Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the way a philosophy on deep work guides my life. Today I want to take a close look at the particulars of the deep work I do, the way I do it, and how I train students and parents to do the same.
MY FRONTIERS OF DEEP WORK
After understanding the distinction between deep and shallow types of work I found myself relieved. Finally I could separate in my mind the most important things I do (improving in violin, running a business, learning) and the trivial things I do (airing up my bike tire, filing taxes, sending emails). All of my work is necessary, but I learned I didn’t have to manage all of my work in the same way.
Next week you will hear about how I take care of the minutia that fringes a life of deep work (details like flat tires and an email inbox), but first I need to explain what I acknowledge as the core of my work.
Cal Newport in his book DEEP WORK defines deep work as…
professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
By that definition, I identify three frontiers of deep work in my life.
- Playing the violin
- Teaching violin lessons
- Thinking and writing about teaching violin
For me these are uncharted territories in which there is a ocean of skill still to be navigated, to be learned. These frontiers are the sum of my professional pursuits and push me to my cognitive limit. Though my priorities might change eventually, I know that practicing, teaching and writing are the most important activities I can engage in. I’m aware that my career starts, well it has started, by focusing on doing these three activities often and well.
It is my priority to devote long stretches, not fragments, of attention to violin, teaching, and writing.
WHEN I DO DEEP WORK
Newport proposes four types of deep workers: monastic, bi-modal, rhythmic, and journalistic. Though many of the thinkers that have influenced me most work monastically (and I’m admittedly jealous), I’ve settled into a rhythmic mode of depth which I’ve come to learn suits me best.
In DEEP WORK Newport uses Jerry Seinfeld’s strategy of “not breaking the chain” as an example of this mode. Seinfeld knew that even in the midst of shows and parties and rehearsals if he wanted to get better he needed to write better jokes. And if he wanted to write better jokes he needed to write every day. Everyday that Seinfeld wrote a joke he would cross of the date on the calendar with a big X. After two days he had a chain, and after a few weeks the desire to maintain the chain was strong enough to get him writing.
I use the exact same tool with my violin practice. I’ve made a commitment on my calendar to show up in a Butler School of Music practice room every morning for four hours. Every day I do I mark a big X on a hand drawn calendar I keep in my violin case. With clearly defined parameters (8am-12pm) I am able to protect my deep work practice sessions by never scheduling anything before 12. The key is in making this rhythmic, daily practice as automatic as waking up and eating dinner.
Compared to practicing, teaching is an easy commitment to keep. I schedule lessons in long blocks every working day afternoon in my calendar. With money, time, and reputation on the line, keeping these lesson commitments is simple.
My thinking and writing time is the hardest to manage. I’ve found that practicing, teaching, and writing everyday is too much deep work for me to actually do every single day. In order to maintain my schedule of regular reflection and weekly posts here every week I work bi-modally.
The only day of the week that I don’t teach is Sunday, which I use to think high level thoughts and take care of the nitty gritty. I find that the space away from the grind of daily workday commitments gives me the room to reflect on the long term, approach challenges thematically, and allow new ideas to bubble up. So on Sunday I put insightful, well written thoughts down on paper and up on my website to be posted that week.
However, even this week to week Sunday review doesn’t give me quite enough space to consider the most important aspects of my teaching. So during the breaks between terms, winter and summer, I do a huge overarching sweep of all of my thoughts on sequencing, structuring, communication, and processes of mastery. It is during this time that I hypothesize and study new sequences and best practices to implement in my studio. In lessons during the semester I follow the paths I laid out for myself during the breaks, and I return back to myself during the next break to analyze the success of those new decisions.
HOW I DO WORK
In case you think this work is easy for me because I’m writing about it on my blog, please know that it is not.
I find distractions as distracting as the most distracted. I procrastinate more than I don’t procrastinate. I sometimes need to pull out my phone for a legitimate, urgent matter during a deep work session, but then loose myself to shallowness for the rest of the day.
But what has helped me most is clarifying which projects need deep work, scheduling them, and then protecting them by using the tools below.
