Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
In the Swiss canton of St. Gallen, near the northern banks of Lake Zurich, is a village named Bollingen. In 1922, the psychiatrist Carl Jung chose this spot to begin building a retreat. He began with a basic two-story stone house he called the Tower. Afterreturning from a trip to India, where he observed the practice of adding meditation rooms to homes, he expanded the complex to include a private office. “In my retiring room I am by myself,” Jung said of the space. “I keep the key with me all the time; no one else is allowed in there except with my permission.”
In his book Daily Rituals, journalist Mason Currey sorted through various sources on Jung to re-create the psychiatrist’s work habits at the Tower. Jung would rise at seven a.m., Currey reports, and after a big breakfast he would spend two hours of undistracted writing time in his private office. His afternoons would often consist of meditation or long walks in the surrounding countryside. There was no electricity at the Tower, so as day gave way to night, light came from oil lamps and heat from the fireplace. Jung would retire to bed by ten p.m. “The feeling of repose and renewal that I had in this tower was intense from the start,” he said.
Though it’s tempting to think of Bollingen Tower as a vacation home, if we put it into the context of Jung’s career at this point it’s clear that the lakeside retreat was not built as an escape from work. In 1922, when Jung bought the property, he could not afford to take a vacation. Only one year earlier, in 1921, he had published Psychological Types, a seminal book that solidified many differences that had been long developing between Jung’s thinking and the ideas of his onetime friend and mentor, Sigmund Freud. To disagree with Freud in the 1920s was a bold move. To back up his book, Jung needed to stay sharp and produce a stream of smart articles and books further supporting and establishing analytical psychology, the eventual name for his new school of thought.
Jung’s lectures and counseling practice kept him busy in Zurich—this is clear. But he wasn’t satisfied with busyness alone. He wanted to change the way we understood the unconscious, and this goal required deeper, more careful thought than he could manage amid his hectic city lifestyle. Jung retreated to Bollingen, not to escape his professional life, but instead to advance it.Carl Jung went on to become one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. There are, of course, many reasons for his eventual success. In this book, however, I’m interested in his commitment to the following skill, which almost certainly played a key role in his accomplishments: Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities. Deep work, in other words, was exactly the type of effort needed to stand out in a cognitively demanding field like academic psychiatry in the early twentieth century.
The term “deep work” is my own and is not something Carl Jung would have used, but his actions during this period were those of someone who understood the underlying concept. Jung built a tower out of stone in the woods to promote deep work in his professional life—a task that required time, energy, and money. It also took him away from more immediate pursuits. As Mason Currey writes, Jung’s regular journeys to Bollingen reduced the time he spent on his clinical work, noting, “Although he had many patients who relied on him, Jung was not shy about taking time off.” Deep work, though a burden to prioritize, was crucial for his goal of changing the world. Indeed, if you study the lives of other influential figures from both distant and recent history, you’ll find that a commitment to deep work is a common theme. The sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, for example, prefigured Jung by working in a private library he built in the southern tower guarding the stone walls of his French château, while Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on the property of the Quarry Farm in New York, where he was spending the summer. Twain’s study was so isolated from the main house that his family took to blowing a horn to attract his attention for meals.
Moving forward in history, consider the screenwriter and director Woody Allen. In the forty-four-year period between 1969 and 2013, Woody Allen wrote and directed forty-four films that received twenty-three Academy Award nominations—an absurd rate of artistic productivity. Throughout this period, Allen never owned a computer, instead completing all his writing, free from electronic distraction, on a German Olympia SM3 manual typewriter. Allen is joined in his rejection of computers by Peter Higgs, a theoretical physicist who performs his work in such disconnectedisolation that journalists couldn’t find him after it was announced he had won the Nobel Prize. J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, does use a computer, but was famously absent from social media during the writing of her Harry Potter novels—even though this period coincided with the rise of the technology and its popularity among media figures. Rowling’s staff finally started a Twitter account in her name in the fall of 2009, as she was working on The Casual Vacancy, and for the first year and a half her only tweet read: “This is the real me, but you won’t be hearing from me often I am afraid, as pen and paper is my priority at the moment.”
Deep work, of course, is not limited to the historical or technophobic. Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts. It was during a 1995 Think Week that Gates wrote his famous “Internet Tidal Wave” memo that turned Microsoft’s attention to an upstart company called Netscape Communications. And in an ironic twist, Neal Stephenson, the acclaimed cyberpunk author who helped form our popular conception of the Internet age, is near impossible to reach electronically—his website offers no e-mail address and features an essay
about why he is purposefully bad at using social media. Here’s how he once explained the omission: “If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.” The ubiquity of deep work among influential individuals is important to emphasize because it stands in sharp contrast to the behavior of most modern knowledge workers —a group that’s rapidly forgetting the value of going deep.
The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers. A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.
This state of fragmented attention cannot accommodate deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking. At the same time, however, modern knowledgeworkers are not loafing. In fact, they report that they are as busy as ever. What explains the discrepancy? A lot can be explained by another type of effort, which provides a counterpart to the idea of deep work: Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving email messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality. To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work. “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” admitted journalist Nicholas Carr, in an oft-cited 2008 Atlantic article. “[And] I’m not the only one.” Carr expanded this argument into a book, The Shallows, which became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. To write The Shallows, appropriately enough, Carr had to move to a cabin and forcibly disconnect.
The idea that network tools are pushing our work from the deep toward the shallow is not new. The Shallows was just the first in a series of recent books to examine the Internet’s effect on our brains and work habits. These subsequent titles include William Powers’s Hamlet’s BlackBerry, John Freeman’s The Tyranny of E-mail, and Alex Soojung-Kin Pang’s The Distraction Addiction—all of which agree, more or less, that network tools are distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused. Given this existing body of evidence, I will not spend more time in this book trying to establish this point. We can, I hope, stipulate that network tools negatively impact deep work. I’ll also sidestep any grand arguments about the long-term societal consequence of this shift, as such arguments tend to open impassible rifts. On one side of the debate are techno-skeptics like Jaron Lanier and John Freeman, who suspect that many of these tools, at least in their current state, damage society, while on the other side techno-optimists like Clive Thompson argue that they’re changing society, for sure, but in ways that’ll make us better off. Google, for example, might reduce our memory, but we no longer need good memories, as in the moment we can now search for anything we need to know
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