Why Carving Out 5 Hours Every Day For Difficult Work Can Lead To Greatness

If you want to do remarkable stuff, stop wasting your time on email. Great artists, writers, and inventors spend almost a quarter of their days immersed in deep work. Here's how to dive in and create something amazing.

By now you may have encountered Mason Curry's Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a book that puts together the routines of 161 staggeringly creative people. It's an amazing collection for the way it reveals the quirks of genius, like Beethoven's fondness for caffeine, Maya Angelou's motel-based isolation, or Franklin's need to get naked. But among those eccentricites lies a central point: the greats didn't just work, they did deep work.

Unlike shallow work, like answering emails, attending meetings, or reporting on the work they've already done, deep work is when you are immersed in "cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve." That's the definition from Cal Newport, the popularizer of the term. Newport read through the first 25 profiles and estimated the hours per day each person was working deeply.

Chart courtesy of Cal Newport

The result? "The average number of deep work hours turned out to be 5.25," Newport writes. This means that the poets, artists, and inventors featured were able to give nearly a quarter of each 24-hour day to tasks that are immersively difficult.

You probably know the feeling of deep work: it's when you're working on a problem that pushes you just beyond your skill level, allowing you to dip into a state of flow. You're concentrating, experiencing mental strain, the way a programmer feels wading into layers of code or a novelist sculpting a character or a startup founder mapping out the direction of a company. And since deep work is so cognitively demanding, it's also differentiating.

"We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicatable," Newport says, "nor can we expect such efforts to be the foundation of a remarkable career."

This makes intuitive sense: if we're going to do remarkable stuff, we need to give ourselves the space within which we may make our marks. The next question, then, is how do we give ourselves the room for more deep work?

A handful of tools for creating more time for deep work

Say no: Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and other badasses keep clear calendars.

Make buffer time: Take a cue from LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and schedule nothing.

Spend your mornings in solitude: Then bring your ideas to the team.

Find ways around email: It can set your career back.

Outsource basic tasks: Startups want to do your boring stuff—so you may focus on the deliciously difficult.

Hat tip: Study Hacks

[Image: Flickr user Savannah]

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  • David Sanford

    Thanks, Drake, for the great article! Over the past decade I have worked with some of the most interesting and successful people in the world. You may be an entertainer taking home $35,000 per hour. You may be a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. You may be a Wall Street corporate merger guru. Still, you have to understand, quickly recognize, and know how to defeat the top 5 professional fears. They are:
    1. The fear of silence
    2. The fear of sharing
    3. The fear of selling
    4. The twin fears of rejection and failure
    5. The fear of success

    Not surprisingly, most (not all) successful individuals initially assume they are the exception to the rule. “Fear? Who me? No way.” Yet they keep avoiding deep work.

    “No fear” isn’t just a Millennial motto for the adventurous. It’s a way of life. I know all this, yet the other day I got hit with 1 of the 5 professional fears and responded 180 degrees opposite of what I know to do in such situations. The result? I avoided deep work.

    I still believe “No fear” is a way of life, but it’s an imperfect way. Every time we give into fear, we need to humbly acknowledge it, remind ourselves what to do next time, and then use deep work to move toward that “next time” as quickly as possible.