5 Ways to Build Your Deep Work Muscle

One of the questions I asked Cal Newport was where people go wrong with Deep Work.

It turns out that if we haven’t built the deep work muscle, we’ll give into our temptation for distraction and boredom.

You don’t go to the gym and try to lift 300 pounds if you’ never lifted weights before. And attempting to lock yourself in a cabin in the woods with no internet access, and produce the next great American novel probably won’t work if you haven’t trained your ability to sustain focus on a cognitively demanding task for an extended period of time.

So how do you actually build the deep work muscle?

1) Focus blocks:

The idea behind a focus block is simple. For a predetermined amount of time, you block distractions to do deep work. Start by trying this for 10 minutes each day. If you have to turn off your phone do that as well. Then gradually increase it to 15, and then to 20. To key to making a focus block useful is to have deep work to fill that time.

  • If you’re a writer, write.
  • If you’re, a musician play your instrument.
  • If you’re a programmer write a few lines of code.

Focus blocks work because you leverage all sorts of brain hacks that drive habit formation.

You’re using activation energy because you’re increasing the amount of effort and energy needed to do the thing you’re trying to avoid (browse distracting websites, turn on distracting apps, etc).

You’re also leveraging the concept of a cue. The minute you start a time block, it’s a signal that it’s time to do deep work.

Focus blocks were the essential ingredient in how I developed my habit of writing 1000 words a day. And I still use them to this day.

2) Meditation

I finally developed a meditation habit after this conversation with author Susan Piver and these conversations with my mentor Greg Hartle. (Part 1 and Part 2 ). Meditation forces you to resist forms of distraction and, as a result, builds your capacity to do so, which in turn builds your deep work muscle.

Use an app like Calm or Headspace. Again you don’t want to attempt to check into a monastery and become a monk if you have never once attempted to meditate. And start with 5 minutes a day. Then build up to 10 minutes, and more. I have yet to make it past 10 minutes, but even that 10 minutes has made a significant difference in my life.

3) Unplugging

If your work allows you to, unplug completely in the middle of the day.

Shut down your phone.

Shut down your laptop.

And try to enjoy the silence.

When we unplug we limit the inflow, we reduce consumption and increase our capacity for deep work and creation. In his book Cal Newport even recommends a shutdown routine. For more read the 7 step even ritual that will make you happy.

4) Exercise

I’ve found that when I get back from surfing or from the gym, I’m not only filled with new ideas, I’m able to focus on things and fly through my to-do list and even my inbox. But I’ve also learned that the worst possible thing you can do when you’re in a creative zone after a great workout is killing that high with things like email and social media.

I don’t know why, but I’ve found it quite literally reduces the high I feel when I give into distraction after a good workout. Use that time wisely to build not just your actual muscles but your deep work muscles.

5) Changing Environments

In his book Iconoclast, Gregory Berns cites exposure to new stimuli as one of the things that cause iconoclastic thinking.

Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not seen before, does it start to reorganize perception. The more radical and novel the change, the greater the likelihood of new insights being generated. To think like an iconoclast, you need novel experiences — Gregory Berns

Part of the reason I go to a Starbucks or a local coffee shop on the days that I don’t have work that involves other people is because it causes a change in environment. And if you live in a city like San Francisco or New York, try going to a different coffee shop every day for a month and see what it does to your creativity.

Like a person whose able to lift more weights as he builds his muscles, you’ll be able to sustain deep work for longer periods of time as you train your ability to resist distraction

Additional Pieces that Drive my Deep Work Habits

I’m the host and founder of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast.

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