Deep Work Via Leveraging Complex Machinery

Leveraging Complex Machinery

Recently I have been thinking a lot about what makes our work lives feel meaningful and valuable. I currently have a job where I am not continuously busy. I’m not flooded with emails all day long, I don’t have a lot of pressure from a multitude of reports to complete, and I don’t have an endless string of asks from a supervisor. A lot of my friends seem to be a bit jealous of me, but the truth is that I would switch jobs with most of them.

 

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work explains how deep focus can be a lot more meaningful than shallow work which doesn’t thoroughly engage the mind and doesn’t provide much value. Newport writes, “To increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximizes the meaning and satisfaction you’ll associate with your working life.”

 

I wouldn’t necessarily want a job where I was running around like crazy, putting out fires, never getting to focus on any deep work, but I would prefer to have a job where real concentration and focus was necessary in order for me to get important things done. Most of my friends probably want a job where they have less stress and fewer time crunches, and as I described in a previous post, this could probably be achieved in their busy jobs by cutting out email and focusing their schedule around their deep and important work.

 

What is interesting in the quote from Newport is that our minds feel best and find meaning when they are engaged with important work that requires focus. It is not when our minds get to kick back, follow a twitter stream, and check up on sports celebrities that we are the most happy. It is having meaningful work to contribute to and a chance to focus deeply that makes work meaningful and worthwhile. We shouldn’t set out to have cushiony job that doesn’t place many demands on us. Instead, the research seems to suggest, we should set out to find a job that allows us to build good habits of focused work and contribute toward a meaningful cause. This will help our brains feel fulfilled, and will give us a chance to leverage the complex machinery of our brains, rather than allow that machinery to atrophy.
What do you pay attention to?

What Do You Pay Attention To?

“Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. Newport builds on ideas by Winifred Gallagher in her book Rapt in which she discusses where her attention landed and how she tried to approach life and thinking after a difficult cancer diagnosis. What Gallagher found, and what Newport build’s on in the context of focused attention and work, is the importance of what we think about and pay attention to as we move through our lives. Newport includes the following quote from Gallagher in his book:

 

“Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non [an essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary] of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” 

 

Newport explains that many of us make a mistake in thinking about what is important to us and what will bring us happiness. We assume that our context is everything, that we need a big house, a fancy title, a promotion, and a dream spouse to be happy. However, Gallagher’s book suggest that what we really need to feel happy is a shift in attention, away from the big things and desires, and toward the small positive things we enjoy in our life everyday, from a cup of coffee to a nightcap, and the small victories and enjoyable parts of each day. Appreciation and recognition of these small moments can mean more to us in the long run than the big fancy dream goals that we may one day reach.

 

We think it is the big context that matters, but as Newport writes, “Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow has a phrase for this, “What you see is all there is.” What you look at, what you think about, and what you encounter in your life is what your world will become. If you only look at your life and see the negative aspects of where you are, then your world will be awful. If, however, you can look at where you are and see good things around you, then your world will be better. This is what Gallagher learned while battling her cancer diagnosis, and this is what Newport incorporates into a life of focus. Dialing in on the important and positive aspects of life help us avoid feeling that we are not doing enough, are not good enough, and don’t have enough to live a happy and meaningful life.
work and craftsmanship

Think of Your Work as a Craft

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport highlights the work of Ric Furrer, a modern day blacksmith creating historical themed swords, knives, and weapons in his own modern day forge. His work is important in Newport’s book because it is a true craft that demands focus. He can only do his work, and do it well, if he is constantly focused and aware of the small details of what he is doing. He can’t afford to be distracted, to take micro-breaks to check a tweet, or bounce between his metal-work and an email or two.

 

Craftsman working with their hands have an advantage over modern day knowledge workers. They create something tangible that they can hold and see. People working construction and landscaping have the same advantage, a tie back to our early ancestors and human evolutionary past – their work can be seen. Knowledge workers’ reports, emails, and reading can’t actually be seen. As a result, we make efforts to be very visible with our work, responding to every email, posting witty tweets, and Instagramming our pile of books.

