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Another Tale of Finding Depth in a Locked Down Life

In my last post, I profiled a novelist who took advantage of the lockdown to slow down; giving herself more than enough time and space to inhabit her manuscript revisions. This shift allowed her to tap a “mysterious” source of creativity and finish her work ahead of schedule.

In response, a reader sent me some notes on how he had similarly leveraged the disruption induced by the lockdown to experiment with a deeper, more deliberate lifestyle, despite the fact that he has a typical email-bound knowledge work job and two young kids at home.

Here’s his schedule:

Monday-Friday from 5-7 am: I do my morning routine (push-ups, sit ups, squats, meditation, and reading The Daily Stoic prompt for that day). This takes about 30 minutes, depending on how slow I’m moving that morning.

Following that I spend at least an hour and a half of writing the novel I’m working on.

Then an hour of tasks/admin for my day job.

At 9am, I take over child care while my wife works her job. We have lunch and nap time. I’m back to my day job processing various tasks/admin from about 1-5pm.

I only check email three times a day (personal and work) and I have those times set on my Google Calendar which enforces a limit for dealing with those emails to a half hour per session.

When I’m done with my afternoon tasks, this is when I’m available for phone calls and meetings. (I treat this like office hours.)

I shutdown work around 4:30-5pm.

Social media is blocked during my work hours. There’s no social media or email apps on my phone.

There’s a vague uneasiness that comes from a life overfilled with busyness and distraction. We crave something deeper, in which we spend more time on things that matter and are more ruthlessly efficient about the things that don’t.

But change is hard, and it’s easier in the moment to mindlessly scroll the iPad, or play email ping-pong, wondering, in true Office Space style, what it is that you really do here.

Most of what’s going in our current moment is terrible. But there is a sliver of light among the darkness: sometimes hard changes require a hard disruption.

More on this to follow…

28 thoughts on “Another Tale of Finding Depth in a Locked Down Life”

  1. If you have the luxury of such an easy day job where you work for just four and half to five hours, then you can live whatever kind of lifestyle you want. I would call this a very poor example.
    Show me an example of someone who needs to work 10 plus hours with a global team, and still manages to deliberate, deep living. Now that is a real achievement.
    Examples where someone has nothing else to do and manages to live a “deep” lifestyle are not inspiring – seems like marketing, Cal.

    • I suspect that a substantial fraction of knowledge work jobs could accomplish the same amount of work in roughly half the total number of hours. There’s massive inefficiency in how many of these positions operate — as a lot of people are now learning as they are at home and unofficially taking shifts doing childcare and realize that their work still more or less gets done.

      • “I suspect that a substantial fraction of knowledge work jobs could accomplish the same amount of work in roughly half the total number of hours”

        Cal, I agree with that statement, but there are many people in the world, myself included, who are *required* to put in 40 hours per week, and submit a time log for the record. I am a salary employee/knowledge worker, but I have to submit my time. Our lunch is on our time, and we work 9 hour days because we are on a 9/80 where we have every other Friday off.
        Also, most people drive about an hour each way to/from work.
        With a quick, half hour lunch, that’s a 11.5 hours day, from when one leaves the house and gets back home. Assuming 7 hours of sleep, that leaves 5.5 hours each days for errands/chores/life admin, in addition to grooming/eating/general biological needs that aren’t sleeping. For parents, then obviously there’s plenty of child care time as well. Let’s say you have 1 hours of leisure time a day, after all is said and done, that can be used for Deep Work on personal passion projects like writing a novel, or anything else.

        I only bring this up because I work for a large company (which I won’t name) in a large industry. So those of us with this schedule…we’re not a small bunch.

        And example of someone who fits this description would be incredibly helpful to many of us.

        Thank you for all you do, Cal!

        • The way your company/obligations are forcing you to structure your day and allocate your time is the exact anti-deep work environment that Cal rails against.

