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.
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.
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.
The Second Value of Deep work

The Second Value of Deep Work

“The second reason that deep work is valuable,” writes Cal Newport in Deep Work, “is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless – which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.”

 

If you only produce shallow work, your work will never have a home. People will skip over you as they search for something more interesting. Shallow work cannot compete against cat gifs, well produced reports, and interesting perspectives on important topics. Shallow work steals people’s time, and people will recognize that and learn to turn away from sources of shallow work.

 

Deep work on the other hand is truly considerate and well formulated. It requires focus, attention, and an ability to connect ideas and points that are not obviously related at first. It provides value to people and rewards them for investing their time with your media, content, or production.

 

Because we have so much access to so many people through digital media, we no longer need to pursue a shallow work approach to gaining an audience. Our deep work can resonate with those who are truly connected to what we do or the topic at hand. We can provide high quality work for a smaller group and have a more committed following. The listener data from 80,000 Hours, who regularly produce high quality 2 to 4 hour long podcast interviews is evidence in favor of Newport’s deep work claims.

 

If we invest in our minds, work on our thinking and focus, and produce high quality work, we can reach an audience that matters. If we don’t pursue this strategy, if we try instead to shovel meaningless content into the faces of everyone we can, we might get some clicks, but few people will appreciate, learn, and return to what we produce. The attention we receive will be fleeting as we are passed over for things that are more valuable and important.
Shallow Work and the Permanent Cost of Distraction

Shallow Work and the Permanent Cost of Distraction

My last two posts have been about deep work and shallow work, with one post looking at what deep work really entails, and one post considering when you should plan your shallow work relative to your deep work. Today’s post is more directly on the costs of shallow work. Yesterday’s post discussed the importance of doing deep work when we are most focused, and an unwritten but implied aspect to shallow work is that doing shallow work when we are most focus robs us of the time and mental energy that we could use to do our most important work. But that is not the only cost of shallow work – the downsides to shallowness extend beyond the opportunity costs of doing more important work instead of the shallow busy work.

 

Cal Newport in Deep Work writes, “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”

 

Newport’s warning is very important and extends far beyond losing a few hours where we could be more productive. It extends beyond even our work schedule and the time we are in the office. The warning is this: the more time you spend distracting yourself in line at the grocery store with your phone, the more time you spend fluttering around twitter at work, and the more time you spend scrolling down Facebook before bed, the worse your brain will be when it needs to focus most. Our poor digital habits reduce our ability to focus.

 

Deep work requires that we keep our mind focused on one thing for a long period of time. It requires that we make connections by truly learning and understanding the material we are focused on. In the long run, it makes us better performers because it allows us to be more productive with our time. The future of our economy is bright for those who can excel at deep work, when others are distracted and unable to complete difficult projects in a unified and coherent manner.

 

However, if we spend our time doing lots of shallow work like answering every unimportant email as soon as a notification pops up on our computer, or if we spend lots of time distracting ourselves on social media, we won’t build the capacity to engage with deep work. We will actually diminish our ability to do deep work and teach our brain that it doesn’t need to focus for long stretches of time. Our brains get a hit of dopamine with each new social media post and each notification. Our brains can literally become overly reliant on these dopamine hits, to the point where our brains can’t focus because they can’t operate for long stretches without more cheap dopamine hits.

 

It is important that we be honest with ourselves about how we spend our time and how distracted we allow ourselves to be. Putting the phones down and blocking time for deep work is important, otherwise we will unintentionally fill our lives with shallow work, and in the process diminish our focus ability.
What is Shallow Work

What is Shallow Work

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, provides the following definition for shallow work – the opposite of what he encourages us to strive for in our daily lives and work:

 

“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.”

 

Recently I wrote about Dan Pink’s book When which shares research on our mood throughout the day. Pink presents information from studies looking at our affect on social media which suggests that most people have a peak moment of the day about 6 hours after waking up, move through a trough, and then rebound later in the afternoon. Pink goes on to show that we should do our best focus and analytic work in the morning during our peak, should take it easy on the hard analytic tasks during our trough, and should return to important work that requires creativity in the afternoon during our rebound.

