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On Using Inspiring Locations to Inspire Deeper Work

April 1st, 2016 · 35 comments

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A Rite of Spring

The return of spring marks the return of one of my favorite deep work strategies: the concentration circuit.

This strategy helps you make progress on a cognitively demanding task by having you work in a rotating series of locations that are: (1) not your normal office; (2) novel and/or aesthetically arresting.

As I’ve written before, concentration circuits are like deep work jet fuel:

  • they get you away from your normal energy-draining office routines,
  • they give your mind the sustained freedom from context switches needed to dive deep into a single problem, and
  • they leverage visual and environmental novelty to help shake loose new insights.

At the same time, they provide a reminder that elite-level knowledge work is about creating things with your brain — not just shuffling messages and writing PowerPoints — and that this activity, when isolated and supported, is massively rewarding.

Most important: they’re also a lot of fun.

A Recent Circuit

Anyway, two weeks ago I found myself down near the Capitol to tape an appearance on the Federalist Radio Hour. At the time, I was working on a tricky result.

I decided I would take advantage of the early spring weather to build an epic, Washington D.C.-themed concentration circuit.

Here are some of the locations I visited that morning…

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I pride myself in finding the most secluded possible benches in otherwise crowded places. The above bench, where I started my day, was tucked into quiet corner not far from the Capitol building.

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To shake things up, I then spent some time in a simulated jungle within the National Botanical Garden’s massive greenhouse. This certainly met the “novelty” requirement.

(A little known but important fact: the Botanical Garden has the nicest public bathrooms in D.C. — marble counters, and fresh orchids at every sink.)

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I then retreated to the basement of the National Gallery to type up some of my notes. I like working in their cafe which is at the end of the mind-bending Multiverse installation shown above.

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Finally, I ended my deep work session at one my favorite secret locations. Nestled in a quiet corner beyond the elevators on the third floor of the Native American History museum is a pair of comfortable leather chairs arranged by a wall of floor to ceiling windows.

Final Thoughts

Knowledge work doesn’t have to devolve into a soul-draining slurry of email and meetings. Creating things with your brain can be incredibly satisfying —  but sometimes a dramatic change of scenery is needed to remind yourself of this reality.

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A note to my UK readers: a UK audiobook version of Deep Work is now available for pre-order. You can also hear a clip here

(Capitol photo by Ed Schipul; Multiverse photo by NCinDC)

 

35 thoughts on “On Using Inspiring Locations to Inspire Deeper Work

  1. D says:

    Love the kind of creative chaos unleashed by moving around!

    (I know no press is bad press but maybe appearing on The Federalist Radio Hour wasn’t the best move from an optics standpoint.)

    1. Devlin says:

      Why do you say that?

      1. D says:

        It’s a website peddling garbage. Perhaps Cal is sympathetic with the Federalist’s politics, though I would be surprised if that were the case.

    2. Marko says:

      Yes. Someone trying to disseminate a good idea should limit him or herself to just half the population. We all know people with right-of-center beliefs are evil and need to be shunned.

      1. D says:

        Excellent rejoinder to a straw man, Marko.

        1. Marko says:

          No straw man. You suggested that it was a website “peddling garbage”. It’s a fair inference then that you not only do not appreciate it’s content, you despise it due to it’s political orientation. And you suggested it was “bad optics”. Bad optics to you maybe, since you obviously hold people with contrary views in contempt. How sad, and how arrogant that you think we need your opinion advertised when it’s irrelevant to the topic. Cheers.

          1. D says:

            Why augment the straw man, Marko?

            I don’t think that Cal should limit himself to those just left-of-center (or, right-of-center, for that matter). However, there are better and worse places to traffic one’s ideas: The Federalist seems to be more towards that latter. To that point, There would be websites that I might engage more of my political sympathies that I would also find in the latter column for Cal.

