Cultivating Deep Work

Cultivating the Art of Deep Work

This is a series of short talks on the theme of modern life and work, exploring the challenges of productivity, distraction, prioritisation, deep work and working for wellbeing. We start with productivity and the curse of busyness

Part 1: Productivity & the Curse of Busyness

If you are like me, you might often ask yourself:  Where does my time go?  We live in strange times in which we are constantly dogged by the alleged ‘time famine’.  We are uber-aware of time, specifically, our perceived lack of it.

But astonishingly, the Oxford Centre for Time Use Research has repeatedly shown that, on average, we don’t work more than our grandparents in terms of hours.  Now of course, you specifically may be working harder than your grandparents, but overall, this is not the case. So why do we so strongly experience being time-poor?

What has changed dramatically is the world around us and the world within us.  We now live in an ‘infinite’ world’ where we have endless options to grab our attention and to take action towards. Fear Of Missing Out is a real thing because, objectively speaking, there is so much more available to us. And of course, there is digital access between us 24/7 creating expectations of immediate response and availability.

Internally, we still have the same cognitive bandwidth, but we expect we ‘should’ be constantly ‘productive; we should be ‘on’ all the time.  This oppressive time awareness invades our leisure time as well and can infuse our mind with a sense of urgent discontent. We feel the pressure ‘to do it all’. We have a nagging sense that we are ‘wasting time’. And so, we attempt to ‘front-load’ our life: gathering experiences before we run out of time.

In an age of super abundance, ironically, we are hyper aware of what we may be missing out on, what we haven’t done, of our deficits.

The pandemic has accelerated the already-advanced digital breakdown of our work-life boundaries and increasingly people report feeling they are always ‘at work’ while at home in a kind of Groundhog Day repetition of eat, work and sleep.

Even in our leisure time we feel the pressure to be productive, to maximise our life outside work whether it’s in terms of gaining experiences or status symbols.

Or sometimes we try to simplify all this complexity by escaping into work, making it the one thing to concentrate on, to avoid this splintering of our attention; and perhaps to dodge the larger questions in our life.

But all of this begs the question: ‘what do we mean by productivity’?  Is it only about work?  Hopefully not.  What are we trying to achieve?

 Productivity is about managing your time, energy and attention and, psychologically speaking, the quality of your experience is determined by what you pay attention to.  So, a prior question should always be: what am I trying to produce and why?

This leads naturally to other questions:

  • Are you doing your best workwith the available time? 
  • Are you focusedwhen you work?
  • Are you happywith what you’re spending time on? 
  • Are you resting enough to rechargeyourself?

In response to these questions most people feel there are substantial improvements to be made. I’d like to suggest some general strategies to help:

  1. The first major improvement is about reducing distractions.  Without sustained attention, without focus, we cannot do what counts most.
  2. The second suggestion is to slow down and do less things – but do them deeper.  It is about rigorous prioritising, so you spend more and more time doing what is really important to you.  Time is finite, and although obvious, it is worth saying that everything we do simultaneously means we will not do something else.  That’s worth contemplating.  We should be doing less things, of higher importance and of deeper quality.
  3. And finally, if our ultimate purpose is happiness, we ought to use our activities across work and life to increase, not decrease, our wellbeing. 

We’ll turn to each of these in more detail in the following.

Part 2: Focusing on What Counts Most & Cultivating Deep Work

I’d like to turn our attention to focusing on what counts most. Let’s start with distraction. 

Everything we do of value is made possible by our attention.  Yet we are profligate with this precious resource.  Worse, we think little of distracting others. Studies indicate (see Hallowell, 2015) that in, open-plan workplaces we are distracted by a person, a phone call, a message or an email about every 4 minutes.  That’s disastrous and no wonder that people search for undistracted time before and after work hours or in cafes to do their ‘real’ work.

And then we distract ourselves! This is the age of alleged multi-tasking, where we try to be more productive by doing two conscious tasks at once.  Why alleged?  Brain-imaging studies show that what we are actually doing is ‘switch-tasking’: moving rapidly between two patterns of connectivity in the brain.  This is a very expensive neural process.  As we switch, the braking mechanism in the prefrontal cortex is easily exhausted.  At a practical level it degrades both tasks by dividing resources and it also stresses us.  It assuredly does not save time: most estimates put it as 20% slower than doing both tasks properly one at a time.

There is another dimension of switch tasking: that is, we are distracting ourselves by trying to keep track of too many things in our mind at once and we keep all this activated so as not to forget it!

What should we do? 

  • Reduce attempts to multitask: Go beyond the to-do list: plan out what is to be done when; put it in an external system you can trust, so you can put it out of mind; and concentrate on the task at hand.
  • As best you can, eliminate distractions: turn off notifications, devices if necessary, and anything that will give you uninterrupted time to concentrate.
  • Call a meeting with one agenda item: ‘make war on distraction’. Agree in the team about how you can honour each other’s attention.  Make it a shared priority.

 Perhaps the biggest distractors we are sidelined by are tasks that are urgent, but in terms of our priorities, not that important.  So, now we turn to Stephen Covey’s 4 quadrant prioritisation matrix to help us sort out on what we should direct our focussed attention. Covey distinguished tasks in terms of high and low urgency and high and low importance.

We should identify and work on what belongs in Quadrant Two of his matrix: that which is important but not yet urgent: this is where sustainable high performance lives.  If we are to maintain attention and energy, Quadrant 2 must also include diet, exercise and sleep; it must include relationships; it must include our aesthetic life and our engagement in the community. And of course, it must include the deep work that will provide personal satisfaction and growth.

