Forty miles from Johannesburg SA is a vast gold mine called Mponeng, and it’s the deepest manmade hole on earth, according to a fascinating article in last month’s WSJ. It is so deep that one elevator does not reach to the bottom, because the steel suspension cable gets heavier with every foot descended. It is so deep that the cold winter temperature at the surface increases to 140 degrees at the bottom. The entire three mile journey to the bottom takes an hour. But it’s the only way to get to where the gold is.
I’ve learned that with some tasks, it takes about that long to get deep enough to where the gold is. In my case, it’s usually writing an article or working on my book, but it also applies to solving problems, strategizing, or just about any task that requires quality thinking. It’s why I’ve learned to schedule my writing in time blocks of 90 minutes; it takes that long to get deep enough to where the good thoughts come.
I often begin an article with an idea that I want to flesh out, and frequently the first outline comes quickly enough. Filling in the words and choosing the right metaphors and stories takes a little longer. But all told, I can often churn out an average article in 30-45 minutes.
But who wants to be that? The rich veins of gold lie much deeper. It’s easy to skim the surface of the trite and true in the first couple of passes through an idea, but it takes time to go deeper. Deeper is where the new ideas come from. Deeper is where your mind starts freeing up some half-buried memories that suddenly seem to be exactly the right analogy you’re looking for. Deeper is where just the right word or turn of phrase presents itself, like an old friend who turns up unannounced at your door. Deeper is where the hidden connections between seemingly unrelated ideas reveal themselves. Deeper is where insight lurks.
In fact, as I’ve thought deeper about it for this article, I’ve realized that there are generally four layers to a deep session:
(Of course, this is totally unscientific, being based on a sample size of one and recorded by a biased observer. But Cal Newport, who has studied this more deeply than I have, tells us that that notable creative people spent an average of 5.25 hours per day in deep work.)
Going deep is not easy, but I suppose that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? Here are some suggestions to get more deep work done:
One final note of encouragement: like training for a marathon, it gets easier over time. But you have to start.
No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work, Gloria Mark, Victor M. Gonzalez, Justin Harris