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Deep Work: The Secret To A Rich, High-Impact Life

By January 21, 2016 2 Comments

My wife calls him my “man-crush.”

I don’t disagree.

The guy is a stud.

No, it’s not Tom Brady. It’s not Clooney, Jay Z, or Bear Grylls, either.

It’s Adam Grant — currently the youngest full professor (a level beyond a tenured professor) at the Wharton School of Business.

While he’s no SuperBowl-winning QB he has, at only 34 years of age, achieved a comparable level of personal and professional success.

Consider: He’s the top-ranked professor at one of the world’s best business schools and, when he’s not teaching, he writes best-selling business books and shares his perspectives with leaders at the worlds largest companies including Facebook, Apple, Goldman Sachs and The United Nations, among many others.

He’s produces a seemingly endless supply of depth and insight — and delivers it in a humble, funny and generous way.

A “man-crush?” I guess…but, more accurately, I’d call Grant a role model.

He’s a guy who is living a life rich with meaning, purpose and impact…one from whom we can all learn.

So, how does he do what he does?


According to writer Cal Newport (another thought leader whom I greatly admire), Grant’s prolific success all maps back to one critical skill: his ability to do “deep work.”

In his great new book, Newport observes that Grant “produces important work at an ‘absurdly high’ rate.” By the time he was awarded full professorship in 2014, Grant had written over sixty peer-reviewed publications, plus a best-selling business book.

As Newport explains, Grant’s “elite level” production is made possible by his ability to “batch”: to perform hard, but important, intellectual work during long periods of uninterrupted time.

During these “out of office” periods, Grant is able to concentrate completely on the research and problem-solving that moves both his thinking and his career, forward.

And yet, paradoxically, despite these periods of total isolation, Grant is also known as one of the best and most generous professors at Wharton.

Writer Winifred Gallagher would suggest that Grant is just another case study for what she calls a “grand unified theory” of the mind. She writes:

“Like fingers pointing to the moon, diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, all suggest that the skillful management of attention is [an absolute necessity of living a] good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”


Inspired, late last year, I committed to improving my ability to manage my attention and put this theory of “deep work” to the test.

Specifically, I wanted to discover what would happen if I intentionally created more space on my calendar (and in my life) to focus intently on the hard, but important, challenges in my professional domain (leadership and personal performance)? I wanted to see how, if at all, such focus would impact me, both personally and professionally.

While it’s still early, the results have been promising.

I have written more articles (5) in the last 30 days than I wrote in the first four months of 2015. In addition, I have created three new important workshops over the same period – less than one-half the time that similar projects took in 2015.

Finally, I am shutting down my computer consistently before 5:30p every day (a result I was rarely able to achieve in 2015) to focus my energy and attention on my now very active 18-month old son, Jack.

To help, I have done a variety of things that have allowed me to better structure my time and work environment in a manner conducive to long periods of focus.

Below I share a few specific examples that have worked for me in the hope that you will find them similarly useful.


1. Put It On The Calendar

Long time readers of this blog know my preference for using time intentionally. In short, if it’s not on the calendar, it’s not likely getting done. When it comes to doing “Deep Work” this is more important than ever. During my “weekly planning” session (every Sunday evening or Monday morning) I identify at least one, if not more, 90 minute window to do focus, non-distracted work every day.

To make it incredibly easy to both schedule this time (and not forget it) I have set up a recurring 90-minute session on my Google calendar, Monday thru Friday.

2. Don’t Check Email Until The Deep Work Is Done

I suspect that you already know, intuitively, that your ability to do regular deep work would catalyze your personal and professional life, but…it’s just so hard to create the space for it in our hectic, hyper-connected lives.

My suggestion: disconnect until the work gets done. Specifically, don’t check your email until you’ve been able to complete at least one session of deep work.

I know this is hard but, as I’ve written before, your inbox is, in effect, a “to-do” list created for you, by others. If you want to do deep work, and live a deep focused life, you must intentionally put this agenda item at the top of the list. Every day.

3. Create A Distraction-Free Work Environment 

Email, alas, is just the tip of the iceberg.

If you work on a computer (as I do), we must be vigilant in protecting our creative space from the urgencies of others; we must create a true “distraction-free” space.

A few more specific ideas:

1) Turn off all notifications (email messages, social media, etc) on your computer and phone.

2) Restrict access to distraction. I use a paid app called “Freedom” to help. The app temporarily shuts down my access to news websites, social media, ESPN and other sites I deem to be distractions. It’s beautiful. The best $20 I’ll spend all year.

3) Use headphones. It’s funny, the simple act of putting the headphones on creates a physiological change. It’s as if the action signals, “Ok, time to get to work.” You don’t need to play music, just eliminate the little sounds in your environment that can drag your attention elsewhere.

(I use a few other technologies to help me focus. For a list of what I use and why, click here.)

4. Get Clear On What “Deep Work Success” Looks Like

The great thing about deep, focused work is that it is designed to produce results.

At the start of this journey, make a point of identifying a handful of specific, measurable outcomes that would signify progress resulting from focus.

We know that deep work works for people like Adam Grant because we can objectively evaluate his production (e.g. the number of peer-reviewed articles and/or books written).

By what can your deep work be measured?

If you’re not sure, start with time (i.e. How many hours per day/week did you spend in periods of deep, focused work?) In my case, I am focused on three things:

1. Number of hours spent in deep work

2. Number of articles published to my website

3. Progress against my goal to create and launch a new leadership incubator (tentatively called “SpringBoard”)

Again, the specific metrics don’t matter at first. Get something down, then get it right (i.e. refine and edit the metrics over time).

5. Start With Exercise

If I were a betting man, and had to handicap a person’s chances of creating a sustained deep work habit, I would give preference to those individuals who had already developed the habit of exercising on a regular basis.

The are many direct parallels between the habit of regular exercise and that of doing deep, focused, work. The most important: the correlation between consistency, effort and outcome. In both exercise and deep work, the success equation is simple: Consistency x Effort = Results.

Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Mee-Hi, Chick-Senth-Mee-Hi”) makes a finer point: “[A person’s] best moments usually occur when their body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

In other words, if you exercise on a regular basis, you have likely already experienced some of the satisfaction that comes from deep work – and have the have the tools, strategies and experience you need to create this new, healthy habit.

If you are not yet exercising regularly, that’s OK – but I would suggest that you start there on your journey to living a rich, deep and focused life.

Why? Because exercise is the “lead domino.” A healthy, energized body and mind is essential to creating a sustainable deep work practice.


As Newport writes, by carefully cultivating an environment conducive to greater focus, “not only will you experience significantly more success, you’ll also find your work more meaningful and your mind less cluttered and anxious.”

That’s how I will define success in 2016: more time spent on work that is deeply meaningful and less time spent on everything else. In short: more focus + more impact.

If you want the same this year, the steps and strategies listed above can help. But make no mistake: these tactics will only help if you are firmly committed to the outcome: a life rich with meaning, purpose and impact.

Good luck, and keep me posted on your progress.

I’ll do the same.

How would your life get better with focus? On what problem, question or challenge would you like to spend more high-quality, focused time?

Ben Sands

Author Ben Sands

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