The high-order bit for my productivity is whether I complete a deeply-focused morning creative block

There’s so much productivity advice out there. You can get lost for months reading blogs of people optimizing their work with special journals and note-taking systems. I’ve spent tons of time measuring and optimizing my schedule throughout the day, trying to eke out an extra hour of work. All these things are useful, no doubt, and for some types of work they’re perhaps what’s most essential. But my experience has been that really one thing determines whether or not I have a “good day” at work. If I sit down at my desk in the morning for an uninterrupted 4 hour working session, and manage to “sink into” a deep state of focus and clarity on some creative project, I’ll probably have a great day creatively. If my mind is scattered and never settles on any particular problem, it rarely matters how much I “optimize” the rest of my day—that will not be a day of meaningful creative progress.

The first hurdle was simply clearing my morning schedule consistently, so that I always have a 4-5 hour contiguous working block. That’s pretty easy (for me) to do. And of course the next obvious obstacles are the things “productivity hackers” often write about: blocking distracting stuff on my computer really does help, so long as one isn’t too rigid about it. A writing practice helps me get clear on my projects and their goals, so that I’m reasonably likely to have some clear sense of what to do when I sit down at my desk.

But still, I often find that I sit down to my desk for four hours without ever really settling into any particular line of creative work. That’s not because I’m checking Twitter or my email or anything obvious like that. It’s just that I’ll jump around between various questions without ever committing to any one, or I’ll find myself solving some convenient problem which actually isn’t important, or my mind will simply wander. Or I’ll experience Dullness. This is a problem because Effective deep work depends on both time and intensity.

Meditation certainly helps here: Dullness and distraction in creative work may arise from the same causes as in meditation. The key does seem to be continuous metacognitive awareness. It also helps to Get curious and Get playful. And part of it, I observe, is just practice. I spent many years doing quite task-oriented work. The project of moving into increasingly challenging creative work is in part the project of getting comfortable being lost, and still making progress while remaining lost. Deep research requires a slower pace than tech industry work

Related: It’s hard to hear yourself think.