Prioritizing Deep Thought in a Distracted World: A Case Study

DeepWorkScheduleA Deep Day

I’m a big supporter of deep work. People often ask, however, how to fit this type of persistent concentration into a fractured knowledge work schedule.

To demonstrate my personal answer, I took a snapshot of my calendar from Monday (see the image to the right).

At 9:30, I began my commute, having already tackled enough small logistics to clear my head and allow me to start obsessing on a problem I’m trying to solve (I love thinking in the car). Once I arrived on campus at 10:00, I continued to obsess about this problem until an 11:00 meeting. I then had 2 more hours to obsess. At 2:00, I had another call. Then at 3:00, now mentally exhausted, I turned to a less cognitively demanding logistical task that I’m chipping away at, bit by bit, with the goal of avoiding a schedule-busting scramble the day before the deadline.

(I should note that I teach on Tuesday and Thursday, and, accordingly, devote those full days to class related work — which is why you don’t see such tasks on the sample Monday shown here.)

Here’s the take-away message: On non-teaching days I start with the assumption that the full day will be dedicated to thinking deeply on the projects that will best increase my career capital. I then (only reluctantly) squeeze in the other stuff that simply cannot be ignored. Because I assume the day is mainly about deep work, I tend to ruthlessly batch this extra stuff and push it toward the borders of my day, where it will have a minimal effect on what matters.

14 thoughts on “Prioritizing Deep Thought in a Distracted World: A Case Study”

  1. At risk of being nitpicky (or coming across as needing to have my hand held), how would you do this if you had to teach Monday through Friday (same number of hours)?

    That was my situation in grad school, and I could never find a good balance to think about the things I needed to think about. Now, post grad-school, I still have this problem. I’m unable to think about the things that will improve my teaching, because I can’t seem to block out the time in a way that gets the stupid stuff (grading) done, so that I can do the important stuff (finding new ways to present content).

  2. At risk of being nitpicky (or coming across as needing to have my hand held), how would you do this if you had to teach Monday through Friday (same number of hours)?

    Have a set routine for those courses that blocks off the required time each day needed to get done what needs to get done (assuming good work habits, batching, etc.) What’s left is the time you have to deal with. Treat that time like I treated my Monday. Of course, you’ll have less deep work hours in this scenario, but the goal is to maximize what you have available, not to hit a particular global number.

    In the life of a student where you have multiple classes per day and possibly office hours, what would you suggest?

    For a student, see my old post on the auto-pilot schedule. You add all your classes, labs, etc., to your calendar. Then you put aside the same time every week for accomplishing the school work that is regularly due. The rest of your workday hours can be assigned as each day begins to the one-off deep tasks, like projects and papers. If done correctly, you can usually keep school work within a breakfast to dinner schedule, with a half day on weekends. (See STRAIGHT-A for details.)

  3. It’s interesting that you post this now Cal. I’ve recently been trying to setup an autopilot schedule as an undergraduate with an engineering major. I have a quick question about study habits for which I haven’t seen much literature from you: how would you handle a poor prof? (e.g. I’ve got a prof right now who has little to no structure in lecture and tends not to follow the other sections outcomes very rigidly.) In studyhacks fashion, I’d like to minimize the damage that this has on the amount of extra work required of me. Any tips?

  4. I have the following problem: I can listen in class , talk about things, and on the outer it appears I’m understanding and comprehending…it even looksliek I’m participating. However, once class finishes I usually can’t recall anythign the lecturer has said or what the details of the class were. This is especially aparrent when 1 hour later we have a practical session in which the content of the lecture should be applied. Once the practical starts I have no idea what is going on or what we are doing…yet all the other students are recalling things from the lecture and applying them..even quoting the lecturer.

    Is this linked to this ? I’m not sure if it’s a deep thought thing, or the sign of something else. In the lectures the only distraction can be myself as everything else is focused around the learning .

  5. @Ko , Take a look at Cal’s posts on the “Question/Evidence/Conclusion” method for non-technical courses (e.g. world literature, western civilization, etc.) and this post ( for detailed tips on taking science notes. Also, the biggest tip I can offer from personal experience is to make sure you’re following the lecturer’s train of thought or even racing past it. When the lecturer goes through a problem or an explanation, really focus on the logic of what they’re doing. You’ll improve over time as well.

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  7. Cal, do you make any distinctions within “obsessing”?

    I can think of at least two different ways I obsess. I’ll call them “active exploration” and “brooding”.

    Active exploration requires me to rapidly ask myself questions and brainstorm answers, and to use diagrams and analogies to explore the complexity of the problem, and discover what are the pieces that might go into forming a solution. It pretty much requires me to have paper and pen, or electronic tools handy.

    Not the kind of thing I could do in the car while driving 🙂

    Brooding, on the other hand, is less structured. I basically just sit in a trance and let parts of the problem grab my attention as they will. Brooding is usually most productive for me after I’ve done some active exploration and have discovered what most of the pieces of the puzzle are.

    I can definitely brood in the car.

  8. Hi Cal!

    Your Blog is AWESOME and extremely insightful.

    I have a TOPIC that I think you would LOVE to WRITE ABOUT.

    Topic: Does Harvard produce successful people or is Harvard just great at spotting talent?

    Harvard can be substituted by MIT, Princeton…etc

  9. C Wright Mills, the american sociologist makes a very interesting point in the appendix of his book, ‘The Sociological Imagination’, which I believe is integral to your conception of scholarship as craftsmanship. He says:
    “Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of a good workman.

    What this means is that you must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship is the center of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you work. (Mills 1959: 196)

  10. This is precisely what is wrong with the current academic and educational system. People more worried about advancing a career over insuring that curricula is relevant.


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