How Deep Work Can Transform Your Life: 7 Powerful Principles

Becoming exceptional is hard. The professional world is competitive, full of intelligent and ambitious people vying for the same top positions.

To make things more complicated, there isn’t one exact set of rules we can follow that guarantees success. Hundreds, if not thousands of books are published every year promoting magic formulas for success. But how many of these books create lasting change?

How many of us really achieve the success we expect?

Where do we go wrong?

What do we need to change if we don’t like the path we are on?

Do we practice becoming exceptional like we practice golf, triathlons, or public speaking?

No. We assume mastery is something that just happens. We go about it in a haphazard way while our frustration and struggles build when we don’t progress. We don’t treat mastery as a skill that can be improved. We just work hard and hope it happens.

Here’s the good news. There is a way to change your habits and behaviors that create lasting success and builds exceptional talent. The bad news is we must overcome significant mental and societal pressures to cultivate deep work.

If you are looking to make this shift from mediocre to exceptional, one of the best resources on creating success is Cal Newport. His blog,, is a must read if interested in practical principles to achieve success. His latest book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, is my best recommendation to create permanent changes to do great things. (Note: All italicized quotes in this article are from Newport’s book, Deep Work)

The following 7 Principles, based on Cal’s book, can be used by anyone to improve the odds of becoming truly exceptional.

Principle 1: Identify Shallow vs. Deep Work

A lot can be explained by another type of effort, which provides a counterpart to the idea of deep work: Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate…To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work.

To set the stage for this discussion, we need to define what deep work is. Here’s Cal’s definition:

 “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Why is this important? Ask Cal mentioned, to remain valuable in this economy, master the art of quickly learning complicated things. Mastery comes from deep, deliberate work applied in a consistent and focused manner. We erroneously assume mastery will just come to us if we show up regularly or get enough experience. Certainly, we will gain some knowledge that way. But to become truly exceptional and stand above the rest, apply deep work principles.

Distinguish between shallow and deep work. If we can’t, we will never be able to properly transition into deep work. By minimizing or compartmentalizing shallow work, we create a maximum focus on deep work.

This compressed schedule is possible because I’ve invested significant effort to minimize the shallow in my life while making sure I get the most out of the time this frees up. I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

Shallow work is inevitable. As much as we hate busywork, there is a certain amount we must manage. So how do we manage through? As Cal advises, we batch our shallow work into blocks where we do nothing else but get through as much as possible. Think of this like a sprint – as soon as we start, we embrace the distracted nature and work to accomplish as much shallow work as possible. As soon as the sprint is over, we stop the shallow work and re-engage in deep work.

Principle 2: Produce Good Work

The second reason that deep work is valuable is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.

Because of social media and the internet, anything we do can be quickly disseminated throughout the world. This is the key to building our brand and reputation as a rare and exceptional talent. When we create valuable writing, advice, art, etc, we can share the work with the world. The more people that benefit from what we do, the more valuable we become and the more we control our destiny.

The flipside is also important. Our competition – especially people vying for your job, have the same opportunity to share valuable work. Competition has become meritocratic. We are judged on our actual ability rather than where we went to school or who we know. Anyone in the world can compete with us. There are no geographical or physical boundaries that apply. The brutal competitive environment just got tougher and wont get any easier for us.

The longer you wait to accept this the further back you will put yourself. Eventually, competition will arrive and we will be separated by who can deliver and prove their value and who can’t.

In a seminal 1981 paper, the economist Sherwin Rosen worked out the mathematics behind these “winner-take-all” markets. One of his key insights was to explicitly model talent—labeled, innocuously, with the variable q in his formulas—as a factor with “imperfect substitution,” which Rosen explains as follows: “Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance.” In other words, talent is not a commodity you can buy in bulk and combine to reach the needed levels: There’s a premium to being the best.

There really is a benefit to becoming exceptional at one thing. You don’t have to master every field or become an expert in everything. That’s impossible. The world will reward you if you are exceptional at one thing.

Just being “good enough” doesn’t set you apart. You are still a commodity and are expendable.

Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy
1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

As Cal states, once we master hard things, we then have to prove our mastery. If we keep our mastery inside our head and never tell anyone, no one will ever know. It’s our responsibility to show the world our talents and value. No one else will make sure we get what we deserve.

We see this with college graduates. Just because they have a degree, graduates assume the world will recognize their genius and reward them appropriately. But degrees are becoming totally irrelevant. 20 years ago, it was safe to assume that a college degree led to differentiated skills. It was so much rarer then as it is now. With the proliferation of colleges and the ease of getting a degree, employers are rightfully skeptical of new graduates providing value from day one.

It doesn’t matter where you are in your career. We must take the initiative and prove to world what we can do.

Once you do the hard work of becoming exceptional, don’t neglect to share your work.

Now consider the second core ability from the list shown earlier: producing at an elite level. If you want to become a superstar, mastering the relevant skills is necessary, but not sufficient. You must then transform that latent potential into tangible results that people value.

