On Deep Work and Space to Breathe

Many of you don’t know this, but I’ve burnt myself out a few times. I hustle really hard for a long amount of time, then I hit a point where I cannot go any further. I’ve recently come across some awesome quotes that I want to share to encourage you to take time and space as you need it, and your work will be better for it. Personally, I plan to do this more in San Francisco by riding my bike, going skiing in Tahoe and climbing in Yosemite, and being outside as much as possible and off the Internet on weekends.

First, on being focused and then having downtime:

Deep work is phasic.

Put another way, to ape Rushkoff, we’re not computer processors. We can’t be expected to accomplish any job any time we have the available cycles. There are rhythms to our psychology. Certain times of the day, week, month, and even year (e.g., the professor I discussed in my last post) are better suited for deep work than other times.

To respect this reality, you must leave sufficient time in your schedule to handle the intense bursts of such work when they occur. This requires that you constrain the other obligations in your life — perhaps by being reluctant to agree to things or start projects, or by ruthlessly batching and streamlining your regular obligations.

When it’s time to work deeply, this approach leaves you the schedule space necessary to immerse.

When you’ve shifted temporarily out of deep work mode, however, this approach leaves you with down time.

This is why people who do remarkable things can seem remarkably under-committed — it’s a side-effect of the scheduling philosophy necessary to accommodate depth.


Next, on refueling after a period of downtime:

Unfortunately, passion and grit do not turn you into a machine and after a year or two, your adrenaline reserves will empty. You are still a human and your brain and body have limits. If you burn out physically and mentally, your willpower is broken and you’re likely to give up. Therefore, the best way to make sure your startup doesn’t die is to avoid burnout in the first place.

Recently I’ve decided my new side project will be working on myself. This list of habits help me acheive more focus, energy, and happiness. My habits are in constant flux and I’ll be updating them as I learn what works and what doesn’t to stay in balance.


And finally, on relationships:

Relationships are everything. Getting what we want, having things our way, having control, being right … these things matter nothing compared to relationships. Imagine being in your death bed at the age of 80 … will your sense of being right and in control comfort you when you have no good relationships, no one who has loved you? Put relationships first.


This is a different sort of post for me. It’s raw and not actionable. It’s publishing while I’m offline in Colorado before jumping into my new job at Hotpads, starting in Seattle then on to San Francisco.

Leave your thoughts and/or other inspiration. I’ll respond to comments as I have time.

2 thoughts on “On Deep Work and Space to Breathe

  1. Hi John
    Great advice and reminders to all. Thankyou. Among doing these things and making them a habit I found a podcast really helps me to stick to it. During that down time I can replay episodes that help me stay focused. One element I am working on is relationships and the information in your source is a great starter.

  2. “My side project will be working on myself.”

    I love that. I like the idea that we can be working productively while not putting it directly on work. Building friendships, relationships and our health are all worthy “side projects” – even if they don’t help our bottom line directly. Sitting at home watching Breaking Bad 24/7 might not be – although I’d argue a few hours of respite probably would qualify.

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