Deep Work Expedition Style

Leverage how to get disconnected and succeed like on an expedition.

Photo by Suleyman Seykan from Pexels

Two things…

1. Adventurers are people who go on intense expeditions to push the boundaries of human exploration and human capabilities. People like Gertrude Bell (climber in early 1900’s with a Swiss Alp mountain named after her) to Ernest Shakleton (British explorer who led 3 expeditions in Antarctica) to modern day Ben Saunders (first to the South pole and back… on foot).

2. Deep work is the ability to focus intensely with unbroken concentration, and in doing so, get into the productivity “zone.” Cal Newport’s book, imaginatively titled Deep Work, asserts that the ability to do deep work is the key to success in today’s fast-paced world.

In this series, I’ll be exploring the connection between long duration expeditions and deep work. Let’s learn how the great adventurers succeed in intense environments, for months or years, and see if we can apply those same techniques to push our productivity to new limits.

The inspiration for this came from listening to Dave Roberts Limits of the Known, where he, “reflects on humanity’s — and his own — relationship to exploration and extreme risk.” Listening to him describe how famed British explorer Shackleton left his family of 3 kids behind to go venture into the unknown was wild! I guess it’s not much different than the modern day astronauts, especially when we begin to launch Mars missions, which will be at least 2 years in duration.

But then came the kicker. Back then, there’s no radio or satellite communication, no news from back home, and your family may never know what happened to you if you didn’t come back. To me, that sounded like the most intense session of deep work ever!

Imagine a deep work session that lasts not hours or days, but in months and years! This level of extended isolation and focus demands the best in us. We’re going to learn what the best adventurers can teach us to then become better productivitist. Pretty sure that’s not a word but we’re going bold.

1. Problem Focused, Emotion Focused

“Imagine you’re in Antarctica. You’re hiking across the icy surface. It’s -15 degrees Fahrenheit and there’s a headwind blowing on you. And you’re wearing a harness, pulling over 400 lb on a sled behind you, which contains all the food and supplies you need to survive for months like this. The thought that crossed your mind a lot is, “why did I choose to do this?!”

That’s Ben Saunders in 2013, recreating the journey to the South Pole and back, on foot. For 4 months, he endured intense physical and emotional hardships to accomplish something never done before.

I want to draw the analogy that in our everyday lives, we also want to pursue something with crazy passion. There’s something in our life we want to achieve, that seems impossible or never-ending. But because it looks so daunting, we might give up before even trying or lose motivation along the way.

Let’s do what Ben Saunders does and “control the controllables”: [3]

  • Value of conserving physical, emotional and psychological energy
  • In Antarctica, the crucial variables of success or failure were environmental. Wind, temperature, snow, ice and visibility; all elements outside my control.
  • Fear at a cloud pattern signaling a storm, or the anger at a persistent headwind were both wasted energy.

Whether we’re WFH or on an expedition, we can break down our challenge into two categories:

“In brief, problem-focused coping efforts are aimed at changing the environment in order to minimize the impact of stress. Emotion-oriented approaches are related to making the environment more tolerable, perhaps by reframing or reinterpreting the situation.” [6]

Takeaway: Whatever emotional struggles you are feeling, tell yourself that it’s real and ok to feel that way. Don’t minimize it, don’t feel ashamed by it, but don’t wallow in it either. Allow yourself permission to feel it but then get back to the task of achieving.

2. How to Use a Grid of Emotions

So, how did Ben Saunders, who traversed for several months across Antarctica and have done long, solo expeditions, deal with emotions? He created something called the Grid of Emotions.

“On an A6 laminated sheet, glued into the back of my expedition diary, were 26 emotions — a full range of human feeling — measured against a scoring system of 0–4 — ‘not at all’ through to ‘extremely.’

On the satellite phone I would call my expedition manager, Tony Haile, each evening and was usually greeted with the word ‘numbers’. The conversation ­– before any further chat was exchanged — went into code — ‘8–2’ ’14–4’ ’18–1’ ’23–3’ ‘4–4’ and so on. With this data he would seek the guidance of our psychologist on how best to help me that following evening. Did I need a metaphorical arm around my shoulder, kick up the backside or word of encouragement? Would I benefit from a heartfelt message from a loved one, distraction through some amusing anecdote from the real world, or incentive through a new near-term goal?” [1]

Not all of us are lucky enough to have a psychologist on speed dial. But, we do have our family, our friends, and maybe more importantly, ourselves. Like Nike Running Coach Bennet always says, we’re our own best coach. No one else truly knows how we are feeling, all the baggage in our life, or has a complete picture of all the stress in our lives.

But I want to go further and say that’s not enough. Yes, your emotions are valid. But knowing what triggers you emotionally and letting others know to avoid those triggers is not enough. Like taking the vaccine, it’s your responsibility to not infect others with your emotional state. You’re welcome to spread love, but not negativity.

