Study Hacks Blog

Building a Deep Work Cabin…in an Apartment

April 23rd, 2020 · 24 comments

I recently received an attention-catching email from a 29-year-old professional trumpet player. He told me that during his first year studying at a well-known music conservatory his girlfriend convinced him to join Facebook. “Somehow I had a feeling that the whole thing robs me from practicing the trumpet and getting things done,” he said.

So between 2013 and 2015, he took a two-year break to focus on his training, and ended up writing a Master’s Thesis and graduating with a very high grade point average. “These results are directly linked to abandoning social media,” he explained.

In 2015, he rejoined Facebook, pressured by the idea that professional musicians must promote themselves online to get ahead. “It did more harm,” he wrote, “sucking me back into compulsive clicking and wasting time.”

After coming across Deep Work and (later) Digital Minimalism, he decided to leave social media for good and prioritize focused work on a small number of important pursuits. “To take back control and stay true to my own nature,” he summarized.

The decision paid off. He recorded four albums in four years, and more recently, in just two months, made it 30 chapters into a textbook he’s writing on trumpet methods.

Then came our current disruption.

“The strange thing is,” he told me,  “I don’t feel negative.” As he elaborated:

“Instead of feeling sad and restricted, I have build a wooden cabin in my living room. (I used to practice for hours in this cabin as a teenager). The cabin was in storage for ten years…but now during the pandemic I finally found the courage to make the decision to build it once again [in my apartment!]. It is my own “Distraction Free Zone” or I also call it: ‘The Deep Work Cabin,’ ‘Unwired’ or ‘Trumpet Laboratory.”

Here’s a view of the interior:

This is not only a good case study of digital minimalism in action, but it points to a broader point that’s intensely relevant at the moment. A deep life, in addition to being satisfying, is also resilient.

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A brief note: I really enjoy hearing these stories of finding solace in depth during hard times. If you have a similar tale, I’d love to hear it at author@calnewport.com. (Accompanying photos are welcome when relevant.)

24 thoughts on “Building a Deep Work Cabin…in an Apartment

  1. Kevin says:

    This amazing! I love carrying the idea of a dedicated space to work to this high level of professionalism. During the past weeks I approached the task of deep work at home. During work hours I change chairs of my desk, change keyboards (one for work and the other for non-work), I have two different candles (one to start work and other to start rest). It as been working pretty well. I find this photograph you posted really inspiring :).

  2. EA says:

    Tried to pitch the idea to my wife but it didn’t work.
    However, this is truly great!

    1. alex says:

      I have purchased all of his books, and am just thankful that my wife is not the type of person to do social media posting all day long. there is only so much you can hope for – to have an isolated cabin for deep thought is amazing, but with 2 small kids, a working wife, household duties (making food, washing dishes, laundry, kids duties, elderly parent duties) there is only so much time to go around. I assume from his books he has a stay at home wife who manages the non-diaper kids and household tasks (bills, repairs, garbage, operations, food, grocery, errands, planning, etc) which affords him time to walk on the beach for deep thought, or to do hobbies in isolation after he is home from work. even incorporating a few items from mr. newport into daily living will improve quality of life but as they always say – you cant have it all.

      1. Study Hacks says:

        I think your last line is the important one. Something I’ve noticed in the 15 years I’ve been publishing advice books, is that a common reaction to such work is to exaggerate what the advice suggests to an unachievable standard and then use the impossibility of that scenario to justify not doing anything. This is perhaps most common in the health and fitness world where you often hear some variation of “I don’t have time to workout 3 hours a day” as a justification for doing no exercise.

        Depth tends to more meaningful and value-producing than shallowness for many activities. To the extent that you’re able, you should fight to increase depth. The fact that this will look different for different people doesn’t reduce its truth.

      2. EA says:

        Alex – Oh yes, absolutely. I implemented many – if not most – of the suggestions that he made throughout the years and my life has greatly improved both at home, and in the workplace. Ultimately we do what we can.

  3. Luke says:

    Thank you so much for the additional content. It has inspired me to retain depth through a time where Netflix and video games could easily win out.

    You mentioned that you are using Trello recently. There appears to be some overlap between Trello and how you used Workflowy when you released the video that gave an inside look at your productivity systems. Do you have a different purpose for each app?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I moved all of my professional obligations from workflow.y to Trello…I needed the columns and the ability to attach lots of information to each card

      1. Saad says:

        Hi Cal, can you please write an article or post a video on how you use Trello in your workflow? Thanks!

      2. Alyse Carroll says:

        Workflowy do “Kanban” now 🙂

  4. Isabel Paz (Portugal) says:

    Being a high-school student in and having read “Deep Work”, I have been working hard on improving important skills (doing less, doing better and knowing why), especially now with the time I have to spare since I am having classes online.
    I have to thank you for suggesting Trello. I would usually write down on paper what i needed to do the next day, but I ended up understanding that writing down makes it harder to figure out what my top priorities are.
    “How to Become a Straight-A Student” is already on my bookshelf and I am very looking forward to reading it! In a few months I will be attending University and I am pretty sure it will help me make the most out of the next years.

    Best regards!

