Deep Habits: Think Hard Outside The Office

Reading Under a Tree

Deep Work After Hours

One lesson I learned after becoming a professor is that producing intellectual insights at a professional pace requires deep thinking beyond the confines of the normal workday. Though I’m quite good at protecting and prioritizing deep work against the encroachment of the shallow, the depth I can fit into my regular schedule is not sufficient.

My strategy is to maintain, at all times, a single, clear problem primed and ready for cogitation. I then set aside specific times for this deep thinking in my schedule outside work. I use many (though not all) of my commutes for this purpose. I also leverage long weekend dog walks and the mental lull that accompanies time-consuming house work.

(People sometimes ask what I do with the free time I preserve by not using any social media or web surfing. This is a large part of my answer.)

Quality Over Quantity

This habits adds an additional half dozen hours (on average) of deep thinking to my week. This might not seem like a lot, but more important than the number of hours gained is their quality.

Because this deep thinking is freed from the context of an otherwise draining workday, I can often muster more mental energy than, say, at 3:00 on a Thursday afternoon.

Another advantage is that these blocks are short. This allows me to make many fresh attacks on a problem, which is generally more likely to generate a breakthrough than combining that time into one long slog.

Caveat Emptor

A word of warning concerning this approach is that there is significant difference between having a primed undecidable task to work on after hours, and just letting your normal, shallow obligations bleed into your evenings and weekends.

The former can be invigorating while the latter is draining and often devolves into stressful workaholism.

Put another way, I think fixed-schedule productivity and work shutdown routines (and all the benefits they bestow) are fully compatible with this habit — at least, in my experience.

This being said, this habit is not always innocuous. It’s easy sometimes for it to get out of hand.

For example, sometimes, when I get close to a solution, I get a little obsessive in my thinking and it bleeds into whatever else the family is doing: at which point it becomes noticeable (and annoying) to those around me. If I spend more than a day or two in this state, I will burn out — which isn’t pleasant.

But usually, this extracurricular contemplation remains well-contained.

Bottom Line

To conclude, I’m not sure if this approach generalizes much beyond the weird world I live in where people pay me to prove things (though I suspect it does). But at the very least, it provides some insight into the often grinding (and occasionally exhilarating) pursuit of a career in the world of professional thinking.

15 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Think Hard Outside The Office”

  1. Cal, say you’re walking the dog and using this strategy, but earlier in the day there was an admin dept meeting that had some problems in it, some of which concerned you.

    Do you find yourself walking the dog and actively thinking “right now I’m just focusing on this proof, I’m not thinking about the xyz dept problem.”

    Because otherwise your mind has a tendency to go to some recent problem minutae, which bleeds into the bad kind like you stated.

  2. I was reading this post on Medium and it struck me how closely this distinction seems to relate to deep work. Just to share:

    For the purpose of this exercise lets say there are two types of creators which will follow later with the two types of cognitive functions involved in each: Replication Creators (RC) and Skilled Creators (SC).

    If you Google something, go to a conference, or read a book and then create something from the inspiration that comes; it is replication creation (RC). Simply: I learned this from so that I could go and perform . You may have often heard the term “key-takeaways” when at a conference. What it really means is “What pieces can I use on Monday?”.

    Skilled creation (SC) on the other hand is using the space between your ears like a muscle and producing something new with it without the help of someone else. It doesn’t necessarily need to be groundbreaking but the key difference is that you used your brain and came up with a solution. A secondary action would be to show what you built to the world (for their consumption) but it’s not necessary for the purpose of this argument.

    • I wonder whether this is a useful dichotomy: in my opinion, all creators need all of the following three phases:

      (1) broad (and, hence, shallow) exploration of a wide range of related topics, (2) in-depth study and mastery of crucial techniques and aspects of the field they are working in, and (3) disconnected thinking time to create/apply those ideas.

      The dichotomy you’re pointing at seems to warn to not spend too much time on (1) and too less on (2) and especially (3), but there’s no point in diabolizing this phase: where would you otherwise pick up useful ideas, possibilities for cross-fertilization, possible applications or sense of purpose then by reading and listening widely and broadly ? I don’t think there is something like being original or creative without being influenced or picking up ideas…

      The only danger of the ease that is brought to this phase by the internet (50yrs ago, one had to do a lot of deliberate effort to stay informed) is that too much time is spent on this phase, and too less on phase (2) and (3). But I still think take-away messages are useful, they let me decide whether this topic/talk/method/idea is worth some in-depth study or thinking…

  3. Alvin,
    Your comment prompted some ‘deep work’ thinking of my own.

    I’d like to call into question the ‘replication’ v. ‘skilled’ distinction you are making.

    In my experience, all knowledge is a result of conceptual construction derived from and returned to, social connection. So for me, your notion/label of ‘skilled;’ is qualified only to the degree that the conceptual makeup of the thinking activity (so labeled) was held longer and may have been reinforced by repetitive reinforcement of meta-tangential concepts , whereas the so-called replicator thinking was just the same/very similar cognitive activity, just occurring in real-time or was simply much more immediate.

    Is that possible for you, or am I missing added distinctions?

    • Hi Tyelmene,

      I’m actually not the one who came up with the RC/SC distinction, I’m sharing it over from the original writer at Medium. You can find him at the link in my original comment for your question.

  4. Great points!

    This is why I love long drives in the car on my own. During five hours of thinking time, I can sort out so much personally and professionally.

    When I’m stuck on anything, I find taking a walk and thinking it through to be one of the most productive solutions.

    To your brilliance!

  5. I’ve been doing this for a while as well and run into the same problem of not being able to move on if I am close to a solution. If it’s at the end of the day, you can just do a scheduled shutdown, but how do you move on if there is more scheduled work to be done?

  6. Hi Cal- this comment may not be too relevant to your post right here but it is something that I found rather interesting. Especially since I am currently reading ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’.
    It seems that many are seeing the flaws in this idea of finding a ‘dream job’.

  7. Off topic:
    When Albert Einstein was working at the patent office to make a living, he used to jot down physics notes and hid those in a drawer.
    What I feel is that he did so because of his curiousness.
    Similarly, if I’m currently in a job just to make a living, and if I tend to follow my curiosity as like a hobby, won’t I succeed?

    • Einstein did what was required to barely pass his exams as a physicist, which is why he was rejected for PhD positions. So he had to work at the patent office.

      But according to his own accounts, during his studies he studied theoretical physics and mathematics a lot and became quite skillful in those areas.

      That, and only that – again according to his own accounts – enabled him to work on the problems that made him famous.

      He became so good they couldn’t ignore him anymore. It doesn’t matter whether this happened on the job or in his leisure time – he put in the work and delivered results.

    • If you can use your curiosity as fuel to get to the 10,000 hours of practice (as Einstein did – read how much work he put into E=mc^2), then sure, you can be successful. If you as not as curious, but still have a upbeat attitude towards many disciplines (what do you want to accomplish in life?), you can still put in those 10,000 hours of practice. The small successes along the way, will help you build bigger successes. As A.I. said above, he really did put in the work. I think there is quote of Einstein somewhere along the lines of, ‘if people think as hard as I do, they would get the same results’ (Google’s not working for me right now)


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