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.
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.”
Unconscious Thought Theory

Unconscious Thought Theory

I like to think of myself as a pretty rational and empirical thinker. I try to understand points where my thoughts will be influenced by bias and my immediate reactions to situations. At these points, I try (not always successfully) to pause to be more reflective and considerate. I generally believe that striving for rationality and more evidence backed opinions is a good thing, but there is research which suggests that this strategy can lead to overthinking things and might involve parts of the brain which are not well suited for some decisions.

 

In Deep Work, author Cal Newport writes about Unconscious Thought Theory and research by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis (I have no pronunciation help here). Research from Dijksterhuis shows that our unconscious brains are good at handling situations with complex, ambiguous information and no clear path forward. Newport describes it by writing, “if you need to do a math calculation, only your conscious mind is able to follow the precise arithmetic rules needed for correctness. On the other hand, for decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague, perhaps even conflicting constraints, your unconscious mind is well suited to tackle the issue.”

 

The reason Newport brings this into his book Deep Work is because in addition to strict focus work, he also advocates for time away from work. “your capacity for deep work in a given day is limited,” Newport explains, “If you’re careful about your schedule … you should hit your daily deep work capacity during your workday.”

 

The implication is that we should step away from our work to give our conscious minds a break when we max out on our deep work capacity. Some tasks are not well suited for the hyper-analytic conscious mind, and some of these tasks can be worked through by the unconscious mind at a time when the brain doesn’t have to marshal all resources for deep analytical thinking. By stepping away from work, closing out of our work email, and engaging with other life hobbies and our families, we can allow our unconscious brain to sort through the challenging ambiguities of the problems that had previously stymied our work. Unconscious Thought Theory suggests that our unconscious brain can work on these problems if given space, but continuing to check work emails after hours or logging back in here and there to check on our work prevents the unconscious brain from having the space it needs to do the background sorting that makes it a valuable tool.

 

In the end, it is turning off our rational brain for a little while, allowing ourselves to engage with something or focus on something that doesn’t require such heightened focus, and knowing when to stop our deep work that helps us perform at our best. The answer is not to continuously chug through all the analytic work we can force onto our brain in a day, but to maximize the time we can spend in deep work, and turn ourselves off when we have hit our cognitive limit.
Workplace Design

Workplace Design

One of the things I am secretly fascinated by is workplace design in our modern knowledge work economy. I’m not so interested in where the copy room is located, how the office kitchen is built out, or what furniture/decorations are around, but the big high level design question: where will our employees sit to do their work? (or stand sometimes if your company is cool like that)

 

A lot of companies today are trying to get away from standard cubicle models for offices. The traditional work-space where senior team members have their own office while junior members are in cramped cubicles feels anachronistic, especially for modern tech companies. The alternative has been open office spaces, where dividers between employee workstations are minimized. Companies want to be innovative, to spur conversation between creative individuals, and they also want to create environments where employees would actually want to be, rather than soul sucking cubicle farms.

 

However, thinking and focusing in open work-spaces can be challenging. As Cal Newport writes in his book Deep Work, “Both intuition and a growing body of research underscore the reality that sharing a work-space with a large number of coworkers is incredibly distracting – creating an environment that thwarts attempts to think seriously.” When it comes time to buckle down and focus to get an important project done, an open work-space can become a major hurdle.

 

In his book, Newport encourages more of a hub and spoke style office. He doesn’t say if he thinks everyone should have their own office or be in a dreaded cubicle farm, but he thinks that people should be split by departments/teams into hubs where people can get a little more quite space to do deep work. He encourages developing open pathways to the bathroom, kitchen, or conference rooms that encourage serendipitous connections with others, to help spur some creative encounters that might otherwise not happen in individual offices. He doesn’t think we should all just be isolated away in our little hubs, but in a sweet spot where we have space to think as well as chances to interact and share different ideas and perspectives. “Isolation is not required for productive deep work. Indeed, their example [Bell Labs] indicates that for many types of work – especially when pursuing innovation – collaborative deep work can yield better results.”

 

I’m still not sure exactly what the perfect office space would be for different types of companies based on Newport’s thoughts. Should a CPA firm have a hub and spoke style office, or do they really need their own walled off offices? How exactly do you balance the need for focus spaces with the need to actually interact with other human beings, to prevent employees from going to work but never interacting with anyone? Space for deep work is important, but Newport also advocates for bumping into other creative people at reasonable intervals to foster creativity and heighten innovation and productivity. I’m not sure where exactly we will end up with workplace design, but I don’t think it will be in a space where everyone has their own office or a space where no one has an office.
Finding Success Through Structure

What Happens When Your Day Lacks Structure

In the past I have found it incredibly helpful to have fully planned out days. To know what I have going on, what the most important priorities are for my day, and when I am going to buckle down with focus work versus when I am going to sift through emails is a great feeling. When I have thought through what to work on and know I have blocked off sufficient time, I can really do some great work.

