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On Deep Work Tents and the Struggle for Focus in an Age of Social Distance

Jessica Murnane is a wellness advocate, writer, and podcaster who interviewed me on her show not long ago. Earlier this year she signed a deal with Penguin Random House to write a new book. This was great news, except for one wrinkle: the coronavirus.

“Writing a book during a pandemic was one of the most challenging things I have ever done,” she told me. Like many working parents during the past few months, she was trying to balance homeschool with the need to accomplish serious, mind-stretching deep work; all without any easy means of finding some peace and quiet.

So Jessica went to an extreme: she setup a beach tent in her backyard, so she could work outside without the sun glaring on her laptop screen (see above). She’s not alone in this innovation: I can think of at least two other people I personally know well who deployed similar tent setups in their yards for similar purposes.

I mention this story to emphasize a point that sometimes gets lost in our technical discussions, both here and on my podcast, about neuro-productivity, workflows, and the deep life: it’s been really, really hard to get things done recently. To the point where we’re setting up tents in our yards.

I strongly believe, however, that it’s still important to push back on these challenges and do our best to structure our obligations, and build our time blocks, and prioritize our deep work to the extent possible. From both a mental health and professional longevity perspective, straining to optimize a hard situation is still better than just giving in to chaos. This commitment might also set you up well to sprint ahead when things eventually, inevitably return to normal, as has happened after every pandemic in the history of humankind.

But we should also all give ourselves a break. This sucks. It will get better. We should keep striving to do our best until then.

In the meantime, if you need me, I’m trying to find an extension cord long enough to plug in the margarita maker I just hauled out to the tent I setup behind my backyard azaleas.

34 thoughts on “On Deep Work Tents and the Struggle for Focus in an Age of Social Distance”

  1. What a great idea! And I wish Jessica well with this ordeal.

    This reminds me of studying for my organic chemistry final 25+ years ago. I felt so overwhelmed by the challenge — and desperate for quiet solitude — that I packed up a few loaves of bread and my box of notecards and drove out to the Oregon coast. I spent three days camped in the back of my Volvo wagon memorizing reactions. I passed! (barely)

    • My wife did the same thing while studying anatomy. She’d take the dog and a tent, drive out to a beach, and study. When she needed a break she’d play with the dog for five minutes, then go back to studying.

      Unfortunately for me that doesn’t work. I’m a geologist, and have studied sedimentology. Beaches are field sites, not quiet refuges, as far as I’m concerned.

  2. I would be interested to know your thoughts regarding Covid, and how to have intentional conversations while social distancing. I’m currently reading your book on digital minimalism, and I am finding it very helpful.

    • Two thoughts here:

      (1) A lot of good conversation can occur 6 feet away and outside, especially if you are aggressive in organizing it.

      (2) For people who aren’t nearby, phone is a lot better than text/email.

  3. That’s reassuring. I’ve been beating myself up over not getting as much done as I did pre-pandemic but it’s nice to remember this is also a really hard time.

  4. I’m still living with my parents along with my siblings, we’re 8 in total. 2 bedrooms, 4 of us in one small room with two bunker beds. I am doing a project of learning programming to start a career as a web developer. With brothers addicted to video games, yelling while playing with their team mates, I opt to waking up early and do the work. I can’t wait to live on my own and set up a better study room.

  5. This sucks indeed. I focus hard on doing deep work. While it works well for 2 days, I fall apart on the third day and retreat into a “nothing’s-going-right” shell. Then take a break, revisit my goals for the week, and revise my strategy.

    Hope things get better soon. Staying locked at home has fried my nerves.

  6. You mentioned:
    a) structuring our obligations
    b) building our time blocks
    c) prioritizing our deep work to the extent possible

    What other similar ideas can you add?

  7. I’ve personally been struggling on two fronts – one is to not get distracted by my kids preventing me from doing deep work as the above touches on, and the other is how to effectively be a digital minimalist. I’m in Phoenix where it is 110 degrees outside so I can’t go out for long. How to relax and take a break from work when the only options seem to be surfing or Netflix/YouTube? I keep getting sucked into digital nonsense even when I don’t want to (I can only read books and play boardgames with my kids for so long)

    • I have a recumbent exercise cycle that I ride. (I live adjacent to a lake with a path around it, but everyone who feels “cooped up” drives to my neighbourhood now to escape their homes.) I ride for 15-30 minutes, depending on time of day, and then get back to it.

