How to train your brain to work on command

Walter Isaacson has written popular biographies of Leonardo Da Vinci, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and others. He is a university professor and he has also been CEO of CNN and managing editor of Time.

He is an accomplished man.

Before he became managing editor of Time, Isaacson was a journalist at that organization. And during his time as a journalist, Isaacson managed to write a well-received 864–page book on the side.

How? Using a peculiar work habit. As related by one of Isaacson’s friends at the time:

[Walter] could retreat up to the bedroom for a while, when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book… he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour, we’d hear the typewriter pounding, then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us… the work never seemed to faze him, he just happily went up to work when he had the spare time.

(From Cal Newport’s Deep Work, emphasis mine.)

When I first read this account of Isaacson’s work habit, it astounded me. How could someone shift into and out of doing such hard, mentally tasking work so quickly?

Then, by coincidence, I discovered that you and I can do this too. You just have to train your brain a bit.

Our brains are pattern-recognizing machines. The same way you can train a dog to sit on command, you can train your brain to get ready for doing hard work on command.

As you might know, I’ve been writing daily for around a month now. Initially, I thought writing daily would be difficult:

Where would I find the time each day? What if I lacked inspiration one day? If I didn’t write immediately after breakfast, would I end up pushing the writing off entirely?

But it turns out that writing daily is much easier than writing occasionally. Paradoxically, it is even easier to write daily than to write regularly but less frequently, such as writing once a week, or writing every Tuesday and Thursday.

These days, when I sit down to write, my brain tends to shift into writing mode quickly: I don’t let my fear of writing terribly stop me from starting. I simply put some words on the page. I tune out distractions and I enter a state of flow.

In essence, in under a month, I’ve trained my brain to write on command.

Now, if you are a journalist, this may be old news to you. You’ll have long learned to write on command.

But you are probably not a journalist—and you may have something you’d like to do regularly, but that you are having trouble motivating yourself to do.

Let’s say your goal is to become a web developer. You plan to get there by learning to use a framework such as React or Angular. And that means working through a lot of tutorials and practicing by programming.

You could try to fit in your learning by sleeping less, by exercising less, or by eating junk food to save time on cooking. But these are self-defeating strategies, particularly for something as mentally tasking as learning.

What if you instead took Walter Isaacson’s approach? Try doing a little bit of learning whenever you have 20 minutes or more to spare.

After a while, you’ll train your brain to shift into and out of the learning mode more quickly. And you’ll make progress on your goal without having to free up lots of time from your schedule.

You might not immediately see results—it’ll probably take a few weeks. But as you build confidence that you can do or learn something useful even in short periods of spare time, you’ll get better at switching brain “modes”.

And who knows, maybe you’ll end up writing a 864-page book on the side in the next year or two.


— Peter

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