Theodore Roosevelt, widely regarded by political scholars as one of the greatest American presidents, was also one of the most prolific.
Before becoming the country’s youngest president at age 42 following President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt had already served as police commissioner of New York City, assistant secretary of the Navy, and had led a troop of Rough Riders in the Spanish American War. He also managed to write 40 published books and hundreds of articles, and was an avid sportsman.
As Georgetown professor and author Cal Newport explains in his new book “Deep Work,” Roosevelt was able to cram so much into his life because he realised early on the importance of “deep work,” or work that requires the full extent of your attention and intelligence concentrated into a stretch of time free from distraction.
Using Edmund Morris’ biography of the president, Newport offers insight into Roosevelt’s work ethic by highlighting the scheduling habit Roosevelt developed as a freshman at Harvard University in the 1876-1877 school year.
Roosevelt had a wide array of extracurricular interests, including “boxing, wrestling, body building, dance lessons, poetry readings, and the continuation of a lifelong obsession with naturalism,” Newport writes. He even published his first book, which was about birds, in the summer following his first year of college.
In his diary and letters from the time, Roosevelt explained that he would spend “no more than a quarter of the typical day studying,” Newport writes, which typically amounted to only a couple of hours. Despite spending significantly less time on his classwork than his fellow students, he still managed to achieve honours in five of his seven first-year classes.
The future president would begin every day by mapping out his schedule from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., making note of the day’s classes, daily athletic training, and lunch. The fragmented time that remained would be dedicated to studying, meaning that Roosevelt had an entire evening each day to pursue his many interests.
Newport explains that these fragments spent studying “didn’t usually add up to a large number of total hours, but he would get the most out of them by working
only on schoolwork during those periods, and doing so with a blistering
intensity.” This meant he spent no time chatting or getting up to grab coffee, and that he was always aware of the looming deadline he set for himself. Each of these sessions required his full effort.
Newport says one way to incorporate rewarding deep work into your life is “to inject the occasional dash of Rooseveltian intensity into your own workday.” This entails selecting a high-priority task, estimating how much time it would normally take you, and then creating a deadline well below the typical allotted time.
Try setting a countdown timer on your phone and keeping it in your range of view.
To make your deadline, you must avoid any time spent daydreaming, getting up for a snack, checking your email, or any other distraction.
It will be mentally draining, and therefore should not be attempted more than once a week at first, Newport says. Once you become more confident in your ability to work like Roosevelt, increase the frequency of these stretches.
“After a few months of deploying this strategy, your understanding of what it means to focus will likely be transformed as you reach levels of intensity stronger than anything you’ve experienced before,” Newport writes.
And like Roosevelt, you may find that your days open up more than you ever thought possible.
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