An Inconvenient Observation
Knowledge workers are bad at working.
I say this because unlike every other skilled labor class in the history of skilled labor, we lack a culture of systematic improvement.
If you’re a professional chess player, you’ll spend thousands of hours dissecting the games of better players.
If you’re a promising young violin player, you’ll attend programs like Meadowmount’s brutal 7-week crash course, where you’ll learn how to wring every last drop of value from your practicing.
If you’re a veteran knowledge worker, you’ll spend most of your day answering e-mail.
As I’ve argued here in my new book, this represents a huge opportunity for knowledge workers. If you can adopt a culture of systematic improvement, similar to what’s common in other skilled fields, you can potentially accelerate your career far beyond your inbox-dwelling, discomfort-avoiding peers (and cultivate passion for your livelihood in the process).
But how do you adopt this approach in your specific job? This is the most common question I’m asked in response to this idea.
In this post, I want to propose a (tentative) answer…
Deep Work (v.1)
Knowledge workers dedicate too much time to shallow work — tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on). This work is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy (there’s something oddly compelling in responding to a question; even if the topic is unimportant).
But this type of work is ultimately empty. We cannot find real satisfaction in efforts that are easily replicatable, nor can we expect such efforts to be the foundation of a remarkable career.
With this in mind, I argue that we need to spend more time engaged in deep work — cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.
Deep work, if made the centerpiece of your knowledge work schedule, generates three key benefits:
- Continuous improvement of the value of your work output.
- An increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.
- Deeper satisfaction (aka., “passion”) for your work.
A working life dedicated to deep work, in other words, is a working life well-lived (a point I argue in detail in Rules 1 and 2 of my book). The question, therefore, is how to integrate deep work into your specific job.
Below I describe four steps for accomplishing this goal in almost any knowledge work profession…
Step #1: Prepare
Deep work is energy intensive. Our brains are stingy when it comes to expending energy, so you shouldn’t expect to casually switch over to a deep work mindset. It helps to instead cultivate a ritual that transitions you from normal shallow work to the deep variety.
This strategy works because it’s easier to convince your mind to do the first step of a simple ritual than to dive straight into intense contemplation. But once a ritual is begun, you’ve engaged your habit circuitry, and can expect to come out on the other side ready to focus.
In my own job as an academic theoretician, for example, this ritual might involve: shutting down my computer, shutting down my overhead lights (leaving on only my desk lamp), brewing a cup of coffee, and putting a “do not disturb” sign on my door.
Step #2: Clarify
Deep work requires a clear image of the outcome you’re seeking and a clear understanding of why it’s valuable. A hazy goal is not enough to sustain your concentration at the needed levels.
Be specific about what success will look like and why that success is important. Keep in mind that it can take a surprising amount of research to define a good goal, so give this step the attention it requires.
In my own job, I’ve found that it’s easy to come up with reasonable sounding problems, but that these problems often fail to hold my attention. In order to achieve consistent deep work, I usually need to first immerse myself in the relevant research literature, seeking a problem that it is recognized as important, unanswered, but probably answerable with my skill set. This is not easy.
Step #3: Stretch
Take your clear overall goal from the previous step and identify the next logical chunk of work (we’re talking about a chunk that can be accomplished in a small number of sessions, whereas the overall goal might take weeks to complete). When you tackle this chunk, push for a result that is beyond — but not too far beyond — what’s comfortable for your current skill level.
This is the cornerstone of the whole philosophy, so let’s take this slow…
If you can breeze through this chunk like you’re cranking a widget, then you’re not stretching yourself enough.
You need to design this chunk to feature enough difficulty that you quickly get stuck. At this point, you should slow down, and advance deliberately, in a state of real mental strain. This is where you might need to bring in expert coaching — e.g., turn to a textbook or ask a colleague.
This stretch is important to: (a) extract the most out of your current abilities; and (b) ensure that your abilities continue to improve.
Finding chunks that require stretch, but are not so hard that you get permanently blocked, is non-trivival, but is also something that will improve with practice. Keep in mind that most knowledge workers implicitly go out of their way to avoid a feeling of stretch at all costs (because it’s uncomfortable and much less fun than replying to some more e-mails) so by seeking it out, you’ve already put yourself on a much more ambitious trajectory.
In my own job, this is where I need the most improvement. I’ve observed that when I’m working on a proof intuition, if the math needed to formalize the idea gets tricky, I flee the strain, mark the intuition as “probably right,” and move on to something else. Step #3 tells me that this is exactly where I need to slow down and move deliberately, embracing the strain generated by reducing intuition to algebra (a process that often sends me back to my basic textbooks or pestering colleagues). This feeling of strain is the feeling of getting better at my profession, which is why I’m dedicating so much attention toward learning to embrace it.
Step #4: Obsess
The nice thing about deep work is that it’s a clear state of mind. You begin a session with a well-defined ritual, you work on a stretch chunk for 1 – 3 hours, then you finish and go rest. This clarity allows you to track how much time you spend in the state. This tracking gives you a number to try to improve.
You’ll be surprised by how little time you naturally spend doing deep work. You’ll also be surprised by how quickly you can increase these numbers once you know what you’re looking for and are keeping track of what you’re doing.
In my own job, I’ve occasionally used an hour tally to keep track of how much time I spend working on hard research projects. I’ve found, however, that this strategy was often too vague, as I could pump up those counts doing what was essentially shallow work related to a hard project. The specificity of the deep work routine described above, however, eliminates such abuses. The only time I now track is the time spent in this state of deep contemplation. If I can increase the time spent in this state, I’m confident that good things will follow.
(Photo by sparre.enger)