 

What ends up happening, in way that Newport describes it, is that we forget to focus on what is important with our work, and allow ourselves to be distracted.  Our work starts to lack purpose and meaning, and we take on shallow tasks. We do visible yet unimportant work rather than the important but sometimes invisible work that is required for us to really be great at what we do.

 

Newport writes, “Craftsmen like Furrer tackle professional challenges that are simple to define but difficult to execute – a useful imbalance when seeking purpose. Knowledge work exchanges this clarity  for ambiguity. It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another: On our worst days, it can seem that all knowledge work boils down to the same exhausting roil of emails and PowerPoint.” 

 

The challenge for us is to understand what is truly important and focus on that work. We can’t worry about being seen as productive. Instead, we have to focus on ensuring our time is spent on the most important issues, even if we don’t have something tangible to tell everyone that we did at the end of the day.

 

I have found tracking my work to be helpful in this regard. At the end of the day, we can forget just how much time we spent on a given project, and we can have trouble seeing the progress we made. If we think more deeply about what we need to do to make progress on important goals, we can identify smaller targets, and document, for our own sake, what we have done to reach those targets. This gives us a sense of craft, even in a knowledge economy. The more we can tie what we do to a feeling of craftsmanship, the better we can be at recognizing how important it is that we bring our best focus to our work.
Clarity on What Matters

Do You Know What Matters?

For a while I worked in the healthcare tech start-up space, and two of the biggest challenges we often faced was knowing what was the most important thing to work on, and how to be productive to accomplish our goals. I was in a role where I interfaced between multiple teams and a lot of my day was spent with email. I didn’t spend my entire day producing reports, working on spreadsheets, or creating new policy documents. Much of my day involved putting out minor fires that popped up for people working across the teams I worked between. This left me in a position where it was hard to measure my productivity. If I wasn’t producing a report of one type, and was just going to meetings and responding to emails, how did I demonstrate that I was working continuously and trying to accomplish things?

 

The easy answer which I often fell into was email. The quicker I responded to email, the more email I responded to, and the more visible I was in those emails, the more everyone would know I was working hard. The problem, however, is that responding to a ton of emails often isn’t very productive, and it often doesn’t address the most pressing problems. When I started to recognize this and shift my activity, a lot of emails fell aside (not to mention Slack Channels), and I started to actually be better at my job.

 

In Deep Work Cal Newport writes, “Clarity about what mattes provides clarity about what does not.”

 

For the first couple of years I didn’t have good clarity about what mattered. I spent a good amount of time on projects that were never going to go anywhere, and I spent a good amount of time responding to emails that really never needed a response. I looked productive, but what I worked on didn’t help drive toward the company’s biggest objectives.

 

In our work lives (and really in our lives in general) we need to start focusing on what truly matters. The better we can be at asking what is important and the better we can understand the why behind that importance, the more we can accomplish. As we practice this we will see what things are unimportant in our lives, and we can take steps to cut those things out, leaving us with more space and time for the important things. If we don’t stop to ask what things really matter, we won’t see which things don’t matter, and we won’t be able to move those things to the periphery.
Don't let standing meetings become too much

Watch Out For Standing Meetings

For teams working on diverse projects and diverse tasks within projects, standing meetings can be important. It is often necessary to get the important decision-makers in a room to discuss updates, progress, hurdles, plans, and challenges. At the same time, however, these meetings can overwhelm our schedules leaving individuals with too many meetings and not enough time for work.

 

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, answers the question: Why do these meetings persist even when they have become overwhelming and overbearing on our schedules?

 

They’re easier. For many, these standing meetings become a simple (but blunt) form of personal organization. Instead of trying to manage their time and obligations themselves, they let the impending meeting each week force them to take some action on a given project and more generally provide a highly visible simulacrum of progress.”

