The deep work cave

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I would spend the workday at my desk, tucked inside Rare Bird HQ in the Indiana Design Center. I was even one of the few that snagged an office with a sliding wood door, removed from the central bustle and buzz of the open floor, because some writers have lots of feelings about their creative workspace vibe. It was a focus-friendly environment, one where daily tasks were checked off in relative peace and predictability. 

But that was then, and this is now. Today I’m part of the vast (and fortunate) portion of the workforce that found themselves setting up shop at home last spring. These days, my workspace includes three virtual students (with a very real violin class), a pet that tries to sit in my lap all day, and neighborhood kids who congregate on our porch most afternoons. My work structure looks—to put it mildly—different. It looks different for millions of people this year, and we’ve all had to adjust the way we approach our work. Especially our deep work. 

What’s Deep Work?

In his book on the concept, Cal Newport defines deep work as focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task—one that creates value and is hard to replicate. It’s using your genius, basically. Contrast this with shallow work, which emcompasses all the busywork we attend to that doesn’t require our deepest efforts. A typical workday has both. But for a lot of us, a typical workday now isn’t as conducive to deep work as it once was. “The zone” is tougher to find in the new environments many of us find ourselves in. But if we want to produce quality work, even in a challenging environment, we’d better find it. 

Enter the Cave

In a virtual Creative Mornings workshop I was introduced to Caveday, an organization that helps people find their flow through deep focus sessions referred to as “caves.” It works like this: you get on a Zoom call with a facilitator and a bunch of other people who need to get their work done. Each person announces their particular project to the group (“Hi, my name is Caroline and I’m writing a blog on deep work.”) The facilitator sets a timer and you go to work in “the cave” you’ve set up, free from distractions and held accountable to all the internet strangers when the time is up. Which, surprisingly, works. Whether you approach deep work with complete strangers, coworkers, or by yourself, there are a few helpful practices that truly help us to channel and maximize our sacred time in the zone, where our best work is done. 

  • Create Rituals: Our brains need something to differentiate the times it’s only sort-of needed (updating timesheets, checking email) from the times it’s about to break a sweat (planning, researching, creating). When it’s Go Time, do something to signal when it starts. Brew a fresh cup of coffee. Go sit in that one spot you’ve reserved for your deepest, most focused work. Listen to Eye of the Tiger while jumping rope. Just do something that signals the gears are shifting, and do it every time. 
  • Eliminate Distractions: We used to unlock our phones around 80 times a day pre-pandemic. It’s a lot worse now, making it Public Enemy No. 1 of concentration. When you’re entering a block of focused time, put your phone in a different room. Silence every potential bell, ding, and notification on your computer; Slack can wait. Make sure you’re not starving. Tell the kids you don’t exist for the next half hour. Close the door. 
  • Cap Your Time: Researchers figured out we can wring about 25-52 minutes of high cognitive productivity from our brain before it says “whoa” and starts slowing down. We see this put into practice with time-blocking as well as the Pomodoro technique developed in the late 1980’s, which arranges stints of concentrated work into 25 minute bursts. Remember: these are sprints, not marathons. If you’re staring down the barrel of a 6-hour project, break it up into defined pieces and tackle it systematically. 

Deep work is hard work. Deep work is good work. Second only to our character, it’s what we’ll be known for in the end—ideas we manifested, plans we brought forth, things we created, what we did with our time and our particular set of gifts. It’s worth every ounce of discipline and effort we invest, even (especially) when we find ourselves navigating challenging work environments. 

We’d love to know: if 2020 changed your work structure, which practices are helping you stay focused and productive? 

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