Principle 3: Utilize Deep Work to Magnify Results

This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires. Its core components are usually identified as follows:
(1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master;
(2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

Most people understand the first requirement, even though it’s often hard to put into practice. Deep work requires undivided and sustained attention to your skill. It’s an unnatural habit and mindset that doesn’t come easy. If you struggle at first to maintain focus, don’t give up. Today’s environment doesn’t favor deep work. You are not alone in this struggle. If needed, start with 15 minutes of focused activity, and then aim to increase that by 5 minutes the next time you study. Track your progress on your calendar. Tracking provides a solid record of your progress and provides valuable feedback on your progression.

Don’t think you can switch focus every 5 minutes over the course of a couple hours. This effort needs to be concentrated in one time period. As Cal stated, “…though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.”

It takes time to get into the flow with deliberate practice. It’s almost like we need a mental warmup like we would with a physical workout. If we only work for 5 or 10 minutes at a time and then switch our focus, we have to keep starting over every time we re-engage. So make it a habit to start once and continue for 30-60 minutes.

The second requirement is typically missed. We assume by showing up and working hard we will achieve success. But attaining mastery requires a different approach. This approach includes objective and unbiased feedback. Feedback delivers guidance and suggestion and what needs improvement and how to adjust. Without feedback, you are operating blind – you are just showing up and hoping that your actions are leading to improvement. Feedback connects the actions you take with the results you get. If there is no link, you can’t be sure how much success you are achieving and the source of that success.

If you remember one formula, remember this from Cal:

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

We need to clarify one possible point of confusion. We haven’t said anything about increasing the quantity of hours worked; we have focused just on quality. Quality is reflected in the intensity, focus, and deliberate nature of our practice. While we may need to allocate more time to our skill, first look to optimize the time we already invest. That alone should vault us to the top echelons of our skill. Afterwards, we can add in more time if necessary. But given our competing schedules, it’s not always possible to add more time. So remember, it’s always quality over quantity - focus on improving the time you already spend (quality) before thinking about adding more time (quantity). As Cal mentions below, top students don’t become best just by working longer, they work smarter.

The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration—radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.

Principle 4: Design Your Environment to Enable Deep Work

The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Cal’s two principles highlight a major roadblock against deep work. Our environments, especially professionally, are poorly designed to enable deep work. It’s a constant barrage of emails, interruptions, and scattered meetings. When we show up to work and attempt to “willpower” our way into deep work, we may find some short-term success, but will ultimately succumb to behaviors and actions that are the easiest and offer the least resistance. Instead of toughing this out, we need to rethink how we design our work environment to enable deep work, and not shallow work, to be the default mode of action.

As Cal stated, without clear feedback, we can’t separate deep work from shallow busywork. When we deliberately set up practice that delivers immediate feedback and results in clear, unambiguous progress indicators, we have begun engaging in deep work. There is an easy test to determine if work is shallow or deep:

Does our work:

1)     provide feedback?

2)     provide verified, measurable progress?

For example, email provides no feedback and no measurement of getting better at anything.

However, writing and publishing an article through an email list does – people will respond with comments and feedback. You can track open rates and other metrics to judge readership progress. The goal is to always engage in some project that allows you to receive feedback and measurable results.

Testing is another great example. For example, if you are studying for your CPA exam, practice tests provide both feedback (you’re able to compare your answer to the correct answer, often with explanations showing where you went wrong) and measurement (you can track your scores over time and see an unbiased measurement of your progress.

If you believe in the value of depth, this reality spells bad news for businesses in general, as it’s leading them to miss out on potentially massive increases in their value production. But for you, as an individual, good news lurks. The myopia of your peers and employers uncovers a great personal advantage. Assuming the trends outlined here continue, depth will become increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable.

Not only does deep work provide better engagement, it provides a huge advantage over your competition. The benefits are double. Deep work provides more long-term satisfaction on a personal level, and provides a sustainable competitive advantage in your career.

As Cal states, “Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.”

Principle 5: Schedule Your Day

Seinfeld began his advice to Isaac with some common sense, noting “the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes,” and then explaining that the way to create better jokes was to write every day. Seinfeld continued by describing a specific technique he used to help maintain this discipline. He keeps a calendar on his wall. Every day that he writes jokes he crosses out the date on the calendar with a big red X. “After a few days you’ll have a chain,” Seinfeld said. “Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

As the Seinfeld lesson shows, showing up every day, in a consistent manner, can produce incredible results. But how can you ensure that you show up every day? We’ve all resolved to stick to a diet or workout plan, but most of us fail after only a few days. How can we approach this differently?

One idea is to schedule out your day hour by hour. This may sound extreme, but top performers use specific schedules to thoroughly plan their day. Without an exact schedule, you simply fill in your day with whatever is convenient. Sure, there might be good days where you engage in deep work. But most days end up like we described in lesson 6. You fill your day with the activities that are the most painless, not the most productive. Deep work can be painful because it’s intense and focused. It takes a certain amount of dedication to commit the energy to focus. It doesn’t appear naturally or easily, which is why we must schedule our deep work sessions.

