Practical Integration of the Zettelkasten Method: My Deep Work Days

Fiddling with the details of IDs, and discussions about Folgezettel1 and whether they are an integral part of the method or just a compensatory solution for a physical Zettelkasten is fun and part of the constant improvement.

But sometimes, one thing gets left behind: How to implement knowledge work into your life. This is how I do it.

Designated Deep Work Days

dog on the floor
Picture License: CC0 from Pixabay

“Deep Work” is a term Cal Newport coined in his book of the same name, “Deep Work”.2 His definition is:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. - Cal Newport, Deep Work2

The main aspects of deep work are:

  1. Distraction-free
  2. Concentration
  3. Push your limits

I have two days per week which prioritize knowledge work. On Wednesday and Friday, I don’t work on a specific project but focus on knowledge work as an activity. Mostly, that means that I process a book that connects to a theme I am thinking about. At this moment (2017-06-06), I process King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Moore and Gillette.3 I do nothing but think by writing in my archive until I am to exhausted to be productive. I concentrate on the thinking as hard as I can with no distraction allowed.

This enables me to think through a piece of work or a theme broadly and deeply at the same time. Usually, I focus on my work but allow distractions from time to time. Not during these days. They are my training days for knowledge work and you don’t train your concentration by being distracted.

The Physical Factors of Knowledge Work

You can improve your mental capacities by making sure that your body and brain are prepared and ready to be pushed to their limits. I use a couple of components.

I start the day with a morning routine that consists mainly of mobility work to get me breathing harder, but not too hard. There is research on the interconnection of body and mind. In short: The body cues a state of mind. There is not only the famous power posing4 presented by Amy Cuddy. There are other papers that show similar results for different postures in case you are interested.[^otherstudies]

Mobility frees your body from tension and improves your posture. This puts your mind out of a state of inflexibility, too. If you especially interested in this perspective of body work for the mind I recommend the work of Paul Chek.5

I finish my morning session with 15 minutes of meditation. There are a couple of meditative exercises. Meditation is like training for the mind. There are many different practices which can be used differently. I use mindful meditation practice on my deep work days. It helps me to become very present but at the same time is not exhausting or leaves much of an after effect. It is easy on the mind afterwards which is not the case with every meditation practice.

Then I have a short cold shower. Cold exposure raises noradrenaline which further enhances alertness. See Rhonda Patricks great report on the effects of cold exposure.6

I drink coffee two times per week, exclusively on these deep work days. But I drink my hefty pot of coffee not right away. I also do intermittent fasting. This means that I restrict the daily time window of eating. It seems that coffee can start the circadian clock in your liver. One effect of intermittent fasting is to help regulate the circadian rhythm. I don’t mess with my circadian rhythm just because it’s a deep work day.

Between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., I begin to drink the coffee. That deepens my concentration but makes it more fragile. My mind is now ready to jump on everything and I have to be careful to concentrate really on what I want. This is due the altered dopamine metabolism in the brain. Because of that I don’t allow any distractions to disrupt my work.

Integration Into My Work

I have a big pile of work in front of me. I am during the transition of being a holistic coach to being mostly a writer and scholar. Deep work is an important part of this process because I need to dig really deep into a variety of topics.

Example: One of the important parts of my work is based on Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility.7 So I spent two whole days each week for six to eight weeks to really plow through his work and to subject it to deep scrutiny. It is not enough to casually read a piece of work if you really want to understand it. After all, it is called knowledge work and not knowledge chill-out.

If I dedicate some deep work days to a topic, I feel very confident to talk and write about it. I don’t want to write about something I did a half-assed research.

Deep work really accelerated my work, but not only professional endeavors. The better I get at this deep work days the more concentrated I am in my whole life. They are training of the mind.

  1. Folgezettel are not an integral part of the Zettelkasten Method. Not even for Luhmanns Zettelkasten. He had to use it to cope with the physicality of his Zettelkasten. See “No, Luhmann was not about Folgezettel” 

  2. Cal Newport (2016): Deep Work. Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, London: Piatkus. See on amazon 

  3. R. Moore and Douglas Gillette (1991): King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, New York: HarperCollins.See on amazon 

  4. See her amazing TED talk: Your body language may shape who you are 

    [^otherstudies]: Riskind, J. & Gotay, C. (1982). Physical posture: Could it have regulatory or feedback effects on motivation and emotion?. Motivation and Emotion, 6(3), 273-298. Abstract

  5. https://chekinstitute.com 

  6. https://www.foundmyfitness.com/?sendme=cold-stress 

  7. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012): Antifragile. Things That Gain from Disorder, St. Ives: Penguin Books. See on amazon