Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

The Difficulties of Depth: A Case Study in Getting Important Things Done

December 13th, 2013 · 32 comments

deepwork-notebooks-600px

Deep Tracking

I’m obsessed with deep work. I believe it’s the key to crafting a meaningful and interesting career. And yet, even I — Dr. Deep Work himself — sometimes struggle to fit enough of it into my weekly schedule.

I recently set out to find out why…

Fortunately, I have a good data set to use in this effort. As readers of STRAIGHT-A know, I believe in time blocking (if you don’t plan every minute of your day in advance, your efficiency will plummet).

I use Black n’ Red notebooks for this purpose, one page per day. As shown in the above picture, I hold on to my old notebooks so I can study my habits when needed.

I went back through the notebook I used during my fall semester and identified two weeks: one which was good (close to half my time was dedicated to deep work on research and writing), and one which was bad (less than a quarter of my time was dedicated to these efforts).

My goal was to understand the difference between these two weeks, and by doing so, hopefully identifying the scheduling traps most damaging to efforts toward depth.

(I recognize that even my bad week represents more deep work than most are able to fit into their schedule [I've been at this for a while], but what matters here is the relative difference in time, not the absolute values.)

A Tale of Two Weeks

Let’s start with my good week. The below pie chart shows the percentage of time I dedicated to different types of work between Monday 10/21 and Friday 10/24:

deepwork-goodweek

 

Academic deep work and writing provide around half the pie — a percentage that satisfies me. Not surprisingly, class related work takes up the next largest chunk, followed by a generic planning/small tasks bucket.

Now lets look at the chart for the bad week of 11/4 to 11/7, where I fit in less than half the total amount of deep work:

 

deepwork-badweek

What’s different about this week?

Two changes seem to matter. First, the time spent in meetings more than doubled from 3 to 7 total hours between the good and bad week. Second, I agreed to give a talk and needed to write and practice it during the bad week. This new talk prep category ate up an additional 4.5 hours. Because I cannot reduce by much the time I spend on teaching or small tasks, most of this new time came from the deep work category.

Conclusion

Here’s the worldview this experiment helped cement in my mind…

Most knowledge workers have a collection of non-optional commitments that require roughly the same amount of time each week. These are the efforts we must do to keep our job. (For me, these include teaching and keeping up with small tasks, like answering e-mails from my colleagues.)

Their remaining time is dedicated to optional commitments — which we have flexibility in selecting (and avoiding).

Here’s the key observation about this state of affairs:

Any time dedicated to deep work will come from the optional commitment pool. Every time you say “yes,” therefore, you’re also saying “no” to an equivalent amount of deep work.

In the moment, for example, it’s easy to agree to a meeting, but the hour required by that meeting is an hour drawn from the same pool used for deep work. You’ve just reduced the amount of possible deep work that week by an hour.

Once you recognize this reality, it changes the way you think about your schedule. Your criteria for saying “yes” changes from “is this something I could do and might be interesting?”, to “am I willing to give up this amount of deep work for this opportunity?”

As this experiment made clear to me, this is a subtle shift in thinking (though one that requires quite a bit of effort in execution), that can yield a massive impact on how much value you produce.

I have, accordingly, become increasingly cautious and circumspect about which optional commitments I allow into my schedule. If you’re serious about deep work, you’ll likely need to adopt a similar skepticism.

32 thoughts on “The Difficulties of Depth: A Case Study in Getting Important Things Done

  1. Nathan says:

    What you have described is opportunity cost and it can be applied to just about anything.

    1. Marshall says:

      Maybe, but there’s something interesting about opportunity cost in a stencil like this.

  2. Alan says:

    Great article Cal, it’s too easy to forget what we’re saying no to when we commit to saying yes to something else. I’m also glad to see that you didn’t sacrifice teaching quality to produce more deep work, too many professors do that!

    As a CS student I’d also like to see an article talking about your research in Distributed Algorithms. For example what problems you’re currently working on.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Not sure if that would be of general interest! But if you want to know more: cs.georgetown.edu/~cnewport

  3. vgm says:

    Another issue, which you are doubtless well aware, is that the quality of the time you spend matters as well. One big problem from more meetings is that the carve up the space into non-usable lengths of time. Batch-processing meetings is tricky. (http://www.paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html)

  4. AC says:

    Good post. It highlights what I’ve been reading a lot about lately, which is the fact that the most valuable resource that a knowledge worker has is his/her time, more specifically attention.

    You can only direct your attention onto one thing at a time and there are only so many hours in the day you can put this attention to use, so as Cal highlights, there is always an opportunity cost involved in saying yes or no to certain things.

    Another thing I’ve learned from reading a brilliant time management book by Mark Forster called “Do It Tomorrow” is that you shouldn’t be managing priorities at task level. Instead you should look at commitment level.

    All work (tasks) comes from the commitments (responsibilities/goals) you have taken on. You don’t reduce time allocated to your commitments by prioritising in terms of importance. Inevitably the things of low importance will never get done. Once you’ve taken on a given commitment, you should be prepared to do 100% of the tasks that originate from it.

