There's no one correct deep work ritual—the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued. But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address:
- Where you’ll work and for how long. Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door shut and desk cleaned off (a colleague of mine likes to put a hotel-style “do not disturb” sign on his office door when he's tackling something difficult). If it’s possible to identify a location used only for depth—for instance, a conference room or quiet library—the positive effect can be even greater. (If you work in an open office plan, this need to find a deep work retreat becomes particularly important.) Regardless of where you work, be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.
- How you’ll work once you start to work. Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any Internet use, or maintain a metric such as words produced per twenty-minute interval to keep your concentration honed. Without this structure, you'll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you're working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.
- How you’ll support your work. Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear. (As Nietzsche said: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”) This support might also include environmental factors, such as organizing the raw materials of your work to minimize energy-dissipating friction (as we saw with Caro's example). To maximize your success, you need to support your efforts to go deep. At the same time, this support needs to be systematized so that you don't waste mental energy figuring out what you need in the moment.
I'm always experimenting with my process, and after reading the passage above, I put in place a simple and specific routine to help get my day started out right (days when I'm at home, not traveling). I wake up early, grab a cup of coffee, put my phone on 'Do Not Disturb', and then spend the next 60-90 minutes of the day reading one specific thing without any distractions. This is usually a book that I've put out the day before to get ready for the morning, and it is something that I feel I need or want to learn that stretches my understanding, usually because it is something new to me.
I used to start the day with my practice of Memortation, but I've since moved this to a little later in the day. Josh Waitzkin also recommends ending one's workday (not the day, but the workday) on something of quality that you'll also start the following day on, so I'm also trying to read some of that morning book (or whatever else it is) at the end of the workday as well, so that my subconscious brain can think about it until my conscious brain returns to it in the morning.
Charlie Munger has also mentioned the importance of giving himself an hour per day to read when he was younger, before getting into his day job as a lawyer. And in The Snowball, Warren Buffett described something similar in regards to Munger:
Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.
And it's also important to give oneself time to think about the things one learns, and not be so busy that one doesn't have time to turn knowledge into creative and useful ideas. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett discussed the importance of having time to think earlier this year, and I think the quote below from The Undoing Project also provides good advice about the importance of having time to think:
"The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours." -Amos Tversky