“In an age of network tools… knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality…. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.” – Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
I think the reason I get up early is to think, uninterrupted. And when I am interrupted, by other early risers or by something as simple as the cat meowing for food my own deep thinking is disrupted, often to a point where I have to put away the work and find a way to reset myself. The beautiful thing about posting a blog every day is I’m forced to find a way through the shallow pool I find myself swimming in back to deeper waters, distractions be damned. But the work never feels the same.
Noise-cancelling headphones help a lot. When I go deep I’ll play the same song on repeat until I’m done with whatever project I’m committed to finishing. For me, two songs work particularly well for this, Mark Knopfler’s Wild Theme (no surprise if you know what my favorite movie is) and Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune because they both quietly soar and have no lyrics to draw me out of my focused state. After years of this trick, playing one of these songs becomes Pavlovian in snapping my mind to attention.
Long walks in nature help reset the mind when you find yourself in frenetic shallowness, and I have my go-to spots for this too. Walking helps you sort out the puzzle pieces in your subconscious mind, putting all the pieces on the table and shuffling them one step at a time. If the walk goes well you sort things out just enough. But sometimes I find myself dwelling on another puzzle altogether, and realize the distraction wasn’t swimming shallow at all but this elephant in the room that you’ve got to remove before you can properly focus on the original project. Long walks help sift the pieces enough for you to see what you’ve been staring at all along.
Another trick of the trade that countless brilliant minds subscribe to is strict daily application of Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. Write whatever comes out of your mind onto the page for three pages in a gushing stream of consciousness until you’ve gotten all the noise out of yourself, and then shift to creative output. I’ve tried this a few times but find myself frustrated by the time spent on Morning Pages that I could be spending on the work itself. The fault isn’t in the process but in my commitment to it. Enough people swear by it that it must work, and to go deeper I might have to recommit to this process myself.
“The way to live is to create.
Get every idea out of your head and into reality.”
– Derek Sivers, How to Live
Whatever gets you there, deeper work is where we mine the very best of ourselves. Eliminate as many distractions as possible, retreat to your proverbial cabin in the woods and do the work. While there’s still time.