Working on complex, difficult problems for a long period of time. That’s how Cal Newport defines “Deep Work.” To be able to do that, you need one thing. Focus.

To work on something for blocks of two, three and four hours, you need to train your powers of engagement and attention. There’s many ways to do this. You can leverage strong filters. By saying no, setting boundaries and creating periods of quiet and stillness in your regular schedule, you can create the space that such a high level of focus requires. You can also work on setting up an environment that is either free of, or inhibits distraction and diversions. You can use death ground strategies to compel yourself to work to a higher intensity. I could go on.

But there’s an underside to this capacity for focus. And while it may not be as critical to your success, it’s essential for your sanity. Think of it as un-focusing. It’s the skill of actively pushing things out of your mind.

I’ll give you an example. We’ve just moved house. Which means we have a thousand things to chase and tie up. Setting up utilities, bills, taxes. Outfitting the place. Changing addresses. Documenting the condition of the property and any alterations we make. Last night, me and Molly were talking about all this and we agreed to let it rest until today. Some of the things are urgent, some of them are important and some are neither. But we drove all of these concerns from our minds.

Un-focusing is a skill like focusing. Focusing allows us to create, grasp complex issues and solve difficult problems. Un-focusing allows us to relax, to decompress and to survive. I’m not exaggerating when I use that word. 

Imagine someone who is wired so tight that they have to be signed off for stress. Think they’re good at un-focusing? I doubt it. Anxiety and stress are created when we are unable to relieve our minds of valid and invalid concerns. If we cannot switch off, if we cannot un-focus, eventually, we will wear down. Eventually, our burdens will grind us into the ground.

The safety mechanism is learning how to un-focus.