Deep Work is Pragmatic

Deep Work is Pragmatic

The final quote that I have from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work is just a reminder of the pragmatic reality of deep work: “the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.” The reason we should take ideas of deep work seriously is because it will help us be better at doing the most important things. Everyone has goals for their life, everyone has things they want to accomplish, and everyone has something they are aiming toward, but nobody will get there if they cannot focus on the things that matter.

 

Whether it is at work, in our family and social lives, or with a new hobby, being able to focus on the important things is crucial. Without developing concentration skills, we are going to be distracted by social media, outrageous news reports, and one million other notifications on our smart phones. These distractions will stop us from putting  the necessary effort into the meaningful things in our lives, and will train our brains to expect constant input.

 

As the world becomes even more distracting, with phones continuing to grab a foothold in our lives and with more opportunities for distraction all around us, it is important that we remember the value of concentration. It is important that we work on becoming better versions of ourselves through focus and deep work so that we can excel where others become bogged down and unable to move forward with complex high value tasks. Without being able to truly concentrate, we will never get important things done.
Deciding Which Tasks to Own

Deciding Which Tasks to Own

In the knowledge economy, many of us have a thousand things we could do with our time at any given moment. Email (as I have written about previously) is always an available option to us, we usually have a lot of reports we could work on, and there is always another meeting we could be doing more to prep for. How do we decide which activities are the most important, which tasks we will own, and which things will be left behind?

 

One answer, is to think about how specialized the task is to your own skill set. This gives us a question to ask when considering the work that is the most important, and what should be our priority. The question comes from Cal Newport in his book Deep Work, “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?”

 

Responding to a bulk of emails, creating a PowerPoint slide, and plugging some data into an Excel file are examples of activities that don’t require much thoughtful training. Sure, your emails need your insight and decision-making for response, but a smart college grad could plug through a bunch of emails just as well as you could. They could also throw together a decent PowerPoint, and enter a bunch of info into a spreadsheet without a much specialized knowledge and training. They could easily replace you if that is what your day consists of.

 

Newport would suggest that you start to focus your day around those tasks which rely on your specialized knowledge and abilities if you don’t want to be easily replaced. If you want to maximize your value, produce at a high level, and get important stuff done, then you should look to delegate those tasks that a recent college graduate could complete and spend more time deliberately working on the challenging tasks. You will get better at doing the things that matter the most, and you will have a greater impact in your organization.
Estimating Our Schedule

Estimating Our Schedule

How much time do you need for some of the mundane tasks in your life? You probably have a good sense for how long it takes you to get yourself together for work in the morning, how long it takes to prep your easy Thursday dinner, and how long it takes you to brush your teeth and get into bed at night. What you probably don’t have a great sense of, however, is how long it will take you to complete something new in your routine. If you are looking to introduce something new into your routine you will probably misjudge just how much time you will need.

 

This is an idea that Cal Newport presents in his book Deep Work. Newport specifically writes about new habits for work and leisure that help us improve our focus and spend more time with important things that truly matter. He encourages us to create schedules not just for our workdays, but four our entire days, and warns us that it is going to be hard to plan our days when we first start. Newport writes,

 

“Almost definitely you’re going to underestimate at first how much time you require for most things. When people are new to this habit [scheduling their full day], they tend to use their schedule as an incarnation of wishful thinking – a best-case scenario for their day.”

 

I started this post reflecting on common activities that we do daily, and our sense of how long those activities really take us. The reality for even these simple things is that we don’t have a great sense of how long they actually take, especially if we are not focused while working through those tasks. Deliberately getting ready for bed is a lot quicker than distractedly getting ready for bed while simultaneously watching YouTube videos. If we likely get these daily things wrong, then we will surely have a poor estimate for just how long new habits, routines, and tasks will take us.

