You’re wasting your life.
Yes you. The person reading this. I can’t be 100% sure of this, but statistically speaking you don’ t have much of a chance.
But I don’t mean that in a “people today are lazy and addicted to their phones” kind of way. Sure that might be true also, but I’m talking about work. Most of us are wasting our life through our work.
I bet your parents taught you to “work hard,” didn’t they? Every parent does. But few teach their kids the real meaning of work. There are different ways to work hard, but in the absence of nuance most of us only learn one — maybe two — types of work.
It’s the third kind most of us don’t practice. And we’re wasting our working life as a result. I’m going to explain the three types of work and show you how to do the third type effectively.
Let’s take a look at the three types of work.
Labor is any task that you need to do just to keep your job. If you’ve ever seen the movie Office Space think “TPS Reports.” If you haven’t seen the movie, please allow me explain: The main character, Peter, is stuck in a typical dead end job where he endures the endless cycle: Commute. Busy work. Lunch. Busy work. Commute. TV. Bed. Repeat.
His overbearing boss heaps meaningless tasks upon him like filing TPS reports — the meaning of which is never explained during the film. But it doesn’t matter because we all know what TPS reports are — some task that the higher ups have invented to create a paper trail but don’t serve any useful function to the job at hand.
We’ve all been forced to do busy work. Everyone hates it because it ends up taking up all of our creative time and we never get real work done.
But in many work environments this type of labor is necessary just to keep our job. Fail to deliver what the boss wants and you’re done. And the boss wants TPS reports.
Not all labor is like that, though. Labor can be tedious but necessary, too. Labor is the day-to-day grind of chores and other rote tasks. If you grew up on a farm like me you’ll know that life is full of labor.
TPS reports suck, but most labor isn’t a bad thing — it’s just a repetitive thing. We all must do labor of some sort. Brushing our teeth is a type of labor.
We have on our table because because people do labor every day. Every product we consume is made on the back of someone’s labor.
Labor isn’t a bad thing, but we don’t need to elevate labor to be some noble pursuit, either. Labor simply is what it is.
If labor was our only capacity we’d still be digging holes in the ground with sticks. Labor doesn’t invent anything new or create anything. However, it is necessary to execute creative tasks.
To stop wasting our lives we need to do less labor and more of the other types of work
Entrepreneurs specialize in hustle. Hustle is like labor in the way that it can be learned quickly. You can start hustling now and be good at it by tomorrow. Chances are, hustle won’t test your skill, but it will test your courage, consistency, and strength.
Hustle is about making shit happen, which means pitching your product or idea, approaching people, and grinding for growth. It means getting in front of people and creating momentum.
I respect hustle. We all need to hustle in some way. Authors need to hustle to promote their work. Painters need to hustle to get their paintings in galleries. Entrepreneurs hustle all day every day.
Good things don’t happen passively. We need to hustle to make them happen.
I’m not saying you have to be like the king of hustle, Gary Vaynerchuk. We can hustle at our own pace. Gary Vee’s pace is super human, and I’m not sure if he sleeps. But everyone must deploy some level of hustle to succeed.
As we’re going to discover in a moment, there is another type of work that — when added to hustle — brings even better results.
Hustle is great. Everyone should hustle if they have big dreams. But hustle and labor alone will still result in a wasted life.
Money chasers hustle and labor, yet they waste their lives. I’ve lost count of how many millionaires I know that hustle and labor hard, earn huge fucking piles of money, yet despise their own life.
They’re wasting theirs. Because they don’t know the meaning of the third type of work..
Author Cal Newport would call both labor and hustle, “shallow work.” More on him below. Shallow work is necessary but we won’t stop wasting our lives until we develop a consistent “deep work” habit.
Henry Ford famously said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” I heard this quote years ago and didn’t know what it meant until I began my own intentional deep work practice.
True achievement requires creation — and creation requires thinking and other types of deep work.
Charlie Munger said his partner Warren Buffett only “works” 20% of the time. He spends the other 80% reading and thinking. Of course, Buffett is working with that other 80% of the time. Reading and thinking are the most important type of work — deep work
In Ashlee Vance’s recent biography of Elon Musk, we learn about one of Musk’s quirks. He was known to mentally ‘check out’. He could sit in a room full of people without noticing. It appeared bizarre to others, but he was deep in thought, focusing his attention on finding a solution to a single problem.
Brian Scudamore — founder of $250M franchise 1-800-GOT-JUNK — recently wrote about his habit of spending one day per week doing nothing but thinking.
I could go on.
Elite entrepreneurs and intellectuals spend huge amounts of their time doing — what from the outside appears to be — nothing.
