Living through a pandemic isn’t exactly a boon for one’s powers of concentration. In the past two months, I’ve failed to marshal the mental energy for anything much more taxing than scanning coronavirus-related headlines and completing crossword puzzles.
Then last week, in what amounted to a hail-Mary pass to get out of my head and get stuff done, I joined a virtual “deep focus” session run by New York-based company Caveday. To my surprise, I was able to accomplish more creative work in 3.5 hours than I had in the previous eight weeks.
At the start of the Zoom video call, session guide Jeremy Redleaf, a cofounder of Caveday, explained how it works. Participants do four Pomodoro-style work sprints, where you focus for a certain length of time before taking a short break. In this case, each sprint is about 50 minutes long. There’s no rule about what you can do as long as you can monotask it for a full sprint. (As Redleaf points out, multitasking drops your IQ by about 15 points.)
For Caveday’s virtual deep-focus sessions, there are clear guidelines about how to create the mise-en-scène for productivity. Have a plan for your time. Avoid internet rabbit holes. Turn off email notifications and text pings. In my session, Redleaf demonstrated locking his phone in a bag and suggested we do something similar for the duration of the deep-work session (called a “cave” in company parlance).
I could theoretically do all of these things on my own with a Pomodoro timer, but I clearly needed the help staying focused. And I wasn’t the only one: Around 70 of us joined the Caveday virtual session from all over the world. Everyone was on mute in a gallery of images across my laptop screen. But because we were asked to update the screen name that appears under our video image in Zoom to include where we’re from and what we’re focusing on, I caught glimpses of who was tackling what. Francesca in Durham was grading. Franny from Montreal was creating a mockumentary. Lynn in New York was working on a podcast.
Today, a Caveday session is just as likely to include lawyers, therapists, and CEOs as it is to include freelancers, creatives, and entrepreneurs—the company’s original target audience. It costs $25 to join a single virtual cave and $35 for an unlimited monthly membership. “We definitely have our eyes on helping the world manage this new future-of-work experiment,” says Molly Sonsteng, another Caveday cofounder. In the past two months of lockdown, the virtual deep-focus sessions, which began about a year ago, have quadrupled in popularity.
The theory of ‘deep work’
Like personal protective equipment and N95 masks, focus is a commodity that’s in universal short supply right now. Maybe it always was. In his book Deep Work, Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport described the ability to focus intently on cognitively demanding tasks—work such as writing, thinking, designing, and creating that’s the currency of the knowledge economy—as “increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable.” And that was in 2016. When you’re working from home in a pandemic, is it even possible to achieve the trifecta of fierce concentration, uninterrupted swaths of time, and zero distractions that Newport’s vision of deep work requires?
We definitely have our eyes on helping the world manage this new future-of-work experiment.”
Maybe not for everyone. If I had toddlers underfoot or someone sick with COVID-19 in my house, 3.5 hours of uninterrupted focus would be a pipe dream. But for people like me who are just struggling to wrangle our own creativity amid an onslaught of distractions, a virtual deep-work session can at least inspire an atmosphere conducive to immersive work.
Before the sprints started, Redleaf walked us through a few last rituals to get us into the right headspace for uninterrupted work. Clear your desk. Breathe deeply. High-five your webcam. Now, get to work.
As the screen fell silent, I felt a buzz of panic. Would I make it through all 3.5 hours without breaking for a furtive viewing of a Some Good News episode? Once I got cracking, though, I found that I was doing more in less time than even my pre-pandemic normal. Here’s what helped:
Every time you switch tasks, it takes you around 23 minutes to get your focus back. That’s a ton of lost productivity. In a virtual deep-focus session, “I really like to emphasize that people should just pick one thing to work on for each 45-minute sprint,” says Madeleine Dore, a Melbourne-based writer who runs biweekly virtual deep-work sessions through her business Side Project Sessions, which she originally created to give creatives the time and space to get projects done. At Caveday, they go so far as to refrain from telling you exactly how long each sprint will last so you’ll be more likely to enter a flow state that makes you lose track of time. (It worked. I was regularly shocked to hear the bell that ended each sprint.)
2. Positive peer pressure
There was something about the “Hey, we’re all trying to get stuff done” vibe of the Caveday Zoom room that provided a strong incentive to not fritter time. When I got logjammed in a difficult bit of writing, I took a minute to observe how focused everyone else in the session seemed to be—and I pressed onward, instead of going for the quick dopamine hit of Facebook. Plus, there’s a helpful public-shaming element. “There’s no hiding, right?” says Redleaf. “If I leave, you can see it.”
For many participants, virtual deep work forms the cadence of the work-at-home life. Pre-pandemic, Bernard Pollack, the cofounder and chairman of Food Tank, a New York City-based research and advocacy nonprofit, used a co-working space. Now he does his most challenging work, such as writing grant proposals, in a morning cave four or five times a week, reserving afternoons for less-focused work such as phone calls and emails. Even within the session, there’s a helpful structure that includes regular breaks. In Dore’s in-person Side Project Sessions, participants would use breaks to chat around a snack table of tea, chips, and hard-boiled eggs. Now that they’re virtual, Side Project Sessions attendees listen to inspiring speakers. Caveday breaks might include jumping jacks, stretches, or a quick detour to a small breakout room. In one, I chatted with a designer in San Diego and a writer in New York about everything I’d crossed off my to-do list in the past 24 hours, a mental trick for making us feel more accomplished.
4. Ritualized focus
To herald the beginning of a virtual deep-work sprint, Dore rings a bell. “That sound is very much a habit trigger,” she says. “It’s like going back to primary school; we’re responsive to these kinds of subtle triggers in our lives.” Melbourne-based writer Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald agrees that the rules and rituals of collective deep work—nobody talks, nobody’s on their phone—keep her focused. She cranked out most of her book, Modern Mending, by aiming to complete a section per each 45-minute sprint. (She even found her editor at Side Project Sessions.) The bell, she says, prompts “a Pavlovian response: ‘It’s time to go to work now!'”
Of course, even with all the rules and rituals and peer pressure of a remote deep-work session, people struggle. In my first cave, 85% of participants said they managed to monotask for at least three of four sprints, but one woman confessed afterward that she ended up watching an Andrew Cuomo press conference. Someone else messaged session guide Redleaf, “I’m so burnt today. I’m really struggling in every sprint, but I’m still here.”
Joining a virtual deep-focus session won’t automatically turn you into a productivity machine, but it may well help you break through the noise and distraction of everyday life. And when all goes well, it can help you get a lot done. Pollack says he typically accomplishes eight hours of work in a 3.5-hour cave, then moves on with his day feeling like anything else he accomplishes is gravy.
Focus is tough, especially right now. But staying put, with your butt in the seat, is the real triumph. Want more proof? I wrote most of this article in a virtual deep-work session.