isn’t the purpose of these activities to rest and recharge and stop thinking about the problem, so when you go back to your deep work focus, you can tackle it? Isn’t focusing on a different task than what you are currently doing a type of multitasking approach that we are trying to stop in the first place? Or am I getting something wrong? Any insight is appreciated! Greetings from Mexico.

    • You are absolutely right with the need for downtime through activities like driving, power naps etc.
      The intention with productive meditation is the same most forms of mindfulness practice, to be mindful of the persistent distractions and practice steering back to the subject of focus.

      Practising this “productive meditation” during refreshment activities is a bad idea. Activities like a long walk, in which you are left in solitude, done with the intention of practising this “focus training” is the way to improve your concentration so your toolkit becomes more capable of Deep Work.

      The activities being done have an intersection, but the intention during these activities doesn’t. You can go for a long walk to wind down after a long day or do a ritualistic long walk doing focus training before a Deep Work session.

    • You’re right to note that productive meditation is very intense, and not something you can do simultaneously with more mundane tasks.

      Downtime is good. Be present and enjoying what you’re doing, or spend some time with your thoughts, trying to make sense of your life.

      And sometimes you’re just in the much of minutia that has to get done. That’s fine too. But if it becomes a primary focus of your efforts, it might be time to plan out a new journey.


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