Building an Oaken Tower


Creating the time and space for real thinking and productivity doesn’t happen by accident. The term ivory tower refers to academics who live high above, with a layer of cloud separating them from worldly things. It’s a nice thought. For dads, though, it’s often more of a fantasy. Our people need another type of building material. It’s got to be robust, flexible, and a lot less pretentious. Ideally, you’ll have some leftover material from when you build the deck.

The kind of thinking space that we’re talking about is what author Cal Newport describes as deep work. I like this term and am going to stick with it. Deep work is a kind of flow state where a combination of deep concentration and singular focus result in revving at full mental capacity. If you’re going to do something great, you’re going to need to do deep work. Being prolific or truly creative doesn’t happen when you’re checking your e-mail or your Facebook feed every two minutes. And that’s assuming that you have long blocks of otherwise uninterrupted time to focus. Family adds another wrinkle. As does any kind of work situation that involves lots of e-mail or meetings or anything else that continually jars your focus.

I’ll say it again: deep work doesn’t happen by accident. That’s why we need the time and space for it. Let’s talk about how to build your oaken tower.

First, choose your method.

The Bimodal Method

A loaded freight train doesn’t start or stop easily. If you want to build up to maximum mental speed, Newport recommends a full day. Make it several days for maximum effect. By ridding yourself of distractions — holing up in a cabin or a secret fortress of your choosing — you can work uninterrupted. An extension of this is to do something special and unusual like building a retreat, or holing up in a hotel. Author Peter Shankman famously took to the skies when he had two weeks to finish a manuscript. Knowing that air travel was distraction-free for him, he booked a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo. He wrote non-stop during the flight to Japan, disembarked, had an espresso and then turned right back around, writing the whole way back. He completed the manuscript before touching home soil. According to him, the $4,000 trip was worth every penny.

The bimodal method seems less obtainable than it actually is. If you’ve earned enough career capital (another one of Newport’s terms), you may be able to finagle a single day per week where you are unreachable. This, of course, depends on a boss that supports this kind of work structure and an organization that doesn’t fall to pieces without you. Creating amazing things during these periods wouldn’t hurt either. Going dark for a full day every week may feel like a pipe dream. Then again, it might only be a few important conversations away. You might be surprised.

I write this just a day after notifying my team that I’ll be unavailable (outside of emergencies) on Mondays and Fridays. I could have done this a long time ago but it felt kind of self-indulgent. It doesn’t feel that way anymore, though. It feels like a necessary step to level-up our organization.

The Rhythmic Method

Not to be confused with the rhythm method. Or confuse it; that’s fine too. The rhythmic method is the most practical choice for most people. If the bimodal method is like an annual religious fast, then the rhythmic method is more like intermittent fasting.* You set aside the same total time for deep work (maybe even more) but it’s crunched into your daily cycle. Usually, this means getting up a couple of hours before everyone else and working in beautiful pre-dawn silence. Newport suggests that 90 minutes is the minimum amount of time for most people to get up to get into deep work mode.

The Monastic Method

Newport also talks about the monastic approach. Delete your e-mail account. Move to the woods. Live a life of solitude. Maybe someday, right?

Ad hoc

Some folks are able to switch into a highly-focused state very quickly. This is a gift. If you have it, though, you may be able to fill spaces as short as 20 minutes with deep work.

So far, we’ve talked about the different frameworks you can build. Think of these as where you build your oaken tower. Something far away will require some real organizing to get to and longer stays to be worthwhile. Something in your backyard is highly accessible — both for you and your family. First, choose a location that fits both your work habits and your life. That’s where you’ll build. We’ll talk about getting in and getting out in Part II.

Geoff Girvitz

*One popular version of this is to eat within an eight hour period every day and fast for the remaining 16 hours.

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