A reader recently sent me another entertaining example of the deep life in action.
He runs a design firm with an office in a warehouse-style building that included a cool feature: a “patio,” cantilevered high above the main floor, where he could relax or chat with coworkers.
“While visually very compelling this was a disaster,” he explained. “I basically had thin glass separating [it] from a warehouse where lots of people used, ate lunch, etc…a space with absolutely no functional use.”
Then last summer, on a visit to London, he toured the Churchill War Rooms, a warren of bomb-proof underground bunkers where Winston Churchill and his war cabinet plotted out the Second World War (see above photo). It resonated.
“I was blown away by how focused Churchill and the British leadership was, in these dark, small, and smoky rooms running World War II,” the reader told me.
On his return, he remodeled the office patio into a closed off space inspired by the War Rooms. Here’s an exterior view:
The room has no windows and (crucially) no computers. The walls are covered in whiteboards and the lights are in an early 20th century style:
To honor its source of inspiration, some framed World War II maps adorn the wall:
“I use my [regular] office to do all my managerial, email, and meeting work (lots of Zooms!),” he explained. “Then I move to my War Room for creation, focus, music, and deep work!”
For those who embrace the deep life, form and function become intertwined, while moderation is minimized.
A brief note: I really enjoy hearing these stories of finding solace in depth during hard times — both in professional and personal contexts. If you have a similar tale to share, I’d love to hear it at [email protected]. (Accompanying photos are welcome when relevant.)
21 thoughts on “Building a WWII Bunker in an Office Building”
Oh my God… this is total nerdgasm!!!
To think of what sort of ideas can be devised based on this sort of approach. In contrast to the “empty room” minimalism (you, yourself and your cell phone?), there may be something interestingly profound to have a room that captures an intense, possibly historical or perhaps simply themed style. And then to use that sort of style to demand one’s attention to cultivating ideas or well, deep work or some sort. Very interesting post.
Working a job in a dark store with plenty of time to do cognitive stuff for myself I doubt this approach. Working in a mall without any sunlight esp after corona I realize the difference it’s mind blowing.
Always questioned why getting mentally slow and tired after one hour working there drinking a lot of coffee to get the spike. Asking many other store owners now they all think about the working conditions as torture.
after one month in sunlight I was so sharp and had such a good memory. People were sometimes making fun of me how forgetful I was.
Never underestimate daylight. It’s far more in there than vitd3 drops tu supplement esp for cognitive sharpness.
The one thing I love here is the wall of whiteboard!
It looks great and a nice tribute to the 2nd World War generation
I could live in the most quiet and socially isolated context (as I am now for covid-related reasons). But as a desk journalist and communication consultant I simply can’t avoid being connected to the Internet, which exposes me to an ongoing set of potential distractions. I read and enjoyed your books (even if they were, somehow, a distraction from more compelling priorities) and found them useful in many ways. But trying to get a focused mindset while being so much Internet-dependent is like dieting while keeping a full-time job in a candy shop. You simply need too much willpower, which is, as we know, a scarce resource.
If you use two monitors, have you tried only using one?
Another aspect of focus and deep work….look how few people could fit in the room for Churchill. I think there is a real argument for smaller, more focused teams as well. I see a trend of adding people just because we can, because we think they might have something to contribute, or (perhaps more honestly) it makes us feel good to have a full room or zoom while the top 1-3 monopolize the meeting anyway.
In general, Churchill’s work environment was a total mess, with several assistants typing, talking, searching for stuff, crying, running downstairs and upstairs. Many of them didn’t even have any idea of what he wanted or said. However, he also treasured his concentration, and he could focus and do deep work almost at will (that’s probably why he painted and why he used to lay bricks and such), with an uncanny ability to disconnect from the external world. His war cabinet room was also designed not only to have everyone cramped in it, but to encourage hard, messy conversations. I recommend reading Manchester’s 3 volume biography on the man, it’s astounding.
He also drank considerably!
Love both those rooms!! And that whiteboard! Is that one of those sheets you stick on the wall do you suppose?
