Saturday, June 1, 2019

Deep Work

Hiromu Kira, The Thinker, ca. 1930, (photo location: The Hollywood Reservoir Dam, Los Angeles)

I have just finished Deep Work by Cal Newport and I have Thoughts...well maybe thoughts...musings.

The central tenet of the book is that in the current climate of lots and lots of busy scut shallow work, there is a certain economic advantage to deep work in the profession of your choosing. The deep part here centers around deliberate focus.

This is a key concept that I have been sniffing around for a while. After a good night's sleep, the task that eluded me for two hours (with the tv on in the background) the night before takes 5min. If I just clearheadedly (and undistractedly) focus on the thing I have been dreading, it does not take a lot of time. 

Matt Kenworthy put me on the path of how to deal with email and forcing encouraging yourself to work on only one thing: timing yourself with toggl. That is helpful to also show how much time you actually spent on the task that you complained about for...almost as long...

Matt and I also instigated mini retreats to the library to escape the constant barrage of little interruptions that is the bane of office work in general and a busy scientific institute with an "open door policy" in particular. Even the threat of interruption is already enough to lose focus.

So I am on board with blocking off time to Do The Thing. And I think we should be aware we can only really Do The Deep Thing for 4 hours at most. Honest 4 hours seems optimistic.
This is behind me hiding on certain days in a coffee shop aka my Undisclosed Location

There are several rules that constitute the second half of the book (like many US and especially self-help-ish books, the book is a little longer than it needs to get the central point across.)

These are The Rules:

1. Work deeply (make deal w self, one thing, focus, set time, mis en place)
2 Embrace boredom (deeper and lateral thinking)
3 Quit social media (does it advance your goals enough?)
4 Drain the shallows (less but better email, set filters)

1. Work deeply

The work deeply is something I can get behind. And especially young faculty should do this. Universities rarely generate an environment where it is possible but the Deep Work part is what you are rewarded for (grants accepted, tenure...)

So get a way to do the deep work. Academia is all about the "oh I just wanted to ask you something" interruption in the office so off to the library or coffee shop it is. This time is for hammering the Thing (paper, grant) out. I am reminded of the story that Julianne Dalcanton, arguably one of the best paper authors in astronomy, would go to a coffee shop before going into the office to write. For 2 hours. There is deep work to be done. Block a chunk of morning (unless you function better at night) and Just Do It. Make a deal with Spouse, block 90min or 3 hours and bash out ONE thing.
Adopting this and making the thing a proposal has allowed me to submit crazy number of Big Proposals (not sure if the is a good strategy but here we are...)

There are a few notes on this. In the book, Dr. Newport points to a personality that can slip into deep work whenever. He calls this the journalistic mode and while I can see that working for some (very rare) people, I think it is very energy intensive. Given the fact I am always some state of tired these days I would suggest some ways to slip into Deep Work:
a) the mis en place. Set the stage the night before to Do The Thing. The best part of this is that you think about how to attack the writing/coding/thing beforehand so you're all set the next day. Mis en place is what chefs call setting the kitchen ready for cooking the next day. Clear those browser tabs, clean the desktop sort of thing.
b) Ritual and place. This comes up in the Deep Work book and I endorse this wholeheartedly. Drop kids at bus, walk to coffee shop, got to My Spot. Brain has all the signals that it's Deep Work is Go time. 
c) Minimize distractions. The emphasize is on digital ones (guilty...) but I would argue that audio and personal distractions are just as bad. In Leiden, one of my office fellows ate noisily. Right behind me. I am still surprised I did not have to hide a body. Noise cancelling headphones are your friend.
d) Make a Deal with Yourself. This is a trick I use especially to get going and to cut to focus. Basically say to yourself: this is the Thing I'm working on and I'm just going to do it for 30 min. You either slip into Flow and Do Much More or after 30min it's time to reset (coffee! walk around the building, something). This works well especially when I am tired. Oh I will work on just this one thing. That'll be enough. And suddenly it's done.
e) Inspiration finds you working. I love this Picasso quote and this is one of the main things about the book that is missing. Your brain may not be ready for deep work. You may be coming down with something. It is the end of the semester and some stuff has just straight up exploded and that is taking up mental bandwidth (or "denkraam" in Dutch). But make a deal with yourself to do Some of the Thing. Another quote I like is "An expert can do some of their best work on their worst day." This is not to advocate ploughing through at all costs or to ignore lowered energy levels. Adjust, promise yourself to stop after one thing, and then do the Deep Work anyway. 

