Study Hacks Blog

Cultivating a Deep Life

April 20th, 2020 · 28 comments







Learn AirTable; produce application for inventory system. Volunteer for local Meal on Wheels chapter. Observe Shabbat. Eat clean; 10,000 steps a day.


Using meeting scheduling software to control ratio between deep and shallow work. Take Instagram off of your phone; prune down accounts you follow to people you really care about or inspire you. Eliminate negative tweeting. Alcohol only on weekends.

I’ve been writing off and on recently about the notion of the deep life, in which you focus with energetic intention on things that really matter, and avoid wasting too much attention on things that don’t.

We find ourselves now in a moment when many people are beginning to question the suboptimal aspects of their life that they had previously been tolerating through some combination of momentum and convenience.  It is, in other words, a good time to explore various strategies for injecting more resilience and meaning into your existence.

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about ways to evolve towards a deeper life. One observation that rings true from my experience is that you should resist the urge to try to build a master plan that, once implemented, will transform everything for the better in one dramatic moment. This optimism is quixotic. It’s much more realistic to experiment with smaller shifts, one after another, to discover what sticks and what ends up superfluous.

My recommendation is to think in increments of roughly one month. For a given 30-day period, attempt a limited number of changes to the four components of the deep life (craft, community, constitution, and contemplation). Focus on these changes and see what works and what doesn’t. Keep the former in place and abandon the latter. If you repeat this long enough you’ll notice a marked shift toward the deeper end of the spectrum.

To be more concrete, consider focusing on two things for each component of your life that you’re trying to improve:

  • A high-impact habit that will significantly amplify the value you’re deriving from this component.
  • A commitment for reducing sources of distraction or unnecessary effort diverting your attention within this component.

At the top of this post is an example table showing what a deep life plan of this type might look like for a hypothetical individual. The details here matter less than the general strategy: month after month, relentlessly look to amplify habits that matter while reducing behaviors that don’t. Stick with this approach long enough and the qualitative experience of your life will be significantly improved. You can’t control what happens to you — is there any period in recent history in which this axiom has been made more clear? — but you can control how you respond, and ultimately, this is what makes all the difference.

28 thoughts on “Cultivating a Deep Life

  1. Deb says:

    The ending was quite rousing. I think Atomic Habits will pair very nicely with this, Cal covers the “what and why” and that book will cover the “how”.

    1. Onika says:

      . I think that adding more books on the list won’t help. If you really want to take action, just do it.
      If you want to read those books, schedule some time for it but after you have started the action or else you be just consuming info after info and feeling overwhelmed.

      Take it one day at a time. Few pages a day etc.

      1. Deb says:

        Absolutely true, I have sometimes fallen into the process of consuming too much information without actually implementing any of it and just moving on to the next byte of information.
        Taking in advice slowly and implementing it is the way out.

        My intention with my recommendation was to solve the problem of behaviour change after a need for behaviour change arises, Cal creates the need for a behaviour change and also addresses some tactics to do so but Atomic Habits really nails down the algorithm.

        I’d be easily overwhelmed if I made a plan to read both of them, one after the other. It is best, as you suggest, to go really slowly and to be pragmatic.

  2. Andy says:

    Hi Cal,
    I don´t know where to ask for this, but did you read “Range” from David Epstein?
    I am thinking a lot of your and Epstein´s books and how this philosophies can work together.
    I would love to read about your opinion.

    Thank you and all the best from Vienna, Austria

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I know David. We talked recently on the phone about some of the overlaps between our books. Will write about some insights from this conversation soon…

      1. Ananda Lye says:

        Would love to read this

  3. Joe Sadan says:

    The past 6 weeks of articles have been extremely useful in tackling the new shift in work environment and building better habits, especially in the sales trade.

    Sales has a double edged sword. The more channels you use, the better the reach to potential clients. This creates a constant obligation to be available at more & more platforms thus reducing time to actually sell, and drastically increases distraction.

    It has been both demoralizing to see the amount of available distraction and the gains possible for practicing focused work in this field.

  4. peakValley says:

    I agree with this approach. You can make plans be the best plans are the ones that adapt. Make a plan if a long one, but don’t expect to follow it. That is why Cal and many other argue for an “atomic” approach. That way you reduce the unnecessary overhead planning you do if your plans don’t follow through which they probably won’t.

