Deep work and email habits: a followup

About six months ago I wrote a post about some new work habits I adopted, inspired by Cal Newport’s blog and by his book, Deep Work. First, I began scheduling blocks of “deep work” time during the week, when I go to the library or a coffee shop and work intensely for several hours with no distractions or interruptions. Second, I decided to read and write email only after 4 pm each day. In my calendar, I put a reminder to write a followup blog post six months later, and here we are! (Has it been six months already!?)

My deep work sessions are still going strong, though having this opportunity to reflect has been good: I realized that over the months I have become more lax about using my computer and about what sort of things I am willing to do during my “deep work” sessions. It’s too easy to let them become just a block of time I can use to get done all the urgent things I think I need to get done. Of course, sometimes there are truly urgent things to get done, and having a big block of time to work on them can be great, especially if they require focused effort. But it pays to be more intentional about using the deep work blocks to work on big, long-term projects. The myriad little urgent things will get taken care of some other time, if they’re truly important (or maybe they won’t, if they’re not).

Since I’m only teaching two classes this semester, both of which I have taught before, I thought I would have more time for deep work sessions this semester than last, but for some reason it seems I have less. I’m not yet sure whether there’s something I could have done about that, or if the semester just looks different than I expected. This semester has also seen more unavoidable conflicts with my deep work blocks. Usually, I try to keep my scheduled deep work blocks sacrosanct, but I have made some exceptions this semester: for example, search committee meetings are quite important and also extremely difficult to schedule, so I let them be scheduled over top of my deep work blocks if necessary. (But it sure does wreak havoc on my work that week.)

I’m also still blocking my email before 4pm. On the one hand, I know this is helping a lot with my productivity and general level of anxiety. Recently I needed to (or thought I needed to!) briefly unblock my email during the day to check whether I had received a certain reply, and I specifically noticed how my anxiety level shot up as soon as I opened my inbox and saw all the messages there—a good reminder of why I have my email blocked in the first place. On the other hand, it can be frustrating, since the hour from 4-5 is often taken up with other things, so email gets pushed to the evening, or to the next day. When this goes on several days in a row it really doesn’t help my anxiety level to know there are emails sitting there that I ought to respond to. So perhaps there might be a better time to process my email than 4-5, but to be honest I am not sure what it would be. I certainly don’t want to do it first thing in the morning, and the middle of the day is not really any better, schedule-wise, than the end. In any case, I intend to keep doing it until a better idea comes along.


About Brent

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
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