Takeaway: Identify your emotional triggers, be ok that they’re a part of you, and then work to minimize or even get rid of those triggers. The people around you will thank you for it.

3. WFH is a Form of Deep Work Expedition

“Behind the screen, without human interaction, the warning signs of struggle are all too easily masked. Several thousand miles from my team, on the uninhabited, semi-frozen desert of the Arctic Ocean, as a young man — hell-bent on proving a point — I would certainly have suffered in silence were it not for the ‘numbers.’” [1]

Again, that’s Ben Saunders reflecting on his extreme adventures in Antarctica. (The ‘numbers’ he speaks of is his Grid of Emotions.) Those words, “behind the screen” are immediately, viscerally relatable. By gosh, I’m literally writing this looking at my computer screen with the purpose of human interaction with you!

“The research, carried out by not-for-profit healthcare provider Benenden Health, showed that 35% of people are thought to be struggling with their mental wellbeing as a result of the pandemic, with many saying support from employers could help ease the stress they’re experiencing day-to-day.” [2]

WFH is a weird, extreme state to be in. Whereas adventurers choose to go on major expeditions that require massive preparations and face challenges to push them to the limits of breaking… the pandemic forced us to be isolated. We didn’t choose to be here, and yet here are, in our own version of a twisted expedition.

“Here, in this strange kind of wilderness we all share today, it might be prudent to ask yourself: “How am I helping myself and my teammates to narrow the gap between suppression and expression?”” [1]

I love that question that Saunders poses. He reframes the struggle in a way that allows him to expend the limited energy he has, both physically and emotionally, into something productive and positive. Brilliant!!!

Takeaway: “When a leader has the humility and courage to say ‘I’m finding this difficult’, it paves the way for collective vulnerability, and trust.” [3]

4. Proper Training for Deep Work

Next, let’s use the famous Everest mountain as our analogy today. For years now, it’s been getting so crowded at the top of the tallest mountain in the world that it’s been causing headlines… and deaths. Consider for a second, that in order to climb Everest, you hire an expedition company to plan the whole thing, who in turn hire sherpas to help you every step of the way, which costs on average between $44k to $100k. And depending on a weather window of just 1–2 days, you might not even make it to the peak… and possibly die along the way.

What the heck is going on?!

“Amateurs who fling themselves at Everest too quickly are missing a “forgotten key to success,” she noted: intense mental and physical preparation. People are putting their faith into a commercial outfitter and saying, ‘Oh well, if something goes wrong, they’ll get me out of trouble,’ rather than taking responsibility for themselves before they go to the mountain and putting in the hard work that’s required,” Burke said.” — Áine Cain and Allana Akhtar from Business Insider [12]

Here’s a tiny example of inexperienced that leads to big consequences:

“Murphy also pointed to nuances in climbing techniques that slowed down traffic flow. “Some guys clip into every rope with an ascender, even on flat terrain,” he said. An ascender clips onto a fixed rope and prevents a climber from sliding down — when the terrain is flat a regular carabiner is faster and relatively safe as well. The process of attaching and unattaching an ascender might add 10 or 15 seconds for each transition. One Everest climber estimates there are about 500–600 transitions, which equates to roughly two hours or more, some of which could be saved with the simpler process. “That is way slower than just clipping into the rope with a carabiner.”” — Alpine Ascents guide, Eric Murphy [14]

As we continue to WFH, isolated from our coworkers and staring at a screen focusing hard all day, it’s like we’re on Everest sometimes, clipping into one meeting at a time and it feels like there are 500–600 meetings in a day. It’s a form of deep work and an “expedition” of the mind.

Takeaway: Train and be prepared for the deep work expedition style. Just because you blocked off a few hours to do deep work does not mean it’ll automatically be productive. You’ve got to have things lined up, resources you need ready at your fingertips, and mental stamina to beat back fatigue.

“In mountaineering, it’s never one decision that causes a negative outcome, it’s a series of bad decisions.”

Let me rewrite that to: In deep work, it’s never one distraction that causes a lack of productivity, it’s a series of bad decisions.

5. Personal Expertise in Deep Work Expeditions

So, you think you’ve been doing deep work already, huh? Maybe it’s a few hours in the morning before others are up so you get some quiet time to tackle your projects. Or maybe you’ve set aside an entire day or week to really make big progress.

First of all, well done! Secondly, be kind to yourself as you undergo this expedition. I say expedition because, doing some deep work requires preparation, planning, and consistently good decision making. Expeditions are hard. So be kind to yourself if you didn’t achieve your goal by the end of the deep work session.

Takeaway: Not all expeditions are planned and executed the same way. Some are sketched on the back of a napkin while others create elaborate spreadsheets. Know thyself, lean into your strengths, but be aware of your blindspots.

