How to Create the Perfect Conditions for Deep Focus
“The ability to stay focused will be the superpower of the 21st century.”
It sounded so simple. If I could block off four hours a day to do nothing but write, nearly all of my problems would be solved.
If I could just sit in a chair and type for roughly 15 percent of my day, I’d get ahead of schedule on every writing project. I’d avoid the panic of a race to meet a deadline and the dread of those all-night, caffeine-fueled rewrites. Maybe I’d finally have time to work on a book. And I’d certainly have more money and more freedom with the rest of my time. Then, I told myself, with so many sources of work stress gone, I might be able to focus on being a better husband, a better friend, a better, happier person in general. I decided that if I could manage a few regular hours of deep concentration and focus on this one thing, everything in life would improve.
But it wasn’t nearly that easy. Our world is full of distractions. If you check back often enough, there will always be another message somewhere waiting to be read and responded to. There will always be one more phone call you could make, one more meeting you could schedule. If you work from home, like I do, there’s always another chore you could do, always something else you could clean.
And obviously, there’s the ultimate distraction of our time: social media. Sometimes I’ll catch my thumbs scrolling through Facebook or Twitter before my brain even realizes what’s happening. Sometimes I’ll close an app, then immediately re-open it without thinking. Hours somehow vanish. There’s always one more meme, one more video, one more Wikipedia rabbit hole.
On top of that, the process of writing a magazine story—trying to make sense of the world in a way that might mean something to total strangers—can be lonely, exhausting, sometimes even physically painful. Linking disparate thoughts, saying something new in a way that doesn’t waste a reader’s time, requires an intense, prolonged focus. Filling an empty page with compelling, coherent sentences means shutting out the rest of the world, at least temporarily. It means conjuring the willpower to quell the voice in your head that tells you nobody cares what you have to say. But in those incredible moments when writing is going well, when time seems to melt away as words and sentences and paragraphs stack up, the feeling afterward is better than any drink or drug I’ve ever experienced. It’s the exhilaration and satisfaction of creation.
That’s what I needed more of. Which is why I was immediately captivated when I heard about the concept of “Deep Work.”
* * *
In his 40s, as his international fame grew, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung built a small castle on the northern banks of Lake Zurich. He called it the Tower, and in the second half of his life he spent several months a year there, away from the ceaseless demands of his counseling practice and lecturing schedule in Zurich. On most days at the Tower, he’d wake up at 7 a.m., have a large breakfast, and spend two uninterrupted hours writing in his office. Jung went on to develop the school of thought known as analytical psychology.
A lot of influential figures in history, it turns out, have had a similar commitment to isolated concentration. Mark Twain wrote most of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed on a farm in New York, not far from the Pennsylvania state line. His writing space was so far from the main house on the property that his family reportedly blew a horn to let him know when to come in for meals. When she needed a quiet place to finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the Harry Potter series—a culmination of 17 years of writing—author J.K. Rowling checked into a suite at the Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland. (To celebrate the completion of the book, Rowling graffiti-ed a marble bust in the room with the date and her signature.) Some of Bill Gates’ biggest breakthroughs have apparently come in the few weeks a year he spends at a lakeside cottage, disconnected from modern technology.
The common theme is a dedication to making the time and space to think deeply, away from the distractions of everyday life. It’s what author and computer science professor Cal Newport has dubbed “deep work.” Newport defines the concept as: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit. The efforts create new value, improve your skills, and are hard to replicate.”
Much of his book Deep Work, published in 2016, examines the balance between the short-term rewards and the long-term goals most of us struggle with. I might feel accomplished after working my way through all the emails in my inbox, for example, but that doesn’t usually get me any closer to finishing a story—which is still the most important part of my job as a professional writer.
This can create quite a paradox. I might sit in front of the computer for hours and still feel like I haven’t crossed off any of the most important items on my to-do list. Because, if you don’t respond to someone’s email in a timely fashion, you might irritate and stress that other person. But if you only respond to the immediate issues in front of you on any given day, you’ll never work toward long-term goals. Nobody else will care if you never write the book you’ve always dreamed of, but they’ll almost certainly notice if you miss a meeting or don’t answer an important question in a timely manner. All of this creates a widespread social bias toward the trivial.
