Willpower maximization

Limited Willpower

When we imagine who we are going to be in the future, what we want to accomplish, and how we are going to reach our goals, we see ourselves as a super version of who we are now. We imagine that we can focus and achieve anything we set our mind to, at least if we can work hard enough. All it takes, in our vision of the bright future, is willpower to push ourselves to work harder, be smarter, and do the challenging but important work to get to the top.

 

The reality for us, however, is that this ideal version of ourselves will not simply appear with the flip of a switch. The hard work we view ourselves completing is not just hard, it is impossible to complete without focus and an ability to engage in deep work. We have to cultivate this ability if we want to see it in our lives, it is not simply a matter of willpower.

 

In the past I wrote about Dan Pink’s book When and how we move through several predictable stages throughout the day. For most people (those of us who are generally morning people – night owls are the same process in reverse), we wake up and our brains are fresh and ready to tackle the day. We can do our best focus work and complete important analytical work during the first roughly 6 hours of the day. Afterward, we fall into a trough, where our brain is tired and we are not good at being focused or doing analytical work. Later in the day we see a rebound, where we become a bit better on complex thinking work, but still find ourselves easily distracted.

 

What Pink’s research shows is that our day and our work isn’t driven so much by willpower but by the biological reality of the brain. Cal Newport’s research in his book Deep Work supports this idea. Newport presents several studies which show that our willpower only lasts so long before we give in. As he writes, “You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.”

 

We are not superheros and don’t have superpowers. We operate with a brain that can only handle so much before it becomes tired and stops working as well as we would like. We can resist those donuts in the morning when our brain is still fresh, but as the day goes on, we are going to become weary from the tough decisions we have to make, and our ability to fight off the donut craving will likely fail. We need to remember that our willpower won’t last forever and we need to set up systems and structures to help us do our best work when our brains are at their peak. Through these structures we can avoid negative temptations when our brains are in a rut. Plan ahead reasonably, and work to take steps that align with the reality of the brain. Don’t force yourself to rely on a superhuman effort that just isn’t realistic to be successful and accomplish the important things in your life.
Being in a state of flow

Deep Flow

A book I need to read sometime soon is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (that’s sick-cent-mihalie – thanks to Daniel Kahneman for the pronunciation tip). Csikszentmihalyi looks at how time seems to behave differently when we are deeply engaged in what we are doing versus when every second of boredom drags by at the end of a workday. Flow is how he describes the state we are in when we are concentrated and focused, when an hour seems to blink by.

 

It’s the state where we are so engaged with our work that time seems to bend around us. Rather than looking at the clock every few minutes, and rather than experiencing time, we are absorbed by what we are doing, and when we finally pause, we can’t believe how much time has passed. It is a complete feeling of commitment and purpose with what  we are doing, and we all find different ways to be in a state of flow.

 

For me, my morning writing and editing work is a brief flow state. My running is usually a flow state, and sometimes other work that I have ranging from spreadsheets, to building training slides, to report writing can actually be flow work.

 

I know others who find flow from riding motorcycles, drawing, and even from being part of a band. The commonality between everything is a sense of presence and focus specifically on the task, work, or activity of the moment. Flow, in many ways, is the fulfillment we live for, even if it is found in report writing rather than singing in a garage band.

 

Cal Newport highlights this reality in his book Deep Work. He writes, “Most people assumed (and still do) that relaxation makes them happy. We want to work less and spend more time in the hammock. But the results from Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM studies reveal that most people have this wrong.” What we actually want, and what actually brings us the most happiness is being able to be in flow states. Free time and leisure can be meandering, purposeless, and even boring. Work that provides us with flow feels good, even if it is difficult and is still work. I believe this is part of why some people find it hard to retire or stay retired. Unstructured free time doesn’t always give us something that we can be absorbed and engaged in, and we don’t find the same level of happiness as we find when we can tackle a project and get into a state of flow.

 

This suggest that when we are considering our weekend plans, considering our career choices, and considering hobbies, we should be looking for things that provide flow states. We should find ways to set up a space and environment where we can focus deeply on a specific task, and find our flow. Rather than only chasing promotions and money, we should consider whether a new job or promotion will provide more or less flow time. Rather than seeking a beach retirement, we should seek a retirement that opens more flow opportunities. We will be focused, engaged, and find more fulfillment in both work and retirement if we can ensure we have an opportunity for focused flow.
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.
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.
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.
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.