(Trigger Warning: This post is a bit self-helpy)
My life is filled with trivial, time-wasting tasks. As an academic, teaching and research are the most valuable* activities I perform. And yet as I progress in my career I find myself constantly drawn away from these two things to focus on administrative tasks. While efficient administration is important in large organisations (like universities), it feels like a major time-sink to someone like me because (a) I am not ultimately rewarded for being good at it (career progression depends far more research and, to a lesser extent, teaching) and (b) I don’t have any aptitude for or interest in it.
But the time-wasting and triviality doesn’t stem entirely from administrative pressures. It also stems from my own wanton behaviour. I can go for long stretches every day, when I have the time to be working on the more important things, doing everything but. Instead, I end up in a ‘technology loop’, flitting back and forth between email, facebook, twitter, and various other distraction sites, all part of an endless search for new updates and entertainments. The result is that the day ends and I feel anxious and unsatisfied by my failure to do anything productive.
I say this as someone who is a big fan of periodic laziness. I dislike the notion that productivity is the be all and end all of life. I think we should spend some of our time in self-indulgent, non-productive states. Nevertheless, a life without some deep, meaningful and productive work would be bad too. I derive tremendous personal satisfaction from my creative and productive acts, both on this blog and elsewhere in my professional life. The question is how can I set up my life so that I achieve this balance? How can I avoid the days of anxiety-inducing time-wasting, without falling into the productivity trap?
This is what Cal Newport’s recent book Deep Work is all about. The book is about the distinction between two types of work:
Deep Work: “Professional [note: this seems unnecessary to me] activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.”
Shallow Work: “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate
Newport’s central thesis is that the former is (for most people) more valuable and more meaningful than the latter (an inevitable conclusion given the definitions), and yet modern workplaces and network tools are set-up so as to make the latter more common. He tries to provide the reader with various strategies for prioritising deep work in their everyday life.
Now, I’m incapable of reading anything uncritically. It’s a consequence of my academic training. So although I like a lot of what Newport has to say, I also find myself in disagreement with some of his claims. But I don’t want to dwell on those disagreements here (if you’re interested, some of them are addressed on this Chronicle of Higher Education review of the book). Instead, I want to share some of the tips and tricks. In particular the six strategies that Newport presents for prioritising deep work in your life. These are summarised in the image below; I expand on them in the remainder of the post.
Strategy 1 - Develop Your Depth Philosophy
If you are going to make deep work an important part of your life, you need to figure out the basis on which you are going to do this. Are you going to commit fully or periodically oscillate back-and-forth between deep and shallow work? Newport identifies four different depth philosophies that have been adopted by different deep workers:
The Monastic Philosophy: This involves total commitment to deep work. You cut yourself off from the world as much as possible in order to avoid the distraction-rich environment that encourages shallow work. You focus purely on the deep stuff. Newport cites the computer scientist Donald Knuth and the science fiction author Neal Stephenson as two prominent proponents of the monastic philosophy. To these, he could probably add the film director Christopher Nolan. All three of these individuals are famously dismissive of email and others forms of correspondence that distract them from what they really want to do. This monastic style of existence is probably only accessible to the privileged few. Most people have to do some shallow work (and I suspect not even Knuth, Stephenson and Nolan are able to completely avoid it).
The Bimodal Philosophy: This involves oscillating back-and-forth between periods of monastery-like commitment and periods of shallow work. Newport’s go-to example is Carl Jung, who used to divide his time between a busy psychotherapy practice and social scene in Zurich and a rustic stone house in the woods near Bollingen. It was in the latter that he engaged in the deep work that formed the backbone of his famous theories. Another example is Bill Gates who used to have ‘think weeks’ while the CEO of Microsoft. During these think weeks he would cut himself off from distraction and focus on reading and thinking big thoughts. The key feature of the bimodal philosophy — and what separates it from the next two philosophies — is that the periods of time spent in deep work are relatively long and uninterrupted. Bimodal workers spend at least one day committed to deep work, possibly more.
The Rhythmic Philosophy: This also involves oscillation but on a more habitual basis. The idea is that you make deep work part of your daily routine. This probably best sums up my own attitude to deep work. I try to start each (work!) day with a writing session. I don’t check work emails until after this session is completed. I find this rhythmic approach is common among many writers. I remember reading Stephen King’s book On Writing years ago, and as I recall he described his own daily routine of writing 2,000 words a day. Usually he would complete this in the morning and spend the afternoon running errands, though he admitted that some days it was harder to reach the 2,000 word target. I usually set myself a minimum target of 1,000 words and find that I can easily meet this in a couple of hours (this is down to the nature of the writing I do, which is relatively untaxing; if I was writing a novel I’m sure it would be more difficult).
The Journalistic Philosophy: This involves grabbing any moment you can for engaging in deep work. It has the name it has because Newport bases it on the experiences of the journalist Walter Isaacson. Isaacson is now famous for writing big biographies of historical and intellectual figures (Benjamin Franklin; Albert Einstein; Steve Jobs). When writing his first book, Isaacson had to balance the demands of his work as a busy journalist with the deep work necessary for writing the book. He did this by grabbing any spare moment he could, in the interstices of his daily life, to work on the book. I have gravitated towards this philosophy at times in my life, particularly when working to deadline, but I don’t really enjoy it. Newport isn’t a huge fan either, arguing that it would be particularly difficult for someone who is unused to deep work to adopt this philosophy at the outset.