Take for example Ben Saunders, who holds the record for the longest polar travel on foot, and the planning for how much food and supplies to carry:

We definitely had to be flexible, I mean the whole time you’ve got a sort of rolling calculation of working how much we’ve got left, where to leave the depots, how many depots, it’s actually quite complex in terms of the sort of mathematics behind it. And we had some help, we had a couple of guys in California who have a company that just work out complex equations, they’ve got super computers and even they couldn’t quite figure it out, you know, because you have all these different variables and it’s quite complex, because as soon as you leave a depot, the sledge gets lighter so you get faster, but then you’ve got the altitude and we need more fuel then as the stove’s less efficient at 2,500 or 3,000 meters, so there are just so many variables so that was actually quite, in a way kind of kept us busy so we’re trying to work it all out the whole time as we had no real precedent to go on. No one had ever done this before.” [6]

Here’s another story told by Saunders while on his journey in Antarctica:

“The horizon today went a bit odd-looking in the afternoon and as Tarka took over the lead from me mid-session he asked what I was aiming for. “You can just about see the west side of Mount Hope,” I said, pointing with my ski pole, “so I’m heading for the base of that ridge.” For a split-second I surprised myself with the certainty in my voice. I sounded a bit like an airline pilot, or a surgeon. Here, in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of an eternally frozen ice shelf the size of France, facing a mountain range seen by only a handful in history, I knew where I was.”

While in your deep work, stay flexible to changing circumstances. But also trust your finely honed skills, because they’re going to be spot on. Take for example, while I’m sitting here in Starbucks, I know I’ve got the mental stamina to keep writing for a few hours more. But this Starbucks doesn’t allow for free cold brew refills, so time for me to belly up to the bar. ;)

6. Interpersonal Skills on an Expedition

“During Antarctic expeditions the individual/group will most likely find themselves isolated, yet, due to the weather conditions and close proximity when sleeping in tents, individuals will have limited privacy and may experience social conflict and interpersonal tensions.” [6]

When I read that, I immediately thought about people being in the office, with coworkers and the ‘drama’ that can ensue. Being in Antarctica isn’t all that different from being in the office, apparently.

“You’re in this genuine, expanse of wilderness, twice the size of Australia and you’re in the middle of nowhere, but, you’re spending half the time in a space that is so small it would be illegal to keep prisoners in. And I think because you’re, you know, just two of us, me and Tarka, and you don’t see anyone else, or really speak to anyone else, in any great detail for-for so long, erm, the smallest things can become friction points. So, both Tarka and I were aware of that, which actually helped us enormously, and right from the outset, we had an understanding where we would be, erm, just really frank and really honest with each other. If there was stuff going on that was annoying us or weren’t happy about then we would, we would broach it, with the kind of mutual understanding that that was, that was for the greater good of the expedition and the shared goal.” [6]

Again, I read that and thought about WFH and how some of us are spending A LOT more time with our spouses or roommates.

Whether it’s our coworkers or our copilot in life, interpersonal skills are crucial. Doesn’t matter if you’re Ben Saunders at the edge of the world in extreme polar conditions or me in Starbucks on my 3rd cup of cold brew listening to my Spotify playlist, there are people important on our shared journey.

Takeaway: Leave whoever you’re interacting with in a better state than you found them. Do it for selfish reasons because it’ll make your life better. Do it for unselfish reasons and elevate the world around you. Just do it. This email is sponsored by Nike. Just kidding, but I wish it was. In fact, I’d be happy with just a free pair of trial running shoes if they’d sent it to me. Ok, I’ve really digressed now.


Going on an expedition is a serious endeavor that requires intense preparations and skills. You know what, doing deep work is no different. I assert that getting the most out of deep work requires that same intensity.

So, let’s recap all the takeaways and put them to use in our daily lives.

  1. Your emotional struggles are real, are valid, and it’s ok to feel that way.
  2. Identify your emotional triggers, be ok that they’re a part of you, and then work to minimize or even get rid of those triggers.
  3. Have the humility and courage to say ‘I’m finding this difficult.’
  4. Train and be prepared mentally and physically.
  5. Not all expeditions are planned and executed the same way — lean into your strengths.
  6. Leave whoever you’re interacting with in a better state than you found them.

As you can see, these takeaways have almost nothing to do with productivity hacks or techniques. They have to do with your mental state and ability to interact in a healthy way with other people. If you’re on an Antarctic or Everest expedition, you might be worried about falling in deep crevasses. Well, the deep crevasses of deep work are about people. Navigate people successfully and you can avoid falling into the deep crevasses of unproductivity, like drama, arguments, and general discontent.

Lastly, even in the most remote environments, we are typically not alone. Even on solo expeditions, we are with our own minds, which can be totally foreign to us sometimes!

Photo by Yevgeniya Fedorova from Pexels

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Johnny T. Nguyen

Johnny T. Nguyen

All about the adventure of positivity & productivity. I’ve turned into my parents and now wake up before 6 AM… & crush it. 🔅