Today I finished Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”. It came recommended by my friend Eva who may or may not have heard about it from our shared buddy Elisabeth. It’s a great book, and maybe you should read it too.
I am not into books on productivity hacks, because they never solve the problem of mediocre productivity but try to give advice on how to cram even more into any given day. I have extensive experience with that approach, and it’s not for me.
In this case, I got interested because Eva had started to implement a few tactics outlined in the book, and they felt like they might be useful for my woes.
So here it goes.
Main Take-aways permalink
If I wanted to boil down the entire book to one main idea, it is this one: to lead a meaningful life, we need to focus our efforts on activities that create value, and reduce everything else to an absolute minimum. Time is our most valuable resource, and we should be deliberate about how we spend it.
Sidebar: the idea of value here is not limited to economic or monetary value. It is up to each of us to define what we value.
Deep Work is focused work permalink
Me being me, I imagined “deep” work to be something magical, a state in which groundbreaking thinking happens. As I see it now, it is about undistracted, focused work on challenging tasks, like preparing a presentation for a conference or reading a business book and taking notes that lead to original thoughts. In other words, tasks of value that I do and which would benefit from less of a scattered brain.
But it’s also work that directly contributes to one of my personal or professional goals.
It’s easy to get trapped in the shallows permalink
Shallow work on the other hand is all the low-effort, low-value activities that fill our days, like playing email ping-pong to agree on a good time and place for a coffee meeting (my personal pet hate!) or doom-scrolling Twitter.
The challenge is that this shallow work is a) easy to do, and humans are lazy, and b) the busyness makes us feel productive. We have to make an effort to avoid spending all our time on this type of tasks.
Reflecting on this particular point made me realise why I have been feeling both empty and stressed at the same time over the last 6 months: I spent way too much time in the shallows than is good for me, and way too much of my time was spent on reactive work.
(I’ve made a number of changes since last autumn, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Yes, a structured day is a good thing! permalink
Newport argues that there is no other way to be deliberate about how we use our time than planning and then sticking to the plan. I’ve been a fan of task blocking since forever but as a tactic it’s easier to subscribe to in theory than it is to follow through with it in practice.
What I got wrong though was that I tried to stick to the plan like it was the law, and then ended up stressed out because, unsurprisingly, I was overly optimistic about how much work I could squeeze into any given day. And in addition, life kept getting in the way.
The point however is that the plan is not at all meant to be a dogma for how the day is supposed to go. It is a tactic to turn off the auto-pilot, and “treat your time with respect”.
Also, “overflow conditional blocks”. Very smart.
If you’re not sure how long a given activity might take, block off the expected time, then follow this with an additional block that has a split purpose.
Find inspiration in the shallow, and process in the deep permalink
I kept wondering though… all this deep work sounds like a solitary exercise. This does make sense for someone writing a novel or devising a grand theory. For a lesser mind like mine however, random ideas like the ones I am exposed to during a conference’s hallway track, are valuable.
Here is the thing: yes, I am exposed to new ideas and thoughts during a conference or through someone tweeting something unexpected into my time line. To make them into something valuable, I need to mull them over by myself.
Rest! Be bored! permalink
A major point, and one that I have been epically bad at before: resting is crucial if I want to do any deep work. Relatedly, boredom is essential for my ability to focus.
That it’s important to get enough rest if you want to do your best work makes sense. It’s hard to do anything challenging if you’re dead tired. Getting enough rest is also central to restoring our attention, and subsequently our ability to focus. And yes, talking walks in nature works wonders.
I had underestimated though how severely constant task switching ruins our ability to concentrate. It’s undoubtedly exhausting, but it had never occurred to me that it could be the reason I found it hard to focus.
It’s in essence why Newport calls to quit social media: it’s context switching taken to an extreme. Instead, it’s good to be bored because it increases our tolerance for “an absence of novelty”.
Ruthlessly defend your time permalink
This is my favourite take-away, and it’s also the hardest.
It all comes together: the use of time blocks to be deliberate with our time, constraints imposed by work-free evenings to force a focus on the most valuable work, a better, less reactive approach to email. All in support of defending our time, our most valuable resource.
It is hard to put these strategies in practice. They require a clear idea of what is a valuable activity, the ability to answer requests with a firm no, and the discipline to stick to them even when we fail.
“Deep Work” was a great read, and it gave me plenty to think about. I have a better understanding of the behaviours that lead to me being stuck in a bad place, and I have strategies to avoid getting there in the first place.
I’ve started experimenting with tactics from the book, and while it’s too early to conclude anything, it looks promising.