2. Embrace boredom

Admittedly, I have more issues with this. Never been someone for boredom. But the author is right that I do not need to whip out the phone the minute there is a line at the Kroger. It is indeed a sure sign of stress, and fear of missing out. But during the semester, it also quickly becomes a way to ping off another email. 

But some quiet time to not be online is a good idea. Write letters etc. 

What the author appeared to mean was to allow for some lateral thinking. Play with an idea or concept for a bit and allow your brain to run with it. I would therefore rephrase this as "allow for play". This is the kind of low-pressure (no paper needs to come from this, I am just curious...) to happen in the evening. The author states he is Done with Work at the end of the workday but this is what I would do in evenings. Or during running. 

3. Quit social media 

Now THIS is the controversial statement, guaranteed for some book sales. And this was the part I struggled with the most. Quit Twitter?! Facebook?! Well...honestly.
But I think the real point is: use deliberately for a clear purpose. That I can get behind. I noticed that Katie Mack took this advice and drasticallyreduced the twitter/Facebook presence for some Deep Work on Big Important Book. And good for her! 

The thing that was an interesting take is that social media have some return professionally but do they have enough for your specific situation? In the case of Katie Mack, the answer is obviously yes. And the examples of people who should not be on twitter seems out of date. And indeed, the argument that a writer such as Malcolm Gladwell is better served spending his time in deep work rather than blathering on Twitter is countered quite simply: he's on Twitter now...

And this is also why the modern knowledge worker (e.g. professors such as myself) should definitely be on Twitter. Not just self promotion (hey check out my paper), it is critical for making new contacts and encouraging lateral thinking. That creative part and social part of science is crucial. This is why we have meetings, chat to people at coffee and read their tweets, blogs (oh hi!) and perhaps even papers...

And this is the part where the Deep Work manifesto is starting to read a bit...privileged. This is an author that is not lacking for engagement with his peers. He is a big research University in the middle of the capital of the United States. No lack of talks, engagements or just coffee chats with peers. 

What do you do if there are not that many peers around? Other people in your field to bounce ideas off. This is critical use of Twitter for me. And I am very grateful that those at much more central institutions are on it and willing to engage. Example? I cobbled most of my science team for a successful Hubble Proposal together on Twitter. Science Twitter FTW! 

But there is another reason for Science Twitter, and it is just as important as the first reason: BB pellets of encouragement. I like shooting them off and yes, receiving them. Academia is lonely work and most of the Deep Work on display in this book is similar to the solitary master craftsman that is touted as the example. 

There is a mention of a Deep Work in Collaborative Mode but that overemphasizes direct physical collaboration (white board mode) and while that is possible, especially the ability to collaborate in Deep Work Mode remotely is going to be a huge asset for any knowledge worker.

4. Drain the shallows

This is to say. Yes it feels productive to burn constantly through emails but it really isn't. No one is going to die because that email was left for later. If there is a very high demand for your time, install filters (for professors, the IT IS IN THE SYLLABUS comes to mind). And I may just make this rule: I won't answer lazy email. If the answer was 10sec with google or simply in the syllabus, I won't answer it anymore. 

Strangely, this jives with my Inbox 0 approach (again thank you Matt Kenworthy). My take (different from the Deep Work Book) is that the reason shallow work --exemplified by email in the book-- is inherently not worth doing half-assed. And this is why one should block time and focus (oddly making it deeper work) and minimize the shallow work. But this is why Inbox 0 is great. I have some time between work work and home (bus ride) and that is for triage. One system for todo items. One. That I trust. So this stuff is solidly out of my brain for deep work time. This is true for the many many administrative tasks that modern day professorship seems to have to be burdened with. But also with new ideas. Generating new science ideas is an extremely stochastic process for me. Maybe new ideas are

More on the Privileged Part

So the fact that Deep Work is a privileged thing seems to me when the example of the very well performing professor comes up (yes I perked up at that). He "arranged" for all his teaching to be in one of his semester. That's...a neat trick.
It is rare that professors are left with this much freedom in their schedule. And it strongly implied that this person's teaching load is really just two classes a year. And that is a very privileged position to be in, never mind having the freedom to teach both classes in one semester. 

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