I should admit that I’m not pure in my application of the journalist philosophy. I don’t, for example, make all my deep work decisions on a moment-to-moment basis. I instead tend to map out when I’ll work deeply during each week at the beginning of the week, and then refine these decisions, as needed, at the beginning of each day (see Rule #4 for more details on my scheduling routines). By reducing the need to make decisions about deep work moment by moment, I can preserve more mental energy for the deep thinking itself.

At the beginning of each week, we map out our Monday through Friday hour by hour. This won’t be perfect. Changes are to be expected as the week won’t unfold exactly like we planned it. But this schedule gives us the best chance to prioritize deep work time instead of trying to fit it in. 

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration—that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where… but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration. In a New York Times column on the topic, David Brooks summarizes this reality more bluntly: “[Great creative minds] think like artists but work like accountants.”

Scheduling doesn’t reduce our creativity or spontaneity. Scheduling deep work and creativity reinforce one another. By blocking off time for deep work, we stop worrying about how we will get everything done. Instead, we build contentment by actively choosing our schedule and not letting life choose our priorities.  

[J.K] Rowling’s decision to check into a luxurious hotel suite near Edinburgh Castle is an example of a curious but effective strategy in the world of deep work: the grand gesture. The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.

Copy Rowling’s habit of using a grand gesture – any environment or ritual that gets you in the right mindset to create deep work. Simplicity is key. A separate, dedicated room just for deep work. A sacred time, off limits to other activities. It can be working in the same coffee shop or library. Any activity or environment that triggers the mental state of deep work is fine. Don’t overthink this.

Principle 6: The 4 Disciplines of Deep Work

Cal referenced the book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, which provided 4 disciplines to enhance deep work. Implement these immediately in your routines.

Discipline #1: Focus on the Wildly Important

As the authors of The 4 Disciplines of Execution explain, “The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish.” They elaborate that execution should be aimed at a small number of “wildly important goals.”

If you try to do everything you will end up doing nothing. It’s hard to cutoff of choices and not do certain things. To become exceptional, you must focus your activities on the elite few.

Warren Buffet’s Advice

Warren Buffet once discussed career objectives with his personal pilot, Mike Flint. Flint wrote down his 25 top goals and Buffet had him circle his top 5. Flint described how he would begin working on his top 5 right away, but would work on the other 20 when he found time.

Buffet quickly admonished Flint, saying, “No, you’ve got it all wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”1

As Buffet makes clear, avoid spreading your attention to wide. You can’t do everything and attempting to do so will ensure failure.

Discipline #2: Act on the Lead Measures

Lead measures, on the other hand, “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.” In the bakery example, a good lead measure might be the number of customers who receive free samples…In other words, lead measures turn your attention to improving the behaviors you directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals…For an individual focused on deep work, it’s easy to identify the relevant lead measure: time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal.

Always measure the most direct actions you are taking towards your goal. If you are writing, it is time spend in deep writing. If it’s sports, it’s time spent in deep practice. These are the lead measures that will produce exceptional results. Focus on consistent progress on your lead measures, and you won’t have any trouble reaching your long-term goals.

Discipline #3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

As each week progressed, I kept track of the hours spent in deep work that week with a simple tally of tick marks in that week’s row. To maximize the motivation generated by this scoreboard, whenever I reached an important milestone in an academic paper (e.g., solving a key proof), I would circle the tally mark corresponding to the hour where I finished the result.* This served two purposes. First, it allowed me to connect, at a visceral level, accumulated deep work hours and tangible results. Second, it helped calibrate my expectations for how many hours of deep work were needed per result. This reality (which was larger than I first assumed) helped spur me to squeeze more such hours into each week.

A scorecard keeps an accurate tally of your deep work hours and tracks your major milestones. You never want to keep this in your head. A written record of your effort and progress is powerful. It forces you to track and analyze how well you are really doing. If you don’t write it down, it doesn’t count.

Discipline #4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

The 4DX [The 4 Disciplines of Execution] authors elaborate that the final step to help maintain a focus on lead measure is to put in place “a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of any team that owns a wildly important goal.” During these meetings, the team members must confront their scorecard, commit to specific actions to help improve the score before the next meeting, and describe what happened with the commitments they made at the last meeting.

Your own personal accountability should be measured weekly by diligently assessing your progress and noting the success and failures. This exercise is meant to inform you of repeated, consistent roadblocks that hinder your progress. It’s not a judgment, it’s a reflection. It’s not meant to be personal, just to keep you unbiased and objective.

Principle 7: The Difference Between “What” vs. “How” (or why so much advice is worthless)

There is, however, a lesser-known piece to this story. As Christensen recalls, Grove asked him during a break in this meeting, “How do I do this?” Christensen responded with a discussion of business strategy, explaining how Grove could set up a new business unit and so on. Grove cut him off with a gruff reply: “You are such a naïve academic. I asked you how to do it, and you told me what I should do. I know what I need to do. I just don’t know how to do it.” As Christensen later explained, this division between what and how is crucial but is overlooked in the professional world. It’s often straightforward to identify a strategy needed to achieve a goal, but what trips up companies is figuring out how to execute the strategy once identified.

