In The Power of Project Leadership I talk about three fundamental ways in which we can spend our time: Proactive, Time wasting, or Firefighting. In the proactive category we find important and strategic activities such as understanding the clients business, gathering requirements, planning for the future, improving and innovating, building the team and liaising with stakeholders. The time wasting category comprises activities that add very little or no value at all – for instance unimportant e-mails, drawn-out meetings, unnecessary red tape, interruptions, trivia and web surfing. In the firefighting category we have activities that only add value in the short term, such as urgent issues, putting out fires, interpersonal conflict and crisis.
Most of us are well aware that in order to get results we must spend our time in the proactive category and reduce our involvement with firefighting and time-wasting activities. But that’s easier said than done! In a fast paced environment, a typical day is filled with e-mails, meetings, and interruptions with only a few quiet moments to get real work done. A study by McKinsey found that the average knowledge worker spends a staggering 60 percent of their workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of their time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail. In a culture where we are expected to always be online and available our challenge is to put in place habits that enable us to get more work done from the proactive category.
Deep work vs. shallow work
What we need is discipline and focus and the ability to engage in deep work, as described in Cal Newport’s book by the same name. In the book, Newport argues that deep work – which he defines as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task” – is one of the most crucial abilities for anyone looking to move ahead. He even calls it “the superpower of the 21st century.”
The opposite of deep work is shallow work. Shallow work consists of tasks that aren’t especially important and that don’t require a deep level of concentration. Newport categorises e-mail checking, social media and web surfing as shallow work as well as anything that a college graduate could easily pick it up and that doesn’t leverage the individual’s expertise.
Our culture of connectivity and interruptions is limiting us
One of the biggest problems with shallow work is that by servicing low-impact activities, we take away time from higher-impact activities. Another problem is that when we work at a shallow level we’re often semi-distracted, switching from one task to another. Every time we do so, for instance when we quickly check our e-mail, our attention remains stuck thinking about the original task for a little while. Context switching and short interruptions delay the total time we take to complete our work.
Our workplace culture of connectivity is a real inhibitor of deep work. Open plan offices combined with an expectation to quickly read and respond to e-mails create opportunities for collaboration, but they do so at the cost of massive distraction. You might argue that it’s necessary to always be connected, but a study from Boston Consulting Group show that performance doesn’t drop when people switch off e-mail for one entire day a week. On the contrary, by disconnecting, staff experiences more enjoyment in their work, better communication among themselves, more learning and a better product delivered to the client.
Build up your working day around blocks of deep work
According to Newport, the key to working more effectively isn't to eliminate shallow work completely, but to minimise it while making sure you get the most out of the time that’s freed up. The first step is to put structure and discipline in place so that you take back control of the many diversions that attempt to steal your time. You can do that by quitting social media and build up your days around blocks of deep work, with the shallow activities batched together so that they don’t interrupt your periods of deep focus.
To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. To get the most from these blocks of concentration identify a small number of ambitious outcomes that would return a tangible and substantial benefit for you and your project. You should also try to practice deep work at the same time every day as that will require much less willpower than working deeply in an ad hoc way whenever you feel like it.
Switch completely off from work at the end of your workday
Newport also advocates completely switching off from work at the end of the workday until the next morning because resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. Shut down work thinking completely with no after dinner e-mail checks, no mental replay of conversations and no attention to how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge. Trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings will likely reduce your effectiveness the next day. When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.
Overcome your desire for distraction
To help you work more deeply it’s important that you train yourself to overcome your desire for distraction. If every moment of potential boredom is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone or checking your inbox then your brain is not optimised for deep work even if you regularly schedule time for it. The only way to build your deep-work muscle is by deliberately practicing uninterrupted concentration. You can do that by embracing boredom, resisting the temptation to always satisfy your distraction-seeking mind and by scheduling in advance when you will use the phone and the Internet and then avoid it altogether outside of these times.
To produce at your peak level you must be able to focus intensely without distraction on your most important proactive activities. This doesn’t mean that you should stop communicating with people around you or stop checking your e-mails. It means that you should treat shallow work with suspicion and build up your days around blocks of deep work, with the shallow activities batched together.
Imagine getting to a stage were your level of concentration is so intense that you only need 3 to 4 hours of focused time to get your most important work done. The remainder of your time can then easily be spent in meetings and in conversation with the team without jeopardising your productivity.
Whilst writing this blog I personally put my phone on flight mode and closed down my e-mail. Whenever my mind wandered, I guided myself back to the blog in front of me. It wasn’t easy and highlighted that I definitely need to build my deep-work muscle and learn to control my need for distraction. Perhaps I should take Cal Newport’s advice on board and embrace boredom :-)
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