            The Federalist does, in my opinion, seem to “peddle garbage”, though I’ll freely admit that’s an inflammatory — not to mention, unhelpful — comment. However, I don’t despise the Federalist, it just seems to be mostly bankrupt web magazine. Ideas are just ideas and I hold no one in contempt for holding them, even if I disagree with them. Nor do I think that those who hold views contrary to me are “evil” or “need to be shunned.”

            Your charge of arrogance might go too far. Do comments not intrinsically imply advertisement of our opinions? I had intended for my parenthetical to indicate that it was just a curious side thought as I wonder how authors think about where they want to spread their ideas. Perhaps I should’ve spoken to that curiosity more directly.

  2. Now we know where to find you and pester you with productivity questions. 😉

  3. George says:

    Rode to the gym at Stanford and emerged to find my bike had a flat tire. Walked it over to the campus bike shop (they do terrific work). It would be a two-hour wait. Found an isolated table on the upper deck of Tresidder Union and sat to…think. Forty-five minutes produced no great breakthrough, but when I relaxed and let it go a flood of perfectly organized insights ensued. I love the perspective of height, sitting among the treetops of the big oaks in the courtyard below.

    1. Carl says:

      Interesting, and thank you for that reminder because I always seem to catch even deeper inspiration, and better mental flow at higher elevations outdoors.

  4. Joe says:

    Cal, when you’re doing the circuit do you put any sort of time frame for how long you’ll stay put in a location? Or is it based purely on momentum?

  5. Ryan Ross says:

    Interesting idea! This is an extension of the example in your book that JK Rowling booked a nice hotel room to get her work done. I now realize that I’ve done this too, i just didn’t have a name for it. I did it when I went to Costa Rica to see my during one of her work trips. It was a great time to see a new place, and it also felt productive getting some work done.

  6. Cameron says:

    As a graduate student without an office, I often use circuits to keep myself focused and the momentum going. But I find that once I’m done with a particular project, I’m burnt out on the spaces very spaces that were so crucial to helping me make the project happen. This would be fine in a larger city with lots of potential study spots, but I’m quickly running through the best locations in my small town. I’m wondering if you also experience study-spot burnout and, if so, how you prevent it.

  7. Ash says:

    Did you cover this in the deep work book? I can’t recall reading about this strategy.

    1. Unaiza says:

      I think a related point covered in the book was “making grand gestures” to motivate oneself to work productively and deeply. An example (as mentioned above in the comments section) is that of J.K.Rowling who finished her 7th Harry Potter book by booking a hotel at $1000 per night and staying there for writing!

  8. Joe Swam says:

    This post really inspired me to seek out new spaces to do my writing. And I’m definitely checking out that cafe. Thanks.

  9. Carl says:

    Yes! I too have specialized in finding the most isolated and extremely quiet places possible for my writing. I leave the house telling my wife, ” I’m going to the sanctum.” Outside is definitely preferable–citing the attention restoration benefits you have touched on.

  10. Winterflower says:

    I am really jealous of your freedom to choose the areas you work in, Cal.
    I am a software engineer and I have to work in an open office cubicle farm with 100+ other workers. In addition to constant phone conversations (teleconferencing), people walking up and down the aisles, we are constantly inundated with emails, messages on the company’s messenger service and meaningless chatter. Noisy environments and programming are a poor combination. The ability to keep all of the variables you need for a particular problem in your head diminishes with the amount of noise and distractions and pretty soon it becomes impossible to make any progress. In fact, to get anything done I now have to come in around 7 am to get two good, quiet hours of work and leave around 9pm to get a few quiet hours after most of the noise has subsided.
    I read ‘Deep Work’ and want to apply these principles to software engineering, but all of the companies I have worked at make it nearly impossible: open offices, the need to be constantly available on messenger/company chat.
    It leaves exhausted and demoralised. I need quiet to work, but I can’t keep pulling 14 hour days just to get in some quiet time in the office.
    Working from home is, unfortunately, not an option.
    Can any other software engineers provide advice on ‘deep work’ in a distracted and noisy office environment?

    1. I feel for you, buddy. I am a software engineer too and fortunately, I work at a company that has been sane enough to provide big, well isolated individual cubicles for its engineers where they can work without visual disturbances in their field of view or much noise and chatter. I absolutely thrive here.

