Seek Out Time for Deep Work

If you’ve never read it, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work should be on your reading list. It proposes a radical philosophy of work: you need time to concentrate deeply on tasks in order to do work that matters.

Recently on his blog Cal mentioned that Outlook, the email and calendaring app, has added a focus plan option where you can “establish a daily focus time routine.” If you use Outlook as part of an Office365 subscription, Microsoft’s AI service will try and schedule focus time for you based on your availability.

You don’t need an AI assistant to do this for you. If your working hours revolve around a calendar, simply schedule time for deep work. At SpiderOak, we have an open culture of booking meetings based on calendar availability. If someone has a block of time marked as Unavailable, then meetings won’t be scheduled during that time. Creating a block of focus time is as simple as scheduling it on your calendar.

I’ve also seen examples of people scheduling their meetings for just the afternoon so that they can have the morning for deep work (or vice versa). This won’t work for everyone, but through basic daily planning and a bit of support from your coworkers you can carve out a time each day that’s dedicated to deeper, more foundational work.

Investing in work like this pays huge long-term dividends. It may be months or years before you see the gains, but they will come. Make time for it!

Things Move a Little Slower Here

When I was 20 I moved from Kansas City to Taipei, Taiwan to start two years of missionary service. That was the first time I had ever lived in a big city. Getting used to the furious pace of life and the sheer number of people was hard.

Three months later I moved from Taipei to Taidong. Taidong may be the biggest city in its part of the island, but it felt very small compared to Taipei.

The first week there I had several conversations that went like this:

Me: We would like to come visit you and share a message.
Other Person: That sounds fine. Tomorrow works for me.
Me: Tomorrow? Great! What time tomorrow?
Other Person: Afternoon.
Me: What time in the afternoon?
Other Person: In the afternoon. Whenever you come. Things move a little slower here.

It took a while to slow down and relax. Eventually I grew to love the slower pace of life and the way people there thought about time.

While we are living under stay-at-home orders and practicing physical distancing, you may feel some of those same uncomfortable feelings I felt in Taidong. Our schedules are suddenly clear, our appointment books empty, and our extra curricular schedule blank. Suddenly “things move a little slower here” too!

This is a grand chance. We have time for reflection, pondering, and deep thinking, but only if we resist the urge to fill our days with “stuff.” Many people are calling for this to be a time to Get Things Done. I think this is a time to relearn how to be bored.

The magic of creativity and the ability to do deep work comes when we have mental space. Don’t squander this chance to get reacquainted with (or to learn for the first time) what it feels like to live a little slower.

The Rituals in Work

I have a notebook I write all of my first drafts in. When it comes out words seem to flow better.

I have a lamp on my desk that I turn on when it’s time for writing or serious reading. When the lamp turns on I feel like my brain snaps to attention.

There’s no magic in the notebook or the lamp. The magic is in the ritual they are a part of.

You likely won’t feel up to full speed or firing on all cylinders when it’s time to do the important work you do. Having a ritual that supports that work helps you overcome the ups and downs so you can be consistent in showing up.

James Clear has talked about the pre-game rituals he used as a pitcher in college. Steven Pressfield has a little toy cannon on his desk that “fires inspiration” when he’s in his “sacred space,” his office where he writes.

There is a lot of value here for you to explore. Create your own rituals and you’ll find that the resistance to getting started starts to melt away. Keep up your rituals and you may even find inspiration coming to visit.