- Have a routine to get yourself started. The first thing I do after I unpack my violin is I tune and then play Yost tonalization exercises. This is a beautiful warm up that reconnects me to my instrument. Every time I play the exercises I feel that I have returned home. It serves as the perfect ritual to cue to my mind that I’m entering deep work. Other ideas to ritualize your start might be meditating for five minutes, brewing an excellent cup of coffee, reviewing you journal from last session, putting on a particular outfit, or stretching.
- Live in airplane mode. The internet on my phone is the single most distracting thing in my life. It is especially potent because it is on my person almost all day, every day. To establish the control I need in my life to work creatively and the limits of my cognitive ability I have to not just stop distractions, but stop the possibility of distraction. While practicing, teaching, and writing my phone is on airplane mode. I don’t switch it on except in cases of emergency (even during breaks). Because I go to sleep, wake up, and head to the music building at 8am, I really have no need to use my phone in the morning. Most days my phone is in airplane mode from about 10pm to 12pm the next day.
- Plan your deep work session. Once you schedule your deep work, there is only simply the challenge of meeting yourself. But once you meet yourself regularly enough, the challenge is in coaxing out every last drop of cognitive ingenuity out of that session. I’ve found that planning the flow of my session in my small, moleskin notebook keeps me on track. I jot down an idea of when I’ll move from one violin piece to the next, or a list of posts I want to finish and about how long they should take write. Noting a sequence of work that will carry me through the hours of the sessions primes me to begin, but also to begin with urgency knowing that those hours will pass quickly, not leisurely.
- Take micro breaks. These are rigorous sessions that will yield more results if you give your body and brain time to step away. Countless studies have shown that our unconscious mind continues to chew on complex issues while our conscious mind relaxes, so I encourage you to take 10 minute breaks after 50 minutes of work. Relaxation in those 10 minutes could look like walking down the hall to get some water, doing a yoga pose, meditating, eating a snack, or even reading a fiction book. Beware of stimulating yourself with inputs such as non fiction writing or podcasting or social media feeds as those sources tend to be addictive and distracting. Attention residue might take a huge chunk out of your next 50 minute session if you allow the break to be a lapse into distraction.
- Use the whiteboard method. I find that my best ideas come to me (1) when I’m in the shower and (2) when I’m doing deep work. This pattern is unfortunate because showers and deep work sessions are the times during the day during which I’m least able to act on a new idea. As I’m practicing violin, my brain will start to unload ideas about emails, text messages, scheduling, long term dreams, summer plans, anxieties, outfits, lesson pacing, books to read, etc. Notice this for what it is. Your brain, free of stimulus, finally has room to think and therefore is able to remind you of the details you might not have had time to capture during the shallowness of the rest of your day. Your brain has another anterior motive that we all need to be wary of. Deep work, by definition, is more cognitively demanding than shallow work. Your brain is going to throw any shiny opportunities at you it can in order to get out of more difficult work. Resist this temptation by using Sean McCabe’s white board trick: note it, but don’t act on it. Sean will write on his white board anything his brain tells him to do instead of working on the challenging task at hand, but he refrains from doing the action if it’s up on the whiteboard. For example, his brain might tell him to update his twitter feed with an interesting quote he just found, he writes “post quote on twitter,” on the whiteboard, and gets back to work. I do the same, but on the page of the moleskin notebook I did my planning on.
- Shut down once finished. When the work is done, use a ritual to clue in your brain that it’s work for the day is finished. This will train your brain to work to the buzzer, so to speak, but also to manage bleed from one activity to the next. It is tempting to take home work with you, to let lesson planning cross over with practicing and teaching crossover with writing about teaching. It’s important to be able to “turn it on” when you need to, and therefore you need to “turn it off” when you don’t. Cal Newport simply chants, “workday shutdown complete,” when he is finished for the day. I tend to glance over my calendar, my to do lists, and mentally declare myself done for the day. I have more clarifying to do on this front, as I’m tempted to often work as long and hard as I can. However, I know that following the logic of micro breaks, that macro breaks would unlock huge potential in my deep thinking and deep doing.
They seem simple, but these tools help put a little bit of friction between you and the all too addicting urge to live a safe life in the shallows. Try incorporating each strategy, one by one, into the deep work time that you schedule.