For most people, the second most important improvement is to identify and reduce what belongs in Quadrant 3, that which is urgent but not important, especially if it regularly impedes Quadrant 2 activities.

Once we’ve identified these relatively unimportant demands on our attention and time, we have to get better at saying no.  We must become skilled at neglecting the right things, or as the eminent workplace expert Peter Drucker put it:  we must become masters of ‘purposeful abandonment’.  Very often it is what we don’t do that truly defines us.  

Cultivating Deep Work

One answer to the modern malaise of chronic distraction is cultivating Deep Work and reading Cal Newport’s book of that name is a great place to start. His thesis is simple: we splash about too much in the ’shallows’ of low importance busyness.  By contrast, we ought to build our working week around substantial ‘blocks of time’ that are quarantined for undistracted, deep work of high value and importance to us.

So how to go about that?  A key strategy is time blocking: setting aside blocks of time (1- 4 hours maximum) that are dedicated to high importance, deeper work.  Others are informed of this, and agreed protocols are established to protect your focus. You prepare for it in the days before, taking notes, developing a file so you hit the ground running.  You turn off notifications, email and messaging devices – with contingencies for true emergencies.  Treat them like doctor’s appointments: you are basically not available.

If your work requires more constant ‘availability’; a similar form of working is what David Logan calls ‘multiple put downs’: work on a task in 20 – 30-minute blocks, with undistracted focus, and then ‘put it down’, over and over, until you’re done: Plan the sessions in advance. Put them in your calendar.  Then let some time pass to psychologically prepare. When ready, turn off all other distracting devices.  Set a timer and focus on that task without interruption.  Frequently you will enter ‘the zone’ in that time block.  After 20 minutes, you can keep working or take a break.  If you keep working, reset the timer to 20 minutes and repeat.

Generally, work should be built in as routines, as far as possible, so you slip into them like old slippers.  Build work habits that encourage your control of your time.  Remember it is your calendar! For these concentrated blocks, we are talking about a minority of your overall work hours: the rest of the time you can respond to all your other duties. 

The key to all of this is that you prioritise doing the important stuff before all the other stuff!  Then at the end of the day you feel a well-earned sense of accomplishment.

Part 3: Working for Wellbeing

If our ultimate purpose is to increase our happiness, then we need to get better at using all our work and non-work activities to lift wellbeing, not lower it.  So, however we define productivity, it should include increased satisfaction and wellbeing as one of its key measures. Essential to this is repairing and restoring our bodily systems.

 Our body, especially our brain, is built to modulate its activities.  It is not meant to be constantly ‘on’.  We are designed to rest between tasks; to reset our systems and then to re-engage.  Otherwise, we are just like a mouse on a perpetual wheel, and we develop chronic stress and a reduced capacity for focus. By contrast, how can we achieve our tasks and increase our attentional focus?

Adam Fraser’s (2012) ‘third space’ provides an excellent strategy: a mental place where you allow yourself to modulate; to take a brief moment to stop, quieten and listen to yourself between tasks. It is the middle space between what you’ve been doing and what you are about to do. It has three steps:

  1. First you reflect on what you’ve just done.  You allow yourself to feel some sense of achievement, then you close it off in your mind. 
  2. Then rest. Take a nice deep breath. This may only last a few seconds as you walk between meetings or five minutes as you walk around the block. No matter how long it lasts, CONSCIOUS rest is essential for repair and restoration.
  3. The third and final phase is where you reset. You use this phase to develop awareness and visualise the behaviour you want to exhibit in the next task.

So, I’d suggest you consciously demarcate many third spaces throughout the day, some extremely short, some giving you more substantial rest or recovery to enable you to work longer each day with deeper focus. In this way you can deliberately use work to enhance your wellbeing, and at the end of the day, you might do a quick audit of all you have achieved. This may help offset our tendency to only bring to mind all the things we have not done. 

To increase our happiness in life we have to do our best to integrate our activities to reflect our priorities in our life. We need to get the mix right to integrate relationships, physical wellbeing, aesthetic, and spiritual engagement and, yes, work.  Remember, you are actually allowed to prioritise your happiness! There is no universal formula but make your peace with whatever you decide are your ratios!

Recognise that you cannot ever control time; you cannot get it all done; that life is incurably messy. As Oliver Burkeman reminds us: we have on average 4000 weeks of life. That whatever is happening now is your life, it’s not preparation, and typically as we age, future weeks pass quicker and quicker! 

So, I suggest you firm up the boundaries between work and the rest of your life.  What physical boundaries can you set in place? You could try switching off devices; letting people know you’ve finished; closing the laptop; if possible, having a separate work area in the home; actually leaving the office or closing the door; having a personal mobile with no work connections.

And then a more difficult work in progress: getting better at setting psychological boundaries: How many of your work decisions are driven by worries about interpersonal esteem? By anxiety around reputation or imagined uncomfortable conversations that you don’t undertake? There is so much suffering in silence, solitude, and resentment when we feel we are forced to compromise our life for work.

Some suggestions for establishing psychological boundaries: use a buffer activity such as a walk, changing clothes, meditating, going for a run to separate in time the work from non-work. Make sure you’ve planned the next day so you can put it out of mind; have a notebook by the bed if something important occurs to you. Get it out of your head! 

Choose to be with your loved ones, fully!  Listen to music without distraction.  Relax into non-work activities.  If interrupted by work worries, park them in a notebook and return your attention to your other important activities. Treasure your attention to your non-work priorities, that’s of course if your plan is to actually be happy!