 

Rather than really working on goals and objectives, standing meetings allow us to pick marginal work targets on a flexible, rolling weekly basis. The work done (or planned) from week to week might not actually be an important step forward, but it can feel like something and we can vocalize that we have at least done something during the previous week.

 

Newport doesn’t suggest killing all meetings, but rather using our meeting time more wisely and cutting meetings when they are in the way. If we find that meetings are not really providing us much useful planning, and if the topics discussed at a regularly scheduled meeting don’t seem to have much weight, we should remove it from the schedule. If it is helping us with planning and staying on track, and if we are using the meeting to its full potential, then it is worth keeping. The key is planning and focusing outside of the meeting, ensuring that when we do meet, we are not wasting time but actually addressing important topics and setting concrete steps to make meaningful progress on our objectives.
Reschedule Your Email

Move Email to the Periphery

Email is the default busy work for most people today. I currently don’t receive a lot of emails, but in a previous role I was frequently inundated with emails, and a few days out of the office undoubtedly resulted in hundreds of unread emails to sort through. With so many messages coming it at every moment, and with so many people receiving, reading, and replying to emails all around us, it feels like checking and answering email is an important part of our jobs.

 

The reality is often that email is one of the least productive and least meaningful tasks for us to engage with. I have always like the idea that there are four types of tasks (an idea we can apply to emails): 1) Urgent and Important, 2) Urgent but Unimportant, 3) Non-urgent but Important, and 4) Non-urgent and Unimportant. Many of the emails that we spend time with fall into categories 2 and 4, and consequentially our action on those emails doesn’t provide much benefit to ourselves or anyone else.

 

With a better system we can move email to the periphery of our work, rather than keeping it at the center where it is continuously monitored throughout the day. This approach is difficult and takes real planning to implement if you are used to being on top of your email at every moment. For many of us, our day starts by checking every email first thing in the morning and we default to an easy strategy of trying to keep the inbox clear whenever we have a second to check it.

 

Changing away from this default would require deliberate action on our end. Cal Newport sums it up in his book Deep Work, “If e-mail were to move to the periphery of your workday, you’d be required to deploy a more thoughtful approach to figuring out what you should be working on and for how long. This type of planning is hard.”

 

A solution that I found helpful for managing emails went like this. First thing in the morning I would log in and quickly scan my emails. Email that was obviously unimportant I would archive. I used Gmail and had Boomerang, which allowed me to make emails disappear from my inbox and show up at a later time when I could address those issues that were non-urgent. Any email that was important and urgent I would review to see whether it truly needed action at this moment or not. If it didn’t, I could use Boomerang to have the email come back to me at an appropriate time.

 

After lunch each day I scheduled 1 hour of admin time for myself. During this time I would address the non-urgent but important emails that needed a response from me, or that I did need to be aware of. I would also use this admin time to schedule the remainder of my day and the first half of the next day (or longer if possible). I could estimate the time needed for me to focus on specific tasks, and block time on my schedule to handle those tasks, with an hour admin block after lunch for the following day for more planning.

 

This was a tough schedule that required focus and effort to maintain, but during the day I could reliably concentrate on important tasks. My mind was not constantly trying to ask whether I was working on the right thing, and I didn’t have to try to remember emails I had clicked in earlier. I improved over time at estimating how much time I would need for certain tasks, and I could routinely adjust for meetings and interruptions as needed. I got a lot done, and I kept up with email just fine, even though I only spent a small amount of time on email in the morning, and sent a lot of emails straight to archive.
Switching Tasks - Deep Work - Joe Abittan

Switching Tasks

The big problem with multitasking is that our brains literally cannot do it. Our brains don’t work on multiple problems at the same time, instead, our brains switch between tasks rapidly to make it seem like we are multitasking. What we are really doing, however, is inconsistently working on one task for short bursts.

 

It turns out, this is a terrible approach to actually doing great work. As Cal Newport puts it in his book Deep Work, “To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work.” [Emphasis in original]

 

Being mediocre in our work is fine if we don’t care about our work. If we don’t care whether we are in a position that might be cut during tough times, if we don’t care whether our work makes a difference, and if we just want to get paid and go home, then we can be mediocre. However, if none of those things are true, then it matters whether we are exceptional or average.

