Cal Newport (Author, Comp Sci Professor) attempts to convince us that one of the significant problems facing knowledge workers today is the lack of focused time – or what he calls “Deep Work”. I feel like I face this problem Every. Single. Day. It is one of the reasons I bought this book – hoping for a silver bullet to this problem. Leaving work daily having made what feels like zero progress towards any kind of meaningful output despite spending ridiculous hours at work, I found this book giving me strategies but no quick fix – did I expect it to? Should it? Or do I need to make some changes to my habits, practices, and way of doing business? YES!
What did I expect to get out of it?
I (knowledge worker) spend my days doing things that don’t “produce” anything. Intangible outputs such as quotes, proposals, reports, presentations. Sure, you can print them, read them, listen to them – but there’s no physical product created. One of the things that come with being a knowledge worker is email, meetings, phone calls, conference calls. Cal Newport would (for the most part) call these “shallow work” and is where we spend most of our time.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
I want to be able to go home at the end of a period (let’s call it a week because some days are just write-offs) and feel like I’ve done something. Created something. Putting together a compelling proposal or convincing presentation takes time and concentration – something tough to come by if you accept the conventions expected of a modern office worker in a big company!
What did I actually get out of it?
Cal starts off the book in Part 1 by talking about how for all the marvellous tools and technologies we have, we all feel like we aren’t getting time to create worthwhile things. What is interesting is he points out this has happened for recorded history – doing this with historical and contemporary examples from authors, academia, and professional walks of life. He then convinces you that the solution is deep focus – free from distractions – and again gives examples of how people throughout time have hidden away from society when they needed to put in deep concentration to churn out a book, create the ‘next big thing’, write academic papers, etc. He does acknowledge though that for most knowledge workers, hiding away will at the least get you branded as a weirdo, at most get you sacked. He brings up a concept of “deep work”:
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate
This to me sounds like something useful – I work in a service industry, and the thing that is constantly drummed into us is to be constantly “creating value”. If you aren’t convinced that Deep Work is Valuable, Rare, and Meaningful by the end of Part 1, don’t stop reading. There are some useful nuggets still to be found.
Part 2 of the book is all about practical solutions for weaving deep work into modern reality. Approximately 2/3 of the book is devoted to the solution – which is a set of rules and examples. Cal says we should work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media, and drain the shallows. What does all that mean?
Work deeply – give yourself time and space to get into the zone, but do it in a way that will practically work for you. Decide on a deep work scheduling philosophy, and enforce it. There’s four – “Monastic”, “Bimodal”, “Rhythmic”, and “Journalistic”. For most office workers who have to work with other people, I think the Journalistic philosophy is the appropriate one. This is basically taking deep work chunks when you can get them – potentially scheduling them on your calendar – but taking the opportunity when it presents. A gap in your calendar? Scheduling a meeting with yourself where you hide (offline if necessary!), remove distractions, and just pound some work out. Strangely, Cal also advocates taking regular downtime – the brain just isn’t designed to think about the same thing for long periods. It can think mostly non-stop, but needs to switch topics to keep it fresh! He makes a good case for a “shutdown ritual” at the end of each day, allowing your brain to leave work at work.
Embrace boredom – concentration is a skill that has to be trained, and it’s something we’ve lost for the most part. What’s the first thing that most of us (myself included) do when a moment of nothingness rears its head? We whip out the smartphone and play a game, read some news, check Instagram or Facebook. We’re feeding our brains little spoonfuls of information crack, getting addicted to the constant hit of fresh information. Multitasking is part of this too – we feel productive because we’re busy and rushing, but we aren’t actually achieving any of it well. We need to train our brains to concentrate – and make distractions the break from focus – rather than focus be a break from distractions. Sounds logical, right? One strategy for achieving this is to schedule “internet blocks”. Depending on your job this might be hourly, 4 times a day, etc. – the quantity doesn’t matter. What does matter is anything that needs the internet between the internet blocks doesn’t get done straight away – you put it on a list and deal with it when the time comes. The chance of getting diverted on to Facebook or Buzzfeed will be lessened!
Quit social media – This is NOT a call to become a social media monk, cutting yourself off from the world – but a call to critically evaluate the social media you do use, and to not use social media or the internet as your boredom crutch (see above). Use of social media should have a ‘means test’ applied to it – is it helping you achieve a personal or professional goal, or is it just a time waster? How tenuous is the goal? If it’s something like “stay in touch with family and friends”, there’s probably a better way to do it (Pick the family and friends you really care about, and speak to them or hang out!).
Drain the shallows – this is really about finding opportunities to minimise or remove shallow work from your schedule – and potentially, shrinking your schedule. Most likely (at least in my case) will be fitting the value-creating activities into an acceptable period, leaving time free for relaxation, free thought, just not flogging yourself out! Strategies here include:
- Scheduling every minute of your day – noting that yes, things crop up and you will need to renegotiate your schedule with yourself. It will still likely be more successful than going with the flow and hoping the important stuff gets done!
- Quantifying the depth of every activity – with a test: “How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task?” If it’s a small number of months, it’s likely shallow work.
- Ask your boss for a shallow work budget – An interesting question to ask, and if the answer is ambiguous maybe this isn’t the job for you?
- Finish your work by 5:30 – Cal calls this “fixed schedule productivity”. Nothing happens as fast as when there is a deadline attached, so this forces you to focus on the things that must get done today. It also helps you quantify requests on your time – is this important to me finishing my priorities in time?
- Become hard to reach – Make people who call, text, or email do more work by quantifying WHY their communication deserves a response. The other tip here was to do the work upfront to save backwards and forwards emails – e.g. by responding with a process to bring the communication to a logical conclusion in the most efficient way. Or just … don’t respond!
What will I do now?
The pieces of advice that really called out to me and I’ll start to implement are:
- Implementing a shutdown ritual at the end of each day, but also aiming to finish that by a set time (for me, probably 5:30 or 6:00 pm). Practical implementation will probably be alarms on my phone and a checklist in Evernote!
- Setting up ‘internet blocks’ and batching my email and browsing into these. It’s so easy to get distracted when you go on to research that one thing – by batching maybe this can be avoided
- Consciously avoiding social media and the internet as a boredom killer – trying to just be in the moment and either breathe or think. This fits into a mindfulness practice as well.
- Using email communication efficiently with a process-based response. Cal actually has a prompt to use:
What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?