One thing I like about these four philosophies is their diversity. In the past, I have been a proponent of the rhythmic philosophy, often advocating it to my colleagues and insisting that with as a little as half an hour a day dedicated to deep work they could accomplish far more than they ever expected. I now realise that this may be overly prescriptive. Some people need more extended periods of focus; some people can work with less routinised schedules.
Strategy 2 - Ritualise the Process
I have semi-famous namesake. This other John Danaher is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu master who has trained some of the top UFC fighters. His most famous student is probably the Canadian fighter Georges St. Pierre. Interestingly, this other John Danaher was doing a PhD in philosophy in Columbia University New York before he quit to take up his current career. Sometimes I get confused for him on social media sites though people usually quickly realise their mistake (sadly my proficiency at BJJ is noticeably less impressive than his). Anyway, in St. Pierre’s book The Way of the Fight, the other John Danaher says something interesting about the relationship between excellence and routine:
I have a belief that all human greatness is founded on routine, that truly great human behaviour is impossible without this central part of your life being set up and governed by routine. All greatness comes out of an investment in time and the perfection of skills that render you great. And so, show me almost any truly great person in the world who exhibits some kind of extraordinary skills, and I'll show you a person who's life is governed by routine.
The thought resonates. In order to engage in deep creative work, you need to cut out some of the background noise. By keeping other parts of your life reasonably constant and rule-governed, you can dedicate your creative energies to that which is most important. This is the power of routine, or as Newport prefers to call it ritual.
To consistently engage in deep work, Newport recommends that you ritualise your process. There will be diversity in these rituals — you have to experiment and find out what works best for you — but a good routine should address three questions:
(a) Where will you work and for how long? - Do you have a favourite desk, cafe, corner of the library, park bench (etc) where you like to work? For deep work, the location should be relatively isolated (i.e. free from shallow work distractions). You may be able to achieve this in your normal workspace (for instance, I use an app called ‘Freedom’ to block internet access for certain periods of time) or you may need to have two separate workspaces (e.g. home and the office).
(b) How will you work once you start to work? - You need to develop some structure that will concentrate your mind so that the time is used effectively. For instance, if you are into writing you might set yourself a target number of words.
(c) How will you support your work? - i.e. what will you do to ensure you have the energy and motivation you need to sustain the work. Food, coffee, exercise and the like are all common support mechanisms.
Strategy 3 - Make Grand Gestures
Sometimes people have trouble escaping from shallow work. Their homes and offices are filled with distractions that constantly tempt them away from the sustained focus required for deep work. When this happens, it can help to make a grand gesture. This is a costly commitment that effectively shocks or forces you into a deep work mode.
Newport provides several examples of authors doing this (it’s telling that so many of the examples involve writing). Perhaps the most famous is JK Rowling, who was struggling to write the final volume of the Harry Potter series. Although she had a home office, she found her home too distracting to allow her to shift into the headspace needed to finish the series (particularly given the weight of readers’ expectations). So she checked into suite in the five star Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. Initially she was just going to do this for a day, but she found that the suite enabled her to focus. She continued to use the suite until the book was finished.
Of course, it’s easy for JK Rowling (a billionaire author) to make such a grand gesture. But similar solutions can work at a smaller scale. You could build your own workspace in a garden shed, or furnish a new home office, or rent a cottage for a couple of weeks. Anything that takes you out of the shallow work mode and encourages you to commit to the process.
Strategy 4 - Don’t Work Alone
This is a tricky one. Some modern workplaces over-emphasise the value of collaboration and community. Newport criticises Facebook’s plans to create the largest open office space for this reason. The reality is that such workspaces are often incredibly distracting (and competitive) and can compromise the focus requires for deep work.
Still, there is some rationale behind them. The belief of people like Mark Zuckerberg is that the open spaces will encourage people to communicate and will lead to serendipitous creativity. Two (or more) people with distinct ideas will combine their efforts to produce something new, interesting and valuable. Newport accepts that this may be true, but argues that serendipitous creativity is not best facilitated by a massively open office.
Instead, he argues for a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model. He uses the example of MIT’s famous Building 20 (now demolished) to illustrate the idea. Building 20 was a temporary shelter constructed during WWII. It was used as an overflow space for academics and researchers from different disciplines. The mismatch of academics and disciplines led to interesting and productive collaborations. This was helped by the haphazard design of the building. Many of the internal walls and floors could be rearranged, and new equipment could be added as the researchers saw fit.
Newport argues that the creativity that arose in Building 20 was made possible by a hub-and-spoke model of design. Researchers had their own workspaces (the spokes), which they could redesign as they saw fit, and then they had common spaces (the hub) where they could encounter and share ideas with diverse others. It was this ability to collaborate and interact in the hub and then retreat to the spoke when the deep work needed to be done, that enabled the serendipitous creativity. Newport suggests that we adopt a similar ‘hub-and-spoke’ model for our work lives.