My biggest critique of self-help and management books is the focus on the “what” instead of the “how”. We all know we should be better leaders, more effective managers, more inspirational, more forward-looking, and so on. The challenge is how to actually do that in real life. Most advice never advises you on how to actually become a better leader or a master of your skill. They are full of clichés and vague one-liners. They never give you step-by-step instructions on practical steps. They seem to think by knowing what you need to do, you will just figure out how to do it. That’s exactly where progress stops. Most of the time, we know exactly what we need to do. It’s how to do it that’s the problem.

The goal of this article was to convert the “what” (7 principles) into the “how” (practical implementation steps). Here’s a quick summary of the 7 Principles:

Principle 1: Must Identify Shallow vs. Deep Work

Principle 2: Produce Good Work

Principle 3: Utilize Deep Work to Magnify Results

Principle 4: Design Your Environment to Enable Deep Work

Principle 5: Schedule Your Day

Principle 6: The 4 Disciplines of Deep Work

Principle 7: The Difference Between “What” vs. “How” (or why so much advice is worthless)

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8 Principles to Become an Exceptional Performer

We all experience the joys and frustrations of learning a new skill. From athletics, to music, to our professional lives, we strive to master our craft and improve our ability. Weekend golfers try to take strokes off their game, amateur musicians strive to create new music, and doctors work to better care for their patients.

Some have highly specific goals in mind and devote constant effort to improvement. Others may take a relaxed, less intense approach. Both groups encounter similar frustrations along the way. Why do we often plateau and struggle after a period of time? Why do some people improve at a faster rate than others?

Given our busy lives and competing demands, how can we best improve from average to exceptional?

K. Anders Ericsson has spent his professional life figuring out what separates elite performers from the average masses. As a Florida State psychology professor and author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson is the go-to expert behind the principles of exceptional performance. His results and lessons are counterintuitive. What doesn’t matter is innate talent or genetics. What does matter is the deliberate and focused attention we apply to our practice and training.

To preview, we have complete control of our ability to learn any new skill. However, society reinforces the myth that experts are born and not made, making deliberate effort a fruitless endeavor. It’s a mindset instilled when we are young. We rationalize poor performance and deflect personal responsibility. Instead of accepting responsibility, we blame a lack of talent.

Ericsson’s research has proven this wrong. Let’s explore how to apply 8 principles, based on Ericsson’s work, to become an elite performer.

1.       Your Abilities are not Fixed

…both the brain and the body retain a great deal of adaptability throughout adulthood, and this adaptability makes it possible for adults, even older adults, to develop a wide variety of new capabilities with the right training…If you talk to these extraordinary people, you find that they all understand this at one level or another. They may be unfamiliar with the concept of cognitive adaptability, but they seldom buy into the idea that they have reached the peak of their fields because they were the lucky winners of some genetic lottery. They know what is required to develop the extraordinary skills that they possess because they have experienced it firsthand. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

The first idea is the belief that your abilities are not fixed. Once you believe you can influence and change yourself, you see struggles as learning opportunities, not judgments on your self-worth. You must develop the habits and routines to transform struggles into learning lessons to build permanent change.

But we now understand that there’s no such thing as a predefined ability. The brain is adaptable, and training can create skills—such as perfect pitch—that did not exist before. This is a game changer, because learning now becomes a way of creating abilities rather than of bringing people to the point where they can take advantage of their innate ones. In this new world it no longer makes sense to think of people as born with fixed reserves of potential; instead, potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

It’s about creating and developing new skills, not uncovering hidden skills. There is no such thing as hidden talent. We have been taught that we should search for our inherent passion because that must be the one thing we will be good at. We now understand there are very few things genetically “set” from the beginning and almost all new skills can be created and developed. The important question is how to create those skills.

2.       Hard Work is not Enough

But sometimes these books leave the impression that heartfelt desire and hard work alone will lead to improved performance— “Just keep working at it, and you’ll get there”—and this is wrong. The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

“Just Work Hard”. Those three words are misused more often than any other piece of advice. It’s appealing because it makes sense on the surface. Of course nothing meaningful develops with partial effort. Read the histories of great leaders or musicians and you will always find a hard-fought struggle. We are taught this from an early age from our parents or coaches. It’s a good attitude to cultivate.

But there’s a problem. The growth benefits of hard work stop after a certain amount of time. No matter how much hard work we put in, our ability stops improving. It’s a frustrating situation. Why is something that worked in the past all of a sudden not working?

It stops working because we no longer direct that hard work into routines that stretch and expand our skills. We just repeat what we know, without embracing new challenges. Our abilities no longer respond to traditional hard work. We need something else…

Why should the teaching techniques used to turn aspiring musicians into concert pianists have anything to do with the training that a dancer must go through to become a prima ballerina or the study that a chess player must undertake to become a grandmaster?

