I enjoy visiting the Study Hacks blog. Its author, Cal Newport, writes about organizing one’s tasks with emphasis on doing the deep work required of a college professor, in his case, proving theorems and writing papers. His latest book is, indeed, entitled Deep Work.
What I want to address here is making space for what I term “non-conscious deep work.” Proving theorems and other creative endeavors typically pass through the zen stages: Immersion, Incubation, and Illumination. Often illumination, the “aha” moment, seemly comes out of the blue, commonly attributed to brain work at the subconscious level. Thus the problem is how to make space in one’s subconscious musings for deep work goals.
This issue occurred to me on my walking commute. Walking to work gives me time, 20 minutes, to get ready for the day – going over my schedule, reviewing the concepts I will be teaching, working on phrasing/explanations, setting goals for meetings, etc. The walk home (uphill thus also getting in my exercise for the day) allows me to process the day’s events. I arrive ready to pay attention to my home life and have a pleasant dinner. So what am I processing as I trudge up Holly Street? Most of my day has been spent interacting with human beings. I am primarily a teacher and also department chair and necessarily have been striving to connect to students and colleagues on a human level. These interactions leave plenty to chew over, first consciously then subconsciously. I know this is true by noting my waking thoughts at three in the morning.
I also like to do deep work, recognizing that one person’s deep work is another person’s trivial pursuit. I do this for pleasure (My career doesn’t depend on it) and by compulsion. As such my deep work has all the characteristics: immersion, incubation, and illumination, and I have been known to wake up in the morning with the solution or argument I was looking for.
So, my non-conscious deep work – do I have a choice between processing the events of the day or other academic mundanities, or working on a math problem? I actually try to prime my brain before I close my eyes. The intention is to drowned out any stressful issues of the day with more neutral and fun subject matter. This works for getting to sleep but my thoughts upon waking have little correlation to my going-to-sleep thoughts.
The point is that I seemly don’t have control over my non-conscious deep work. Other aspects of my life, family and work, require the same mental space and my deep work suffers. To put it another way, no matter how disciplined I am about organizing my day, I have little control over how my subconscious organizes my night.