Study Hacks Blog

Charles Dickens’s Deep Christmas Strolls

December 27th, 2019 · 19 comments

A few days ago, I took my two older boys to a small stage production of A Christmas Carol. Afterwards, me being me, I decided to read up on Charles Dickens and the backstory of his famed novella. In doing so, I came across a neat deep work-themed holiday nugget (the best type of nugget).

According to biographer Claire Tomalin, Dickens crafted much of the tale in his head while engaged in nighttime walks that covered 15 to 20 miles. As a result of this ambulatory cogitation, the entire story took only six weeks to complete in the late fall of 1843.

I like this anecdote: it provides a reminder of what’s possible when you’re able to devote hour after hour of deep thinking on one focused target.


19 thoughts on “Charles Dickens’s Deep Christmas Strolls

  1. George Bellarios says:

    Do we think this was on gas lit city streets? If so, this would be a new thing for humans, which would make it even weirder.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      London in 1843 would have been well gaslit (they started adding the lights around 1807). Another thing I learned from Tomalin is that people had to walk a lot more back then, as it was an in between period where workers — like Bob Cratchit — were moving to suburbs, but there wasn’t any great transit option to get them to their jobs in the cities yet, so it wasn’t unusual to walk miles and miles everyday back and forth to the suburbs.

  2. Shrikanya ghatak says:

    The people of yore had placed a great importance on reflection. This helps to build other neural networks. Reflection provides us with new insights about the topic in question. Long walks help us reflect since our mind is not focused on anything in particular.

  3. 15 to 20 miles?! Geez, he must have been in excellent condition.

  4. I love Dickens’ books and I love you sharing this! I had heard that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol when he was in a deep financial hole and needed to produce it quickly. This anecdote seems to prove your philosophy about what’s possible with deep work…

  5. Sidney says:

    Funny how I thought walking 1 mile was a lot this past semester. I implemented this without even thinking about it as deep work. Every MWF, I would walk to campus instead of driving or taking the bus. This allowed time to think and process the day ahead of me. Hope to continually do this, this upcoming semester despite the cold. I looked forward to it each day.

  6. Kyle Hettinger says:

    Walking-thinking is the best kind of thinking.

    He would walk 15 to 20 miles in a night? That’s quite a stroll! From a few other things written in pre-auto times I gather than people habitually walked long distances. It’s not like everyone always had access to a horse or carriage the same way virtually every American 16+ has access to a car nowadays..

  7. John says:

    I enjoy a morning and late afternoon walk every day with my two dogs. Consistently, these walks allow for reflection and produce ideas for my writing.

  8. Nitin says:


    I’m interested in knowing if you are a fast reader. I took a look at that book on Amazon and it’s 608 pages! That would take me about a month or more of night time reading since that’s only when I can find time to read. From your post, it looks like you started the book a few days ago. You already worked through 608 pages? Please note I’m being genuinely curious, not skeptical.

    I’m constantly amazed how you’re able to juggle teaching, research, regular blogging, writing books, reading so many books while being a parent to three kids. Whew!

    Happy new year 🙂

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I wish I could read 600 pages that fast!

      One of the skills you pick up when you’ve done enough nonfiction writing is how to skim, pull out interesting factoids, get to some core points from a longer piece, etc.

      In general, I do both. I’m always *reading* 4 – 5 books, which means actually reading the whole thing. But when doing research for a particular chapter/article/post, I also do a lot of book and article *skimming* to pull out interesting points.

      Both are useful skills…

      1. EA says:

        It would be great to have one or two posts on how you research for your books, how you classify your items, how you organize your source material so that you can find it later etc

        1. Martin Olson says:

          Fascinating and helpful article.

          I second EA and would appreciate hearing a breakdown of your average daily work rigamarole! Thanks in advance, Cal.

  9. Vivian Hir says:

    I have tried your productive meditation method from Deep Work and I got to admit, it is pretty hard!
    Do you think your meditation method while driving, biking can be applied or is it hard to cultivate this type of thinking?

  10. Sud says:

    I wonder if “I being myself” would be better than “me being me”.

  11. Thank you for sharing this about Dickens, Cal. Made me thing about how I often craft blog posts in the car with the radio or noise off. I know it’s not fully your idea of solitude, but I tried this while walking the dog and too many people stop to chat or pet the dog. …

  12. Judy says:

    What lucky children you have! The Charles Dickens anecdote is so interesting, and it brings to mind a passage I read about Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables series, and many other works. Caroline Parry wrote that after she married and had children, ‘Always juggling her duties and her creative work….. she strove to perform both roles successfully. Neighbours grew used to seeing the petite Mrs. MacDonald, as they called her, striding down the street to take care of shopping or Sunday school, muttering dialogue for her books as she went.’

  13. Barbara Leckie says:

    Not on the topic of Dickens, per se, but this is a great article on teens’ perceived sense of the role of cell phones in their lives:
    I teach teens like these today and they have a hard time making it through any novel, let alone a novel by Dickens.

  14. Every child is different in its own way. They vary in terms of learning speed, problem-solving skills and memorizing or understanding the concepts. They need proper and personalized guidance to understand the concepts. But it is not possible in the case of the coaching center as there are many students so the teacher has to imply general teaching methods

  15. David Smith says:

    Many times when the next words just wouldn’t come, a bit of a walk – 20 miles not needed at all – will jar them loose. Often by the time I hit the end of the front walk and decide “right or left?” at the sidewalk, the start of the next sentence begins to flow. A few blocks later there’s enough to get back to the keyboard and get back to it. It’s a great hack.

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