          It’s not that it’s not valuable, it’s that you are unlikely going to be advancing your field since you’re doing more “getting things done” and less thinking deeply about hard problems,

          • I think there is a difference between creative people/independent workers vs 40-60 hr/week knowledge workers and each person needs to carve out time for deep work and productive habits. I completely agree that the example given here may not be applicable to our corporate driven 8-5/6 pm knowledge worker. I am a busy clinician and after talking (instead of physically seeing these days) to avg 20 patients per day-sometimes dealing with critical life threatening issues, fries your brain. I still manage to do deep work. I would recommend for busy people to carve time out and experiment with various schedules. This early morning wake up schedule may not work or create more stress when your day starts early. A good resource is Dan Pink When. Recently I experimented with moving deep work to night time and it has doubled my productivity and reduced my stress. I am still able to get good night sleep wake up early to do meditation. In my experience with grinding cognitively demanding work where there is no room for deep work either morning before kids wake up or after they are in bed are the only windows to leverage, unless you have a flexible schedule. Also working with your employer to move you to flex hours is an option.

    • When stuck in my office, I was there 9 hours a day and still often had things spill over into the weeknight/weekend. Now that we’re at home, I’m usually putting in 4 focused 90 minute blocks each day and easily getting everything accomplished that I need to plus making serious headway on long term projects that were barely getting touched before. Even though “we” are going back to campus, at least partially, in late June and early July, I’ve already been told I probably won’t need to set foot on site before August and that we’ll be making substantial changes to our workflow going forward.

  2. It’s hard to follow desciplined life for so long which can bring productivity but at the same time if i planned everything previously then throughout the rest of the day it feels like now I’m not anymore free to do anything i wish. It feels like i have lost my freedom and it feels very suffocating. How can I be mentally motivated to stick to my target?

    • Discipline is freedom. The idea that having a loose schedule will feel freer often doesn’t work out — you end up buffeted by forces outside your control, constantly feeling behind. A structured approach, on the other hand, let’s you make progress on things you care about, both in work and beyond, it also induces more relaxation as it’s hard to unwind when you don’t feel like you’ve gotten a handle on everything.

    • It seems that meditation is a key part of focus and reaching goals. I don’t always find extended (more than 10 min) time for meditation and so will do some mini-meditations (10 seconds) in which to mentally set aside things on a nearby shelf or set them on the floor. It’s easy to do and can sometimes bring clarity to what you want to focus on. The other thing is to engage with other people in games that can be used for almost anything, including helping to solve someone else’s challenges. I wrote about it in “Creating Information Filters” ( josuterdotcom at Wordpress)

  3. Well, thank you so much for your “Digital Minimalism” which is really inspiring and motivating. When I read the book, it did make a difference in my thinking and it greatly helped me towards digital minimalism. But after the terrible worldwide spread of Covid-19 and the panic it brings about, I do have a serious problem with concentration and deep work now. Would you kindly give me a piece of advice concerning this?

    • You can’t control the pandemic other than doing what you know you have to do as a person. So why spending so much time (and brain power) on it?
      Remove all social media, and for the love of God don’t watch news, or don’t go on media websites (Cnn, Fox, MSNBC, it doesn’t matter) as they sensationalize everything; if you want to remain updated, subscribe to a physical newspaper and read it in the morning.

    • Daily Stoic is great. To my surprise, my morning routine is somewhat similar to the one in this article.
      5:30 AM: Wake up
      5:40-6:00 Meditation
      6:00-6:10: Reflections, journaling, reading entry of “The Daily Stoic” (the book)
      6:10-6:45 Coffee and Newspaper reading (e-edition replica, no websites)
      6:45-7:15 Wake up wife, prepare cappuccino for her. Have breakfast with wife.
      7:15-7:45 Prepare for work and the day, go to work.

      I recommend this amazing lecture:

  4. Providing concrete examples of how others employ techniques to promote deep work has a lot of value for me. Thanks!

  5. What I took from yesterday’s profile of the novelist is that she greatly minimized her input and stimulation, which allowed her brain to work on problems in the background. Today’s tale is missing any similar ingredient.

  6. Dear Cal Newport,
    Thank you for writing the book Deep Work. I am a lecturer in English at the Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi but am also a British trained teacher practicing for the 26 years internationally in six countries. I’m in the final five months of my PhD and I came across your book while watching a vlog by a peer Tom Nicholas who was reviewing your book. I was immediately enamoured by the relevance of the topic and since then I have applied it in my daily life. It has impacted positively on me so much so that I have recommended it to professors and colleagues and even the Masters students that I teach! Today I applied your principles of deep work for a mere 3 hours with one hour breaks in between and was able to write 1000 edited words towards my PhD. This is more than I could ever accomplish in my day before I had read Deep Work. I can’t recommend it enough. I even managed to do a vlog talking about the difference between shallow and deep work. Thank you once again! I attach a link to my vlog.

