How I trained myself to deep work on demand - Managing energy and mental focus, step by step

I do a lot of deep work each day. Readers of this blog might know that apart from writing, I work full-time as a data scientist, develop video games as a hobby, and also speak at many conferences. How am I not already tired out from full-time work alone? The answer is energy management and mental focus.

Focusing for hours on brainpower intensive activities seems easy and routine to me now, but there was a time when it wasn’t so. In this article I’ll share how I manage my energy, and how one can reproducibly expand their mental “gas tank”.

Energy - a gas tank that can be expanded, not just refilled

If you have been running at 70% battery every day, you will start to think that is your 100% capacity. This is not the case, as I learned.

For many, their day-to-day studies or work might completely drain them, to a point where doing a master’s degree besides full-time work might sound intimidating, or even unfathomable.

But I encourage one to think of their amount of energy and focus to be expandable, not fixed. This is akin to how, as someone that doesn’t run (as exercise), it’s intimidating to think about running 5 kilometers. Just imagining how sweaty and out of breath I would be, doesn’t thrill me at all.

However, I know there are ways of going from 0 to 5k - in fact there are fitness programs like Couch to 5k that slowly ramps one up. So I can see a clear path to building endurance in running. However, for mental focus it’s not commonly thought of as the same type of endurance that one can build; rather it might be seen as innate, a natural talent.

I propose that the way one can train to have more mental energy reserves, as well as use them wisely, is similar to how one trains physical endurance. At the end, a person who’s went from couch to 5k will notice how their running stamina has increased greatly, and a shorter run, like 2k, might not even make them break a sweat.

To continue the analogy, I am writing somewhat from the perspective of one that’s already trained for the mental focus version of a 10k run (this is not extreme - marathons are 42k). So things I say might sound matter of fact, but indeed I started from 0, having extremely scattered focus around the time I failed 3 courses in undergrad, and built my tank up to being able to do the amount of deep work I do now, without really breaking a sweat.

Increasing mental focus helps one to go further. Filling up the mental energy gas tank helps one to go further.

Steps to expand the mental focus gas tank

The first thing I would suggest is using the pomodoro technique: do focused work for 25 minutes, then rest for 5 minutes. I use my computers’ default, inbuilt timers for it, no apps or 3rd party tools needed. There are slight variations I discuss in more detail in this section in my daily routines post.

Right now, I can confidently say I can go into deep work on demand, without even using a pomodoro timer. But I started somewhere, and that is the humble 25 minute pomodoro timer. Note: This post isn’t suggesting that pomodoros are the end all be all for focus and energy management, but rather to think of them as an exercise for energy expansion, kind of like endurance exercises that runners do to help with running, that is not necessarily running itself.

When I first started really getting into pomodoros, it was hard for me to focus. Even though the timer for focused work is only 25 minutes, my mind would keep drifting, and I would find myself checking my phone before the break time. However, having accountability with myself really helped - instead of sweeping the transgression under the rug, I would note it down on a (pen and paper) tracker.

I used this technique all through the better half of my undergrad, where even though I had some horrible habits (playing video games all night, sleeping at 7 AM, partying and drinking at least once a week), I still aced my courses to earn acceptance into University of Toronto for grad school. It simply was that when I did study, I made it count - no “fake/ghost” studying, where one goes to the library for 10 hours but only really studies for 1 hour.

So, to revisit the steps I took to go from a low-capacity mental focus gas tank to where I am now:

  1. Try pomodoro timer, and don’t do anything other than your assigned task for 25 minutes. Staring into space or stretching is allowed.
  2. If you check your phone or get distracted, pause the timer. Note it down on a tracker. Do not skip the tracking!
  3. After a few days, check the amount of pomodoros you were able to do, both with distractions and without.
  4. Build towards a default 25 minutes without distractions with the help of the tracker. Use the straightforward heuristic of decreasing the times you break the pomodoro prematurely, and increasing the times you can maintain it.
  5. Stretch goal 1: Increase to 50 minute pomodoros. It’s seriously awesome, I can get so much done before the day really begins. However, I only was able to build up to this longer focus period after being very accustomed to doing 25 minute pomodoros. One step at a time!
  6. Stretch goal 2: Untracked focus work without using pomodoro. You can guarantee to yourself that without a timer or alarm clock, you can slip into deep work on demand.

Step 6 is where I am right now. But honestly, by getting to step 3 I was able to accomplish an extremely high amount of focused work and output. In fact, I recall that at the time of my passing CFA level 1 exam in 6 weeks, I was only at step 3 and 4.

