How to Stop Avoiding Deep Thinking
Imagine yourself an Emily Dickinson, a thousand poems flowing from your pen over only half a decade. Or Vivaldi, churning out 500 concertos in a lifetime. Or maybe you’re an Edison with a world-record 1,093 patents.
Anyone who has made an original contribution to the world has had to figure out how to make deep thinking a daily practice. We tend to consider creators as whimsical and erratic, chasing random inspiration. In reality, they usually operate within a framework of self-discipline and routine.
Why We Avoid Deep Thinking
But most of us avoid deep thinking. Our continuous-input world makes it possible to never think deeply for a whole day in our lives. We tend to get stuck in the inertia of task-based, distracted, or reactive thinking.
Why is your most important strategic work collecting dust on your desk?
Why is my next book still simmering as a draft?
“A body at rest tends to stay at rest,” says Newton’s first law of motion.
“A mind in low-level thinking tends to stay in low-level thinking,” says Haydon’s first law of the inertia of no. Constant pings from sources outside our minds trap us on the low-level thinking loop.
Why We Need Deep Thinking
When we haven’t established deep thinking time as part of our routines, we resist getting off the treadmill, subconsciously relieved for an excuse to remain: browsing new links, responding to pings, shopping, being entertained.
To help us break into an active, creative state of mind we need a strong catalyst. In deep-think mode, the work is joyous, meaningful, and productive. When we don’t do it and just go along with the surface-level current, we can become dissatisfied on a fundamental level.
We need to work deeply, because this is how we is how we learn and grow. While thinking deeply, we make discoveries, solve problems, and grasp the profound meanings of life. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, has hypothesized:
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
Writers, composers, inventors, dancers, and artists across the arc of time have known this, perhaps through trial and error as writer Doris Lessing describes:
“We all of us have limited amounts of energy, and I am sure the people who are successful have learned, either by instinct or consciously, to use their energies well instead of spilling them about. And this has to be different for every person, writers or otherwise. I know writers who go to parties every night and then, recharged instead of depleted, happily write all day. But if I stay up half the night talking, I don’t do so well the next day . . . Trial and error, and then when you’ve found your needs, what feeds you, what is your instinctive rhythm and routine, then cherish it.”
American artist Andrea Zittel echoed this sentiment:
“It’s really about establishing a flexible routine. Having a pattern helps ensure that you fit everything into a limited amount of time, but too much of a pattern and you get stuck . . . creating a set of rigid personal rules can be a way to break free of external societal rules.”
Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said:
“An artist must, I fancy, either find or make a solitude to work in, if it is to be good work at all.”
How to Create a Deep-Think Framework
To be original and meaningfully productive, whether to develop lesson plans, write, or strategize, you need a framework in which you can hone your own deep-thinking mode. To develop this framework, consider two components: routine and catalysts. Take time to (yes!) think deeply about the following questions to find your own “instinctive rhythm and routine.”
- How will you set aside time each day for deep-think work?
- Will it be the same time every day, or will it vary with your other responsibilities
- Do you need quiet when your household is asleep, or can you work this into the waking day?
- Will you start with an hour, or 30 minutes or three hours?
- How will you eliminate distractions during this time?
- Will you use a disconnected computer like Isabel Allende does?
- Will you go analog?
- Will you work outside?
- Will you turn off all alerts and other distracting tech?
- What about people who might pop into your workspace? How will you let them know when it’s your deep-think time? How will you communicate with them beforehand so they know what to expect?
When you answer these questions for yourself, you will see your own personal deep-work routine begin to form. Adopt prototype mode and view your next steps as an experiment. Try something, see if it works, and make tweaks to improve.
How are you going to shift your thinking into deep-think mode?
As Doris Lessing wrote, “The feverish need to get this or that done . . . had to be subdued to the flat, dull state one needs to write in.” You need a failsafe gearshift to help you move from whatever task you were involved in into a more thoughtful, pensive mode. There are many ways to make this shift, but what works for you?
- Will you take a short break in nature?
- Pray or meditate?
- Move into a different physical space?
- Fold laundry in silence?
- Switch from inevitable tech use into analog work?
- What analog materials can aid your deep work and get you away from the computer? I always suggest pencil, with a hand sharpener, and paper. (Seriously, the pauses you need to take to sharpen your tip adds to the creative process!)
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I suggest gratitude as a go-to step to start off each of your deep-think work sessions. Using actual paper and pencil or pen, write a note of gratitude to someone in your life. When you’ve finished writing the note, go straight into sketching out that essay, poem, lesson plan, experiment, or strategic proposal.
Once you pinpoint the right routine-catalyst combo for you, you’ll be on your way toward establishing a deep-think practice. You will build up a framework to resist distraction in order to do your most meaningful, original, and satisfying work.
Kathryn Haydon helps you maximize your creative strengths so you can do your best work. Through keynotes, workshops, and consulting, she trains individuals, leaders, and teams to find the unique spark that leads to deep engagement and productivity.