 

For work, scheduling just how long a spreadsheet or report will take us can be challenging, especially if we have varying demands and levels of interest from our supervisor. But the more we practice, the more we can focus and engage with deep work, the better we will eventually be at getting a sense for how long something will take. This will carry over into other areas of our life as well. We will eventually get a good sense for how long the new physical therapy routine will take us, how much time we need to set aside for exercising, or how long a board-game with our family will take. Along the way, we will develop muscles for flexibility in our time and scheduling, helping us make better predictions and adjustments as we schedule out our days.
spend time on autopilot

Spending Our Days on Autopilot

“We spend much of our day on autopilot – not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work.”

 

Good habits are everything, but they are hard to develop without deliberate, conscious effort. Bad habits, on the other hand, spring out of nowhere and are always ready to creep into your life. When we spend time on autopilot and fail to recognize how much time we lose to TV, to our smartphones, or to the snooze button, we start to allow bad habits more space to creep into our lives. Living on autopilot encourages us to do easy things, and to default toward limited action rather than put effort into things that take effort but in the end provide more value.

 

Newport’s solution to our autopilot days is to literally, “schedule every minute of your day.” We can schedule time for deep work, we can schedule time to do the important things around the house that need to get done, and we can schedule time for TV or scrolling through the internet on our phones. If we try to schedule out what we are doing and when, we can start to think about how we spend our time and begin to redirect ourselves toward more meaningful activities. Scheduling our full day, not just our workday, will give us a chance to jump out of autopilot, to stop moving through the motions each day, and to use our time meaningfully.

 

This isn’t to say every minute of the day has to be productive, but it gives us a framework to keep distractions and low value tasks and activities away from the times when we are trying to focus and get important things done. If we find that we have bad habits that waste a lot of time in the morning or early afternoon, we can schedule activities during those times that get us away from the distractions, helping us be more engaged and intentional with the world. Planning is everything if we want to get away from spending our days on autopilot, and if we want to find a balance between excitement, important work, and mindless leisure.

Focus on the Few Major Items

Cal Newport writes, “in many cases, contributions to an outcome are not evenly distributed,” in his book Deep Work. Across many different domains, several of which Newport mentions in his book, we find an 80/20 split emerge terms of relationships between important things. Newport states that 80% of computer program crashes are caused by just 20% of the known bugs, and in other areas of science and society, we see similar 80/20 splits.

 

Newport believes that this 80/20 split also applies to the goals in our lives, and considers how we should approach our lives is we believe that 80% of our outcomes will be based on 20% of what we do. He writes, “many different activities can  contribute to your achieving these goals. The law of the vital few, however, reminds us that the most important 20 percent or so of these activities provide the bulk of the benefit.”

 

We do a lot of different things throughout the day, but a lot of what we do is relatively short and doesn’t have a really large impact on the outcome of our life. There are really just a handful of things that we actually do that really make a big difference. Exercising, fighting off the desire to eat pie for breakfast, engaging with some type of productive hobby, and doing something meaningful with our family have large impacts on the outcomes we see in life. The millions of small things we do, pick out socks, play cards, scroll through social media, and drive to work, fill in the rest. They might be important in some way, but they are not the key factors that determine the outcomes of our lives.

 

What we should do, Newport argues, is think about those handful of thing that really make a difference. We should prioritize those moments, and make sure they have our full focus and attention, so that we maximize the areas that truly matter. We can then divert our energy away from the things which don’t matter, cut out any unnecessary clutter in our routines, and do our best at managing the big factors which have the biggest influence on the outcomes we see in life.
How We Think About Our Digital Tools

How We Think About Our Digital Tools

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport contrasts two types of approaches to the digital tools that we use and create. We have a lot of powerful social media and network messaging applications, and these tools and applications are often given to us, or seemingly forced onto us, without much choice on our end. If everyone we know is using Facebook, then we feel left out without it. If everyone in the office is using Slack for communications, then we feel that we must join in so that we don’t miss any important messages and updates. The tools we create put pressure on us to use them, even if we never wanted the tools to begin with.