Just to be clear, this doesn’t rule out the possibility of collaborative deep work. Two or more people who meet in one of the ‘hubs’ could find a project on which they can collaborate. This may lead to joint deep work. The point is simply that constant exposure to others who may not share anything with you is more likely to compromise deep work than assist.
Strategy 5 - Execute Effectively
Newport refers to this strategy as ‘Execute like a business’, but I just can’t bring myself to accept that title. There’s a serious reason for this: I don’t think there’s anything about the strategy that is essentially businesslike. And that’s kind of Newport’s point. There’s a less serious reason for it too: Newport seems way more inclined to businessy, self-helpy linguistic constructions than I am. They always raise my sceptical hackles and make me more resistant to advice than I might otherwise be. So I’ve dropped the reference to ‘businesslike’ execution.
The gist of this strategy is that you must appreciate the difference between what you are trying to do and how you are going to do it. You know that are trying to work deeply, but how will you know whether you are working deeply? The products of deep work are the result of many hours of sustained effort. And the time from production to feedback can often be slow. How can you ensure that you are on the right track?
Newport offers four bits of advice for effective execution (borrowed from another business book but applied to his own work as an academic computer scientist):
A. Focus on the ‘wildly important’: i.e. don’t waste effort on work that doesn’t have value. The idea here is akin to the (in)famous 80/20 heuristic. According to this heuristic (derived from the work of the economist Vilfredo Pareto) approximately 80% of the value you produce will come from 20% of the work that you do. So you should prioritise that 20% over everything else. I have my problems with this. I think it may hold true in retrospect (e.g. it may well be true that 80% of the pageviews on this blog come from 20% of the posts) but I think it is difficult to know in advance what will prove to be most valuable. Some things have highly unexpected payoffs. Still, I think the heuristic has some utility: there are probably a lot of things that we could exclude that are relatively valueless.
B. Act on Lead Measures not on Lag Measures: A lag measure is an ‘after the fact’ measure of success. For an academics it it might be the number of peer-reviewed publications in top-ranked journal’. These are useful for assessing your overall level of performance or success. A lead measure is something that can help to predict whether you will achieve the desired lag measure. For an academic this might be the number of words written for a proposed journal article per day. The idea is that you should focus on lead measures when working deeply. They are within your immediate control and can chart your progress to your desired goal.
C. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: This builds on the previous bit of advice. The idea is that you should keep a visible record of how well you are doing at achieving your lead measures. This could be something as simple as a wall-calendar on which you mark your daily attainment of some relevant lead measure. To stick with the academic example, the calendar might record total number of words written per day, or numbers of hours spent working on research and so on. By making it visually appealing you can help to further focus your mind on how you will get to where you want to be.
D. Create a Cadence of Accountability: When working as part of a team, it is important to create a regular schedule of meetings during which team members will account for their progress on relevant project goals. This ensures everyone is keeping pace and that the goal is within sight. Newport argues that you can incorporate regular accountability into solo work as well. For instance, he has a weekly review during which he checks to see how well he is progressing on his lead measures. If he has fallen short of a target, he tries to figure out why and adjust his schedule for the following week accordingly.
The advantage of this advice is that, if effective, it enables you to have more free time. If you are focusing on what matters most in your line of deep work, and not getting drowned in the shallow tasks that fill out most working days, you have more time for family, friends, leisure and relaxation. Which brings me to my favourite piece of advice…
Strategy 6 - Be Lazy
You can’t spend all of your time engaged in deep work. You need to switch off every now and then. There should be no endless checking of work emails or attending to other administrative tasks. Do these things at specific times; process them in a methodical way; and don’t allow them to invade your downtime. Newports gives three main reasons for favouring this kind of laziness. The first is that not consciously attending to some facet of deep work can enable unconscious insight. I agree with this. I know that when I am out taking a long walk or bike ride my mind often stumbles upon ideas for articles I would like to write. The second is simply that switching off allows you to recharge your mental faculties. And the third is that the kind of work that fills your downtime tends to be of low value anyway. You would be better off leaving it out.
To facilitate regular bouts of laziness, Newport recommends a daily shutdown ritual. This ritual serves as a clear signal to yourself that it is okay to switch off and prevents incomplete tasks from dominating your attention during your downtime. The precise details of the ritual can vary, but Newports suggests that, at a minimum, (i) it includes drawing up a clear plan for the next working day and (ii) this plan is captured somewhere where it can be revisited when needed.
His own shutdown ritual involves a review of the day’s accomplishments, a final email check, and drawing up a task list for the next day. I have started doing this recently and I find it quite beneficial. It really does help me to switch off and separate myself from my working life. It also allows me to be far more focused when I need to be and, ultimately, content in what I am doing. I suspect this is the sign of maturing relationship with work, something that most people go through once they have settled into their working lives.
Anyway, those are the six strategies for prioritising deep work. There’s a lot more in Newport’s book. Despite my occasional misgivings, I definitely recommend checking it out.
* To be clear, I am not claiming that I am valuable to the world. I have no idea whether I am or not. I’m simply suggesting that the generally accepted view is that this is where the value of academics lies.