Study Hacks Blog

The Deep Life: Some Notes

March 17th, 2020 · 40 comments

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve covered many different topics in my writing that all seem to roughly orbit ideas around productivity, technology, and meaning. Some of my readers have taken to unifying this prescriptive worldview with a simple description: the deep life. Giving its foundational role in what we do here, I thought it might be useful to summarize how I think about this philosophy at the moment.

To me, the deep life is about focusing with energetic intention on things that really matter — in work, at home, and in your soul — and not wasting too much attention on things that don’t.

Those who embrace the deep life often push some of these efforts to a place that seems radical to outsiders, but it’s exactly in this extremeness that they find the deep satisfaction. A life focused intensely on the things that really matter — even if it’s riddled with ups and downs — trumps a comfortable life that unfolds with haphazard numbness or excessive narcissism.

The tricky part in cultivating a deep life, of course, is figuring out what things matter. This will differ between different people. I strive to divide my focused attention among four categories:

  • community (family, friends, etc.),
  • craft (work and quality leisure),
  • constitution (health), and
  • contemplation (matters of the soul).

In each of these areas I keep striving to identify the big swings — the actions or commitments that will make the most difference — while clearing out the detritus that gets in the way (this latter goal giving rise to my obsession with productivity). They all interact: constitution enables better craft, while contemplation, as it so often does, provides a template for basically everything that’s important. Sometimes I’m more successful in these efforts than others. I’m better at it now than when I was at 25, and think I’ll be even better when I’m 45.

So there it is: a short summary of the underlying philosophy that gives rise to so much that I end up writing about, from the zen valedictorian, to career capital, to deep work, to the importance of digital minimalism. You’re only granted so much energy to expend in a lifetime. You’re almost certainly best off focusing it as intensely as you can on the targets that seem to really move the needle.

40 thoughts on “The Deep Life: Some Notes

  1. Oscar Aguirre says:

    I stopped looking at news websites every morning recently (advice from yourself). I am still taking precations and I understand that I will focus this energy towards passing additional technical exams.

    In times like these, reading your blog reminds me of great mindsets. Thank you Mr. Newport.

  2. Andres says:

    What kind of contemplation do you practice?

    1. z says:

      Related: “What is Contemplation?” from New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton: http://www.contemplativespirituality.org/media/merton.pdf

      1. Andres says:

        Thanks, Z. I found out who Merton was when i started following Richard Rohr’s meditations.

    2. Study Hacks says:

      Contemplation means different things for different people, but in general it has to do with whatever philosophical/ethical system you use to build a life of meaning give the reality of inevitable hardship. For some this is found in philosophy (think: Ryan Holiday/Tim Ferris), for some, in the Wisdom Traditions (religion), for some, this is a problem they try to solve on their own, starting from first principles (think: Sam Harris).

      1. Anil says:

        I feel youe comment about contemplation should be updated in the post. It’s very useful as you mentioned that contemplation differs from each individual.
        Moreover, you have provided references to inspiring people whom we could follow if we’re lacking this contemplation.

  3. jdg says:

    I’ll turn 25 in june, and this is very similar to how I think about dividing my focus. So I think I’m on the right path.

    This is how I described the major divisions of my time (I thought about this for some minutes today before I read this blog post):

    [1] Time alone:

    [1.1] Working on my “purpose” and “mission” (related to what you call craft).
    [1.2] Thinking life (? contemplation).

    [2] Time with other people (? community):

    [2.1] Working with collaborators on work-related things.
    [2.2] Doing other activities with people.

    I left implicit the health part.

    Thank you for your work in this blog and for your books, this kind of thought, clearly formalized and argued in this clear manner is not easy to find but it’s so valuable and needed. The default, pop culture, doesn’t help at all to achieve the meaningful life I prefer. You’re doing something undoubtably good. Best wishes to you!

  4. Josie says:

    Hope you and your family are safe during this tough times Cal. Keep safe always. – from a fan in the Philippines.

  5. Dhairya Yadav says:

    With so much new content this past week, I think Cal is also being forced to work from home 😛

  6. Mairi says:

    Here here. Love the 4 C’s idea. The world is so full of distractions that I actually think it is radical to choose a life with a deeper focus, and radical changes are what we need on our planet.

  7. Steve says:

    Sincerely curious as to what “matters of the soul” means to someone like you who works in science. Having worked as both an mechanical engineer and software engineer I find this topic to be quite broad among my peers.

    1. Somnath says:

      Do you think a belief in the soul is unreasonable?