But pure thinking isn’t the only type of deep work. Cal Newport defines deep work as “cognitively demanding tasks.” Replying to emails isn’t cognitively demanding. Neither is posting on Facebook or attending a meeting. And TPS reports certainly don’t qualify. Neither does making 10 sales calls per day.
A few deep work tasks:
- thinking about solutions to a difficult problem
- outlining a book
- writing an article
- solving a math problem
- writing code
- reading difficult tasks
Those are just to name a few. In his book, Newport delves into the brain science behind deep work, shallow work, and distraction. The answer is unequivocal: We must work deeply to find solutions to difficult problems.
We can’t solve problems with shallow work only.
Here’s my own definition of deep work: “creative work that moves you beyond day-to-day survival.” Most jobs, professions, or careers have a series of daily tasks we need to do in order to just survive. We can get really good at those tasks to the point where we don’t even need to think.
Every morning we wake up and live the same day over and over again — nothing new is created. Money is made, life goes on, and we shut down to the magic of work.
My client mastered sales years ago and built successful businesses around this skill. If his work ever was creative it had became rote years ago. He had money and “success,” but his work no longer fulfilled him.
He wanted to start writing and creating but didn’t understand deep work. This is the biggest roadblock clients have when they first approach me. The world doesn’t prize or understand deep work. Labor and hustle are lauded but deep work is just misunderstood.
My client had a background in art, so intuitively deep work made sense. But it was many years since he made art. He had to relearn the habit of deep work — especially as it related to writing. Every type of creation has its own type of deep work.
When he tapped back into his infinite well of creation he said the most remarkable thing: “I have a whole new definition of work.”
Bingo. He nailed it. After years of working hard but shallow he had created a living but not a life.
As soon as he began working deeply he immediately found his deep well of inner creativity.
Domain Specific Deep Work
The first step of deep work is understanding its importance. Next, we must do the deep work specific to our domain.
When Warren Buffett reads an annual report, he’s not reading the same report you and I are reading. He’s done so much deep work at deconstructing and understanding reports and financial statements that he sees more nuance and depth.
He’s done the deep work of learning, then the deep work of deconstructing, and then the deep work of applying his past experience to the problems before him.
What do you see when you do deep work? Would you like to see some domain with half the acumen that Warren Buffett sees a financial report one day? I know I would.
Having a deep work practice is one of the secrets to a successful and happy life. Warren Buffett said, “I tap dance on my way to work.” He’s happy because his work is creative and fulfilling. Sounds funny to say about the second wealthiest man in the world, but it’s not about the money. Fulfillment in work and life has many components — one of the key ones is doing meaningful work.
And that requires deep work.
The Only Resource You Need
Cal Newport wrote a book called Deep Work that has altered the way I think and act. Newport’s premises are simple: a) deep work is lacking in our world, and b) deep work is needed more now than ever.
This situation has created a high demand, low supply situation for deep workers.
Yes, doing deep work is literally the most important thing you can do for your career right now.
Those doing deep work are the ones that will create everything of value in the coming years. They will dominate all of the best jobs and will build the greatest companies. Deep workers will invent all the great inventions and write all the best academic papers.
At the same time it’s harder than ever to do deep work. Our minds need deep work for us to feel fulfilled in our vocation — yet we default to the unfulfilling distractions of daily life.
At this exact moment when we need to do it the most, we’re least likely to do deep work.
Confession: Every morning I walk across my lawn to sit in a trailer that’s purposely placed far enough away from my house so that I can’t connect to the Internet. I find it truly difficult to avoid the Internet if it’s within range.
My internal defenses against distraction have been withered away by a decade of extreme Internet usage. So I take the drastic step of removing myself from the temptation.
If you can’t read Deep Work right now, then please listen to Cal Newport on the ManTalks Podcast.
But you don’t even need to wait that long to start implementing deep work into your life. You can get doing deep work right now by following a few simple rules.
Rules for Deep Work
It seems so simple on the surface to do deep work — but you’ll find your old, insidious habits difficult to break . You’ll find the shallow work tasks of labor and hustle will encroach on your deep work time. You’ll find email and social media to be constant distractions. Our world is not optimized for deep work.
This explains why so few people are consistent creators — let alone consistent elite creators. Deep work takes long, uninterrupted blocks of time. Few of us set aside minutes, let alone hours of time to do deep work.
But by following a few simple rules your can get up and running.
Rule #1 — Shut it Off
I will check email, Facebook, today’s website numbers, and sports stats in a constant loop of pointless distraction all day unless I create a clear boundary between myself and the Internet.
I don’t pretend to understand it. I want to create. I want to learn difficult things. I want to research, study, and think about difficult problems. Yet, if the Internet is even accessible I will find myself unthinkingly wandering towards it automatically.