  8. I’m on the opposite end of this. I’m single and own my own home, and mostly introverted, so that part hasn’t been an issue. The problem is the lack of space in a small home where I have to try and organize personal, professional, and student activity in a way that keeps them separate enough that I can organize each in the best possible way. Throw in the city deciding to pave roads and “upgrade” sidewalk corners, with the neighbor on the other side redoing his roof this week, and I’ve had to find the right balance of public places to get things done.

    A great local coffee shop serves as part of my work routine now (especially the deep work) with a local library being another, my living room serves as my personal space where exercise, health, and recreation are worked on, and my spare bedroom/office is my study space for working on the lit review for my dissertation. I’m making progress on all three with work getting done that was backlogged from February (I work at a university Health Sciences Center so we were prepping to go online a month before it happened), I’ve gone jogging more consistently that I had in 3-4 years while also starting to post consistently on my own blog, and I’ve got a functional system for my lit review with achievable deadlines that should allow me to finish the whole dissertation in 18 months.

    With that said, I almost can’t do my deep work without the hustle and bustle of the coffee shop going on around me. It’s an odd conundrum for someone who is usually fine with minimal interaction.

    • Wow. What happens to kids when the mother’s eyes stray? Oh my!

      A woman’s purpose is not solely to raise kids…. and kids have been cared for by dads, grandparents, older siblings etc for literally the extent of humanity.

      An extremely hard part of COVIDis for working mothers being expected to maintain the full time job they have and need (in my case, I’m the breadwinner by a long shot but my partners job requires him outside the home) and do nearly 100% of the childrearing with the community of resources we’ve built to help us stripped away. What happens when we need to work? Tv, books, a hose if you have a yard, zooming with any retired relative you can think of, hope your kid won’t interrupt you in 3 more minutes, oh wait they did…

    • In addition to what others have said: How old is her kid? At 10 my parents routinely left me alone at home for a few hours at a time–I could make myself a small meal and entertain myself just fine (the ability to read and having a library’s worth of books in the house helped). Even younger kids can be told “Go outside and play!” for a few hours without much risk (the statistics are easy enough to find). It takes a little set-up, but you can build spaces for your kids to enjoy themselves with very little chance of injury. If there are older siblings it’s even more beneficial to do this, as it gives those older siblings much-needed life lessons (not the least of which is “Authority on paper doesn’t equal ability to get things done”!).

      • Exactly. Anti-fragility really needs to be reintroduced to parenting ASAP. I was riding my bike all over town by age 10, often being out of range of any kind of communication for hours at a time. I still remember the rule of street lights on = get your butt home.

        The world is much safer now than it was then (the mid 80s) yet parents won’t let their children develop any coping skills whatsoever, and we’re seeing the effect it has on the world with the last 7-8 years of college students introducing us to nonsense like safe spaces and trigger warnings.

        Let your kids go outside, force them if you have to, and they’ll be much better off because of it.

  9. I think getting a heated tent is a great idea for many reasons. First, you can get some peace to do work during the pandemic which is likely to reoccur many times in our lifetime due to globalization. See “The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett. Second, there are a whole host of possible events requiring temporary living shelters. We just had a dam break in Midland near where I live which could have forced us out of our house. Hurricanes, floods, forest fires, economic depression are just a few other reasons to have a good tent. At worst, you can make your kids stay in a tent on vacation at a state or national park for your vacation instead of spending the money on a hotel. Priceless.

    The best tents I have seen are by RBM Trading LLC
    10240 67TH DR APT 6F,
    FOREST HILLS, NY 11375
    +1 302 353 4449

  10. I agree. Each day starts fresh. Time blocking and trello are very powerful tools. I can’t believe Trello is free (it’s just for me). I time block my whole life. Work and non-work. Love it. Small wins to gain momentum is the key. You talk about it a lot.

    On another note, I coached lacrosse at Georgetown University from 2007 to 2012 as the volunteer assistant. I’ve been at Gonzaga since. Georgetown is a great place. I still know a lot of people there.