The answer is that the most effective and most powerful types of practice in any field work by harnessing the adaptability of the human body and brain to create, step by step, the ability to do things that were previously not possible. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

The underlying habits and principles behind world class performance apply equally to athletics, music, or entrepreneurship. While the day-to-day activities are different, the principles of training design and growth are constant across domains.

If you wish to develop a truly effective training method for anything—creating world-class gymnasts, for instance, or even something like teaching doctors to perform laparoscopic surgery—that method will need to take into account what works and what doesn’t in driving changes in the body and brain. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

We miss harnessing the power to optimize how our mind incorporates and masters new skills. We’ve been coasting along, using vague ideas like “working hard” without realizing it’s only half the equation. The other half, based on Ericcson’s research, is too often neglected.

3.       Showing Up is not Enough

We all follow pretty much the same pattern with any skill we learn, from baking a pie to writing a descriptive paragraph. We start off with a general idea of what we want to do, get some instruction from a teacher or a coach or a book or a website, practice until we reach an acceptable level, and then let it become automatic. And there’s nothing wrong with that. For much of what we do in life, it’s perfectly fine to reach a middling level of performance and just leave it like that. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

So far, so good. With the help of a coach and some instruction, we practice and make progress. As Ericsson stated, that works for most activities in life. We don’t have to be superb at everything. But what about the skills we do want to be superb at? Why do we struggle to progress beyond good enough?

But there is one very important thing to understand here: once you have reached this satisfactory skill level and automated your performance—your driving, your tennis playing, your baking of pies—you have stopped improving. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Most of us reach an acceptable level without knowing it. We keep practicing and assume we are improving, yet our real-world performance never improves.

How do we overcome this? Testing and feedback. We need to continually test our skills to provide objective feedback on our current ability. Without testing, we are left to guess at our skill level. And guesses don’t work for elite performers.

Testing provides feedback, giving us the direction and data to redirect our routines and practice. Our practice habits must evolve and adapt. If we keep the same static practice routines, we never develop new ways to improve our weaknesses.

People often misunderstand this because they assume that the continued driving or tennis playing or pie baking is a form of practice and that if they keep doing it they are bound to get better at it, slowly perhaps, but better nonetheless. They assume that someone who has been driving for twenty years must be a better driver than someone who has been driving for five, that a doctor who has been practicing medicine for twenty years must be a better doctor than one who has been practicing for five, that a teacher who has been teaching for twenty years must be better than one who has been teaching for five.

But no. Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

The dirty secret of “experience” is that people with 20 or 30 years of experience are often no better than those with 10 or 15 years of experience. We may want to believe that more is better, but have we ever tested or validated that assumption? Probably not. Most likely, we have assumed we must be better because we need to justify the years of effort and time invested. It’s agonizing to think about spending 20 years doing something and not improving. But we have to face reality, not what’s comfortable, if we want to grow.

This brings back the importance of testing and feedback. We must have objective guidance on our ability. If we assume or guess, we are fooling ourselves into believing we are something that we are not. And that is the downfall of anyone striving to become exceptional at their skill.

4.       Engage in Purposeful Practice

Purposeful practice has several characteristics that set it apart from what we might call “naive practice,” which is essentially just doing something repeatedly, and expecting that the repetition alone will improve one’s performance.

Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. Our hypothetical music student would have been much more successful with a practice goal something like this: “Play the piece all the way through at the proper speed without a mistake three times in a row.” Without such a goal, there was no way to judge whether the practice session had been a success. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

By using goals, you transform random action into deliberate processes. Goal-based practice can be tracked and measured, providing valuable feedback. By focusing on specific goal-driven processes, we build practical skills.

Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.

Purposeful practice is focused.

Purposeful practice involves feedback. You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong.

Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone.

- Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

These four ideas move your actions beyond showing up and instead direct your effort into long-term progress. Small steps, focus, feedback, and uncomfortability are necessary for growth.

5.       Get Comfortable with being Uncomfortable

This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve…Generally the solution is not “try harder” but rather “try differently.” It is a technique issue, in other words.

The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach. Someone who is already familiar with the sorts of obstacles you’re likely to encounter can suggest ways to overcome them. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Purposeful practice focuses on things we can’t do well. If we keep repeating the things we are good at, we never overcome the obstacles that hold us back. Confronting our weaknesses is painful. It requires honesty and humility about our shortcomings. Practicing our weak points isn’t fun. It’s much easier to practice the things we are good at, since it’s inherently enjoyable to succeed. But we don’t progress when repeating the things we are good at.

If you can’t find a coach to provide feedback, you must create your own feedback to leverage. If it’s a physical skill, a video recording provides an impartial, outside look at your performance. If it’s academic/knowledge based, testing delivers valuable feedback. You may be tempted to skip these ideas and just “trust” your instincts. Unfortunately, you will be stuck wondering why you don’t see the progression you expect.

