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Deep Habits: Conquer Hard Tasks With Concentration Circuits

October 8th, 2014 · 33 comments

A Writing Tour of Georgetown

Today I needed to finish a tough chunk of writing. The ideas were complicated and I wasn’t quite sure how best to untangle the relevant threads and reweave them into something appealing. I knew I was in for some deep work and I was worried about my ability to see it through to the end.

So I packed up my laptop and headed outside. Here’s where I started writing:

writing-outdoors-1

Once I began to falter, I switched locations:

 

writing-outdoors-2

 

As I neared the end my energy begin sputter, so I switched locations one more time for the home stretch:

 

writing-outdoors-3

In this third and final location I finished.

The Concentration Circuit

Combined, the chunk of writing took me two hours: less time than I had expected. The key to this efficiency, I’m convinced, was the frequent location switching.

Something about arriving at a new and novel location — somewhere different than where you normally work — provides a boost to your motivation and aids concentration. Over time, this effect will wane. But if you keep switching locations, you can keep re-stimulating this reaction again and again, maintaining an average level of concentration that’s potentially much higher than if you had slogged through the deep task in one (literal) sitting.

I call this approach the concentration circuit as it cycles you through a circuit of locations to keep your concentration levels elevated.

To be clear, most of my deep work sessions are decidedly less interesting. They take place in my office with the door closed.

But sometimes I need something extra. If I’m feeling uninspired or the task is particularly complicated, I look for ways to scrape together any advantage I can find (c.f., here and here and here). The concentration circuit is an important tool in this deep work toolbox.

33 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Conquer Hard Tasks With Concentration Circuits

  1. Chris Khoo says:

    Are you sure it’s about switching locations, or perhaps taking a break (i.e. walking to the locations)?

    1. I’d definitely say it’s more about the location. Sometimes I do my best work at home but more often than not, the environment at home just won’t do it for me.

      Switching up my environment to a new coffee shop usually gives me that boost in energy I need to get through my work.

    2. Sagar says:

      Hi,

      He is absolutely right… Even I experienced the same

      Sagar Gupta

    3. Study Hacks says:

      The break can be helpful, though it’s brief. I think I’d ascribe most of the benefit to the fresh location.

      1. Mars says:

        Hi Cal, dont you think the effect you get from switching locations is a bit parallel to the effect you get from checking out a totally random article online or maybe scrolling over facebook/reddit for a short break? Sort of to save you from a synapse collapse

  2. PR says:

    Cal,

    Great post. I’ve found sometimes that even slightly changing your position (i.e. sit on the other side of the table you’ve been studying at) can help.

    As a general question, how do you improve your concentration and ability to focus deeply ? Many times I’ll be trying to solve a difficult problem and I’ll find that my mind has wandered off to some other (unrelated) topic. What specific steps can I take to improve my focus, where the goal is being focused on the problem 100% instead of having my attention waver? I’m not looking for an easy “one-size-fits-all” trick – just ways to practice improving my concentration over the long run. A comment or blog post on this topic would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks Cal!

    1. Adi says:

      For me at least, meditation has helped me. The breathing techniques and mindfulness that make up meditation practice is easy enough to carry back into daily life and (at least temporarily) will bring your focus back to center. The better you are at meditation the more effective it will be.

  3. Darryl says:

    I used to do this all the time when I was in university. I would switch from the library, coffee shop, somewhere outside, and back to my dorm room every 1-2 hours. The change in setting definitely helped me out for some odd reason.

  4. Suyog says:

    This seems to be my primary way to focus. I had made it a habit to make several work “pit-stops” during my walk back home from the university. These include park-benches, many parapets, coffee shops, and sometimes even the department bathroom. My brain categorizes this entire journey as travel rather than work, so I hardly get the feeling that I am pushing myself to work when I don’t feel much like. And once I begin to notice a slump in my focus, I quickly shut my laptop, and walk a bit more towards my place before I find another pit-stop..

  5. Matt McCormick says:

    I’m going to agree with Chris. I think a huge part of it is taking a break. I will add that getting a little exercise can also help (which you got as you switched locations).

    I’m a software developer and business owner and find that when I’ve been really stuck on a problem for awhile the act of getting up and walking for at least 10 minutes to get a bite to eat, grab coffee, or just walk around the block a few times will often produce an, “Aha,” moment.

    Then I can get back to my computer – even if it’s in the same place it was before – get past my problem and continue working.

  6. MaryBeth says:

    I do this with music! I find that switching playlists will often pull me back into a more carefully focused frame of mind.

    1. MaryBeth says:

      Let me clarify that by saying… orchestral music, or anything in a language I am not fluent in. My mind starts to wander if there are words in English.

  7. ryan fuse says:

    Hi Cal, thanks for the awesome article.

    Can you tease apart the cause and effect? Is it the location or is it the walking or the break?