 

To be one of the top producers in our field, to stand out in our firm, and to be a crucial team player who is promoted, retained, and given important responsibilities, we have to perform at our best. High quality performance requires mental focus and grit. The only way to build focus and grit as habits that we can maintain for substantial stretches day in and day out is to practice engaging in deep work.

 

Multitasking (or multiple task switching as it might be better described) harms our ability to focus. Newport writes the following about switching tasks, “When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about he original task.” You can’t get into deep work if your mind is not completely focused on the task at hand.

 

Checking email constantly, working on a project for 15 minutes before allowing someone else to pull you into another project for 15 minutes, and trying to do meaningful work in the extra 5 minutes before meetings is a dangerous work strategy if producing high quality work is important for you. There may be times where it is good to step away from a difficult problem, to let the subconscious chew things over a little bit, but doing so continuously is unhelpful. The brain needs time and space to dive into one area to focus consistently, otherwise it is not fully applying itself to the task at hand, and the results will be as haphazard as our thinking process.
Solving for Productivity

Solving For Productivity

My general sense, from working at a health-tech start-up to my time in government, is that we under-invest in how to be productive. I recognize that everyone will have different preferences, different abilities, and different thinking styles, but I have seen plenty of areas in which we could improve the how and when of our schedules to make ourselves more productive. We can level this up from individual level decision making around productivity into group levels of productivity to really improve our organizations.

 

In the start-up world I saw individuals who were incredibly productive, but who also seemed to work for 12 or more hours every day. This is impressive, but not very sustainable and not something that could scale. In government I have seen people face mountains of work, but fail to prioritize and schedule appropriately to focus their work. Both examples highlight the importance of how we approach our productivity and why we should have more discussions about planning, schedule design, and deep work if we are going to improve our productivity as individuals and organizations.

 

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses these issues directly. He shares a story about a business school professor named Adam Grant, who produces a prodigious amount of work in terms of New York Time’s best selling books, academic journal articles, and award winning courses at his University. Newport met Grant who shared with him a PowerPoint outlining strategies for academics to become highly productivity and effective. As Newport states it, Grant, and the professors who developed the PowerPoint, “See productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve.”

 

This is the exact opposite of the productivity strategies I have seen in my two careers. The commendable start-uppers burning the midnight oil seemed to mostly just throw themselves at every project until they were spread too thin and slowed down other operations. Conversely, many of the people I have seen in government simply give in, arguing that there is too much work and not enough manpower to manage it all. Neither see their effectiveness and productivity in a scientific sense, adding variables and completing formulas to find their maximum (sustainable) productivity.

 

Newport encourages us to think about how we do our work and what work we prioritize. His suggestions also seem to be in line with recommendations from Dan Pink’s book When. From Grant, Newport learned, “batching of hard, but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.” This can take place at “multiple levels” according to Newport who demonstrates how an academic can batch teaching into one semester and research into another semester. In our own lives, we can batch important analytical work into our productive and focused mornings, and we can save emails and rote paperwork for our afternoon struggle-bus hour.

 

We might be tempted by Newport’s advice to just double down on our hard work and extend our working hours. But this is not the best strategy for the best performance. Newport explains a lesson he learned while researching his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, “The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration – radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.”

 

If we see a mountain of work and shrink from it, or if we see a mountain of work and blindly throw ourselves at it, our end result is not going to be the best possible outcome. What we need to do is think about how we can be the most productive in tackling the task in front of us. We need to think strategically and scientifically about our approach, batching the complex focus work into periods of productivity, and saving the less important work for the time when our brains have maxed out on their focus ability. This is something that leaders of all organizations should be encouraging and teaching to those they lead, otherwise they hold onto the secrets of good work, and allow those who work with them to flounder about in front of the challenges of work in the 21st century. By adding a little more time to planning and thinking strategically for how we work, we can make adjustments to kickstart our productivity. By giving ourselves realistic challenges and knowing when to say no, we can ensure that all of our work is the best we could possibly produce.
Learn Hard Things Quickly

What Is Needed To Learn Hard Things Quickly

In Deep Work, Cal Newport quotes a Dominican friar named Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges who wrote a short volume titled The Intellectual Life. In the short book Sertillanges writes, “To learn requires intense concentration.”