Steven Pressfield calls this ‘resistance.’ For some reason we find the thing we love most to be the easiest thing to be distracted from. We may love it the most, but anything worth doing is mentally taxing, and the brain doesn’t want to work unless it has to. That’s why we need to create artificial boundaries and forcing functions between us and the distractions.
Experiment with what works for you. For me the best thing — hands down — is to be out sitting in my trailer, about 50 yards from the house, where I know the Internet won’t reach me. I don’t bring my phone out to the trailer with me. There is no way for me to connect to the Internet without going back into the house, which would mean carrying my computer or grabbing my phone.
I make the trip several times per day. I need the Internet to work, after all, but mostly only for shallow work tasks. Deep work is offline work.
Find out what works best for you. It might be enough to simply ignore the phone, email, social media, and other distractions for a while. For me this isn’t enough, but it may be for you.
Experiment and stick to what works, but whatever you do shut off the Internet.
Rule #2 — Set a Time Limit
Deep work is mentally taxing work. Cal Newport cites the studies that prove 4 hours of deep work per day is optimal for most people. The tendency is to want to go beyond that, but very few people can effectively do deep work for longer than 4 hours in one day. I get started on my deep work anywhere between 5am on an early day and 7am on a late day. This gives me plenty of time [with breaks] to finish my 4 hours of deep work before lunch and then spend the afternoon doing shallow work like taking phone calls, sending emails, and various website tasks like posting blog articles and managing my email system.
Don’t overdo it. Just be consistent in your deep work and before you know it you will become a prolific creator. Most people struggle to write one article, create one video, design one web page, outline one chapter of a book, make one drawing, or plan one live experience.
Deep workers — even those only doing an hour a day — soon find themselves pumping out important work regularly. So don’t worry too much [at first] about doing too much. Just get consistent with it and see where the daily drip of work takes you.
Rule #3 — Practice Different Types of Deep Work
There are many different activities you can do in deep work. The tendency is to think of it as simply working in ‘flow state.’ Newport points out that deep work will often bring you into flow state but not always. Perhaps the more important kind of deep work is acquiring, organizing, and integrating difficult knowledge.
I often speak, write, and teach my clients about story. This requires a background in mythology, story structure, psychology, and other topics. I need to read works that are often difficult. To truly understand, contemplate, and integrate such works I need deep work time.
This kind of mental slog can’t be accomplished in between emails. It just can’t. You need long periods of uninterrupted time to read, think, and take notes.
Another type of deep work that’s rarely practiced is thinking. Yes, I literally mean just sitting in a room along — thinking. Or going for a walk alone and thinking. Or a drive alone and thinking. Many people find it easier to do uninterrupted thinking when they’re on the move. One of my favorite philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, famously said that he never trusted an idea he didn’t get on his feet.
Whatever the case, it’s important to practice thinking. I find two great opportunities to think — the first is when I’m driving alone. Whereas I used to listen to music or a podcast, I now think. It’s incredible how much mental chatter you find. You want to structure this thinking time. You’re not just thinking about whatever pops into your head. You choose a difficult problem and think of the solutions. Using the right questions to guide your thinking works well.
Beyond learning and thinking, your deep work time might be filled by writing, outlining, envisioning a product or service, writing code, designing, drawing, or whatever your craft is.
You know – that beautiful thing you love to do but somehow never find time to do.
I could go on about this topic. Chances are I will go on in a different article a different day. I refused to read another book for a month after reading Deep Work — I wanted the lessons to sink in. I sat and devoured the entire book in a single day, and took copious notes. I never looked back.
That last sentence was a lie.
I’ve still struggled to do deep work consistently at times since then.
And this brings up the most insidious problem of all. We need to believe that we deserve do to the work that matters. Every day we have a choice to do deep work, but it’s easy to be busy.
The truth is that we don’t have time not to do deep work.
It’s never been more important to create. Now is the moment of creation. There are fewer and fewer rote, laborious tasks that are highly valuable.
Shallow work and distraction will rob you of the most creative years of your life.
That shallow work task that seems pressing — it’s probably not that important and certainly not as important as doing your deep work. Your creations matter more now than ever — both to yourself and to the broader world.
Labor and hustle are still valuable, but without the deep work of creation they will ensure dissatisfaction in your work. Without them your deep work won’t get out to the world, but without the creations you make during deep work time you will have no labors to share and nothing to hustle.
“Come talk to me when you have something,” is a common remark. First you need to create the thing, which can only be done doing deep work time. Then you can hustle it to where it belongs.
Do the deep work. Do it now. Do it daily.
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