You Can’t Do Deep Work for More than 4-Hours per Day

Tim Denning

So what are you going to work 4-hours a day on?

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Tim Ferriss nearly got it right with his 4-hour workweek. But one thing is slightly off.It’s supposed to be a 4-hour workday.

Jotform founder Aytekin Tank reminded me of the study done by Anders Ericsson that suggests most people can’t do more than 4-hours of deep work in a day. Deep work isn’t hard to understand.The idea of deep work became popularized by author Cal Newport who said it’s, “Activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.”

The Productivity Trifecta

I coined this term to encompass the three most important parts of productivity, which lead you to do the best work of your life.

  • Deep work
  • Flow states
  • Stream of consciousness work

The productivity trifecta simply translates to this insight: Deep work utilizes a stream of consciousness approach to working, started by a flow state. You allow your thoughts to lead to actions without hindering them.Deep work can be learning a new skill, a creative activity like painting, writing, preparing an in-depth proposal, or even making music.Deep work is the form of work you look back on and are proud you achieved. Deep work is hard work.

Shallow Work versus Deep Work

For me, deep work adds meaning to my life. Shallow work drains my life of meaning. But we all have shallow work tasks to complete such as tax returns, emails, meetings, doctor appointments, etc.Doing too much shallow work is why I hate the corporate world sometimes. I spend time reacting and being available. My attendance to a meeting matters when a lot of the time I’m lucky to say much more than “thanks everyone” at the end of the meeting. I like being the quitest person in the meeting. It helps me feel as though I’m important, therefore I only need to speak occasionally (that’s my ego talking).A lot of us spend time doing shallow work. Shallow work is work entrenched in distractions. Shallow work is where you task shift like you’ve skulled a gallon of Red Bull.Shallow work is done with notifications turned on, your phone by your side, and the willingness to answer whatever freaking messages come through one of a dozen messaging apps you have installed on your phone. Deep work is high value. Deep work leads to enormous results over time.

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus) Dan Silvestre

Deep Work Is Hard so You Must Start Small

It takes time to start deep work. It’s why I wrote about procrastinating for three hours before starting the deep work of writing.Your brain psychologically knows deep work is going to be hard to start. Why? Because deep work pushes your brain to the limit. It’s the same reason you hear that flow states only happen when the work is slightly above your comfort level. I learned that if deep work is hard work, then I must start doing deep work by first doing low quality work.Translated: Do an Anne Lamott sh*tty first draft to begin doing deep work.

Use flow state tourism

Flow state tourism is where you watch someone else in flow first. When I watch someone in flow I remember that flow is possible to achieve in my work. Flow state tourism gives me productivity hope.Go to Youtube. Find a creative’s work you love. Watch their most popular video where they are fully immersed in whatever they’re doing. Marvel at it for four minutes. Feel the chills down your spine. Then produce one low quality piece of work. Right after the low quality piece of work, switch straight into a high quality piece of work.

The quantity and quality of your output increases when you get better at being able to stay focused for longer, intentional periods — Bar Franek

It’s Easy to Waste Deep Work on Dumb Stuff

I see lots of people do deep work. Not all of it is high value. For example, the deep work of playing a game of Fortnite, unless it’s your job as a competitive gamer, is a waste of your brain’s ability to do deep work.

You need to figure out what’s important and what’s not…If you’re going to spend the time learning how to focus, then do it on something that has a high return for the effort involved — Bar Franek

The highest return I get from deep work is when I use the superpower to write. Writing has enabled me to achieve my biggest goals.Writing has got me closer to financial freedom. Writing about finance has taught me to think about conventional assets like real estate as trash — because when you change the denominator you measure value in, your entire financial world gets turned upside down forever.

What You Need, to Do Deep Work

Let’s keep it short and sharp.

  • Noise-canceling headphones to block out audible distractions.
  • The door shut of whatever room you’re in.
  • A family agreement that deep work is occurring during a designated time, and you’ll only be interrupted if a family member’s leg has been chopped off by a flying ax.
  • Coffee (if you need it) because it speeds up your brain and allows stream of consciousness work to pour out of you. Coffee speeds up time, making the hours of deep work you do feel shorter.
  • Zero distractions. No emails. No Slack. No phones in sight or tablets or devices capable of notifying the heck out of you.

My overall mantra is this: Email sabotages deep work. “Slack” nukes deep work.In terms of regular 9-5 work, I found working from home enhanced deep work, but open plan offices put a sledgehammer through any opportunity to do deep work. Research says open plan offices make us miserable. There’s something about impromptu meetings with a Karen that kills your motivation and will to live.

The 2 x 4-Hour Work Day (for those with big dreams)

I said at the top that you can’t do deep work for more than 4-hours per day according to studies. For some reason I am an outlier. I work a two-shift day that looks like this:

  • 4-hours of deep work
  • A 20-minute nap.
  • 4-hours of deep work.
  • Netflix and chill.

I believe I can do more than 4-hours of deep work in a day because I have enormous dreams. Not everybody does and that’s fine. But I do.8-hours of deep work in a day is my limit though. Beyond 8-hours I become a puppy dog after a 2-hour walk that can’t walk itself home.

How You Feel After Deep Work

After 8-hours of deep work I feel depleted. The best deep work is attached to emotion. I write my heart out and try to reach the greatest depths of vulnerability and courage I can possibly tap into in this lifetime.My energy is at rock bottom by the end. I have nothing left to give, therefore I feel my work is complete. This feeling gives me meaning from my deep work. Meaning is a far better achievement than superficial financial rewards.

Rest is a must for deep work

You must be equally ruthless in protecting your rest as you are with your Deep Work — Dan Silvestre

The 20-minute nap in the two-shift 8-hours of deep work I do is crucial. The challenge with deep work is it’s addictive, because the results it produces are extraordinary. So we end up going from deep work to overworking.Deep work needs a lot of rest. I typically try and sleep 9-hours after deep work instead of 8-hours.

I try and take it easy the day after. It’s why I choose to peacefully look for images to accompany my stories on the day after writing, because it doesn’t require a lot of energy. You can organize your work schedule to work in your favor by sequentially scheduling deep work followed by recovery work the next day.Organize your life around deep work and your results will change. You’ll see the type of compounding effects Albert Einstein described as the 8th wonder of the world, that Warren Buff Abs still worships to this day.

The Two Hidden Secrets of Deep Work

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with immortal sovereignty. If your life force is nothing but energy, and when your body dies that energy leaves one physical form and enters another, how do you make your life force immortal?This is a deeply fascinating topic that crypto expert Michael Saylor made famous. It’s the idea you can use decentralized technology to store your financial energy and deploy it beyond your own death.

For example you could use the money you make to pay for maintenance of an education system that keeps operating after you’re dead. Currently, only billionaires can afford to pay people millions of dollars in the afterlife to manage charities in their name or endowments.What if we could all have access to the opportunity of immortality?I’ve found I can do deep work on this topic of immortal sovereignty for hours.

The reason is because of two hidden forces: interest and curiosity. When you’re genuinely interested in a topic and curiosity wants you to go deeper into it, deep work becomes the enabler.Use curiosity to do 4-hours of deep work on an area of interest.Anders Ericsson suggests most of us can only do deep work for a maximum of 4-hours per day. The results from deep work far outweigh the results from shallow work.

So the question becomes: what are you going to spend 4-hours of deep work a day on?Once you know the answer, then all you need to do is automate your deep work and watch the results subtly improve your life.Deep work gives your life meaning. A life of meaning is a happier one.


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