    If its the walking, staying at the same spot but walking in place would do the trick?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      In an earlier comment I mentioned that the change of location was likely the key, as the break was too brief. That being said, I know a lot of people swear by long walks as a method to boost concentration and generate insight. See for example, my post on Quiet Creativity or Mason Currey’s profile of Darwin’s habits: http://dailyroutines.typepad.com/daily_routines/2008/12/charles-darwin.html

  8. Mike says:

    Excellent post Cal. I have been doing “concentration circuits” for years. It always boosts my productivity. Sometimes I walk from location to location, sometimes I ride my MTB. Cheers.

  9. Daniel says:

    A few days ago in the New York Times – Better Ways to Learn by Tara Parker-Pope on Benedict Carey’s new book:
    “The first step toward better learning is to simply change your study environment from time to time. Rather than sitting at your desk or the kitchen table studying for hours, finding some new scenery will create new associations in your brain and make it easier to recall information later.”

  10. Andre Kibbe says:

    Whether it’s breaks, locations or playlists, I think the overarching principle is the Hawthorne Effect, “a phenomenon whereby individuals improve or modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed”—in this case, self-observation. Of course, the segmenting of work into discrete sprints (e.g. the Pomodoro Technique) also helps, since mental focus is cyclical.

  11. Anthony Hsu says:

    I couldn’t help but notice the name of the document you have open on your computer in your photos: “Deep Work – Rule 4 – Work Deeply”. Is this a new book you are working on? If so, I’m really excited for it! I think accumulating many hours of deep work is key to building career capital.

  12. krishna says:

    I think it’s the walk and the quiet and soothing location sustained your concentration levels.
    There is a term in english for such kind of walking. The brain get choked and doesn’t flow after a while and such type of walks would stimulate the blood flow and give new ideas. Great post.

  13. Jim Hatton says:

    I think the efficacy of the concentration circuit might be more due to the walking between work stations than just the fact of a change in location. There was a time when I was writing software in a one room cabin in the woods. Because I felt I was more creatively smarter earlier in the day, I scheduled the mornings for design work, similar, I think, to Cal’s deep work, and the late mornings and afternoons for writing code and debugging. My design process entailed me walking around in the woods while I constructed an algorithm or solved problem. In those days we had no tablets to take notes on and I wouldn’t have wanted one if they had existed. I didn’t even carry pencil and paper. The idea was that the design had to be clear enough in my head to remember and bring back to the bench. I am probably a kinetic personality so the walking helped if by no other means than by pumping more blood to my head. I have heard that a master Japanese carpenter/builder constructs the house piece by piece entirely in his head before first applying saw to wood. Mine was a minor version of this ideal. As I think back though, it would have been better to use some of my “smart” mornings on testing and debugging thoroughly.

  14. Tim says:

    What do you do for a student in high school who just doesn’t like most subjects he’s being taught and finds it really unpleasant to do he hard work you suggest?

    He tests very high in intelligence. And his grades are tops and bottoms.

    This can’t be unusual. The challenge with the “work hard” ethic is that it bangs up against the “this is pointless, useless, and unpleasant” experience.

    How do you get past that?

  15. Thomas says:

    Cal, great post. I was thinking about doing my work at several locations and was wondering if you needed internet access during your day, and whether purchasing a mobile wireless hotspot would be necessary.

  16. Estara says:

    I naturally work this way, and it’s great to see others doing this. I feel that it’s a combination of three things: a) the novelty of a new location, b) the break and rapid acclimation of your body to new positions as you stand up, walk, move, and sit somewhere new, and c) the segmentation of a task that one’s brain naturally adapts to.

    I will designate a place to work at until I finish one task (even if it takes deep concentration and many hours) and then once a stopping point is reached, I move. It’s motivation, actually, to finish a portion of a major task in exchange for the reward of moving. Ironically, as I am at a place where moving work locations is a huge investment (going from library to library and losing a precious table) it’s actually good motivation to sit down and get it done. I actually plan my day on these movements.

  17. Kim says:

    Hi there. Insightful article.

    I’m in a similar situation. I’m currently finishing up character designs that I’ve painted, but I’m at a point where I’m stuck. I’m freezing up, fearing that I might make some big mistakes and mess up my paintings.

    Would changing locations help address the roadblock I’m having? Is part of it also clearing my mind before I start?

  18. Sad says:

    a computer scientist using Microsoft word?! Say it ain’t so.

  19. Luke Boobyer says:

    I’m a big fan of changing locations to get a second or even third wind of motivation and energy. I used to do this all the time when I was studying at University.

  20. Jan Sramek says:

    Just saw a link to this in Cal’s latest newsletter. It’s a neat concept and something I’ve experienced myself. Just added it to my Memo as a reminder: https://memo.co/0dr0gyq6e/

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