 

Newport continues to explain his views of learning and how his views align with Sertillanges, “To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work.”

 

We cannot learn when we are not focused on the material in front of us. We might pick up on headlines and a few trite lines when we brows a news article while watching TV, but we won’t do any real learning. Additionally, if we really need to make sure we understand some new material, we cannot attempt to study and pick up on what we need to know if we are checking our email every 15 minutes, notified about updates from our social media platforms, and continually interrupted by the world around us. We must cultivate spaces that allow us to devote time and attention specifically to the material at hand.

 

Newport describes what we need to do as deliberate practice, a term coined by a Florida State University professor named K. Anders Ericsson. “This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires,” writes Newport. “Its core components are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.”

 

Deliberate practice does, Newport also explains, seems to develop increased myelin layers around neural circuits related to the activity we want to master, “Keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits.” Myelin acts as an insulator for those neural circuits. The more myelin around a brain circuit, the quicker the neural pathway operates and the more it becomes easy and automatic. Deliberate practice helps promote the myelination of the pathways involved in the activity we focus on, even if that activity is focus itself.

 

Practice within deep work makes us better at doing deep work. Learning is a deep work process, and one that we can improve as we practice improving our focus. As our neural pathways become better at focusing and avoiding distractions, we will be able to maintain a state of focus for longer, and as a result our work and learning will improve. Conversely, allowing ourselves to drift in and out of focus and allowing our mind to be continually distracted prevents us from developing the crucial myelin insulation around the brain circuits needed for deep work. This means that when we need to focus on something, we won’t be able to, and without being able to focus we won’t learn, and we won’t be able to adapt to take on new challenges and opportunities. Without developing our focus skills and neural focus pathways, we will not prepare ourselves for the future and for a world that requires quickly mastering complex ideas and processes.
Deep Work in the New Economy

Competition in a New Economy

I am afraid of working in job that doesn’t provide much stimulating and interesting work and which drains my time and energy for when I am not at work. I want to have something to do that keeps me engaged, rewards me for being focused and interested in the world, and which provides enough flexibility for me to have a life I can still enjoy. In the opinion of Cal Newport in his book Deep Work, there are three kinds of people that will be able to find careers of the kind I desire. He writes, “In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.”

 

I don’t have a lot of access to capital, and probably won’t move in that direction with my life and career, but I can prime myself for working with intelligent machines (if that opportunity opens up in my life), and I can certainly strive to be the best at what I do, no matter where I find myself.

 

The two avenues that are open to me have one thing in common: deep work. Newport describes how these two avenues tie into deep work: “two core abilities for thriving in the new economy: 1. The ability to quickly master hard things. 2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.”

 

We need to be flexible, quick to learn, and efficient at producing high quality work if we want to be the best at what we do or if we want to be able to work creatively with intelligent machines. Technology is changing quickly, and whether you code, work with a certain type of machine, or produce material in a certain format, you need to be able to adjust with new technologies and innovative ways of using those technologies to produce and deliver work. As I wrote before, you will also need to produce high quality work, or what you do produce will be ignored and overlooked.

 

Deep work is crucial for success in a new economy. If you cannot focus, you cannot quickly master hard things, you will always find yourself behind the technology curve. Also, if you cannot engage in a distraction free manner with important ideas and topics, you won’t find yourself at an elite level in terms of what you produce and work on. Your work won’t be able to stand the test of time, and you will be passed over for those who can produce more elite level work. This is where I find myself when considering a career and considering how I approach each day. If I am not building those skills, then I am not preparing myself for an economy that demands focus, creativity, and attention.