Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Deep Work and the Good Life

August 14th, 2013 · 20 comments

pollan

Pictured above is the cabin where journalist Michael Pollan used to write his nature-themed books before he moved to California. He built it himself.

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This is a shot of the library where Neil Gaiman dreams up his confoundedly original brand of fantasy literature.

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This bat-fenced Gothic mansion is the Bangor, Maine home of Stephen King. What better place to pull together his brand of dark fiction?

I’m sharing these photos because they help remind me of an important idea: deep work can be immensely fulfilling. The deep workers mentioned above recognize this reality. They built working environments that emphasize what is unique and compelling about their particular expertise, and by doing so were able to squeeze even more meaning and satisfaction out of their working hours.

This lesson is important. We should not treat deep work as just another scheduled task to check off our Allen-esque lists. It should be made, instead, the center of our efforts to lead a Good Life.

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As I was thinking about this post, I faced a typical deep task in my life as a professor: I needed to break down and understand a knotty paper so I could potentially build off its results. To interact with the world of ideas at the highest level, I reminded myself, is a pretty cool way to make a living. So I left the florescence of my office and relocated to a more scenic view (above); a more fitting setting to revel in depth.

(King home photo by JHR images)

20 thoughts on “Deep Work and the Good Life

  1. Vincent says:

    You have me dreaming up ideal locations for me to work out of now. Something immersing like Michael’s cabin and Stephen King’s Gothic mansion. I can definitely vouch for the role your environment plays in shaping your deep work.

    We all know working from home can be difficult and distracting, so I rarely ever work from home when I truly need to dive into my work and provide quality value. I usually jump between a collaborative workspace and various coffee shops. The latter works the best and in between 4 coffee shops alone, I’ve found that in certain ones I work best depending on the task at hand. Something about the environment sets off a part of my brain where I focus and zero in on what I’m doing.

    Maybe one day I’ll have an appropriate themed mansion like King. :)

  2. Euripides says:

    Looks like you went to the library, Cal?
    Yes, it is also one of my favorites spots. When at my office, every few minutes someone wants to talk to me and I don’t like to be rude (I am an fellow academic).

    Here is a question for your blog readers (with your permission): Describe your ideal working environment.

  3. Bob Tabor says:

    Environment is immensely important. I’ve searched long and hard, and spend (tens of) thousands of dollars trying to find a good environment for my work as a developer / writer / instructor / videographer. Finally, I re-worked the garage in my home with light, colors, sleek furnishings and storage. It’s part of my “fortress of solitude” strategy.

  4. Will says:

    Reminds me of this Zen Pencils comic based on a quote by Charles Bukowski.

  5. David says:

    My office has a view of trees, water, and mountains. But most of the time I prefer to work at home on research (I’m a professor too). But not all of the time. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on campus and some of my best ideas come walking or waiting for the bus.

  6. Annika S says:

    There’s something about Nature, I think, that just completely inspires. Anytime I’m struggling to finish a post, or need a new idea, I love settling down on the balcony at my day job – it has the most amazing view of the Auckland (New Zealand) harbour I have seen anywhere. The only danger is of getting distracted into daydreaming, but I find the words flow more easily than if I were facing a blank wall!

  7. This may sound oddly spiritual to some ears, but it is just a twitter sized rephrase. (Yes, I did.)

    Deep work, by definition, respects inner space. Repeated deep work builds a supporting world around it.

    And I have been wanting to tell you how much I respect your work – and say thanks. You are one of the bright green spots for me. Many of your posts leave me with a reminder to block out more time to think about things.

  8. Pat Gavin says:

    But of course the best such spot on Georgetown’s campus is the desk at the back right of the reading room in the fourth floor of Lau…

  9. Angelena huimei says:

    Of course the best spot is on the bridge over the little river withh all the students.

  10. I recently began a habit of writing for one hour a day, no matter the topic. It can be distracting at home, so I usually step out to the balcony. Similarly, my office is a distracting place to work with colleagues wanting to talk and make requests. I’ll begin working from the office terrace where I usually take my breaks since no one comes around there.

  11. I have different best environments for different activities:
    – I love to write for my blog at my parents home.
    – I like to study in different coffee shops, with a lot of sun light. After 2h/3h I go to the next coffee shop.
    – I like to code and do work related stuff at the office. Although, after some days in a row (3 or 4) my brain tells me that is better to try a different place today.
    – When about life introspection, which I do like every 6 months, I tend to go to an isolated place surrounded by nature. Like a forest, or a garden, with just a few or no people.

    In every place I “demand” a lot of sunlight. Fortunately, I live in Portugal. :)

  12. Areeb Alowisheq says:

    This story seems related

    It is Radhika Nagpal tenure track experiences and how she coped and enjoyed some of it
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2013/07/21/the-awesomest-7-year-postdoc-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-tenure-track-faculty-life/

  13. John says:

    Shouldn’t you at least provide attribution/credit when you use images in your blogs from folks Flickr accounts? I don’t plagiarize your ideas and call them my own…

  14. Study Hacks says:
    Shouldn’t you at least provide attribution/credit when you use images in your blogs from folks Flickr accounts?

    I always attribute Flikr images with a link back to original Flikr page. In this post, only the picture of the King house is from Flikr, and, accordingly, I put a link back to its original Flikr page at the bottom of my post. I think you probably just missed the attribution since I put them at the bottom of the post and not right below the photo (I haven’t figure out how to but a photo credit right below a photo in WordPress without the credit looking like it’s part of the main body of text).

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