For so many people, Newport writes, busyness has become a proxy for productivity. But “knowledge work,” as Newport describes it, is hard to quantify. “I spent 18 hours this week quietly thinking about different ways to tell this story” doesn’t sound productive at all. Newport stresses, though, that deep work is a skill you can practice, something you can train yourself to do better over time, not unlike meditation or mindfulness in general. The premise of Newport’s book is the idea that the more you schedule your creative time in a structured way, the more unstructured creative work you can get done. Newport, who wrote Deep Work in his early 30s, proudly avoids all social media.
Numerous studies have shown that when subjects are given complex puzzles to solve, and are then interrupted, their performance and capacity for complicated problem solving drops not just at the moment they’re distracted, but for some time afterward, too. This, Newport says, is exactly what we are doing to ourselves with our phones. Plus, the less time we spend thinking deeply, the harder it becomes.
Newport makes a point of saying that this approach isn’t appropriate for everyone. The CEO of a large company, for example, should probably focus more on the immediate issues and decisions that need to be made. Someone who works in government relations, similarly, likely needs to spend more time building interpersonal relationships. The rest of us, though, need to dedicate time to acting on creative impulses.
“Inspiration is for amateurs,” the successful painter Chuck Close has said. “The rest of us show up and get to work.”
* * *
First, I needed a space where I could concentrate, somewhere I could be creative.
For months, I’d been working at the dining room table. It was supposed to be temporary at first, but a few days became weeks, then months, then my wife Tara and I were somehow living with an unplanned, makeshift workspace where our dining room used to be. The wooden blinds on the windows made for a nice, neutral background on Zoom calls, but the situation wasn’t sustainable. Looking at my messy stacks of notes was stressful for Tara. And having someone periodically walk through my field of vision—or worse, having someone watch me stare despondently at a taunting, blinking cursor—was stressful for me.
So I set about creating a new office for myself. I thought of it as a place to do my deep work. Phone calls, meetings, research, even brainstorming ideas—I could do those things almost anywhere. But I wanted a designated area dedicated solely to writing.
For years we kept a guest room for visitors, but over time that room became a repository for random junk, a purgatory for all manner of life’s detritus. An old loveseat, a box of books we’d planned to donate, accessories to old Halloween costumes. With my wife’s help, I cleared the room entirely, moving, giving away, or trashing literally everything in there. For a few hundred dollars, we bought a small desk, two minimalist black bookcases, a textured area rug that really ties the room together, and two gallons of gray paint. In a few days, the space transformed from somewhere I almost never went into one of my favorite rooms in our house.
With my new deep work space coming together, I took the next step: I got off social media. I didn’t delete my account entirely, but I did block Facebook from my phone and promised myself I’d limit my time scrolling through Twitter to 15 minutes at the end of the day.
Then I took Newport’s advice and scheduled four hours of deep work each day. This was time, I told myself, that I’d turn off my phone, avoid checking email, focus solely on sitting at the keyboard and typing.
Forcing myself to sit down in the computer chair wasn’t always easy. Writing magazine stories isn’t just how I make my living, it’s what I dreamed of doing for most of my life, but there were times when I felt like I’d rather do almost anything else. Deep work is not the path of least resistance.
I also learned that I’d underestimated the amount of time it took to finish a project. I knew that at my best—if I’m really in a groove and cruising—I can write around 500 words an hour. But that isn’t my average writing speed. There are all sorts of false starts and slow transitions, even when there aren’t any interruptions. And that doesn’t account for the time it takes to research, edit, rewrite, fact check, or read a story aloud.
Still, even with the miscalculations in scheduling, in my first two weeks with deep work on the calendar, I finished three separate stories. This new approach to work didn’t solve all my problems the way I’d naively hoped, but it helped me clear several projects off my plate. Best of all, within the first couple days of blocking Facebook, in the time that I would have been mindlessly scrolling, I came up with a book idea I’m really excited about.
* * *
On the third week of my deep work experiment, I had to close a long, complicated story for a national magazine. That usually means working closely with a team of editors, fact checkers, designers, and, in this case, the magazine’s legal team, to scrutinize and polish the story repeatedly until it’s ready to send to the printer. It’s tedious, time-consuming, draining. And after hours-long phone conversations, it was harder to sit at the computer and focus.
Even worse, I unblocked Facebook so I could share a story that had just published. I wanted my friends and family to see it, and the likes and shares and comments felt good, but even when those things trickled to a stop, I didn’t sign back out. I found myself scrolling mindlessly again—and the amount of deep work I was able to get done dropped significantly. I’d somehow been sucked back into the shallows.
