Lately I have been enjoying Cal Newport’s writing on work, and particularly his new book Deep Work which I am in the middle of reading (definitely recommended). His basic thesis is about the power of sustained, focused, distraction-free work on cognitively demanding tasks—what he calls deep work. It takes intentional effort to make the time and space for this kind of work, but Newport argues cogently that doing so can have enormous benefits.
Newport’s ideas have really resonated with me—I think I was already converging (albeit slowly, with little clarity) on similar ideas and practices over the last few years—and I’ve begun trying to put some of them more deliberately into practice. First, I have scheduled two large (4 hour) blocks of time for deep work each week. These blocks are sacrosanct: I won’t meet with students, schedule committee meetings, or do anything else during those times. I physically go somewhere other than my office—usually the library, occasionally my favorite coffee shop, somewhere relatively quiet and interruption-free where students and colleagues won’t find me. I first do as much as possible without turning on my laptop: course planning, reading, brainstorming, a lot of longhand writing (blog posts, papers, grant proposals, whatever—for example, I wrote this blog post itself longhand during my deep work session this morning). Sometimes if I need to write a longer, thoughtful email response, I will even print out the message beforehand and write my response longhand. Only towards the end of the session will I pull out my laptop, if I have specific projects to work on deeply that require a computer, like some sort of coding project.
Anecdotally at least, so far this feels incredibly successful—I get a lot done during these deep work sessions and always come away feeling accomplished and energized. The thing that feels especially good is that I’m not just getting a large amount of stuff done, but I’m getting important, difficult stuff done.
Another related practice I have recently adopted is that I do not read or write any email before 4pm. I have literally blocked myself from accessing email on my computers and phone between midnight and 4pm. Perhaps this sounds heretical, but that’s just the point—“because doing otherwise would be heresy” is a terrible reason for doing anything, and the fact is that not many of us really stop to consider and consciously choose the way we make use of technologies like email and social media. It’s taken some getting used to, but by now I don’t think I am ever going back. At 4pm I triage my inbox—respond to things that need a quick response, archive or delete stuff I don’t care about, and forward other things to my personal bug tracker for dealing with later. I am typically able to totally clear out my inbox before going home for the day. Over the course of the day I keep a list of emails I want to write later, and I write those at the same time that I triage my inbox, or sometimes later in the evening before going to bed. It feels way more efficient to batch most of my email processing into a focused session like this, and freeing to not be distracted by it the rest of the day. But do I ever miss it? Yes, all the time—and that’s exactly the point! Left to my natural tendencies I distract myself silly checking my email constantly.
Time will tell how much of this sticks and how my approach might change over time—I’ve scheduled a reminder for myself to write a followup post six months from now. As always, I’m happy to hear and respond to thoughts, reactions, questions, etc. in the comments.