6.       Separate Knowledge from Skills

When you look at how people are trained in the professional and business worlds, you find a tendency to focus on knowledge at the expense of skills. The main reasons are tradition and convenience: it is much easier to present knowledge to a large group of people than it is to set up conditions under which individuals can develop skills through practice. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Always separate knowledge from skill. It’s easy to add knowledge and confuse that with skill improvement. When we think of learning, we assume knowledge accumulation is good. But knowledge accumulation that doesn’t transfer to applied skills doesn’t help us. We may feel confident in the moment but we are mistaking that confidence for progress. Think about this. Of all the books you have read in your lifetime, how many have delivered actionable improvement? Have you converted that knowledge into long-term, applied skill?

From the perspective of deliberate practice, the problem is obvious: attending lectures, minicourses, and the like offers little or no feedback and little or no chance to try something new, make mistakes, correct the mistakes, and gradually develop a new skill. It’s as if amateur tennis players tried to improve by reading articles in tennis magazines and watching the occasional YouTube video; they may believe they’re learning something, but it’s not going to help their tennis game much. Furthermore, in the online interactive approaches to continuing medical education, it is very difficult to mimic the sorts of complex situations that doctors and nurses encounter in their everyday clinical practice.

It is not just the medical profession that has traditionally emphasized knowledge over skills in its education. The situation is similar in many other professional schools, such as law schools and business schools. In general, professional schools focus on knowledge rather than skills because it is much easier to teach knowledge and then create tests for it. The general argument has been that the skills can be mastered relatively easily if the knowledge is there. One result is that when college students enter the work world, they often find that they need a lot of time to develop the skills they need to do their job. Another result is that many professions do no better a job than medicine—and in most cases, a worse job—of helping practitioners sharpen their skills. Again, the assumption is that simply accumulating more experience will lead to better performance. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

As an investing professional, I’ve struggled to convert information into skill improvement. I’ve found it’s easy and seductive to absorb information, but much more challenging to find evidence my investing skill has actually increased. That’s the challenge for all knowledge workers. How do you ensure your skills are improving?

7.       Create Daily Routines

The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do—that takes you out of your comfort zone—and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better. Real life—our jobs, our schooling, our hobbies—seldom gives us the opportunity for this sort of focused repetition, so in order to improve, we must manufacture our own opportunities. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Deliberate and focused effort doesn’t happen by itself. We all have busy lives with little free time. Without consciously directing our behavior towards building expertise, we will never create consistent time for improvement. The first step must be a conscious decision to allocate time to this process. You will have to give something up. No one said this will come without at cost.

A similar thing is true for those who maintain purposeful or deliberate practice over the long run. They have generally developed various habits that help them keep going. As a rule of thumb, I think that anyone who hopes to improve skill in a particular area should devote an hour or more each day to practice that can be done with full concentration. Maintaining the motivation that enables such a regimen has two parts: reasons to keep going and reasons to stop. When you quit something that you had initially wanted to do, it’s because the reasons to stop eventually came to outweigh the reasons to continue. Thus, to maintain your motivation you can either strengthen the reasons to keep going or weaken the reasons to quit. Successful motivation efforts generally include both. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Habits, routines, and schedules provide a necessary structure to enable commitment and persistency of the task at hand. Relying on willpower, luck, or fate won’t last. By creating a consistent habit to practice one hour a day, at a regular time, we stop trying to fit it in our schedule but rather fit our schedule around the practice. Once our routine is locked in our schedule, there is no ambiguity or uncertainty of when it will be done.

One of the best bits of advice is to set things up so that you are constantly seeing concrete signs of improvement, even if it is not always major improvement. Break your long journey into a manageable series of goals and focus on them one at a time—perhaps even giving yourself a small reward each time you reach a goal.            -Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Instead of trying to tackle a hundred things at once, practice the building blocks one at a time. Focus each practice day on one unique aspect of your skill. Do this over the course of a year and you have a solid foundation of practical skills. Avoid the urge to do too much at one time. We all want to overachieve, but trying to do too much causes burnout and unfocused effort. Trust the process and commit to improving one thing at a time.

8.       Take Charge of Your Success

We need to start now. For adults who are already in the work world, we need to develop better training techniques—based on the principles of deliberate practice and aimed at creating more effective mental representations—that not only will help them improve the skills they use in their current jobs but that will enable them to develop new skills for new jobs. And we need to get the message out: you can take charge of your own potential. But it is the coming generations who have the most to gain.

The most important gifts we can give our children are the confidence in their ability to remake themselves again and again and the tools with which to do that job. They will need to see firsthand—through their own experiences of developing abilities they thought were beyond them—that they control their abilities and are not held hostage by some antiquated idea of natural talent. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Success results from conscious and deliberate effort to improve our skills. No one will do this for you. As the world becomes more competitive and meritocratic, it’s your responsibility to grow your skills and demonstrate expertise. The idea of genetics or innate talent limiting your potential isn’t the real constraint. We have 10x the potential if we learn and grow using the principles of exceptional performers.

