Redefine deep work

Cal Newport defines deep work as uninterrupted periods with full concentration on a single task free of distraction. Let me start by saying – I love Cal’s work. I just thought I’d offer a counter point to his notes on productivity while adhering to similar principles. I think the principle of intensity that governs the deep work idea as spot on. However, I’ve long contended that the deep work idea is less applicable in many roles in the modern workplace. My push is that we must all think about and redefine deep work for ourselves.

There are two principles we need to keep in mind as we redefine deep work for ourselves –

1. Our productivity = Focus x Intensity x Time 
The focus referred to here is focus as a verb. It is the continuous prioritization process we use to pick the best thing to do with our time. While deep work does focus on focus (there’s an idea), it is biased to increasing intensity over increasing focus. The idea emphasizes the act of full concentration on one task over picking the task itself.

2. There are two kinds of work – research work and connection work. The difference between the two is the number of coordination required with other human beings.
If you are a researcher in a university, you don’t need to coordinate with more than a few people – your research associates and collaborators. For maybe 3 months in a year, you add students to the list. If you are working in most “matrixed” organizations, however, you are dealing with at least 10 stakeholders on any given day. This may not apply as much if you are a programmer or a brand researcher but certainly applies if you are an Engineering manager or Brand manager. The difference in the nature of the work is that your days have a large number of small tasks – typically proportional to the number of co-workers with whom you need to coordinate. And, a big part of your effectiveness is your ability to focus on the most important small task at that point of time. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a large task for the week. It is just likely that it won’t be as important a component of how your success will be measured. Intense focus on just one task is likely to hurt you more than it’ll help you on most days.

This, then, brings with it a big associated challenge – how do you keep up intensity? The third principle that makes connection work hard is the principle of attention residue. Every time we switch tasks, we reduce our ability to be intense. We are more prone, as a result, to let our minds wander and be distracted by social media. However, going back to basic principles, intensity is still incredibly valuable.

Here are 3 ideas that might help –

1. Start the day and week with your top priority items for your day and week. On most weeks, this will be a fairly long list. Most coordination jobs have 2-3 key components (tracking numbers, coordinating with people, thinking about the longer term, etc.) and it is normal to have a few things to get done across all components on the list. The act of writing it down enables us to keep committing to focusing on them.

2. Be proactive about managing your time – schedule “deep work” days and batch process meetings. If you are part of a couple of recurring larger team meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, batch most of your other meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday. Keep large swathes of time open for you to dive in to the chunkier tasks. As you take control of your calendar, I’d also suggest committing to a time when you get out of the office. A little bit of pressure brings out the best in us.

3. Redefine deep work based on the nature of your job. My job has a much higher connection component now than it did in most projects as a junior management consultant. My “job” as a graduate student attempting to learn, on the other hand, was largely research work. Each of these required me to redefine deep work. As I see it in my job now, deep work is the ability to work for large swathes of time without interruptions. No interruptions = no social media, no notifications, no checking personal email. The difference is that I don’t penalize myself for switching tasks. If I get 5 important small things done within an hour, then that’s great. If that involves writing 3 thoughtful emails, then that works too. The most important thing is keeping a focus on what is important. Deep work should still push you – it will just push your ability to focus over your ability to be intense a lot of the time.

As I do this, I’ve also learnt to keep an eye out for other variables that effect my ability to both focus and be intense – sleep, food, exercise, work location, etc. The way I design my life directly affects my ability to work deeply.

My belief is that – if there’s one thing that we must all take away from the deep work idea, it is that we must purposefully and intentionally design our lives for maximum productivity. We won’t be able to get there without the necessary mindfulness that the deep work idea requires. However, productivity is the act of moving toward a goal. And, for our goals, we must redefine our deep work as necessary.

2 thoughts on “Redefine deep work

  1. I ask myself “what’s the one thing that I can do such by doing it everything else will become easier or unnecessary?” And then I do that thing.

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