    Therefore, instead of prioritising in terms of importance, the real questions you should ask are those along the lines of the two that Cal mentions above. Commitments are what you confine yourself to (limits). Instead of managing priorities, you should manage capacity.

    That does however mean you have to know what your capacity is so that you can say no to people when you’re full. Knowing when you realistically can’t take on any more work is the key.

    1. Dave Small says:

      AC,

      Thanks for the comments on Cal Newport’s blog. I like the material on managing “capacity”. Nice addition to the discussion.

  5. Hi Cal–great post. I wonder if you have any advice for those of us who have very unpredictable lives (caregivers, single parents, admin responsibilities with lots of “emergencies”)? I’m working with a lot of non-traditional students and it’s very difficult for them to protect the time for “deep work,” and then very discouraging when they plan some work time, but it gets highjacked by a sick child or work emergency. –Kathryn Temple

    1. Dawn says:

      Having been in the “non-traditional student” situation before I can say this is a big problem. While I agree with Cal that time blocking is important, I’m not sure how practical it is for someone juggling classes, assignments, a full-time job and family. As Kathryn said, a single emergency can derail all your efforts.

      What I ended up doing was studying in short bursts of time. During breakfast in a half hour stretch before work, a 15 minute break during the day, during lunchtime, 20 minutes after classes. It wasn’t ideal but that was the only time I had. Unfortunately, during crunch time at work, even these short bits of time would dry up to almost zero. While using the various tips and techniques Cal teaches will seriously improve anyone’s productivity, there are still only 24 hours in a day and a true limit to the number of commitments a person can reasonably take on. The best thing I can advise anyone in that situation to do is: be really, really sure you want to do this and prioritise ruthlessly.

      I also think that for non-traditional students, the structure of the course they’re taking makes a huge difference. The course schedule, assessment methods and course design have to be flexible enough that even when you fall behind at one point, you can still compensate for it at a later time. So another piece of advice for non-traditional students: pick your course well and go with a course provider that has a lot of experience teaching and supporting non-traditional students.

    2. Study Hacks says:

      Even in a reactive schedule deep work is possible. Sometimes people get spooked because they imagine the necessity of planning out a whole day. But deep scheduling requires only that you are able to plan out and maintain the deep work. Even in the most reactive job, you are able to put aside an hour or two on many days that cannot be interrupted. Think about what happens when you have an important meeting or a doctor’s appointment: people are able to get along fine for a while. Think of deep work the same way. In the midst of a chaotic schedule, there are these inviolable anchor blocks of depth.

  6. Thomas Rivera says:

    Would also like to hear more about what Kathryn Temple said. Great post as always

  7. Heather says:

    I’d like to see what a sample page looks like. I assume you are keeping track of what you did on these pages, or are you also using it to plan your day in advance? How much detail do you use? I assume you have honed it down to where it isn’t a burden to keep track of it all.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I’ll do a post on this soon…

  8. Mark says:

    Good post Cal,

    I wonder if it would be possible for you to share with us how many hours of work had those two weeks, as well as the actual schedule of the task. It would be very useful in order to get the whole picture of what was going on.

    Thank you so much,
    Mark

  9. Guy says:

    I second Heathers request.

  10. I have a name for this – I call it “The Yes-No Game”. Clever, eh? I’ve used it in the context of decision making to understand all the tradeoffs for a decision, but I’ve never thought to use it as a productivity hack. Thanks for sharing this useful angle.

  11. Dave Small says:

    Once again Cal you provide a fresh way to look at time/priority management. I like the phrase: “Any time dedicated to deep work will come from the optional commitment pool.”

    Many years ago I read Peter Drucker’s material on time management from his book the Effective Executive. He noted effectiveness always begins with managing our time. He broke out time management into three segments:

    1) Record time: Unless we record where our time is going, we will likely believe we are using more constructively than we really are. (I like how you chart your time.)

    2) Manage Time: The primary skill being “pruning”. According to Drucker, most of what we do doesn’t need to be done. If we quit doing so much, most of the missing activity will go unnoticed. (Compare your “optional commitment theory”.)

    3) Consolidate Time: You have to have blocks of time to do your work. (Note your “time blocking” and “deep work”.)

    Thanks again for your educational and inspiring blog.

  12. Juan says:

    So how many hours a week do you actually work? It would be nice to have a breakdown of the amount of hours you spend on each task. Going by your comment about the meetings I can more or less see that you might be working 35+ or so hours a week. Is this correct?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I average around 40 hours a week not including commutes.

      (When I get near deadlines, however, this number typically increases because I sometimes have to swap in some weekend blocks of work as well.)