So, steps 5 and 6 are just an example of what a “10k runner” (not even a marathon runner) of mental focus might look like - totally reproducible, and a large amount of people who do this exist in the population!

Improving mental focus helps one to go further. Improving mental focus helps one increase productivity while spending less time.

Quality, not quantity. Always more with less

All that I aim for with building mental focus energy is doing more with less. Mental focus is precisely to avoid being like those that go to the library to study for 10 hours and only really studied for 2 hours. In unversity, if I wanted to study for 2 hours, I would go to the library, really focus, and leave in 2 hours exactly, so that I can run social events, play video games, and hang out with friends.

Below are some rules I follow to ensure that I indeed am getting more done with less time, and that I am not throwing time or energy at the problem, when time and energy are both such limited resources.

Stop focus work when getting brain fog

I’ll loosely define brain fog as when your mind is fatigued and cannot focus (you’ll know it when you feel it). This can often be caused by staring at the same problem for too long.

It doesn’t matter how addictive the feedback loop is - for example, when it feels I’m so close to fixing a bug, I get an urge to try “just one more”. This is the exact same feedback loop when you lose a game in a MOBA - “Just one more match!” I am honestly not that great at stopping myself from falling into these rabbit holes, so I don’t always follow my own advice… but I try.

So, once I hit brain fog mode, it means that from that point onward I am throwing time and energy at the problem, and not working smartly. Best to take a walk so I can return and resolve the code issue with a reenergized mind (and less time)!

Physical maintenance to keep the gas tank at a high level

Another crucial part to my energy management is physical energy, which is inexplicably linked to mental focus. If one is physically tired, they can’t really do too much, even with a large mental focus gas tank.

Here, I am just sharing my own routine and how I built it around energy management, which I’ve mentioned in this post as well. This is not to say this is the best guideline, or that you have to do the same, but for someone as sedentary as myself to build these habits, I’d say these habits have fairly low barrier to entry.

Sleeping schedule

Exercise schedule

Break schedule

Be your own accountability partner

“Simple heuristic: If you’re evenly split on a difficult decision, take the path more painful in the short term. (source tweet)” […] If the two are even and one has short-term pain, that path has long-term gain associated. - The Almanack of Naval Ravikant

The final thing I would like to share, is how important self-talk is to my practice of managing energy and focus. It is really easy to fall into rabbit holes or get carried away, depleting the mental gas tank faster than is good for us. However, it is difficult to recognize the danger in the moment, since warning signs are usually lagging and only show up the day later.

As such, I use tracking as well as self-reflection to keep myself accountable to ensure the future me, be it a few hours later, or tomorrow, or a year later, will have the energy she needs to do her work. All while the present me is making great use of the energy my past self has built and conserved.

Increasing mental endurance helps one to go further. As my own mental exercise accountability buddy, I have built up positive arguments to keep bad excuses in check.

Examples of self-talk and reflection are as follows:

“Hey, you gave in to temptation and stayed up so late and ate a whole medium pizza on top of that. I’m glad you had fun, but now I feel like crap. How do you expect me to finish a new blog post today and also make progress on game development? I can’t even focus on one of them right now. We can do this again but please, eat just half a pizza?”

“If I miss today’s workout, and I keep drifting, it will cause the future me to have to rebuild this habit. During that time, it might be easy for her to neglect her writing and things that are important to her. Even though I don’t feel like it, let’s just do this!”

At first, the “excuses” part of my brain might get the upper hand in these self-talk debates. But as time went on, I’ve trained myself so well that “I’m just too tired to work out” is not even a valid argument, because I’ll whip out the argument “do it for your future self!”

Conclusion

It is precisely because I use these practices to increase my energy and focus to do more with less, that I am able to also enjoy other activities, such as binging Kpop videos or hosting social events both personally and with ai.science. And as I mention in the Quality, not quantity section, it is not about throwing time and energy at problems, but rather optimizing my limited energy and focus.

I understand that perhaps only a subset of my practices on energy management and mental focus is applicable, as everyone has unique circumstances. Hence, I encourage tailoring any of these suggestions to best fit your needs. I hope that by sharing my experiences and why I do these practices, that it can help you in any way!

Bonus: Amazing video on maintaining the self to go further. Not only applicable to pandemic lockdowns; I have been applying these reasonings to self-improvement since long before.

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