Daily Dispatch

Cultivating Deep Focus

A widely discussed topic in just about every discipline is focus, a skill that if mastered, will allow you to achieve extraordinary results. I’ve read many books on the subject, most recently Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’ which I would recommend. Each book (Deep Work excluded) has always been missing something for me. While they explain what deep work is, why it’s both important and beneficial, they leave out how to obtain or cultivate the habit. The book ‘The Art of Learning’ inspired this post, but as I was writing it, I started to remember many of the concepts I had learned from reading ‘Deep Work’.

I’d like to firstly share the fundamental concepts I took away from Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’:

  1. Myelin Workout.
  2. Time Blocks. Long periods of distraction-free time are essential for deep work.
  3. Attention Residue. For example, if you’re reading a book, or sitting in a lecture and decide to check your Twitter feed, even for a couple of minutes, it will take you 15 – 25 minutes to get back to the same level of focus you have previously achieved.
  4. Create Routines. Cal gives us four different approaches to reaching deep work.
  5. Create containers for work. Cal doesn’t work past 5.30 (if I remember correctly) and doesn’t work on weekends, yet creates way more than his fellow peers.
  6. Ritual shutdowns. ‘Shutdown’ at the end of the day, enjoy family time, or an hour or so of reading. Honour the rest phase. I’ve found something called a ‘Digital Sunset’ has the same effect.

As I mentioned above, a particular chapter from ‘The Art of Learning’ by Josh Waitzkin (eight-time national chess champion and holder of 21 martial arts titles) inspired this entry. I’ve taken my notes and tried to build the passages into a simple post that will hopefully prove to be actionable when applied to your craft.

In every discipline, the ability to be clearheaded, present, cool under fire is much of what separates the best from the mediocre.

Josh Waitzkin presents what he calls ‘the trigger’ as a way of quickly getting into what is commonly referred to as ‘the zone’ or heightened state of focus on a particular task. He gives this outline as to how to construct our own ’trigger’:

My method is to work backwards and create the trigger (think, when have you felt closest to serene focus in your life and use that).

The next step is to create a four or five-step routine:

1. Eat a light snack for 10 minutes
2. 15 minutes of meditation
3. 10 minutes of stretching
4. 10 minutes of listening to Bob Dylan

The example above was the routine Josh created for Dennis, an audience member at an event Josh spoke at in Los Angeles. I believe meditation would be an excellent place for many to start as this gives your a mind a clean slate, almost like closing all of the running applications down on a computer and hitting the reset button. If meditation is an unfamiliar topic to you, download the free app ‘Headspace’ to get started (not affiliated).

I have used routines before competitions for the last ten years of my life. At chess tournaments, I would meditate for an hour while listening to a tape that soothed me, and then I would go to war.

The next step of the process is to gradually alter the routine so that it is similar enough so as to have the same physiological effect, but slightly different so as to make then ”trigger” both lower-maintenance and more flexible. The key is to make the changes incrementally, slowly, so there is more similarity than difference from the last version of the routine. Josh goes on to say that after getting his routine down to six minutes, he found that he didn’t always have 6 minutes of peace and quiet before going into a match. Eventually, he condensed the routine to its essence; an inhale, and an exhale. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but I suspect that as Josh is a master of Tai Chi meditation, he has learned to control his mind, and it’s connection to the body, in ways many of us are still learning about.

In the previous chapter of the book, Josh presents us with another concept titled ‘Stress and Recovery.’ This method is used by world-class performers to relax in brief moments of inactivity, coming back to the game in a fresh state. I found the next passage interesting, especially the relationship between mental exhaustion and cardiovascular interval training (which perhaps is evident to some, but I wasn’t aware of it).

The physiologists at LGE had discovered that in virtually every discipline, one of the most telling features of a dominant performer is the routine use of recovery periods.

At LGE they had discovered that there is a clear physiological connection when it comes to recovery – cardiovascular interval training can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion.

Interval work is a critical building block to becoming a consistent long-term performer.

While in the book this information is presented concerning athletes, or high-level performers, I believe this line of thinking can be applied to our day to day work, in any craft of discipline, it just takes a little imagination and creativity.

Players who are able to relax in brief moments of inactivity are almost always the ones who come through when the game is on the line.


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