  13. Craig says:

    Where’s family time in your pure charts? If I am not mistaken, you have a one year old now. I have two kids under two and they are usually where the variation in my schedule comes from. Definitely not optional commitments.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Those charts only describe how I spend my time during the work day. I don’t typically track my time outside of the work day…

  14. Michael Webb says:

    I wonder whether you are oversimplifying in the example you give. Sure, preparing a talk takes time away from ‘deep work’. But, assuming that talk is related to your research, the discussion the talk will generate may well give you ideas that will be ‘worth’ many times the hours of deep work forgone. Moreover, the talk may help and inspire others to advance your field in particular ways, again multiplying your own effort in preparing the talk many times over.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      In this case, the benefits of deep work (grappling with real, hard, new results) far outweigh the soft benefits of preparing slides to talk about work you already did. Giving the talk, however, is valuable for other reasons, such as exposure and building a contact network. That’s why the decision on these things is tough. They both have valuable, I’m just trying to make sure I am getting the costs and benefits right before making a decision.

  15. Arno says:

    Great article…even though it might be trivial to some (hence the “opportunity cost” reference from Nathan) it is still often enough neglected!

    I am really interested in how a daily plan in your notebook looks like. How you start the page, how you fill it with content. Do write down the times on the left side of the page in 15min. increments? Or do you keep it flexible?
    When you’ve done your planning, how often do you reference it during the day. And how do you keep it updated if there were unforeseeable changes.

    This is what I am struggling with the most right now. I know that if I feel secure with a system I can get into focused “deep work” quite easily. I know that everything I need to do is well structured and securely planned.
    But yet I am still lacking the right tool to do my planning.
    I tried online planners, solely google calendar, and offline ones as a blank sheet of letter paper, a small notebook, a yearly planner and many more. At any given time it feels like the system is not flexible enough. The online ones or computer based systems often are too complicated or force me to specify to many contexts or schedule them to rigidly and the offline ones create the feeling of jotting down in redundancy. It starts with the times of each day from 08:00am to 7pm in half- or quarter-hourly increments.

    Right now I am trying a small notebook with the “1-3-5″ method.
    That means committing to 1 really important thing daily (that would be the deep focused research work), 3 less important tasks (e.g. preparing the speech) and 5 simple ones. For everything else (what you seem to call “planning / small tasks”) I use a post-it on my desk if a note is really needed.

    But yet it is not a real calendar view, more a list. I tried to “timebox” the tasks, thus estimating how much time I want to spend on any given task. But it didn’t work out. It just got really messy.

    For my private appointments I use Google Calendar, at work we are required to use Lotus Notes, which I can’t access from anywhere else than the office computer and everyone else can read the contents, due to open appointment scheduling.
    I feel like I constantly plan my day twice or threefold. How do you avoid the redundancy?

    Thanks in advance.
    Arno

  16. George says:

    Further to Michael Webb’s comment, by accepting to give a talk, or participate in an event or meeting, you might be exposed to opportunities you otherwise would miss out on. A connection might be made, a potential referral source, new business or consulting jobs or the opportunity to advance your career or objectives…
    Where does serendipity fit into all of this?

  17. Joe Weaver says:

    But isn’t it true that you can only really expend a limited amount of energy on deep work each day? You’re only truly saying ‘no’ to deep work if you haven’t already reached that limit. Having said that, it’s probably still practical to keep this mindset as it’s more likely that you are (at least I am) not hitting that limit.

  18. Evan says:

    To follow up on Michael Webb’s comment… it depends on the definition of deep work. I am not sure what your definition of that is but why would you assume that a meeting isn’t deep work? It certainly can be important and productive work. If it isn’t, then maybe the meeting is the thing that needs to be changed. I have found that I can cut out things that in the moment are seemingly inefficient and unproductive uses of my time and after a while, realize that without some of them, my deep work became less productive. It’s like taking the time to listen to someone. It may not help me accomplish my goals for that day but it might make three days next month much more productive because of a relationship it develops.

  19. Mike says:

    In Walden, Thoreau asks his readers to reorient their thinking around money in a similar way. Don’t consider the money you’re spending when you buy an item. Think about the hours of labor you are trading to get it. That reasoning always gets me to think twice about spending on unnecessary things. Looks like it applies when considering labor itself as well.

  20. Sergey says:

    Thanks for once again sharing your thought process here; it is as always vey insightful and fact driven.

    It seems to me that the trade off in adopting this mindset is the difference between keeping your office door open or closed, in the sense described by Richard Hamming in a public address about his time at Bell Labs, which from his substantial experience seems to have reduced the likelihood of great long-term outcomes at the cost of increased near-term productivity.

    “Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.”

    http://www.paulgraham.com/hamming.html

  21. Sergey says:

    Thanks for once again sharing your thought process here; it is as always vey insightful and fact driven.

    It seems to me that the trade off in adopting this mindset is the difference between keeping your office door open or closed, in the sense described by Richard Hamming in a public address about his time at Bell Labs, which from his substantial experience seems to have reduced the likelihood of great long-term outcomes for the benefit of increased near-term productivity.

    “Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.”

    http://www.paulgraham.com/hamming.html

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