Peak Takeaways:

1.       Your Abilities are not Fixed

2.       Hard Work is not Enough

3.       Showing Up is not Enough

4.       Engage in Purposeful Practice

5.       Get Comfortable with being Uncomfortable

6.       Separate Knowledge from Skills

7.       Create Daily Routines

8.       Take Charge of Your Success


4 Secrets to Improve Your Workday: How to Build Career Success

#1 Routine, Not Willpower, is the Key to a Successful Workday

It was as if the first few times a rat explored the maze, its brain had to work at full power to make sense of all the new information. But after a few days of running the same route, the rat didn’t need to scratch the walls or smell the air anymore, and so the brain activity associated with scratching and smelling ceased. It didn’t need to choose which direction to turn, and so decision-making centers of the brain went quiet. All it had to do was recall the quickest path to the chocolate. Within a week, even the brain structures related to memory had quieted. The rat had internalized how to sprint through the maze to such a degree that it hardly needed to think at all. The key to a successful workday is to replace manual effort with habits and routines. Habits allow us to process more work without using extra energy that drains us by mid-afternoon. The attitude of hard work is great, but hard work has a downside because it depletes our energy levels when focused on low-value activities. We can’t produce quality work. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

In his book, Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains how to channel habits into powerful assets to improve our lives.

How can we use these lessons to improve our workday?

The key to a productive workday is to substitute much of our “conscious” hard work into subconscious or automated habits that are less taxing on our energy systems.

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

What type of work should become an automatic routine? Any repetitive and predictable activity. Emails. Office organization. Regular reports. Mundane transactions. Anything that has low variability is a good candidate for a habit.

What should not become habit? Any task that has high unpredictability or complexity. Because of the inherent variation in these tasks, automation will often lead to incomplete action and the wrong outcome. For example, hiring is a complex process that takes significant deliberate thought. It should not be automatic given the consequences of a bad hire and the variation of prospective employees.

Conserving mental effort is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, such as a predator hiding in the bushes or a speeding car as we pull onto the street. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

As mentioned above, we can’t power down our brains in high impact situations. It’s up to us to separate our day into routine habits and deliberate action, and not mix the two.

#2 Take a Step Back Before Judging Other’s Behavior

How do you react when a colleague makes a mistake that seems indefensible? Do you assume the person is just plain stupid? Do you assume they don’t care? Do you blame their work ethic or attention to detail?

Executives determined that, in some ways, they had been thinking about willpower all wrong. Employees with willpower lapses, it turned out, had no difficulty doing their jobs most of the time. On the average day, a willpower-challenged worker was no different from anyone else. But sometimes, particularly when faced with unexpected stresses or uncertainties, those employees would snap and their self-control would evaporate. A customer might begin yelling, for instance, and a normally calm employee would lose her composure. An impatient crowd might overwhelm a barista, and suddenly he was on the edge of tears. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

There is constant tension between the effects of our environment and our ability to influence and control those effects. When we see other’s behavior, we often attribute 100% of that behavior to the person and completely neglect the role of environment. Seldom do we let the person off the hook and blame the environment. It *seems* to make intuitive sense that we are in 100% in control of our actions. Numerous studies have rebuked that belief, but it still persists in managerial behavior.

When we make a mistake, we are likely to blame outside factors instead of looking inward at ourselves. And when something goes right, we often take all the credit and assume the environment had nothing to do with it. We accept all praise and deflect all blame. It’s hard to overcome.

But when dealing with colleagues, hold your initial impression since you likely underestimate the power of the situation.

#3 Use a Crisis to Shake Things Up

After Barack Obama’s election, Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

You may not agree with his politics, but he had a powerful point.

All those leaders seized the possibilities created by a crisis. During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

Although a crisis is not a pleasant thing, many organizations waste the opportunity to improve their habits by learning from the crisis. The initial reaction is often hysteria and an ultra-short-term focus on the immediacy of the crisis, rather than improving long-term behavior.

Employees often follow the cues of their leaders. If leaders can’t separate the crisis from the learning, why should they expect employees to do the same? It takes a certain stoic mindset to compartmentalize the urgent crisis from the long-term lessons.

One a crisis has occurred, it’s a sunk cost and no amount of ruminating and stressing will undue the past. The best we can do is learn to modify our routines to ensure the same crisis doesn’t happen again.

#4 Corporate and Employee Behavior is Shaped by Social Convention

Your behavior mimics those around you.

Have you considered your behavior is significantly influenced by those around you? Do you believe you are 100% in control of your actions and habits?

…firms are guided by long-held organizational habits, patterns that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions. And these habits have more profound impacts than anyone previously understood. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

It’s likely you have less control than you think. Unless you deliberately engage and understand your habits, you are bound to repeat the same patterns and actions. Your day to day activities are a consequence of the cues and expectations of those around you.

Many behaviors are not a result of deliberate thought but rather an evolving collection of haphazard and unexamined beliefs.

