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Focus Week: Rediscover Depth

When I was a young graduate student at MIT, I was impressed by Alan Lightman, a one-time physicist, who turned toward essay and novel writing and ended up accepting a humanities professorship and starting the school’s science journalism program.

What initially caught my attention about Lightman was the following line, which to this day remains defiantly perched at the top of his academic homepage:

“I do not use e-mail, but you can reach me at my MIT office: [mailing address]”

But what really captured my imagination was when I heard about Lightman’s island.

In his late 30’s, at a time when the was looking for a quiet place for him to write and his wife to paint, Lightman stumbled across a 30-acre island in Casco Bay, Maine, shared by six families. There are no bridges or ferries servicing the island; no electricity; no plumbing; no internet or phone. Lightman and his wife spend their summers at this isolated outpost decompressing and creating.

“The world is moving at much too fast a pace: everybody is plugged in 24/7, everything is rush rush rush,” he said in a recent interview. “The island in the summer is a place where we can unplug, slow down, listen to ourselves think.”

I was reminded of Lightman while recently reading about Mary Somerville, the 19th century polymath who was among the first women to be elected to the Royal Astronomical Society. As Somerville recalls in her autobiography, as a child, she would find ways to evade the chores and social activities that defined the lives of women of her social station to instead explore the nearby sea coast:

“When the tide was out I spent hours on the sands…I made collections of shells, such as were cast ashore, some so small that they appeared like white specks in patches of black sand. There was a small pier on the sands for shipping limestone brought from the coal mines inland. I was astonished to see the surface of these blocks of stone covered with beautiful impressions of what seemed to be leaves; how they got there I could not imagine, but I picked up the broken bits, and even large pieces, and brought them to my repository.”

Her collection, begun during those childhood expeditions, is now housed at the college named in her honor at the University of Oxford.

Lightman and Somerville’s lives were defined and elevated by regular exposure to depth: extended periods of undistracted time during which the mind can focus intensely on one thing, or purposefully on nothing at all. In both cases, this depth was hard-won. Lightman’s island was remote and offered primitive living conditions. He had never used a boat before committing to a house that required one to access. Somerville, for her part, had to battle the gender expectations of her era to carve out a deeper life. It never came easy.

But they invested the effort because, as I argue in Deep Work, we can find evidence from psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and theology that all supports the same conclusion: humans thrive on concentration and presence.

Which brings us to the last five months: a period in which such moments of depth were lost to the daily waves of anxiety and uncertainty.

In my previous Focus Week essay, I recommended unplugging to provide your brain some breathing room. Here I’m recommending that you put this breathing room to good use by reintroducing yourself to the pleasures of concentrating without distraction on something difficult but rewarding; to rediscover, in other words, the necessity of depth.

There are many ways to execute this reintroduction. For the sake of concreteness, here is one specific strategy among many that I’ve found to be effective: read two chapters from a book every day; with at least one of the chapters read in a scenic or otherwise interesting setting.

If you’ve been splashing in a world of distracting shallowness since March, you may need to ease back into regular engagement with complicated material. I would suggest starting with books that are easy to read, such as popular novels, or narrative non-fiction, or advice writing. As you complete each book, however, raise the difficulty of the next. Your goal is to get to a place where the two chapters consumed each day really push your mind.

(In my own practice of this discipline, for example, which I started over the summer, I’m currently working on the famed Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy’s 600-page tome, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours.)

The addendum about finding a scenic or interesting location is meant to help your brain ritualistically context shift. This will help your concentration and increase the satisfaction of the exercise. A nearby park works well for this purpose. If you have access to woods, especially woods with a stream, that’s even better. Sitting outdoors at a cafe can be equally effective. The goal is to distinguish the activity from everyday life, providing that moment of presence enjoyed by Lightman on his island or Sommerville by the seashore.

Finding time to read is not easy, especially for those of us juggling remote work with a lack of childcare. You might have to use early mornings, or late evenings, or 20-minute”meetings” put on your shared work calendar that secretly protect time for you to dash outside and knock off some mid-day pages. The specific quantity of two chapters was selected to be easy enough that most people can fit it in most days, but hard enough that it still generates a benefit.

It’s important to emphasize that this commitment is no indulgence. You cannot exist in a persistent state of agitated distraction. A regular dose of depth will do more than provide you a fleeting moment of calm, it will begin a more lasting process of rewiring your brain back toward a state of concentration, and insight, and creativity that’s much more compatible with a satisfying and meaningful life, even in times of struggle.

23 thoughts on “Focus Week: Rediscover Depth”

  1. Great article Cal. Would be nice to have had a “co-article” from Lightman’s wife on how she views the deep work/depth time. Since you know Lightman, perhaps you could interview his wife for her deep work island views. I sense there may potentially be some fascinating gender perspectives on solitude, deep work, depth of learning, and attaining contiguous blocks of time to allow real thinking-and what it means for both sexes. I am reminded of how in behavioral finance/investing, women tend to be better stewards of capital as they are less apt to turn it into gambling; conversely, they may not allocate enough in stocks in their early years to allow enough portfolio growth to pay for their nursing home (often as a widow). Anyway, again great article (and photography). GT

    • From what I know, Alan’s wife is a pretty serious artist, so the island was really critical for her practice, both from a lack of distractions perspective, but also from a light/scenery perspective. I agree that she would have quite sophisticated views on the value of depth, creativity, etc. We know Alan’s perspectives mainly because he wrote a book about it.

