Uncommon Ground

Getting organized in 2018 – The limits of deep work

Getting organized in 2018 – links to the series

Last week I introduced the idea of deep work,

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.

The key words there are distraction free. I picked up some useful tips from reading Deep Work, but there’s also at least one limit to be aware of.1

In Deep Work Cal Newport describes the working style of two people who have been exceptionally productive and who exemplify what he calls the monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling, Adam Grant and Don Knuth. I don’t think I’d heard of Adam Grant before,2 but anyone who’s done more than a little programming has heard of Don Knuth. Not only is he the author of the monumental The Art of Computer Programming, he grew frustrated with the typesetting for TAoCP and wrote TeX and Metafont to compensate. He is also famously inaccessible by e-mail. He stopped answering e-mail in 1990. If you want to contact him, you’ll need to send him a letter to his postal mailing address. His administrative assistant will sort through them and pass along any that seem relevant. Grant isn’t quite as extreme as Knuth, but he batches his availability. He stacks all of his teaching into the fall semester, turning his attention fully to research for the rest of the year. He’ll answer e-mail, but if you happen to e-mail him during one of the 3-4 day periods when he’s focused on a research task, you’ll get an auto-response telling you that you’ll have to wait to hear back from him.

There’s no question that a monastic approach to deep work allows those who can adopt it to accomplish an enormous amount. But there’s also no question that society can continue to function only so long as there are only a few people who adopt that approach. A functioning society depends on functioning institutions, and functioning institutions depend on people to keep them functioning. If you work with a very small group of people, you might be able to agree among yourselves that interruptions are allowed only between 11:00am and 1:00pm or only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but if you work with more than four or five people you’re unlikely to be able to set aside consistent “do not interrupt” hours except relatively early in the morning or relatively late in the day.3

And it’s not just the people you work with face to face. If you’re an academic, the functioning of your scholarly community depends on your willingness to review papers and grant proposals and to serve as a leader in your scholarly society. I know a few people4 who have made many important scientific contributions, in the sense that they’ve published important papers and discovered important things, who have also made few or no contributions at all to supporting the scholarly community on which they depend. If you decide to adopt a monastic approach, you better be sure that you can make contributions large and important enough that they compensate for your lack of community spirit.

For most of us, we won’t even be able to adopt the bimodal philosophy that Jung employed – periods of intense deep work in seclusion interspersed with periods of involvement in day-to-day life and work.5 It’s most likely that we’ll have to adopt the journalistic philosophy – developing the discipline to do concentrated deep work whenever the opportunity presents itself. That’s why setting up your workspace in a way that you can avoid distraction is important. Any time you find yourself with more than 15-20 minutes of uninterrupted time ask yourself,

  • How much time can I set aside right now for work that needs concentrated attention?
  • What is the most important work I can do right now that needs concentrated attention?

Then do that work, and don’t allow yourself to be interrupted. Close the door. Don’t answer the phone. Ignore e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook.6 Turn off notifications on your cellphone. Do the work. Then take a break and reward yourself.

Your position in life will determine both how often you find yourself with those uninterrupted blocks of time and how long they are. If you ever find yourself in a position like mine, whether department head or dean or any other administrative position, you’ll soon learn something a friend of mine told me a long time ago.

It’s not that Provosts or Presidents spend that much more time working than the average faculty member. It’s that Provosts and Presidents have little control over their own time.7

That’s more true for me now as a Vice Provost and Dean than it was when I served as Interim Department Head, and it was more true for me as a faculty member than it was as a graduate student or postdoc.

One last piece of advice, if you’re a graduate student or postdoc reading this, take advantage of your relative freedom to develop good deep work habits now. The more you practice, the better you get at it, and the older you get, the more you’re going to need those good habits – no matter what career path you follow.

  1. To be fair, Cal Newport acknowledges the limit I’m about to describe, but I don’t think his discussion of depth philosophies fully captures it.
  2. It turns out he’s was the youngest person ever promoted to full professor at Wharton, and he’s the author of a New York Times bestseller (link).
  3. I say “relatively” because the meaning of early and late depend on where you work. Many businesses operate on an 8:00am-5:00pm schedule, so early might be before 8:00am and late might be after 5:00pm. I’m a morning person. I’m usually in the office before 6:30am. Since I rarely have scheduled meetings before 9:00am (except for meetings with my students), I typically have 2 1/2 hours to myself every morning.
  4. Who shall remain nameless.
  5. If you’re not familiar with Jung’s work habits, buy Deep Work or do a little web surfing. Same thing for Walter Isaacson who follows.
  6. Use new, clean workspace if you’re on your computer. Use a utility that block Internet access if you doubt your willpower.
  7. The friend who told me this is a former Provost at a major research university (not UConn).

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