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.

Why Carving Out 5 Hours Every Day For Difficult Work Can Lead To Greatness
[Image: Flickr user Savannah]

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


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.