      (By the way, Scott Young did the art work! He taught himself art as one of his Ultralearning projects…)

  2. Great recommendation Cal. I started going to the park to journal and hand-write blog posts the last few weeks and found my focus to be much better there. I like the book reading recommendation and may implement that too.

  3. I began setting time aside to read in May. As a child I consumed books like candy but lost that through a demanding career in educational administration. Now in retirement, I spend at minimum 45 minutes a day on the deck (which I rarely used when working) reading. Up to a book+ a week. It has made such a difference as Cal writes.

    • I was wondering exactly the same. Since I read Deep Work, I started a similar planning tool (mixing it with some of pomodoro technique’s planning strategy).

      But luckily I had flexible and not so demanding working tasks since then

  4. How would this advice change for students? Especially those under a heavy course load and numbing online classes?

    Things I could think of, for myself:
    • Take time out for deeply thinking about ideas, solving challenging psets etc. for deeper understanding.
    • Move ahead in course so that you can reach closer to the cutting edge and start research as you have suggested.
    • Spend time with similar enthusiastic students for intriguing and deep discussions.

    What other suggestions would you give? How can the suggestions can be done better?

  5. “As you complete each book, however, raise the difficulty of the next.”

    Cal, I would love a post about reading for research, for pleasure and for… what it’s in the middle. I schedule reading books and papers as deep work or in my autopilot schedule if I have to take careful notes or think hard about them (for research and writing in social sciences and humanities). I don’t schedule free time reading, I usually read poetry or light fiction if I have the time. But I am struggling with hard readings which are not directly related to my work, like philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science. Sometimes they are more related to my field that I thought, so I do need to take notes or they make me think about work. Sometimes they are very hard topics (emotionally), so they would distract me for my work if I read them during the day, and I can’t really relax after reading them at night. How do you handle these type of readings?

  6. “Focus Reading or Focus Consumption” could be something to be clarified further because I tend to be confused

    Most of us consume a lot of “Reading” scattered through work day (papers, web articles, book chapters, work emails, chats, web searches, pieces of conference videos). This is something we do for work (most of the time in a shallow way) but I Think it is something unrelated from this post idea.

    If I understand correctly you are claiming to reserve some deep space to Read every day in a particular environment context anything which is not related to your daily work and which can (hopefully) grow you. am I correct?

  7. I love this line: “It’s important to emphasize that this commitment is no indulgence.”

    This type of *deep breath in the day* deserves as much time and scheduling and commitment as any work or personal obligation. It’s so hard to remember this, but so rewarding when I do.

  8. Living in a place where it’s going to be 105 in a few hours, and the plethora of parks are dry and brown with no trees, a scenic setting isn’t really an option. I’m legitimately 100+ miles from anything that isn’t flat, dry, red plains.

    As for interesting, it’s nice to be in a growing college town where libraries and coffee shops abound. Each place with it’s own unique look and feel, and a job that’s very flexible as we still haven’t returned to our offices since leaving on March 18. Find a few places and try to make them special, even if you can’t do it every day.

  9. I couldn’t figure out why Alan Lightman’s name sounded so familiar, but upon visiting his academic homepage, realized it was because I read “The Diagnosis” for some summer leisure reading during college. What a blast from the past.

    Thanks for this reminder of rediscovering depth. It’s always a good time to be reminded of the importance of depth.

  10. Hi Cal, I have called you out here before for featuring a lot of men and very few women in your posts, so I want to thank you for writing about Mary Somerville. As a previous commenter wrote, there seem to be interesting gender dynamics not only in the practice of work but also in the talking about it. (I find it unsurprising that Alan is the member of the Lightman couple to have written a book about the island life.) Anyway, thanks for featuring Somerville, and I look forward to the deep work practices of more women getting space in your blog. And I’ve signed up for your course in the further pursuit of my own deep life!

  11. I absolutely loved the blog Cal. It is so true that learning new skills is the need of the hour. As per my opinion, skills take you more places than college degrees. This process has been further simplified by the onset of digital learning platforms. One that I personally look forward to is Kool Stories. It brings together people to learn from each other, socializing, and networking experience. As a community, our end goal should be to keep up the learning forever.

    For me, the best learning method is meta learning – knowledge of your learning method, pace, and style.

  12. I see Lightman as a case study that mirrors the other examples in Deep Work. Thise who fight distraction can either actively manage thier enviornment or chise to relocate to a place where the distractions are naturally eliminated. I have ADHD, prior to discovering Newport I always had a desire totake long hikes, I always cane back feeling fresh. I can now frame that feeling as feeling as a neurological holiday from never ending distractions. I had enough focus to get through books and and be mindful in my current experiences. Therr is, perhaps, something to be said about solitude that contributes to getting in touch with your senses that are otherwise ignored in the hustle and bustle of the modern world . When i eat a wild blueberry that I find off a mountian trail,I feel like I get more appreciation from that experience that had i ate one at a corner grocery store. The quality of experience seems to elivate when you eliminate the modern static.

  13. I have what is called a priming journal. In this journal I write the false logic behind my excuses and instead “prime” myself for optimal learning and focus. Today’s entry was about Mary Somerville and how she persevered while being a full-time mom, basically distracted learning. As I was doing research I came across your article and it’s kind of blowing my theory out of the water. As I am one of those people “juggling remote-work with lack of child-care” it is important for me to not make excuses.

    So I have a simple question is it important to work through distraction or to find time without distraction?


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