    1. Antonio says:

      Hi Isabel. Antonio here, portuguese also. If you want to do good in university due to the volume of information, know how to be organized, well organized. If i were you i would prepare myself before attending university, try to make interviews with the director of the course you want to do, know the schedule of the curriculum, but importantly, you have to create a system that works ofr you and Cal’s books can help you with that. All i can say is that university is totally diferent from high school, one is never enough prepared to engage in university without some friction or stress in the begining, that’s why you should prepare before attending. And always get some time to rest, i see a lot of people avoiding rest and burning out. Manage your energy, not your time, time is abstract, energy is concrete and objective.

  5. Craig says:

    But aren’t the echos terrible in there?

  6. Elia says:

    Hi Cal,

    Can you maybe elaborate further about what you call “high-quality leisure”?
    I’ve read the part in Digital Minimalism which discusses this topic, yet I’m still not sure how exactly you differentiate “crafts” from “lower-quality” hobbies.

    As example, comparing Cooking and Dancing. The former is a more productive habit (you cook your own food), yet IMO is easier to replicate than learning and executing a complex
    choreography. And in a third category, a hobby such as hiking, is neither productive or requires a specialized skill yet it has many other advantages.

    Thanks for all the wisdom you share with us!
    (And sorry if the comment is not exactly related to the post)

  7. Amado says:

    Isabel Allende published her first book (and masterpiece), La Casa de los Espíritus (The House of the Spirits), in 1982. It is now considered a cornerstone of Latin American literature.

    I listened to a podcast by her today, and she mentioned the following:

    “Mi trabajo require soledad, tiempo y silencio.”

    “My work requires time, silence, and being alone.”

    She then went to talk about how she writes in a small attic, where she can find all these elements. Thirty years later, she has published over 100 books and will probably win the Nobel Prize soon. If that is not the definition of deep work, I don’t know what is.

    Great post.

  8. This is so true, from reading Digital Minimalism I’ve put into practice how to be intentional about social media, especially as a freelance photographer and independent artists. I dumped Facebook and Instagram, and use Tumblr like them but more constructive – about ten minutes a week. I’m also on LinkedIn a couple hours a week because it is more like an online Chamber of Commerce for networking for me than it is social media, and it has a really nice blog platform that more creatives I find are using their LI profile like a website. Anyways, I have swapped my distracted time for deep work time, including time to think like Abraham Lincoln did, and my art is showing the difference. I so relate to what this trumpet player is saying. Thank you Cal!!

  9. As a fellow musician (currently in grad school studying trombone), I can relate to this, and I am very encouraged by this post today! For any artist, living without social media can be of the most difficult conundrums (i.e., “how will people know about my art if I have no platform?”). Yet this is a great example of a musician who is producing lasting work without social media.

    If anything, I wonder if there is a way to know who is the trumpeter to support his future artistic endeavors.

    Thank you, Cal, for bringing this story to light!

  10. JR says:

    I went off to a log cabin in the woods to pass the bar exam and it really worked. Evil Republicans politicians took over the state and appointed minions to reduce the number of lawyers in the state by making the bar exam more difficult. The pass rate dropped from approximately 70% to 50% hurting thousands of innocent students from getting jobs. I had difficulty passing obviously so I went to study in an isolated cabin with no internet or tv and studied constantly. I figured I passed all my engineering exams by living in the library studying then I could do the same with the bar exam. I eventually passed the bar exam and learned to appreciate the simple things in life. I went on to work for the federal government and saw how Bush crashed the world economy from the inside. I quit the government to then see how a corrupt politically conservative corporation engaged in crimes. (As a former Republican, all I can say is that the party has turned evil and fascist.) The only danger of going off to a cabin to do deep work is that you can ignore the dramatic political winds blowing that may destroy us all and fail to prepare to an escape plan from the political storm. There must be balance in your life and that is easily lost with deep work life since you cannot ignore the society you live in for too long.

  11. MB says:

    The cabin in his apartment is hilarious. Whatever works!

    This is an awesome post! I like how to tie is back to deep work and your other key messages.

    I like when the three tenants are reinforced (do less, do better & know why). I read so much other stuff and appreciate the reminder!

  12. Daniel Dickson says:

    I bet his neighbors love the cabin idea as well – especially if he sound-proofed the walls:).

  13. Johannes says:

    This trumpet players dedication to deep work truly inspires me to dedicate myself more. This story will stick with me.

    Your last line raises a question: Is it really the deep life that is resilient – or is it the person who is living the deep life?

  14. Candice says:

    I really appreciate this post.

    I’m an opera singer, voice teacher, and performing arts career consultant. I work in higher education, and I have felt unbelievable pressure to maintain a social media presence as a musician and as someone who teaches college age students how to move their careers forward.

    Over the past few years I’ve read Digital Minimalism, as well as a few books by Jaron Lanier. I have personally come to the conclusion that social media is problematic, but I struggle with the idea of pulling the plug on it totally due to the pressure to “network”. I have seen a lot of people who are very successful without the use of social media, or limited use of social media. However, I have rarely seen examples of musicians.

    I am so glad to see this post of an example of what’s possible. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Simas Paulikas says:

    Great post, but there is something about deep work I find difficult, as a data analyst my work is the sort of work that requires a lot of concentration, I try to practice deep work throughout the day but I am currently trying to transition into a software engineer role and I try to study as much as possible after work which would occur in the time of downtime. Do you have any tips how to manage the two?

    1. Rohan Gholam says:

      I am also working a full time job, want to switch into a new profile..so studying happens in the morning, preferably early hours. For evening study sessions a jog/bike ride and a bath helps focus again after a day long tiring work…

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