 

We can incorporate the ideas of Deep Work and Shallow Work from Newport’s book into the framework of When. The shallow work that Newport describes are all the small administrative tasks that we have to muddle through during the workday. We get a lot of emails that we need to respond to at some point, but that often are not that important. We have to schedule some meetings, we have to go through some paperwork and check some boxes, and we have to do some relatively mindless data entry into a spreadsheet or program. These tasks don’t add a lot of value, are not usually urgent, and don’t use much brain power. These are the kinds of things we should save for our trough, the period after our lunch break when our brain just wants to jam out to our favorite songs while chugging through some cognitively simple tasks.

 

Deep work, on the other hand, requires a lot of focus and mental energy. Distractions from your favorite songs or social media notifications will interrupt you and make it harder for you to complete the work. This type of work should be completed during our peak, when our mind is still fresh and ready to crush our to-do list. Using our peak time to do shallow work is waste, and trying to complete our deep work during our trough will make us frustrated and lead to poor quality work. Think about when you do each type of work, and how you can organize your day to maximize your mental capacity to do your best deep work at the point when your brain is at its peak. Don’t let shallow work steal that valuable time from you, and don’t fool yourself into thinking you have been productive and accomplished something meaningful if you have only handled a bunch of shallow work.

Arguing for Importance

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie shares a story about a tax consultant and an argument that the consultant had with a government auditor. The two were in a heated debate over a relatively small sum of money and whether it was assessed and taxed properly. A shouting match ensued with both parties being a bit arrogant and ego driven. In the end, the tax consultant realized that the debate was no longer about the facts of tax law or the money in question, the government auditor was arguing for his own importance.

 

The consultant, Mr. Parsons, decided that continuing the debate was not worthwhile and shifted the conversation, complimenting the auditor for the difficult work and decisions he had to make on a daily basis, often in the face of recalcitrant individuals defending questionable financial practices. He didn’t provide the tax inspector with empty flattery but acknowledged that his job was difficult, yet important in a democracy. Carnegie writes about what he learned from this story:

 

“This tax inspector was demonstrating the most common of human frailties. He wanted a feeling of importance; and as long as Mr. Parsons argued with him, he got his feeling of importance by loudly asserting his authority. But as soon as his importance was admitted and the argument stopped and he was permitted to expand his ego, he became a sympathetic and kindly human being.”

 

My wife is a human development specialist, and while she typically works with little ones from 0 to 3, her studies have provided her insights into childhood and adolescent development through early adulthood. She has talked to me about the ways that children and teenagers will seek negative attention, behaving badly and acting out, because even negative attention is a form of attention. Negative attention is still a recognition of the importance of another individual, and childish as it may be, even fully grown and professional adults may from time to time seek negative attention via conflict and arguments.

 

The tax collector in the story wanted to be recognized and wanted his authority respected. It may have been petty, he may have been on an ego and power trip, but nevertheless, becoming angry and indignant didn’t help to reduce his ego and make him a more reasonable person. What it took to get him to be more flexible and cooperative was kindness, not criticism. Positive attention may not have been 100% deserved, but honest praise (as opposed to empty flattery) provided him with a sense of importance and acknowledgement and allowed him to be comfortable with being more cooperative.

 

We should be aware of both sides of this story. We should try to recognize in ourselves how often we are making a power play, not adding much real value to the argument, discussion, market, or opinion that we are advocating for, but simply trying to be an important player. When we see that we are driven by ego and a desire to feel important, we should step back and ask if it is truly necessary, if we will really make things better for ourselves and others, or if we are just being a burden. At the same time, we should try to see this in others and avoid criticizing them for having a human desire that we share and often fall victim to ourselves. We don’t have to provide them with undue flattery, but we can adopt their perspective, recognize the positive aspects of their viewpoint, and try to provide them with recognition and acknowledgement so that we can start to cooperate and work together in a more reasoned and sensible manner.

