Welcome back to our Velentium Book Club series on Deep Work by Cal Newport. In this last post of the series, we offer a few final, practical tips for becoming a deep worker and a champion of deep workplaces.
#1. Audit your internet habits.
Newport suggests applying the 80/20 principle to every piece of your digital toolkit, including the tools you use for research, breaking news, networking, and entertainment. Probably, he says, 20% of those tools are providing 80% of your total benefit from time spent online. Identify the vital few, be intentional about your engagement with them, and chuck the rest.
This includes your leisure time as well as your work time. Avoid websites with an “endless feed” or “endless scroll” format – those are designed specifically to keep you from noticing how much time you’re spending in the shallow attention zone. Continuous stimuli keeps you from becoming bored, but as we saw in the previous post, engaging your boredom is key to training your brain to focus deeply for longer and longer blocks of time.
#2. Consider your leisure time.
Our brains need change, not ‘rest,’ according to research Newport cites, and it is harder for us to enjoy unstructured, anything-goes leisure time than to enjoy leisure intentionally planned around a few pleasurable activities or pursuits. When we leave our leisure time up to the whim of the moment or to chance, we’re constantly having to make decisions about what to do next. As a consequence, our attentiveness and our willpower are less refreshed by unstructured leisure time than they are by leisure time intentionally planned as a change-of-pace from the workday. Our leisure time should be spent intentionally pursuing things that we know make us happy and naturally engage our attention. That can include shallow activities like TV and web browsing, of course, but ideally it should also include something that requires focus: a book, a strategy game, a hobby, attentive quality time with family and loved ones.
Leisure time should be unadulterated by working-world interruptions. Depending on your job and office culture, communications may be sent to you after hours. But unless those communications are about a true, can’t-wait-til-morning emergency, Newport says, we shouldn’t even look at them.
#3. Choose when to be hard to reach.
That leads perfectly to our final tip: during two critical times, it’s important that we become hard to reach. Those times are deep-work blocks and leisure time. During those times, phones should be silenced, push notifications turned off, email and direct message client closed, and coworkers should be alerted not to disturb us. Velentium recently distributed rotating signs for each staff person to mount beside his or her desk. The signs can be dialed to display “Please Knock,” “In a Meeting,” or “Do Not Disturb,” with green, orange, and red color-coding to reinforce the message. We hope that this simple visual tool will help all of us become more conscientious about how we’re employing our time and how well we’re respecting one another’s personal workflow.
During time blocks dedicated to deep work and to leisure, Newport says, it’s perfectly fine to behave “irresponsibily” toward shallow tasks and non-urgent interruptions. It’s also natural to feel a little guilty about doing so – at least at first, while we’re learning how to guard our new routines. Putting off a quickly-accomplished task, or not checking and answering communication, until your next shallow work time block – which could mean a delay of a few hours, overnight, or even over a weekend – may feel irresponsible. But most of the time, it simply isn’t. Questions, conundrums, and shallow tasks are rarely as urgent as they at first seem. Just in case, though, it helps to make a rubric in advance of your carefully-guarded time blocks so that you know when to make exceptions and let yourself be interrupted. Consider making a flowchart or decision tree. For example, you might decide to ignore all written communication during your guarded time block. If someone calls, you let it ring to voicemail, and you don’t listen to the voicemail unless the caller is your immediate supervisor or a current client. If it is, you listen to the voicemail, but you don’t respond until your deep work or leisure period is over unless it is absolutely critical that you call them back immediately.
With that kind of rubric in place, your mind is protected from having to leave the deep work zone and accumulate ‘attention residue’ due to making an individual decision about every potential interruption. At the same time, you can rest assured that you are not behaving irresponsibly toward genuine emergencies or urgent communications, because you’ve predetermined (1) who is allowed to interrupt you, (2) what communication medium they will use if the interruption is urgent or critical, and (3) how you will recognize the critical, urgent interruption for what it is and respond accordingly. With those decisions made ahead of time, you are free to focus fully on the challenge before you and ignore everything else until the appropriate time.
This concludes our blog series on Deep Work. We hope that our take on Cal Newport’s insights will help you have a highly productive day… and a highly productive next year!