    • I’ve moved from Trello to Notion for my planning (it’s not quite as good on the Kanban side of things, but is far more robust overall). I’ve actually gotten rid of Evernote as well since Notion handles that role and has a web clipper. The only thing I miss is the Trello plugin for Outlook that moved items straight to cards.

      As far as the other note goes, I wish I was in the same boat. A back injury kept me from being able to go to Georgetown and play lacrosse in 94.

        • The one big wish I have for it is an offline mode. Once that happens it’s the best general organizational tool by a mile. Other programs do certain things better, but none are as broadly useful.

        • Whole-heartedly agree with Joe.

          Notion is an unbelievably powerful resource. I’ve been using Notion since its early days, and it is an essential component of my PhD work. I organize my entire life out of Notion. It takes an initial time commitment to get used to it and set it up the way you want, but it’s so worth it. I really cannot say enough good things about it.

          • I’m really struggling with figuring out how I want Notion to work for me at the moment. what’s been the most powerful use for you?

          • There are two features which, for me, took Notion from “an easy way to make a Wiki” to “straight-up magic.”

            First was understanding linked databases. Basically, you can make one big database of stuff and then reproduce it on multiple pages with different views. For instance, I have one big Tasks database, but then I have a linked database (/linked command in Notion) on my Career page (where I keep work related stuff) and my Personal page. You can then strategically filter views to see only the items and properties that you want. I put these linked, filtered tables anywhere they make sense. Sometimes I want a calendar, sometimes a Kanban, and sometimes a simple list.

            The second thing was understanding the “relational” database property. It allows you to link to items in other databases. I love this feature for the following reason. I have a Semester database, a Goals database, a Projects database, and a Tasks database. They are all linked sequentially. Each semester has a series of goals I want to accomplish, so Semester and Goals have a relational property. But then I break down Goals into discrete, time-limited projects, so Goals & Projects are linked. Finally, Projects are broken into Tasks, which are items that can be completed in less than a day. By relating all of the databases, I am forced to make sure that most of my tasks are in pursuit of a project, which is how I achieve my goals. This structure is *so* clarifying.

            I recommend looking up Marie Poulin & the website. The latter has GREAT resources, & Poulin is a wizard and provides great ideas. Her Yearly Planning template is where I got a lot of this structure from. Also look up progress bars. There are several formulas floating around the web that automatically calculate your progress on a task or project based on your start date, end date, & stuff to be completed.

            There’s a lot more I could also say, but most of it comes down to “use linked databases”. So much of my stuff is databases. My enormous list of journal articles I’ve read. My habit tracker. Grant applications and deadlines. Research projects. Teaching materials. Start simple & build up. My system is a mammoth now, but it wasn’t always. Add pages and properties as you need them, and delete ones you don’t. The more you use it, the more you will shape it to fit your personal needs.

  11. Amazing, thanks for taking the time to explain that Caitlin – I’ll definitely spend some more time playing around with it!

  12. I just finished your book “Digital Minimalism” and I really liked it! Your weird yet interesting blog entrees were too tempting to resist a quick check during my digital declutter… keep the great work, it’s inspiring to see people working with technology while remaining grounded in the physical reality. Merci beaucoup!

  13. Any deep work advice for students returning to a socially distant college setting? Currently brainstorming creative focus systems/settings when libraries are closed or at very low capacity, favorite coffee shops are closed, etc. Dreading the thought of working, sleeping, eating, and exercising in the same space..

  14. I have been reading Deep Work since July and have enjoyed it thoroughly. Surprised also that some of Cal’s tips I have been practicing already (along with the semi-grudginess of those who can’t access me on the spot). Looking forward to implementing new strategies to enhance my deep work practice. I also identify strongly with neuro-divergent disorder ADHD and the topics relating attention, focus and productivity are always of interest for me. Keep up the great work, Cal.

  15. Before i setup my own tent,i’m just curious to ask if anyone has been benefited by this new social norm?Has it helped to concentrate and get into the framework of new thoughts and ideas?I’m trying to get away from it all in order to focus and give 100% to my new endeavour. thanks


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