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Thoreau on Hard Work

Writing in his journal in March of 1842, at the precocious age of 24, Thoreau noted the following about the difference between quality and quantity in work:

“The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Why should the hen set all day? She can lay but one egg, and besides she will not have picked up materials for a new one. Those who work much do not work hard.”

At the age of 27, having just finished writing a book concurrently with my doctoral dissertation, I was afflicted with a similar revelation, which I captured in a blog post published in the summer of 2009, titled: “Focus Hard. In Reasonable Bursts. One Day at a Time.” The main distinction I emphasized in this piece (admittedly, with much less eloquence than Thoreau) is that there’s a difference between “hard work” and “hard to do work.” Deep endeavors are often difficult, but they need not be exhausting.


For the past three weeks, I’ve switched over to a daily blog schedule. My idea, as explained here, is to be the one source of information in your life that is not specifically about public health concerns (if you want more on my take on that particular topic, see this post or my recent interview with GQ). Now that people are settling down into a regular rhythm of socially-distant living, I’m thinking of adjusting my post frequency for now to be roughly every other day, so that you’ll still hear from me regularly, but not so fast that you’re unable to keep up!

18 thoughts on “Thoreau on Hard Work”

  1. Cal – no way. You spoiled us, so now you keep your daily posts routine. Actually, time to go to two posts a day. We might not be addicted to FB anymore, but we’re addicted to!
    All joking aside, thanks for all your efforts!
    It would be interesting to know how changing the routine from “regular” to “pandemic mode” changed your ability to live the deep life.

  2. Cal – I adore your blog. Been reading since about 2008. I was the burnt out student, really inefficient, bad study habits, etc. In 2008, I took a class and same pattern. I discovered your blog, read all your books & now I incorporate a lot of your ideas into my work as a software dev. There is a lot of new things to learn in my work and I have to focus and not let social media distract me. I like the post about deep worker in the past inc Thoreau. IMHO, you have a good thing going with your ideas and this blog.

  3. Now that you’ll have more time, how about doing a series detailing the fundamental principles of a Deep Life and their implementation across various professions, periods and some detailed character studies? I know you’ve done quite a lot of them in your past posts but they always leave me wanting for more. I’d rather wait very long for a single post which has a huge impact than having multiple frequent posts which aren’t as moving. Patiently waiting!

  4. Hi Cal — I’ve enjoyed these daily doses of your work, but I understand the shift to every other day.
    I’m just now embarking on a doctoral program and appreciate the wisdom you offer, especially because I teach full-time and have a family and my husband is still enduring/recovering from serious medical issues this year. My work/personal time feels chaotic because every task for our household now falls solely on me; this is the reality we’re living in when a doctor visit might pop up or the threat of returning to the emergency room looms, or sleep isn’t happening. I keep Deep Work on loop via Audible as help and motivation. But, truthfully, in this time, it’s not enough. I think fatigue and putting out fires has taken hold for this season in our lives, especially with our family’s focus on helping my husband — unfortunately, I’m human and I’m tired. I’m also incredibly grateful for our faith, friends, and the support we’ve been given. My point: I’m trying to put out unknown fires that may suddenly ignite and yet still be in a place at which deep work can truly happen in a scheduled manner; right now, those two seem incompatible (even with the journalistic approach). Any compassionate wisdom to offer, please? I feel as though I’m still digging out of the hole left in January when our lives derailed.
    Thank you for your insights and your focus on doing what matters most and living a deep life, even in a world that shouts shallowness.

  5. After reading your 2009 dissertation blog a question came to my mind. When I was in grad school the there was some variation in top 15 students in my class. Most of the top level students would work intelligently like you spending less but focused blocks but then there were last minute ones they would not be in top 5 but would be in top 15 and then there were hard workers/long stretch but regular work with long hours. But invariably the top 5 students were the kind of students like yourself. This variation begs for an explanation are we wired differently ? And one size fits all approach may not work for everyone.

  6. “Deep endeavors are often difficult, but they need not be exhausting.” Thank you! I am still learning how to let go of angst approaching my more difficult work tasks. I am still partly enmeshed in the father’s model. And while he was excellent at his trade, he once told me, “When you work, you work viciously, and you attack your work.” Well there’s a place for this, like in a war zone, or extreme emergency, rather than everyday work life.

  7. I this Thoreau quote! It reminds me of a great little book by the German philosopher Josef Pieper “Leisure as the Basis for Culture” Wonderful book! He outlines the way that if we do not have a life that actually contains real quality leisure, including the very vital time for contemplation and pondering, we have the living hell of utilitarianism and materialism. He emphasizes a God centered contemplative idea, but this is not necessarily a stumbling block to the non-religious among us. As he sees it, leisure is not idleness, but the act of being aware of the wonder of the universe and that all our best culture flows from that childlike awe in gratitude for life.

  8. Hello Mr. Newport,
    how do short and sketchy daily posts with fancy quotes go together with quality work and deep thinking, diving deep into topics? Isn’t that a kind of a paradox?
    (Not trying to sound rude here, English is not my first language.)

    Despite this your work often inspires me. I owe you more than you can image. For that I thank you.
    Kind regards!

    • I don’t see how it hinders deep work, you can schedule a time to write a short post and leave the rest of the day for deep work chunks. As far as the “depth” of the posts and the amount of thinking behind them goes, it is certainly very difficult to come up with any exceptional ideas in a small number of bursts dedicated to the topic. That and the ability to work on a task with laser-focus are different things.

      • I was looking at it not from the perspective of producing those articles but from the perspective of consuming them. My question wasn’t so much about Mr. Newports own skin in the game but about my behavior as a reader and Mr. Newports intentions on how one should consume those short daily articles while living the deep life.

        • Excuse my misunderstanding. Yes, a continuous flow of ideas makes it almost impossible to ponder and reflect upon them to have an impact on your life. That is quite different from a deep life! Earlier I used to get almost all of my posts by email, they would act as a subtle reminder to be more focused and careful about my attention but this series of posts left me revisiting the blog daily without thinking about the ideas presented, just blindly consuming them.

  9. Everyday, every second day, I don’t mind the idea of both.

    I’ve enjoyed the more regular articles, and I still read them all. They do exactly what you hope. Provided a much appreciated source of distraction from both work-from-home challenges, and the associated deluge of increasingly concerning situation updates.

    If I’m not mistaking the regularity around the topic of deep focus, and reflection, it is particularly refreshing to be able to meditate on a more contemplative, deep life, amidst the uncertainty of the times.

  10. It’s comforting to hear this advice. I once told a friend that my goal was to be the guy who was extremely productive yet had plenty of free time. That idea seems to be in Thoreau’s thinking as well. It seems like the key is choosing wisely as to what deserves your time and what does’t. Easier said than done!

  11. I’m a graduate adult student returning to school after 45 years of raising 9 children. Your posts of deep work I listen on audible
    on way to my studio and back home. I hope you and your family are well and we inspire you as much as you inspire us! Keep on keeping on! All the best Cal!!


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