I’m currently reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success In A Distracted World, in which the author makes the case for engaging in serious, uninterrupted times of extreme focus in order to accomplish goals and create great work. As an independent creative and an introvert, I often “burrow in” when working on a client project not just to get it done, but to do it well. I find that I need to do this in my business as well. This is why I first picked up Newport’s book.
Newport describes various ways one can “work deeply” (that’s one of his chapter titles). Among other methods, he lays out a strategy for ritualization and how to establish structures and systems that include time specifically assigned for deep work. He describes ways in which we can design our time, and why we should do so.
I’ve long recommended that we design our days. Rather than allowing tasks and requests to determine our schedules, we can be strategic and create opportunities to engage in focused work. While Newport has given me insight and ideas for strengthening my own rituals, he has also helped me to see how my rituals enable my work, how some rituals can disrupt and distract me from my work, where I need to make changes, and why it’s necessary to engage in deep work as a creative.
The Concept of Ritual
Rituals are more than habits and go far beyond tracking the number of steps you take or how many glasses of water you drink in a day. Rituals have meaning, and are about thought more than actions. My rituals include beginning each day with a mug of coffee and my journal. I also read every day. I struggle with exercise and drawing, however, because I allow project deadlines or student questions to interrupt these activities. This is something I’m working on because I’m in a time of transition from one business model another.
Creatives who make a living from doing creative work need to establish time for doing that work so that they can be successful. Every person is different, and your rituals will not look like mine. The important thing is that you establish rituals as part of an overall system for pursuing creative projects. Using a system helps you succeed.
Newport outlines some necessary aspects of ritualization:
Time and place: Decide on a specific location for specific things. For example, I conduct my morning quiet time at my desk, not at my workstation, or on the coffee table. Connecting certain types of work with certain environments helps us do the work. We tell ourselves, this is where I do this thing, and that’s what I’m going to do while I’m here. For some, that can be a Starbucks, for others, it’s the back patio at home, for others, it’s a library. There are certain things I do on my desktop and nowhere else.
Time is also crucial. You need to dedicate a block of time just for that specific work. When will you start working and when will you stop and move on to something else? Having definite start and stop times places boundaries around your work session, and enables you to prevent interruptions. I share about time blocking here. When I write in bits and pieces, it takes me far longer to create a blog post than when I have a set time each week. The same is true with my illustration work. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll notice that it takes me a few weeks to create a painting. Because of design projects and teaching schedules, I don’t often have even a full day to dedicate just to painting.
Methods: How will you work? Will you accept phone calls and text messages? Will you allow people to interrupt you? Will you work in silence or have some background noise going on? Often when I’m designing, I listen to music or a podcast. When I’m painting, I may have the TV on. When I’m writing, dealing with deep thought or developing strategies, I prefer silence.
And, what milestone will be your stopping point for that work session? Will it be a certain number of concepts, pages or words? Will it be a specific time? You should decide this before going in so that it is not arbitrary, and you don’t need to figure it out while you’re in your deep work mode.
Needs. What do you need on hand to sustain you through the work session? Support your ritual with things that will get you through it. For example, I enjoy coffee. Ever since design school I’ve had a mug of coffee on hand while I work. Some people like to snack while they work. My pastor keeps a pile of sticky notes on hand so that he can jot reminders and notes. By writing things down as they show up in his head, he can set them aside to deal with later and continue the hard work he’s currently engaged unbothered by other demands. Which reminds me, if I don’t have a Uniball or fountain pen to write with, I’m not happy. So I always have liquid ink rollerball pens in a variety of colors or my Lamy nib pen on hand as part of my journaling ritual.
Consider turning off your phone so that calls and app notifications don’t vie for your attention.
Ritualize Your Way
Newport recommends that you play around to learn what works for you. This may take a few sessions of experimentation. There’s nothing worse than to get 20 minutes into a deep work session and realize you need something. Gather your materials, supplies, agendas, nutritional support, books, tools, etc., beforehand so that you are fully equipped and can work uninterrupted. Once a ritual feels comfortable to you, you can maintain it easily.
…it’s very important that you identify and create rituals you can settle into
without having to think them through each time.
By definition, a ritual is something that involves a series of actions or types of behavior that are regularly and invariably followed. Rituals don’t take detours. Therefore it’s very important that you identify and create rituals you can settle into without having to think them through each time.
You should not take your rituals lightly. They are necessary for you to do your best creative work, and so being intentional and deliberate about them is required.
I’ve learned that most of us have certain ways of working and certain habits that are truly rituals, but we don’t always recognize them as such. While it’s common to allow habits to change or be interrupted, rituals are less open to suggestion. Rituals become ingrained in our process and fully integrated into our lives. They involve long-term commitment and consistent execution. In fact, until a method becomes systematic and regular in our lives, it’s not a ritual.
The Results of Ritual
When you ritualize solitary deep work, your collaborations are served well. Most creatives need solitude at some point in their process, and also the give- and-take exchange of discussion and brainstorming. We test our ideas in groups, but develop them alone. To share useful ideas you must first conceive them. Engaging in the depth of focused, distraction-free concept development processes and then you will have solid ideas to compare and share with others.
Creating meaningful, relevant work requires deliberate choices, study, process, focus, and purpose. The purpose of any creative work should be measurable in order to determine its success. If we want to do right by our clients and live up to the investment they make in us, we need to deliver solid, useful work. Doing that requires that we go deep and burrow in on a consistent basis. Rituals allow us to do just that.
What rituals have you developed to help you accomplish significant work? Share in the comments.