Deep Work: Achieving Flow, Focus and Fulfillment in the Activities of Your Life
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
I began the practice of deep work in my twenties and since then it’s become increasingly a part of my life. Before becoming a psychologist I studied acting at Cal Arts and after that I became a Montessori teacher. Both of these, acting and teaching are creative endeavours and foster depth and focus. Maria Montessori felt that a child who was allowed to have an extended and uninterrupted “work period” as she liked to call it, would have subsequent work periods that were deeper, longer and even more effective and satisfying. Anyone who has paid attention to the way an engaged child sinks into their activities, understands the beauty of her theory, kids in this state are spellbinding, they have the concentration and sense of exploration of a scientist and the ancient, forever look in their eyes of someone in deep meditation.
When it comes to deep work, adults are a lot like kids, we call on those natural states that allows to stretch and do what is meaningful to us.
Next on the deep work front in my case became writing.
I began writing books when my children were young. That meant that I had to find extra hours of the day, come to understand my optimal times of high concentration and output and somehow manage them in a way that wasn’t stress inducing. I found being a mom gave me the motivation to be much more focused and efficient with my time, mostly becuase there was so little of it that was actually mine.
I am what’s known as a lark so getting up at dawn is no great effort for me. For fifteen years or so I followed this schedule. I woke up at 5:00 without an alarm having gone to bed at 9:00 or so. I made a cup of tea and went straight to work….although it didn’t really feel like work. It felt like a priviledge, like the flow state that Michalay Csilszentmihali of the University of Chicago refers to in his writings. And as his research found, I too would emerge from this time feeling rested, integrated and more whole.
Then I made breakfast and got the kids off to school, got dressed and went back to work till ten or eleven. At that point I took a break and usually walked in the park with a friend. After an hour I went back to work. I generally got in another couple of hours in before I needed to stop, move along with my day, change venues, do other work or whatever. I often came back for another “deep work” session in the afternoon but the work was different, I found editing was easier for me in the afternoon while the early hours were best for writing.
Cooking was a break, a change of activity that was both practical as I could set up dinner and do something creative and food oriented, which is to say basic, yummy, satisfying. Shopping wasn’t bad either, errands in the neighborhood, but fun slightly self indulgent errands.
I started this pattern before email existed so that wasn’t an issue but today I try to minimize emails until after I have this first burst. I answer only the emails from countries like India or Rumania where the time difference is an issue and I keep them brief. If I were really smart I wouldn’t even check them to be perfectly honest.
This way of working has not only made optimal use of my best time of day for focusing, it has also given me somewhere to go that feels like me. Being a wife and mother and also a professional means that there are a lot of tasks in the day. Being a writer means that you can close the door (sort of Moms cannot ever really do that). But you can talk to the world from a very quiet, private space, you can sort of hide in plain sight. And if you like to be alone and quiet as I do, then it’s way to be that and still be moving your work life forward.
I am often asked how I can make myself sit down and write all these books and the question never really makes sense to me. If I had to make myself do it I wouldn’t write. I see writing as a great privilege, a communion with myself and the world. A way to sort through what it means to be human on both the micro and macro level.
I am also a psychodramatist, this is a role play method of healing that can be anything from interesting to downright remarkable. When I direct I enter a state that to me feels very Zen. One of the dictums of psychodrama is that the therapist/director is to follow the lead of the protagonist or the person doing a drama or role play. Essentially that means that the therapist’s head has to be present, that thinking is not the way to direct. All I can describe is that what I do is simply be present with no agendas. I am fully trained and have done literally thousands of these dramas so the techniques of the method are second nature to me. When I am asked to explain after a drama why I did what I did, I find it an effort to answer because the honest answer is “I am not altogether sure, it is just where the moment led me for a thousand different reasons that are too numerous to name.” What I experience when I direct a psychodrama is that flow state, I emerge from directing more alive and integrated even if it is someone else’s work. I think that the state of mind that I direct from is very deep and wide and truthfully hardly feels like my own. I suppose I could say it’s a sort of shared state but even that would feel too prescriptive. It simply is. I am engaged and challenged just enough to hold my interest but not so much that I feel anxious. I am aware that it is the protagonist who is doing the “time traveling” that is part of a role play like this and that I am both a sort of guide and follower and even a witness. It is certainly meaningful, a cherished look, carved out of time into one’s psyche, heart and mind. The requirements of the role or at least the role as I play it are that I stay in a neutral enough state so that I can do whatever seems necessary. Sometimes this is very active directing, sometimes it is simply standing by and holding the space and watching the work happen. It’s great practice for living, actually.
These two activities form the core of my professional life and they are both deep and as I enter them in an uninterupted manner over and over again in the course of my professional life, my capacity for deep work increases, just as Montessori theorized.
This is worth a watch from the man who discovered “Flow”.
Recently I took a break from writing academic books and created an adult coloring book. If you’re looking for just a break…a change in activity and you want to feel your hand moving color around a page….try this…..