I read Cal Newport’s book Deep Work earlier this year and was very affected by it. I started to look at how I was allocating my time, and whether I was giving enough time to deep work. If you haven’t read the book, what Newport means by deep work is basically focused, undisturbed attention to projects that will make an impact in your professional life. Now it's not that I haven’t been trying to focus on projects, it's that like most others, I feel like I am not making fast enough progress on such projects, and I was intrigued by the idea of getting more out of my time simply by the way I spent it, or by changing certain habits. The topic in the book wasn’t new to me either, I have been reading everything in the productivity literature I possibly can, and am familiar with these concepts.
However, I recently realized what was lacking from this framework, something that has been making it hard for me to truly reap the benefits of deep work.
I work from home at the moment, and although I have tried to find libraries and coffee shops where I can do focused work, I haven’t succeeded in finding places that are consistently effective for me. Depending on the time of day, day of the week or a variety of other factors, the places I have tried are too full, too noisy or a combination of factors that make concentrating difficult. But at home I have many other distractions, including housework and reminders of myriad other tasks. I have tried to block out certain times of the day for working on certain projects, or times when I don’t take phone calls, but none of the strategies have truly helped. And I couldn’t always figure out why. One day was truly productive, and then the next one was disastrous.
And then it all clicked.
I have been reading another book, Work Clean by Dan Charnas. And it gave me insight into why my system so far was failing me. Because I was focusing only on the deep work aspect. And failing to take into account the other stuff. Failing to find a way to deal with all the stuff I had to do, and only giving attention to those few projects that needed in-depth attention or would lead to obvious benefits. And trying to squeeze everything else into the margins.
Perhaps the problem was that I wasn’t even following Newport’s system properly. Or maybe he had internalized some of the principles and failed to articulate them.
For instance, I would give swathes of time to my writing and research projects. And try to squeeze in everything else, everything that wasn’t related to a book project or something big and hairy, into the margins of my day. I would try to tackle it when I was exhausted and then inevitably postpone it to another day. And so it went on. I was routinely piling more on my plate than I could handle, mainly because I wasn’t even making time for a large chunk of the work. And while this is blindingly obvious in hindsight, I didn’t realize it at the time.
I am not saying the admin and related work wouldn’t get done, its just that I would resent the time spent on such work, or try to put it off for months at a time, only tackling it when it somehow became urgent. This meant I was living with a pile of unfinished tasks of ambiguous proportions, studiously trying to ignore it while I tried to get my mind to focus on my book project. Some days that worked. Other days it didn’t. I felt stressed about how much other things I had to do, but I was afraid that if I started to work on them, I would get derailed and never get back to the book or the research. But I wasn’t always able to concentrate with the nebulous piles of work just outside my peripheral vision.
And this made me realize that while deep work might require focused blocks of time without distractions, such as checking social media or email every quarter of an hour, it also requires a system of planning and working that supports the deep work. For me this meant scheduling time to handle all the other stuff. As an indie author I have myriad duties related to maintaining my blog, my social media platforms, setting up book promotions, responding to email. Then there are the usual administrative aspects of life, bills, filing, keeping surfaces tidy. There have been so many days when I have tried to sit down to work while actively ignoring the piles of filing and sorting of papers that are calling out to me. I manage to let weeks, sometimes months go by like this, rationalizing that completing the book project is more crucial. But unfortunately those incomplete projects, whether urgent or not, eat away at my attention in little slivers, till I find it hard to focus at all.
This was happening to me even when I didn’t realize it. I have been struggling with a project that is way behind deadline. And the longer it takes, the more things I put off telling myself I will get to them when the book is finished. And unsurprisingly its taking longer and longer. I finally took some time off from the book and tackled some of the more urgent things I had let pile up, but it wasn’t done in a way that I could control, a lot of it was me just running around trying to catch items as they fell into my lap, do some triage and lob them back out.
This was a terrible way to work. I felt like I was in a brain fog at all times. I was snappy, irritable, annoyed at my family, and liable to burst into tears at any point. I kept thinking I had taken on too much. Or that I should start saying no more. I looked at my lists and kept thinking there was nothing I could remove. They were all important. How had it come to this? I wasn’t even that efficient or effective, why was my plate piled up so high and what could I do about it?
I am not sure I have a solution yet, but I have a hypothesis. I think I have been allocating time to my various obligations disproportionately. I have been in denial, imagining that I can get tons of work done in certain areas while allocating only a few minutes to them, and then annoyed that I am not making faster progress. I have underestimated the role of the shallow work in supporting the deep stuff.
One of the observations in Work Clean really resonated with me. When I read it, I stopped short and realized that surely this was one of my biggest issues. The book said - a project that is 90% done is really 0% done. And this is really my issue. I have tons of things that are 70, 80, 50 % done, but not complete. I start things and don’t finish. I could write a whole separate post just on finishing, and I probably will. But for now, suffice it to say that I needed to allocate time to some of these unfinished projects and finish them.
And here is how I plan to do it. The book Work Clean makes a distinction between two types of work - immersive work (equivalent to deep work) and process work (or shallow work). While Newport’s books all but sneers at shallow work or process work, and almost relegates it to a corner of one’s life, Work Clean gives almost equal importance to the two. And that’s when the lightbulb really went off in my head. Well actually it went off when I made a list of my obligations (big projects or goals or categories of work), and realized that almost 60% of the work could be classified as process work in some form. And I was allocating at best 20% of my time to this work. Often I didn’t even allocate time during the workday, sometimes trying to squeeze it in late at night instead, or intruding into my personal time on weekends. If I instead balanced my time between the different types of obligations, I might not only get more of the process work done before it became a crisis and added to my stress levels, I could relieve some of the pressure on my attention, so when it was time to do the immersive work, I could truly focus on it.
This is a fairly recent revelation and I still have to experiment with my schedule to work out the best combination of time allocation. However, the main takeaway that I want to suggest is this - that in order to be successful it is important to be focused while doing deep work, and be intentional about the work the rest of the time, ensuring that you balance your obligations and set yourself up for success during the times you allocate to work immersively. This may have been obvious to other readers of Newport’s book, but for me the main takeaway was the more time you spend doing deep work the better. Which lead me to try to minimize everything else, but without the best consequences.
I still haven’t found a philosophy or way of thinking and working that is comprehensive, but with each experiment and attempt at streamlining my work process I am getting better at figuring this out. I hope to write a more in-depth review of the book Work Clean, and report on what progress if any I have made, but for now here’s something to think about - its better to work with balance, rather than skewing too far one way or the other, towards only shallow or process work peppered with distractions, or giving yourself entirely to deep work.