  5. Emerald Pham says:

    Could anyone explain using AirTable and an inventory system instead of a calendar to time block or a to-do list?

    1. Joe says:

      That threw me for a second as well. I think they’re two separate items, much like Eat Clean (anti-scientific woo nonsense) and 10,000 steps a day are for Constitution.

      1. Study Hacks says:

        I’m with you on the really deep levels of woo you can fall into if you spend time in some of that health and fitness world. There is, however, a more commonsense definition of “eat clean” which is basically Michael Pollan’s advice: real food, not too much, mostly plants, with an addendum of going very easy on sugar and refined grains. Can’t go wrong with that…

        1. Joe says:

          Pollan has been thoroughly debunked by hundreds of published studies at this point. He’s a punchline for the RDs that work in the university health science center where I work.

          The research on eating is probably best summed up in books like Intuitive Eating, Anti-Diet, and even things like The Endurance Diet and The Blue Zones.

    2. Study Hacks says:

      I was envisioning that a small business could throw together an inventory app using AirTable, and taking on this challenge would be a good way to deliberately improve your skills around data-driven applications (a valuable craft). That being said: I’m not an AirTable expert and know nothing about inventory systems, so big grain of salt here.

  6. Christianne says:

    As always, thank you for your excellent timing. I love your comment about the quixotic optimism of implementing a sweeping inventory of changes in the hope that everything will be fixed. Your suggestion of a more methodical and patient approach is especially resonant for people working from home with family members who might not appreciate being swept up into sudden and significant attempts at change. This dovetails nicely with research from Prochaska (summarized nicely in the book “Changing for Good”) which talks about the problems with trying to jump into change before being ready.

  7. Mel says:

    I have to say, the sudden and drastic method is working well for me in this crisis. As my life became simpler and deeper over the past decade, my real vice left was overeating/overspending on restaurant food.

    Now I’m cooking all my meals at home. Smaller portion sizes. It’s been better for my wallet, and my gut’s been shrinking without me even trying. I’ve tried to limit my times going out to restaurants or ordering from home in the past to little success, but this sudden cancellation of anything that isn’t home cooked forced me to improvise and adjust really fast. Now I don’t even miss restaurant-style food. After this is over, restaurant food can be a special treat, rather than routine.

    Of course, this was brought about by rather extreme (and definitely undesirable) external circumstances. I would not have chosen this. But I’m trying to get what positives I can.

  8. EA says:

    I wonder if you consider playing boardgames with friends and family (no phones allowed) as a bad or a good thing for the “deep life” since they are 100% non-productive and certainly non-contemplative.

    1. Amy says:

      Sounds like Connection to me!

    2. Evan says:

      I’d definitely vote for board games being a good thing. An analog activity where you have face to face contact with others… what’s not to like? As far as the productivity piece of it, a lengthy meal around the table with family isn’t technically “productive,” but it’s certainly a good thing to do regularly. Same with board games.

    3. LdS says:

      I would suggest board games fit in perfectly, consider this activity an amplification under the ‘community’ aspect of the deep life. It is about being intentional and connecting with others, what better way than a shared activity like a boardgame?

  9. Christy says:

    I second Deb’s recommendation of “Atomic Habits” by James Clear and Andy’s recommendation of “Range” by David Epstein.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Both great books. I know both authors. (The club of successful advice non-fiction writers in their 30s is pretty tight knit…)

  10. Michael says:

    HI Cal. I just want to say thanks for the books, the blog. I dig your stuff man. That quit social media Ted X you did was my first taste of your thoughts and I was blown away.

    As I read this post, I immediately made my own chart like the picture above and started thinking about the “contemplation (matters of the soul)” Part. I appreciate the fact that you don’t throw away “deeper” aspects of life. I guess I see academics usually so focused on their works, and so consumed by their own greatness that they rule out spiritual matters.

    I been meaning to post on here for a while but just didn’t know what to say. But today, I ironically ran into this post and got the gusto to finally say hi and stuff.

    So, maybe 36 years ago, this one Pastor sort of forecasted the human fascination with tech as a detrimental thing. If you get a chance to listen to it/read it, it would be cool to know what you think of what he said.

  11. Shalom says:

    This blog needs a search feature to look for old posts. Its a pity that it is not available.

  12. Ken says:

    A new book perhaps?

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