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Deep Work



There were days during this period, he now admits, when he spent almost every minute (“98 percent of my time”) surfing the Web

To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.

To the chagrin of both my friends and the various publicists I’ve worked with on my books, I’ve never had a Facebook or Twitter account, or any other social media presence outside of a blog. I don’t Web surf and get most of my news from my home-delivered Washington Post and NPR. I’m also generally hard to reach: My author website doesn’t provide a personal e-mail address, and I didn’t own my first smartphone until 2012 (when my pregnant wife gave me an ultimatum—“you have to have a phone that works before our son is born”).

More generally, the lack of distraction in my life tones down that background hum of nervous mental energy that seems to increasingly pervade people’s daily lives. I’m comfortable being bored, and this can be a surprisingly rewarding skill—especially on a lazy D.C. summer night listening to a Nationals game slowly unfold on the radio.

Chapter 1: Deep Work Is Valuable

other technologies like data visualization, analytics, high speed communications, and rapid prototyping have augmented the contributions of more abstract and data-driven reasoning, increasing the values of these jobs

The key question will be: are you good at working with intelligent machines or not?

In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed

To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits

Rule #1: Work Deeply

his 2008 science fiction epic, Anathem, which considers a world where an intellectual elite live in monastic orders, isolated from the distracted masses and technology, thinking deep thoughts.)

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

These sites are especially harmful after the workday is over, where the freedom in your schedule enables them to become central to your leisure time.

Put more thought into your leisure time

It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific actions with specific goals to fill your time. A set program of reading, à la Bennett, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is also a good option, as is, of course, exercise or the enjoyment of good (in-person) company

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. This is a problem

Schedule every minute of your day

By his estimation, he spent only one and a half out of the twelve total hours sitting in his office tackling “real” work, which he defines as efforts that make progress toward a “research deliverable.”

the most dangerous word in one’s productivity vocabulary: “yes.”

In addition to carefully guarding my obligations, I’m incredibly conscientious about managing my time

Become Hard to Reach

Most nonfiction authors are easy to reach. They include an e-mail address on their author websites along with an open invitation to send them any request or suggestion that comes to mind. Many even encourage this feedback as a necessary commitment to the elusive but much-touted importance of “community building” among their readers. But here’s the thing: I don’t buy it.

Instead of allowing any student in the world to send me a question, for example, I now work closely with a small number of student groups where I’m quite accessible and can offer more substantial and effective mentoring.

“I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.”

I use this language almost verbatim on my contact page

in general, those with a minor public presence, such as authors, overestimate how much people really care about their replies to their messages

Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond.

This tip can be uncomfortable at first because it will cause you to break a key convention currently surrounding e-mail: Replies are assumed, regardless of the relevance or appropriateness of the message. There’s also no way to avoid that some bad things will happen if you take this approach. At the minimum, some people might get confused or upset—especially if they’ve never seen standard e-mail conventions questioned or ignored. Here’s the thing: This is okay. As the author Tim Ferriss once wrote: “Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things.” It should comfort you to realize that, as the professors at MIT discovered, people are quick to adjust their expectations to the specifics of your communication habits. The fact you didn’t respond to their hastily scribed messages is probably not a central event in their lives.


The curmudgeons among us are vaguely uneasy about the attention people pay to their phones, and pine for the days of unhurried concentration, while the digital hipsters equate such nostalgia with Luddism and boredom, and believe that increased connection is the foundation for a utopian future

the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done

The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind

this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good.

It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.