In order to pass the bar exam, I moved into a 100 year old log cottage with nothing but my exam prep materials. The cottage had no tv, internet, or electronics except a radio. I would get up at 7AM just as I would for the bar exam, and then eat while listening to NPR. Sharp at 9AM I started doing practice bar exam question on an old desk from the 80s; either multiple choice or essay using pencil or pen and paper. At noon I would stop for lunch and resume at 1 PM just like the bar exam. I stopped at 5 PM and would go for a long walk in nature to exercise back. I would then have dinner and then go to sleep by 8PM. This schedule went on for months on end till I passed.
I call this my Ted Kaczynski exam prep method and it is a little insane but it will get you through when your back is up against the wall professionally. I also recommend looking into safe nootropics and vitamin supplements to have the energy to endure this rigorous schedule. You may need to work 50 minutes and then rest every 10 minutes for your back and eyes. You will be forced to appreciate the little things like the radio, good coffee and tea as well as nature.
This is quite interesting, why did you adopt this method and were the results more or less than you expected?
Cal, I’m but a regular college student currently quarantined in a college dorm. It is impossible for me to create a dedicated space for deep work in this small space that I don’t own. However, I’d like to share a strategy that has worked for me: creating a dedicated deep work computer.
I built a computer some time ago and installed Manjaro Linux without a desktop environment. Instead, I use i3 tiling window manager, a minimal way to graphically manage applications without clutter. Furthermore, I uninstalled all GUI applications that can be replaced with CLI or TUI alternatives. My browser is completely distraction-free through site blocking and ad-blocking extensions.
The result is a machine that can throw everything I must do as a CS student, that helps me learn the linux kernel deeper, and without distractions at the same time. I’ve learned how to write technical papers in LaTeX with Vim and Zathura PDF viewer; I blog in Vim with Jeckyll, a plain-text and blog-aware static site generator; I time-block using plain text files. I wrote a simple bash alias it so that typing “today” in a terminal opens up a markdown file named YYYY-DD-MM.md in my directory of choice.
This computer desk is where all my work gets done. I’ve moved all entertainment, such as Youtube and gaming, to my iPad, which I freely indulge in outside of work hours.
Much of these ideas are taken from Matt Might’s productivity hacks blog post 😛
This is a very unique idea to have such room for deep work. I have been planning to build such a room for quite a while.
The chair for the desk appears to be a stool…This will cause back injuries if you have to sit on it for hours a day. You need a chair with good back support. Once your back gets injured, there is no going back, becomes a recurrent issue.
I just came across this article in the NY Times.
Having read Deep Work, the headline alone grabbed me: “The Pandemic May Mean the End of the Open-Floor Office.”
While the article rightly focuses on intra-office transmission & safety, I just couldn’t help but remember the section in Deep Work that touched upon the open-office layout.
The section of the article that stood out to me in that regard:
“Another basic step to lower risk, Dr. Winston said, is simply having “fewer people in a space.”
That is a concept that runs counter to the workplace zeitgeist of the past two decades. The embrace of open floor plans stretches back to the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s. It was hailed as essential to collaboration and creativity, but is, of course, also about cramming more people into expensive office space, a situation that people now realize creates unnerving petri-dish conditions.”
I’ve been reading “The Boys In The Boat” by Daniel James Brown and it got me wondering if Cal has ever written about the legendary designer/builder of racing shells, George Yeoman Pocock.
Pockock had an incredible commitment to the craftsman mentality and deep work in his workshop. All I could think about when Brown was describing Pocock is about how Cal would love Pocock and his story but I couldn’t immediately find if Cal had ever written about him.
That’s such a good book! Old post, but this is what it inspired for me: https://biggreenpen.com/2015/04/19/mind-in-boat-focus/
DEEP WORK is the latest view point in the latest era. This was practiced in Hinduism centuries ago….Sometime remix/remastered versions are needed for newer audience.
Prof. Cal, please read some ancient Indian books, there is a wealth of knowledge to learn and implement and also we can correct our approach to Deep work.
When Westerners saw Indian temples for the first time, they thought they were very unhygienic. By the very nature of their conception the temples could not have many doors and windows. There could only be one door, and that too was very small. The idea behind this was to ensure that the circle of sound being created in the temple didn’t become obstructed. It is no wonder then that those Westerners went away with the impression that the temples were dingy, dark and dirty, and that even fresh air could not enter them.