Brownfield Me: Deep Work

Focus and distraction on your terms

Maybe you’ve noticed recently, or a long time ago, that getting stuff done just isn’t so easy anymore. Redoubling efforts doesn’t seem to make up the gap. Intentions and expectations are lowered and still quality or schedules are suffering. It’s not an easy cycle to break, but there are lots of approaches to try!

Many posts on here are about external items to address, areas to attempt to influence or behaviors to model. This brownfield me style post is about self-improvement (or regression) and, in true brownfield fashion, some baby steps to take in the right direction.

What changed?

For me, the biggest phase changes were my laser-focused productive teens, then a break for drinking, and then laser-focused late twenties, and then kids. While my life, sleep schedules, and physical health went through dramatic swings, so did the type of work I was doing and the types of organizations and even style of direct managers and higher-up leaders. There are far too many variables to address, but certain combinations lead to my most productive stretches in terms of output quality and quantity.

Rather than simply hoping for another ultra-productive combination of diet, sleep, exercise routine, type of work, type or organization, charisma of leaders, and temperament of manager or co-workers, I tried some other things. A few of them seemed contingent on other life circumstances. Using a rigorous tasking method like “GTD” didn’t work well for me because it was too tactical. Timing method like Pomodoro technique was okay for low-intensity items but failed for bigger items and was a bit too obvious to not just adapt to ignoring.

If you’re and adherent to either of these methods and it’s working for you, great. If you’ve struggled to keep up with them as a lifestyle, read on.

Suddenly remote changes

The newest classification of disruption to previous effectiveness is related to being forced to work from home. This disruption is hitting all sorts of organizations due to the COVID-19 pandemic and dramatically reducing productivity across the board. People are trying to carve out places in their houses to do what they would have in an office. There is even additional complexity having children home, or co-workers who are impacted this way.

This is a great way to reset your work/life balance and re-orient yourself toward your personal and professional goals.

Deep work

I read the book Deep Work by Cal Newport a few years ago and, though it has its flaws, a few gems fell out that struck me and I adopted into my life. These were the takeaways that I wrote down as soon as I finished the book:

  1. Making a schedule every day and then modifying it as your day progresses to maintain mindful control of your day
  2. Not responding to email, or if you do, make it a long and deep response that outlines the process and talks about the next step
  3. Distraction plays tricks on the brain resulting in more difficulty going deep in general

Cal spends a lot of the book writing about exceptionally focused people but shares a few great data points to help evaluate and schedule a day. In the same way that Hal Higdon’s 5k (to marathon) training provides a format that can be adapted to keep you safe and healthy and achieve your goal. Really, the way that Hal Higdon’s plan works is that you look at your daily planner, look at your calendar, and start scheduling runs. Writing them down, scheduling other activities around them. The run becomes the cornerstone of your day, and then the other stuff fills in around it.

Cal describes an exercise where the reader is asked to write down the things that they expect to do on a given day in great detail. Half or quarter-hour chunks are detailed enough since the cornerstone of this activity is to find two periods of 60 to 90 minutes in your day to abandon everything and just focus on the deep activities.

The most interesting part of this exercise is how much nonsense coordination and collecting of artifacts and background and clearing blockers needs to happen before even 15 deep minutes are possible. I found that preparing for the 90 minutes of uninterrupted time took at least an hour to prep. The hour was spent with a scattershot approach of reaching out to people and google searching. Deliberately spending some time on the scattershot activities versus deep activities is an efficiency multiplier.

Also, before moving on, the book is really great. Cal goes into a lot of type of deep work and how they differ as well as a lot of the techniques to help with daily and weekly organizing.

Being mindful of time and focus

Once you have a way to get a few good deep work sessions in per week, you’ll guard them and spend the rest of the week passively collecting stuff for these periods. Expect that you’ll be completely blocked with meetings or sick kids or other external factors for a few days at times. The other part is to put aside deep time with your family and friends to have uninterrupted fun.

I found that my output increased dramatically when I started to develop mindfulness of where my productive hours were. If I had coffee at 6 am, I’d be productive until my morning commute ended, which was effectively wasted time. If I had coffee at 8 am, I was productive until 11:30 am. Other tricks involved eating lighter meals, working out when scattered, grouping meetings to certain days.

Step 1

Read the book for some details and motivation. It’s a quick read. Audiobook is also an option for those that commute.

Alternatively, dive in with the activity of blocking your day into chunks and trying to assign 60 to 90-minute blocks for productive work. Then try to spend the preceding hour (or moments throughout several hours) arranging all the things needed for the deep work time.

For me, this looks like creating an issue that talks about what I need to do, which includes a checklist of the necessary inputs. Using a checklist to check off all the predecessors and prep items makes it easy to see which issues are ready to be worked on during the next deep period. I do this for blog entries, software development, whitepapers, security evaluation, and other creative activities.

Lining up several of them so that the next block of time has some options is the most effective. At times, the only way to get enough time to flesh out these issues is to spend a block doing it. That’s fine, just sub-optimal.