Deep Work Challenge, Day 1

We will begin with a warm-up that will test our readiness for deep work and show us what kind of difficulties we might encounter.

The task for today is this:

Do some kind of manual work for 30 minutes without listening to anything or watching anything. Cooking, folding laundry, cleaning, gardening – it can be anything. But you have to remain alone with your thoughts for half an hour. No music, no reading, no podcasts. It has to be an unbroken stretch of 30 minutes.

For some people, this is so easy that they won’t even understand what I’m talking about. For others, it will be hard. But a daily habit of working with your hands in silence, even if it’s for a short period of time is crucial to developing the kind of concentration you need for deep work.

I once did an important, work-intensive project during a 4-hour wait for a connecting flight at the Barajas airport in Madrid. Absolutely nothing intruded upon my thoughts because I shut it all out. There’s great power in being able to go deep inside, and this challenge is about developing this skill.

13 thoughts on “Deep Work Challenge, Day 1

  1. For some reason it feels less awful to do housework if I call it a “deep work challenge.” Still didn’t enjoy it but that was more cleaning than I can generally make myself do. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I honestly don’t know how anybody gets work done any other way. I used to hear people talking about putting on some music to work (housework, homework, whatever) so I tried it. I can’t work with music on. I can listen to music or I can work, but I can’t do both.

    I used to have this weirdly perfect job. I contracted for a company that had a rebate program. None of their customer service people could get the rebates actually processed in the lulls between answering phones, and they were swamped by them. So I’d come in on Saturdays when nobody else was in the office, sit down with a letter-opener, two giant tubs of request letters, and a computer console, and just zone out, processing rebates for a few hours. That was all it took– the whole week’s worth, done in 3-4 hours that no other employees could manage to find in their week. I was the “rebate fairy” because they never saw me at work– they’d just come in Monday morning and the work would be done πŸ™‚ My supervisor from that job actually found me my next job when that company died (CEO went on maternity leave, and her replacement corporate-pirated the company)– new job paid twice as much and was similar: they needed someone to dispose of a tedious backlog involving concentration and data-entry. When I came in to interview for that one, my ex supervisor introduced me to my new boss like: “This is [methyl], she’s great: she’s a machine!” So… hurrah for dubious compliments. This is the only way I got jobs, btw, because I’m terrible at interviewing.

    Can normal people actually learn to do this? I feel like they get bored too easily, and have too great a need to socialize while working. I’m not sure that the way I work is really healthy for normal people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s exactly, EXACTLY the kind of thing I’m talking about. You just plough through stuff and then have all the time in the world to enjoy yourself.

      Currently, we have many forces in our culture aimed at robbing people of the capacity to concentrate and do deep work. At the same time, the economy painfully needs such people and rewards them massively. Those who can resist the pressure and develop these skills will win. Those who can model them for their children will provide an enormous service for the kids. This is one of the top things we must teach our children for their mental health, academic success, and future professional success. My sister, for example, noticed that her son was unhappy at school because the teachers would interrupt kids who are enjoying an activity to move them to a different activity. This is completely anti-pedagogical. Absolutely nothing other than a tornado alarm or something of this nature merits interrupting a kid’s deep concentration. She took him out of that place, of course. But many people aren’t aware either that it’s happening or why it’s a problem.

      I’m naturally given to deep concentration but I fell into bad habits and discovered that I could barely read 2 pages any more without getting restless or antsy. This is not OK! We are being purposefully rendered useless and unemployable to make space for people who don’t let this happen to their children.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I rarely get to do this anymore, at least at my previous level. Kids are little interruption devices. Closest I get is washing up the kitchen after they go to bed, most of the time. Though I did spend all day yesterday blissfully alone, painting and cleaning at the old rental house, so we can get our deposit back πŸ˜‰

        I am gradually training the kids to “don’t interrupt unless it’s an emergency” hand-signals. Someday…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I dusted off bookshelves, top to bottom, while I had an egg timer going. I did not stop to read the books, but I was aware of the ticking of the clock. Does that defeat the purpose of the exercise?


    1. I changed the sign-in name because you out your email address in there by mistake and I wanted to prevent you getting mountains of spam.

      How you managed to avoid reading the books while dusting I will never know. πŸ™‚ But I’d be distracted by the ticking, too. I’m a neurotic around ticking. If it didn’t bother you, then it’s fine.


  4. Counter-challenge: try your deep work challenge in a hostile environment.

    Candidates for the counter-challenge: confined space work, zero oxygen environments, places where you have to sign out the expensive beryllium copper tools so they know you’re not a spark hazard in close proximity to something that doesn’t need oxygen to ignite anyway, etc.

    If you want a simulation of this, work in a storage unit in the middle of the night with nobody else around, then imagine that everything is a spark hazard in a highly inflammable place.

    Oh, did you drag that box on the floor? KABOOM.

    Did that cart clip the sheet metal corner and produce a small spark? FWOOSH.

    How hard did you really drop that pallet lifter? YOU MAY NEVER FIND OUT.

    Mindfulness is a completely different thing when you have to concentrate in order to survive.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Think of the kinds of things you’d need to design for industrial architecture, especially the type that hides its actual use.

        You get to take tours of the facilities they want to replace.

        That sounds fun until it isn’t.

        Sometimes these tours mean you get to put on a full environment suit with O2 tanks and trudge around a data centre with them just to get a feel of what that’s going to be like as you design a new generation data centre around a zero oxygen environment.

        Keep an eye on the tank timer, no pressure at all!

        Sometimes these tours mean that The Regime arrives with a military convoy so that they can take you to an LNG transfer facility to see what they want to make look like school buildings or warehouses instead, which is part of a national plan to make such facilities less accessible to terrorism.

        The entire area you’re in is so at risk that they’ve not only held your phone, but also your wallet and contents of your money belt out of concerns that the RFIDs you carry will interact with some SCADA system deep within the facility.

        You get to watch some technician adjusting pipe fittings with beryllium copper tools as you and the head of his industrial sector in government “supervise” what he’s doing.

        No pressure, no pressure at all, just keep doing your job!

        Mindful enough yet? πŸ™‚

        Maybe I’ll share some stories about the design charettes sometime.


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