  7. I’m a knowledge worker and a fiction writer on the side. My job is normally crazy, and our company’s culture is drinking out of a firehouses on a good day. Lock-down put us into telework and one part of my job faded significantly.

    When this all started, the first thing I did was unsubscribe to anything news related. I remembered how bad it was from Sept 11, and I had to cut that off fast. As it turned out, it was something I probably should have done earlier. I’ve been having problems being creative, and it may have been overexposure to the news. So I just get paper newspapers and scan the headlines once a day. I don’t need more than that.

    In the last few weeks, I’ve been focused on scheduling using the Black and White scheduling. I’d tried it before, but my job was so chaotic, it ate any attempts at scheduling. Without all the usual craziness, I actually could think about how to do it, instead of just reacting. What I found was that I have a huge tendency to thinking, ‘This’ll take 2 minutes. Let’s get that out of the way.” While that’s a time management rule of sorts, it also became a crutch for me because I was constantly forced into being reactive. I had to keep telling myself, “Stick to the schedule!” I’ve had times where I need to email someone, but it’s not time for email. I hit the schedule and add a note to one of the times that I need to email John about whatever. Whereas, I would jump into email, send it, and then get distracted by the other email in there.

    On the writing side, I’m trying to get a book done by the end of May. I’ve been scheduling writing time as opposed to wandering in and doing it. I’ve found there are times where, if left to my own devices, I’d have waited until later. But “It’s on the schedule” made me get to the chair and I was more productive than I expected. I’ve also tacked on 30 minutes after that for administrative things like updating covers, publishing an update to a book–all things that I’ve really struggled to get to. I’ve been both surprised at the amount I’ve gotten done with that and the sense of satisfaction.

    But I’m curious–everyone talks about doing creative things first thing in the morning. That’s not possible for me, except on the weekends. My brain is not always ready to write that early, and the day job is at the time I would do the writing. So I do it in the evenings and on the weekend, when the times are probably less useful for creativity. What’s the best way to work with that?

  8. With regard to the deep life , which is of course connected with deep work, is there such a thing as a deep break ?
    As a PhD student I try to implement the 5:30 rule, but working without stop from 9 – 5 is exhausting and I also find it unproductive in the long run. I realised that taking breaks during the work day is important. Do you have any ideas or suggestions regarding deep breaks, namely breaks that won’t extremely disorient you focus, but on the other hand will strengthen it ? Without social media, texting and web browsing, taking breaks seems paradoxically more challenging than working. There is no stimulus and you quickly feel bored.

    • 10-minute breaks after every 50-minute long sessions help quite a lot but the kind of break you are talking about is when the brain goes into “diffused mode”. This is a terminology from Mind For Numbers.

      The idea here is that during these periods, where you are in a diffused mode where you are not utilising your cognitive resources for something particular, are crucial for the “eureka” moments where a problem’s solution suddenly comes up.
      In contrast, the focused mode is when you are utilising your cognitive resources.

      Some activities to trigger diffused mode: Naps, Sleep, Meditation, Walks(not the kind Cal suggests for training focus but the kind where you are taking it as a break), Bath, Commute(embrace boredom, picking up your phone triggers focused mode), Drives, Physical Exercise, Chores etc.

      The idea of these deep breaks/diffused mode sessions is to give your brain downtime and let it “digest” the information/problem you’ve just worked on. Deep Work also has a section devoted to this.

      • Thank you very much DEB. I will definitely read “Mind of Numbers”. I think that by taking no breaks and thus by not slipping into the diffused mode of thinking, I miss the big picture. I think I am going to give the Pomodoro technique a try and force myself to take small 5 – 10 minutes breaks. Again thank you very much for your suggestions ! That’s exactly what I wanted.

      • Thank you Islam. I had a feeling that there would be a post regarding Deep Breaks.
        Cal is there a search option for your blog in order to easily locate older articles ?

  9. Due to the current situation I was pushed to start working only two days a week. I set a daily schedule to be followed and started with it. It’s been quite successful but after approximately 4 weeks it’s become quite dull and repetitively boring. How to overcome this phenomenon? I’ve slightly altered my to do list but still feel as though it’s more exhaustive to go on every day like this.

  10. I’m a high school teacher and much of my day is direct instruction time. How do I try to get into a deep work mode when I only have one 80 min block a day to do all my work? I’ve wondered how it would work when so much of your day is unchangable?


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