      1. Mel says:

        I’m an atheist and a Unitarian Universalist. “Soul” is a useful word when describing my awe of the universe, my struggles and joys, my attempts to do what I want to do, my acceptance that it’s not all up to me.

        My soul isn’t some permanent artifact of the universe (at least, I have no reason to think it is). But it’s the collective illusion of what’s going on inside me, and it’s a useful abstraction barrier.

    2. Study Hacks says:

      See my note on contemplation from above, but short version: “matters of the soul” = the philosophy/ethical system by which you attempt to cultivate a meaningful life given the reality of inevitable hardship. These are matters that really do require quite a bit of dedicated thought and action to start sorting out…

  8. EA says:

    One great thing about this pandemic? Daily Newportian posts!
    All joking aside, be safe.

    1. Josh says:

      I love the increased frequency of the blog post too!
      Cheers,
      Josh

  9. Rakesh Gupta says:

    Wonderful to see a spate of content from Cal in the past few days! Thinking of some deep work examples, the Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa considered editing to be the most important part of film making. It is said that he was so focused and dedicated to it that he would eat and sleep in the editing room till the work was complete!

    Hope you are keeping well, Cal. Stay safe!

  10. One bright spot is that it’s been heartwarming to see so many parents out being active with their kids. I’ve never seen so many families walking and riding bikes. Maybe bike sales will increase?

  11. CC says:

    A timely post. I have not been able to implement the deep life, but I’m utterly convinced of its benefits. I just wish I could do it.

  12. Somnath says:

    Mr. Newport, it’s wonderful that you set aside time for contemplation, despite the busy schedule you must have as a professor.

    Have you ever read Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle? I highly recommend reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics because like you, Aristotle gave a lot of thought to what it means to live a good life, which for him, involved living a life of virtue.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I’ve read much more Artistotle than Aquinas, but do have a reasonable layman’s grasp of what Aquinas was up to…

    2. Matt Bowman says:

      If you like Aristotle and thinking about the good life, you might like the book Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life, by Edith Hall. Hall is a classicist and in her book she reflects on Aristotle’s philosophy and living the good life today.

  13. Amy says:

    Thank you. I’ve often thought about the tension between things I want to do/ought to do/like to do and this is such a nice way of putting it. Food for thought, for sure.

  14. Evan says:

    “You’re only granted so much energy to expend in a lifetime. You’re almost certainly best off focusing it as intensely as you can on the targets that seem to really move the needle.” ?

  15. Katharina says:

    Ah, how I wish to be at the spot where I do not have to care about things that my surroundings make important against my will.

    Being self-employed in Germany means a lot of bureaucracy, whether you want to spend time on it or not. I am getting better, though!

  16. Jo says:

    I hope A Deep Life is your next book. 🙂

  17. Tina Ochieng says:

    Hi Cal my husband and I have read your works. We are based in Nairobi. You are now well known in Nairobi. We have discussed Deep Work in some Nairobi book clubs. Thanks for all your great work.

  18. Shreya says:

    Hey Cal — love your blog! I made huge changes to my daily routine after reading Deep Work (deleted all my social media accounts, made time for reading books, etc.) and the quality of my life improved dramatically.

    I’m interested in learning more about living a deep life — especially the quality leisure component. What are some ways in which you spend your leisure time so that it gives you energy instead of zapping it? How do you evaluate such activities, and more importantly, how do you find them?

  19. Carl says:

    What a beautiful read Cal. So much wisdom in these words. The things that matter most so often get clouded by the things that matter less (or not at all).

    I find a regular 80/20 analysis helps keep me aligned with my own list of what matters most. I’m definitely not averse to distractions but I am much better than I’ve ever been at finding focus.

    Thanks for your work, it’s always full of things that matter.

  20. Chris Wilson says:

    This thought of a deep life really connected for me. There was a time where my mind and body may as well have lived on different planets. Sure, they shared the same address but they didn’t know how to communicate, how to help each other or even that they were on the same team.

    Entering therapy was like a first date for my mind and body. And like all great partnerships, they come together to create something more than they are separate. A mind and body connected reunites you with your soul. When people talk about purpose, meaning and fulfillment, this is language that can only come from deep within the fire of your soul. A person disconnected from their soul has no will to live, they simply exist. They’re carried in and out of shore like a piece of drift wood caught in a tide.

    Reconnecting with this deep life is what allowed me to hit the reset button and design a life I didn’t need to escape from.

    Thank you, Cal.

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