For example, companies often want employees to engage in deep thinking on breakthrough or revolutionary projects. However, they also expect constant and immediate email responses. Studies have shown that by interrupting deliberate effort, it takes 20-40 minutes to re-engage in deep learning.

While the company is hoping for one thing (deep thinking) they are getting something else (distracted workers handicapped by email). The actions of the company must match the words spoken by management. When there is conflict, the actions always win. 

If you want to change behavior, don’t expect more information to alter deep-seated organization behavior. It’s not an information problem. It’s a habit and expectations problem.

A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership. Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

Your focus should first start with company-wide behavior, then re-train organization behavior with systematic training, and finally reinforce with social proof.

A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership. Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass. There are other recipes for successful social change and hundreds of details that differ between eras and struggles. -The Power of Habit, Duhigg

To Summarize:

#1 Routine, not willpower, is the key to a successful workday – Quit trying to force your way through bad habits. Re-train and eliminate them instead.

#2 Take a step back before judging other’s behavior – Before rushing to judgment, step back and reflect on situational factors that have shaped people’s behavior.

#3 Use a crisis to shake things up – Rise above the day-to-day challenges of a crisis and learn to modify behaviors instead of ruminating on past mistakes.

#4 Corporate and employee behavior is shaped by social convention – Employee behavior is often shaped by social factors, not rules and logic. If you want to change behavior, alter social expectations.


Why Possession of Knowledge Does Not Equal Expertise How it Blocks Our Personal Growth

 “Mere possession of knowledge is not enough for expertise. It is also critical for knowledge to be organized so that it can be activated and used in different contexts. Others emphasize flexible application of knowledge in new situations…Research on human performance shows that calling to mind knowledge is a significant cognitive process.”

– From Perspectives on Human Error: Hindsight Biases and Local Rationality, Woods and Cook

A collection of facts is not enough.

As Charlie Munger stated, “You can’t just memorize and bang out facts – they need to be in a latticework of mental models.”

This is the opposite approach of how you studied in undergrad or high school. You probably crammed your way through school. Unfortunately, cramming doesn’t work long-term.

What’s the alternative to cramming random facts in your head? Building a latticework structure in your mind to organize information in a logical and coherent system.

When you encounter certain problems, you must correctly interpret the situation and trigger the right information from your memory. This process will select the right model or framework to solve the problem. It’s like a flowchart. You follow the path based on your observation and interpretation of the problem. Because your training has created applicable models of real-world concepts, you simply follow the logical path to the correct solution.

It is not, and cannot be, a random collection of facts. The reason why is due to framing.

Framing is an important concept. Experts understand how the same problem will occur in different frames. Frames are simply different ways of presenting the same problem by changing the environment or situational context. As they progress through training, experts are aware that overconfidence can set in because they predict where standard questions are heading. However, the future will throw curveballs and almost imperceptible changes if experts don’t understand the problem’s frame. Misunderstanding the frame leads them to recall the wrong set of facts.

When we confuse knowledge with expertise, we lack the ability to recall knowledge and apply it to novel and unique situations. These situations have the same underlying problem yet occur in a different environment. If we are overly focused on memorizing specific facts without understanding the principles, we only build knowledge that is useful in one frame or dimension. We need to turn information gathering into applied wisdom.

Wisdom is Applied Knowledge

You are not a hard drive – seek wisdom instead of facts.

It’s important to emphasize two things.

First, we have the tendency to overvalue low-value, quantifiable facts over systems or principal-based learning. We want to crank out facts immediately rather than learn adaptable long-term principles.

You achieve this by focusing on the quality of your preparation, not the quantity. Don’t become obsessed with adding quick facts. Focus on the how the facts align into principles. Quantity will come naturally, but it will not be valuable if the knowledge foundation is a collection of random ideas. Once quality is firmly established, add quantity. Then, each additional knowledge block is reinforcing the connections in your brain, because you took the time to create a system to organize and apply new ideas.

Second, your brain is not a hard drive. You don’t get smarter by packing in more random facts about the world. This really only works for your short-term memory. In fact, most of us, including myself, packed our short-term memory during college as we studied for exams. We did this because we could and we didn’t know any better. We could get away with it. We got the grade we wanted, but left most of the long-term wisdom behind us.

This won’t work if you are striving to build exceptional skills and it’s a crappy way to go through life. There is a much better way to create long-term wisdom– and this idea gives you the framework to supercharge your time and effort, by consciously focusing and meticulously reorienting towards principal-based learning, not data gathering.

Wisdom is not the same thing as information. Wisdom is information + experience + context, and only a human can do that. Wisdom is information you can actually use. Here’s a better example of the difference between information and wisdom, an example Richard Feynman liked to use: The “name” of a thing is not the thing. Feynman’s dad taught him the name of a bird they saw (brown-throated thrush) in every language he knew. That’s just information. The wisdom came when he pointed out that you could know every name of that bird in every language but still know nothing about the bird itself. -Tucker Max