      When I plan on starting to look for opportunities at other companies in the future, I would definitely consider whether my new workplace is open-office or cubed. Open-office would be a deal breaker for me.

    2. T says:

      Hi,

      I also feel for you. I’m also working as a software engineer in an open plan office, but probably not as hard as you (the company I work for is sane enough to understand that programmers don’t need phones and most communication happens through Redmine, a forum-style project information site and some sparse email), yet there is still the constant annoying chatter and walking by in the aisles.

      The things I have come up with are:
      – I have a pair of ear protection (the same used by road workers with jackhammers). It’s big, shiny and red so it’s for everyone clear that I’m in the zone. At the same time, it marks my “personal ritual” to move into deep work. After I batch some communication, look at test results, determine my main objective for the day, grab another coffee etc. I put on my ear protection to get off… and I put my ear protection down as soon as I stop doing “deep work” (I also have regular head phones with music for when I have a hard time concentrating, have to do extensive testing, or the chatting around me becomes really too loud)
      – visual hindrance of people moving by are harder to avoid: the best I can do were moving next to a window, using two big screens and sitting rather low on my chair. If someone else has a better tip, I’d like to hear it !
      – lunch break = outside solitary time, even if it’s pouring…

  11. Anne says:

    I finished your wonderful book Deep Work and just had to tell you just how transformative it is. Thank you so much, Cal.

  12. Dave Small says:

    Nice post as always Cal.

    But, when it comes to “Inspiring Locations” I have to agree with Annie Dillard: “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window. Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder-block cell over a parking lot. It overlooked a tar-and-gravel roof. This pine shed under trees is not quite as good as the cinder-block study was, but it will do.” (Annie Dillard: The Writing Life)

    I’m inclined to think “Inspiring Locations” should be used for inspiration and the room for “Deep Work”.

    1. Vince Virgilio says:

      (Just discovered this great blog.)

      This rings true.

      I agree that silence and lack of distractions are critical for deep work, or at least to avoid a persistent case of tinnitus as your internal noise threshold increases.

      But inspiring landscapes are not. I don’t recall being more productive looking out over the Pacific Ocean from a silent office at Scripps Institute than working in a silent office elsewhere. In fact, I was probably distracted by the beautiful scenery, not productively inspired by it.

      I recall Stephen Jay Gould saying something similar. An interviewer wondered if he did his best thinking in his traditional wood-paneled office. Nope. The next scene was them in some dim basement full of metal shelves of skulls, etc, where he claimed he did his best work.

  13. Frank SanPietro says:

    Excellent post identifying the link between novel visual/situational stimuli and the generating of creative insights. Fortunately for me, my current work in and around the University of Memphis permits me to get writing and problem solving done in a number of truly beautiful and inspiring locations. One other point – never underestimate the power of spending 20 minutes or so in a chapel or other spiritual setting. The tranquility really does provide the fuel for some amazing insights.

  14. Irene Fenswick says:

    As a writer I also like switching locations trying to find an isolated and inspiring place. But every time I find it, it turns out to be not so quiet. Often another ‘inspiration seeker’ comes from nowhere willing to join me and diverts my attention. I think the best working environment is a quiet room.

  15. Grace says:

    So… I am quite embarrassed to admit this, but thing is: when I start to think deeply about something, I usually murmur and gesticule, because I am so focused on the subject that I forget completely about my surroundings. I don’t know if other people experience something similar and, if they do, any suggestion on how to deal with this? I would love to be able to sit and think on a bench, or even walk in a park, without appearing to be some sort of lunatic!

  16. A.I. says:

    Again I’m wondering, can you recall all the details pertaining to your problem just like that, or do you make a point of being able to recall them beforehand?

    I’ve been trying to use train rides and walks for that purpose, only to find my train of thought constantly interrupted by “Hmm, what was that detail, I could look it up there or there, but…”

    I’d be glad if you could share this information with us.

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