 

Newport calls this standard approach to network tools the Any-Benefit Approach and he defines it this way, “You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.”

 

We don’t want to be left out of conversations at the water cooler, so we download social media apps to talk about what other people have said. We don’t want to miss a message about something in the office, so we join all the Slack channels at work. We might get an early insight into something our favorite sports team is doing, so we install the Twitter app. We don’t think critically about whether we get a lot of value from these network tools, we only ask if there is some potential benefit we might receive from the tool.

 

Newport describes the opposite strategy for determining what network tools we use as the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: “Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.” 

 

With this frame, we don’t add twitter unless we think it is going to really make our lives better to know what our favorite sports stars are up to. We don’t install social media apps if we think we will waste time with them or if we think that we will become jealous looking at all the cool things others are doing. Rather than worrying about what we might miss out on if we don’t get the app, we worry about what we might miss out on if we lose time and attention to the app. We bring in new applications at work if they help us perform better, not if they help us stay up on office gossip or give us a few popular tidbits to chat about during our breaks. Switching to the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection matters if we want to do meaningful work and be present with our families in meaningful ways.
The Value of Boredom

The Value of Boredom

How often are you bored? How often do you actually experience boredom without instantaneously having something to do that will keep your mind at least somewhat occupied, even if not occupied by anything important? You have probably had a boring work training that you had to sit through without nodding off, but outside of that, there probably are not too many pure moments of boredom in your life.

 

Instead of having to live with boredom, we live with distraction. In line at the grocery store, on an airplane, and in a doctor’s waiting room we have an easy distraction available. We might not be thoroughly entertained and might not enjoy our wasted time, but we are not exactly bored. Because of our phones, our minds are trained to expect that that any moment of potential boredom is a moment of distraction instead.

 

Cal Newport thinks this is a problem. In his book Deep Work he writes about the value of boredom, “to simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.”

 

The value of boredom doesn’t come from any particular insight you might have when it is only your thoughts that keep you occupied and entertained. The value of boredom is instead in what it doesn’t let slip into your brain: bad habits of distraction seeking expectations. Newport continues, “to succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.” This is where boredom comes in.

 

Being bored allows us to get used to an absence of distracting stimuli. It helps our brain accept that at some times we are not going to have new news articles to scroll through, we are not going to have red notifications telling us that someone has acknowledged our existence, and we are not going to have something flashing on a screen to keep our brain engaged. If the brain becomes comfortable with boredom, it will be better at deep work, and we will be more productive.
Constant Task Switching

Constant Task Switching

My last post was about training the brain to become less dependent on continuous novelty and to become better at concentrated focus. Training the brain for deep work requires that we wean ourselves from distractions and in some senses rewire our brains to be less dependent on distracting stimuli.

 

Cal Newport describes exactly what it is with today’s technology that ruin’s our ability to focus. He says it is not just a distracting technology or habit, but our constant task switching. It is the multitasking (or what we call multitasking) that makes it so hard for us to actually do anything. “The idea motivating this strategy [strict regulation of our internet usage and time] is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” 

 

A lot of the important work that we need to do is hard, includes some drudgery, and requires a good amount of brain power to think through the best way to design, implement, and complete. Often times this requires reading important technical documents, writing detailed reports, or building spreadsheets or tables. All of these activities have parts that flow nicely, and all of them have tedious parts that require attention to detail to make sure everything is well considered, thorough, and accurate. These activities require deep work.

 

If you continually jump between your deep work and your twitter feed, or the scoreboard for the league, or your Snapchat, you will be taking your mind off the important but tedious work and giving your attention over to something designed to be more stimulating, but that is ultimately unimportant. Your brain won’t be able to put up with long boring stretches of time, and eventually the consequences of your bad habits will catch up with you. It will take you longer to do detailed writing and to complete projects. You will miss small details in your constant task switching and your accuracy will suffer. Your mind will become accustomed to switching into a fantasy world of distraction, and you will find yourself at family dinners pulling out your phone instead of being present with loved ones. To get better at deep work, and to get the benefits that come with a focused mind, we have to work against the constant need for distraction, and that means developing habits that put low-value/high-stimuli distractions into a proper time and space, so we can enjoy them appropriately without letting them interrupt our important work.
Wired for Distraction

Wired for Distraction

“Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work.