 

Without having such planning, each day is a bit of a challenge. Things come to mind as the day passes for what I should work on, but I often float from one task to the next without a great sense for why I am working on any specific thing at any specific moment. This strategy is easy and might work fine when I am not under tight deadlines, but I have run into a real crunch when suddenly remembering a project or task that needs to be done today. Or, when fortunes change and an emergencies pops up, I have been wholly unprepared to deal with the new reality that needs my attention immediately.

 

My last post was all about finding success and finding willpower in a routine that makes you effective. Creating spaces, planning ahead, and developing rituals for deep concentrated work is the best way to ensure that you can do hard things continuously. This structure is important, and Cal Newport describes it in more detail in his book Deep Work, “without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard.”

 

Whether you work as part of an organization, lead a campaign, or work as a solo entrepreneur, you need time for deep work. You also need to think about what each day is going to entail and have a plan to get the most important work done. Spending a few minutes thinking about what is most important and what you should be focusing on at what time can help free up the mental energy and space required to get into deep work. Having to think continuously about what you should be doing at any moment is exhausting and will lead you to flutter around at a shallow level with your work. If you haven’t yet developed an effective structure to approach your day, you are missing out on being effective and finding a sense of stillness in doing the important work that needs attention.
Doing Hard Things Consistently

Doing Hard Things Consistently

We live in a world where there are a lot of opportunities to default to something easy and we constantly have the ability to take a quick break to pass a few minutes with mindless distractions. We can fill any quiet moment with music or a podcast, scroll through Facebook in line at the grocery store, and pop over to a blog really quick when we are bored or stuck on a problem at work. Distraction and easy alternatives to hard work are everywhere.

 

But if we want to get stuff done, if we want to produce something meaningful, and if we want to cultivate an ability to focus for long stretches to be our best selves, then we need to find ways to get beyond these easy distractions. We have to find a way to set ourselves up so that doing hard things consistently is not a mountain moving challenge.

 

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport helps us think through this. For Newport, it is all about creating habits and routines that can unlock our potential and help us achieve the things we want. As he writes, “An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.” 

 

The quote above is specifically about knowledge workers and creative types who produce work in our modern age. Yet it shows us the importance of creating a structure and developing a routine to do what we do. Bouncing around and doing some work for a few minutes here and there won’t cut it if we actually want to produce results. We can’t be haphazard in our approach to work, we have to be deliberate and develop methods that encourage focus and concentration.

 

Newport also shares a somewhat famous story of a comedian who asked Jerry Seinfeld for advice relatively early in both men’s careers. Seinfeld’s advice was to write jokes every day, and to get a big calendar to use to cross out the date for every day that the comic wrote a joke. Newport describes this as the chain method and uses it to highlight the importance of rhythmic habits for consistently doing hard things. “The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.” 

 

If you always have to pick between various activities and choices, you will rarely choose to do the deep work necessary to produce something meaningful. Instead, the laundry on the guest bed, the sink full of dishes, those emails you keep forgetting about, and checking back on Tyler Cowen’s blog will become your default activities when you don’t have a plan for what to work on and when to work on it. The only way to consistently drive to do meaningful deep work is to develop a space, a time, and a routine in which you do deep work. Making it a habit and endowing it with special rituals to help you ease into the work can unlock your focusing potential, and help ensure that each day you find a way to engage with the deep and meaningful work that you want to do, but that can be hard to consistently engage with.
Developing Willpower Muscles

Developing Willpower Muscles

My last post wrote about the idea that our willpower is limited, and that as we become tired and move through different points of the day, we find ourselves with varying levels of willpower. This post continues on that idea with more thoughts from Cal Newport in his book Deep Work.

 

“Your will, in other words,” Writes Newport, “is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; Its instead like a muscle that tires.”

 

We can try our best to improve our willpower, but like any muscle, our willpower can only do so much for us. Perhaps through continual practice and focus we can improve our willpower in certain ways, but it is likely that we are going to fail often in our demand of our own willpower. What is important, is how we structure our world to be successful in the times that demand strong willpower. Newport continues,

 

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

 

If we think about willpower like a muscle, we can see that the proper techniques, approaches, and tools are necessary for us to build the right strength. If we are lifting, we might need the right dumbbells for an exercises. If we are stretching, we need to make sure we put our body in the right position to stretch the right muscles. If we are working on focused concentration and willpower to support it, we must build the right environment for the mind.

 

A specific routine makes it easier for us to set into a long stretch of unbroken attention on a single item. If we ritualistically end our day in reflection, writing down what we accomplished and where we will pick up the following day, it makes it easier for us to start our day with productive focus, demanding less of our willpower to avoid or pull away from social media. If we have a habit of reading for a long stretch, then not reading during that time and feeling distracted will be abnormal and uncomfortable, where the state of concentration will feel normal, increasing our willpower to avoid the distractions in the first place.

 

Thinking about improving our willpower isn’t just a matter of intention and deciding to be better. It is a matter of setting ourselves up for success, and developing the right environments, habits, and rituals to make the process easy.
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.