Afternoon Creativity – The Inspiration Paradox

“The Inspiration Paradox – the idea that innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms,” is an idea that Daniel Pink writes about in his book When. Time is important for us human beings. We all have experienced first hand how frustrating it is to have someone energetically talk to you either first thing in the morning, or late at night after your typical bed time. We all know there are times when we like to work out, and times of the day when all we feel that we are able to do is sink into a comfy chair and absorb a TV show. The fact that we all have cycles and time preferences for certain activities is largely ignored, however, by most of us and by the schedules we have to adopt for life, work, school, and family.

 

Pink thinks this is a huge problem and provides insight from the studies of time and timing to help us design new schedules and better consider the times at which we engage with specific activities. One area that I found fascinating was Pink’s recommendations for when we should do our analytic work versus when we should do our innovative and creative work. He writes,

 

“Our moods and performance oscillate during the day. For most of us, mood follows a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a rebound. And that helps shape a dual pattern of performance. In the mornings, during the peak, most of us excel at … analytic work that requires sharpness, vigilance, and focus. Later in the day, during the recovery, most of us do better on … insight work that requires less inhibition and resolve.”

 

Things like daily writing (focus work that requires deep thought on a given topic) and mathy tasks are good things to work on in the morning. The majority of people are roughly morning-ish people, and their brains are the most attentive and best able to focus to complete analytic work in the first several hours after waking up. Things that require focus and attention are best when done earlier.

 

Contrasting analytic work is creative work, which requires some focus, but also works best when our brains are not too narrowly focused on a single area. Brains that can pull from various sources and different fields are more creative than brains that are dialed into one specific channel. In the afternoon, after we have recovered from our daily trough, our brains are more engaged, but still a bit distracted. According to Pink this sets our brains up for creativity and innovation, taking existing ideas and combining them in new and novel ways. We actually do our best creative work when our brains are not quite firing on all cylinders. The paradox in the first quote of this piece is referring to our brains being the most creative when they are not exactly the most efficient and effective – at least in terms of how we would analytically measure our brains.

 

Keeping this in mind can help us organize our days in ways that work better with the mental capacities we will have at a given time. We shouldn’t fill our mornings with administrative low value add tasks. The mornings should be the times when we tackle the big items that require analytic focus and resolve. Our trough should be the time that we pack in the emails that don’t take much brain power and just need to get sent out today. Finally, our creative brainstorming should take place in the afternoon, when we no longer have to fight off an afternoon nap, but are not too focused on a specific area and can use our brain’s flexibility to pull together new thoughts.

Staying Humble Out of the Spotlight

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Seneca wrote in one of his letters captured in the book Letters From a Stoic. This quote was at the heart of yesterday’s post, but it is only one part of a larger post that I want to write about. Yesterday I discussed the way that we can have a big impact on a small group of people. I wrote about our desires to speak to the masses and how we change our conversations and communication styles when we try to write for infinite audiences as opposed to writing for a committed few. Today’s post is more about reflection and avoiding the spotlight to remain humble and honest with oneself.

 

Seneca continues, “Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.”

 

Our society rewards those who can do rare and challenging work. If you have a unique ability to produce a painting that appeals to everyone and captures the moment, then you may be rewarded by selling your art at a high price. If you can out-run everyone else on the planet, you may be rewarded with some cash, a shiny medal, and a new shoe deal. And if you can write clearly and express your thoughts and ideas so well that everyone can understand them and learn from them, then you may be able to sell your words and ideas in a mass publication. We are all about rewarding hard work that most people cannot do. This is not a bad thing, but just part of how we evolved.

 

What can be a bad thing, however, is taking the fact that we can do something difficult and socially rewarded and then holding ourselves above others. Notoriety, skill, and wealth do not mean we are actually different from those who sleep in the streets. We are all human, and we should strive to find a commonality between us and others such that we find the same value in ourselves as we do in those that we might naturally want to scorn and look down upon. The best qualities are those that help us do great work for our own satisfaction and to align ourselves with values that expand human creativity, dignity, respect, and well being for all. Seeking attention and glory is dangerous because it creates a world that is entirely about us, often at the detriment of another.

 

We can strive for great work and if we receive wealth, attention, and applause we can enjoy and appreciate it, but we should not seek these things out for their own sake. They should be byproducts of our great work, and we should always be somewhat distrustful of them. Looking inward, we can appreciate our success without the need for applause from the outside.