The simplest distillation of Cal Newport’s “deep work” theory is that if you want to get things done, you need to channel all-out focus for a set period of time. Zero distractions.
That’s pretty hard to do, especially because the sort of work that Newport — a computer science professor at Georgetown University — advocates for involves asking big questions and tackling big projects. Think: putting together a proposal, outlining a vision for the upcoming quarter, writing an email to assuage clients or motivate employees.
How do you pull it off? Well, Newport’s a digital minimalist. So start by eliminating things. No social media during the allotted hour(s). No phone calls. No meetings. But even then, sitting with your own thoughts and a blank G Suite sheet is no guarantee of creativity or clarity.
This is where certain, well-placed additions to your routine can have a preemptive ergogenic effect. If it’s the morning, pencil in your coffee and/or smoothie right before breaking ground. If you’re lucky enough to WFH, try a cold shower or a power nap (26 minutes on the dot). And employees of all stripes should get in the habit of a quick walk outside before any deep work.
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Chewing Gum: An Unlikely Hack
There’s another method that we support, though, and it’s offbeat enough that it’ll probably sound a little silly: pop a few pieces of chewing gum. Seriously.
According to recent research, chewing gum is positively associated with cognitive performance. One paper concluded: “Chewing gum can enhance alertness [while] promoting well-being and work performance.” Also promising: “Neuropsychological data further confirms an enhancement of sustained attention by gum.”
Why on earth does a stick of gum help us hone in on a task? From a physiological perspective, the act of mastication increases oxygen delivery to the brain, which could improve short-term focus. While psychologically, the repetitive nature of chewing could help induce a soothed “flow state,” whereby concentration is easier to come by.
For more literature on the subject head here. The British Journal of Psychology published an interesting study on gum’s relationship with challenges that require “continuous monitoring.”
Instead of combing through the gum corner of JSTOR, though, we recommend just trying out the hack for yourself. It works especially well if you’re trying to flip your afternoon slump into a period of deep work. That’s a time you don’t want to be messing with caffeine, and you’d probably be more inclined for a minty mouthfeel, anyway.
As for worries about excess sugar, play around with flavors and find something you can tolerate. It’s OK to go with an old favorite; it’s not like you’re drinking Diet Coke. There’s no purpose to the enterprise if you’re too distracted by a bad taste.
The first and final rule of deep work: no distractions.