You may have heard about ‘deep working’ – the practice of mastering distraction and finding time to do the thinking, planning and hard lifting that you need to do for your job or personal goals. The concept was popularised by Cal Newport on his blog Study Hacks and is the subject of his latest book, Deep Work. Here, Newport shares how you can start your own deep work habit.
An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits. Charles Darwin, for example, had a strict structure for his working life during the period when he was perfecting On the Origin of Species:
7.00 Rise promptly to take a short walk.
8.00 Eat breakfast alone and retire to the study to work.
9.30 Take an hour to read letters from the day before.
10.30 Return to the study to work until noon.
12.00 Mull over challenging ideas while walking on a proscribed route that starts at the greenhouse and circles a path on the grounds. Walk until satisfied with your thinking, then declare your workday done.
Great minds like Darwin didn’t deploy rituals to be weird; they did so because success in their work depended on their ability to go deep, again and again—there’s no way to win a Pulitzer Prize or conceive a grand theory without pushing your brain to its limit.
Even if your goals aren’t quite that calibre, you can still make the most out of your time and energy by building rituals that will allow you to work deeply. There’s no one correct deep work ritual—the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued.
But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address:
1. Where you’ll work and for how long
Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door shut and desk cleaned off. If it’s possible to identify a location used only for depth—for instance, a conference room or quiet library—the positive effect can be even greater. (If you work in an open office plan, this need to find a deep work retreat becomes particularly important.)
Regardless of where you work, be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.
2. How you’ll work once you start to work
Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any Internet use, or maintain a metric such as words produced per twenty-minute interval to keep your concentration honed. Without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.
3. How you’ll support your work
Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear. This support might also include environmental factors, such as organizing the raw materials of your work to minimize energy-dissipating friction.
These questions will help you get started in crafting your deep work ritual. But keep in mind that finding a ritual that sticks might require experimentation, so be willing to work at it. I assure you that the effort’s worth it: Once you’ve evolved something that feels right, the impact can be significant.
Adapted from Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.