 

Our technology today is not built nor designed to provide us with the best space for focus, it is not intended to provide us the maximum possible value, and it is not sold to us to truly enhance our lives. A lot of our technology today is intended to keep us engaged, to grab our attention, and to earn someone else a few bucks. What we get are curated distractions, constantly renewing streams of information that we pretend keeps us in the know, keeps us entertained, and provides us value. Even though our devices have this negative downside, we lie to ourselves about our need for our technology, and we are not honest about how much we rely on technology as a distraction to save us from a few minutes of boredom.

 

I find myself constantly checking Strava, just to see if anyone new has liked my run. I don’t like watching dishes without watching a YouTube video on my phone, and I don’t like cooking without listening to a podcast. Just like everyone else it seems, I’m hardly able to wait in line at the grocery store without pulling my phone out to just click around for the five minutes I might have to wait.

 

The problem with all of these habits is that it trains my mind to be distracted and constantly entertained with something flashy, new, and interesting.

 

Cal Newport, throughout Deep Work, returns to an idea, “The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.” If we are not training ourselves to focus, and instead train ourselves to be distracted, we will never be able to do deep work, and will never be able to concentrate on things that matter when it matters. “efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”

 

Boredom and not having something stimulating for our brain has been seen as terrible. Being stuck in traffic, waiting at the doctor’s office, and having to vacuum the floor are all times when our minds used to be stuck in a state of boredom, but now can be in a state of distraction. All of our distractions train our minds to be dependent on interesting information and stimuli. Newport describes the problem this way:

 

“If every moment of potential boredom in your life – say having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives – is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where … it’s not ready for deep work–even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.”

 

If we want to be successful, do meaningful things with our careers, and engage with interesting and meaningful ideas and topics, we have to find ways to put down our phones and learn to concentrate through boredom. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fun, but it can help our mind adjust so we are not distracted and oblivious to the world around us. It can help our minds be prepared to do meaningful work when the time comes.
Shutdown Rituals

Shutdown Rituals

What do you do at the end of your work day? Do you just haphazardly save and close out of anything that you happen to be working on during the last 10 minutes of work? Do you glance back through your email one last time and shoot off a couple emails to make sure you got a response in before you left for the day? Do you even sign off for the day or do you just leave the office only to continue checking email and doing tidbits of work here and there for the rest of your evening?

 

One thing about work today is that it can creep into every moment of our lives. It is easy to continue checking your work email all weekend long, to continue to take calls from clients well into the evening, and to hop on for a few minutes here and there when you are off the clock to help take care of something. All of this can be extremely draining, and we can become overly consumed by our work. Living this way pushes our family out, adds a low level of stress to each moment of our day, limits our time for real leisure and disconnection from work, and as Cal Newport puts it in his book Deep Work, prevents our unconscious brain from working through those challenging issues when we are not thinking of them directly.

 

Newport’s solution? Shutdown rituals. For Newport, ending the day with a plan is incredibly important for having a life focused on meaningful things within and outside of work. Shutdown rituals are crucial for setting ourselves up to have a productive workday the following day. If you take some time to gather your thoughts, reflect on what you accomplished, how long it took, and what you wish you had been able to achieve, you will be able to better structure your work and your days. You can plan ahead for the next day to make sure you get the really important thing done and avoid getting stuck on the small unimportant details. Shutdown rituals allow you to evaluate what went well, and where improvements could be made. They also allow you to put your work down, knowing that you have a plan to address the crucial things tomorrow, when your brain is fresh.

 

Newport writes, “Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they’re necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness summarized previously.”