See, the way Newport describes it, deep work isn’t just an approach to professional success. “Deep living is good living,” he’s said. “A deep life is a good life.” In a 2015 TED talk, the computer science professor noted that parts of his life aren’t that different than that of a farmer in the 1930s. He reads a physical newspaper every morning as the sun rises. After his kids go to bed at night, he sits in a leather chair and reads hardcover books. Deep work, it seems, leads to a deeper appreciation of slow, deliberate living—which often lends itself to increased happiness and contentment.
Part of our resistance to deep work, I realized, is self-importance. We do live in a collaborative world, we do depend on one another. There are solid evolutionary reasons it feels so good to respond to or help a co-worker. But it’s also hard to think that a lot of things in life would function just fine day-to-day without you. It’s hard to be diligent of our cognitive fitness when there are so many delightful, tempting distractions in every direction.
Once my deep work schedule was interrupted, it was harder to get back into a regular routine. By the end of the month I’d slipped back into my old distracted, least-resistance habits. But I understood that I needed to reset my mentality. I needed to forgive the less productive days and focus on protecting my writing time even more diligently. I needed to, as Newport says, “trust the process.”
(Incidentally, Newport seems to be trusting his own process. His new book, out next year, is called A World Without Email.)
I could be wrong about all of this. Maybe trying to schedule time for spontaneous creativity is misguided. Maybe Jung and Twain excelled for reasons that have nothing to do with their discipline of concentration. Maybe the deep work that went into writing this story has all been a waste.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Send me an email or a message on Twitter. Just don’t be upset if it takes me a while to respond.
Rule No. 1
The idea is to not only prize this type of work and this way of spending your time; the goal is to create routines and rituals to help design a work life that minimizes the less important drains on your time and energy, and that maximizes the time you spend working toward your most important objectives. The book discusses several different philosophies of deep work scheduling, including a monastic approach, a bimodal approach, and a rhythmic approach.
Rule No. 2
You must wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. This means not merely taking breaks from all of the elements of life you know interrupt your deep work, but also embracing breaks from that deep thought, too. This incorporates some ideas of meditation, but the basic concept is that the more you allow your mind to wander, the better chance you’ll stumble upon great ideas.
Rule No. 3
Quit social media.
Hope is not a strategy. In this stage of dealing with our troubles, we search for a white knight to save us. It is, again, a low level of responsibility that should be overcome as quickly as possible.
Rule No. 4
Drain the shallows.
The concept behind working deeply does not mean working harder—it actually means trimming the amount of shallow work from your schedule. We can’t entirely eliminate the need for meetings and emails, but we can often group that type of work and figure out ways to minimize it. Shallow work can actually be satisfying and rewarding in the moment, but it’s not conducive to creativity and rarely helps achieve important long-term goals. It helps to rank the importance of your tasks.
- Designate your chosen space. Make sure it’s a place you won’t be interrupted.
- Empty the space entirely and clean it. Maybe even give the walls a fresh coat of paint.
- Fill your newly empty space with only objects conducive to your creative process.
- Consider acquiring new furniture. Possibly a desk, a comfortable chair, a bookcase you can fill with inspiration.
- Don’t be afraid to invest in professional help to clean, paint, or assemble furniture.
- While scheduling your workday, try to account for every minute.
- Keep a tally of how much deep work you’re doing. Know when you’re not doing enough.
- Determine in advance when and where you will do your deep work. Try to keep it consistent.
- Don’t let your mood dictate how your day unfolds.
- Be comfortable annoying people. Set the expectation that you may not be available during certain times or quick to respond to emails, calls, or messages.
- Talk to a supervisor about your deep work ratio.
- Treat yourself to a healthy reward. After you’ve completed your scheduled deep work, do something you’ve been looking forward to.
- Employ a “shut down mantra.” Since he was an undergraduate, at the end of every workday, author Cal Newport says aloud the phrase, “Schedule shutdown complete.”
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This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by alexandria.mcarthur/Twenty20.com
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Michael J. Mooney is a journalist who writes for D Magazine, GQ, ESPN: The Magazine, Outside, SUCCESS and Popular Mechanics. He is co-director of the annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. His stories have appeared in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Crime Reporting. He lives in Dallas with his fiancée, Tara, and their retired racing greyhound.
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