flickr-4973600989_0a3347fe2b_zJust for fun, I’ve been reading Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, and that’s got me thinking about changing habits in the New Year.  For those of you who do not know this book, it’s a humorous take on knowing your life is a complete mess and vowing to do everything differently…until life intervenes. I think that’s what all of us tend to do with New Year resolutions that cannot even survive even 24 hours.

Every year clients vow to become more productive and waste less time, but it rarely proves possible. One reason is excessive demands easily lead to burnout.  A relatively new book Deep Work (published January 2016) by Cal Newport, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, is making a big splash by advocating the need for less distraction and more concentration to get better results in less time and lists his rules to become more focused.

This is not a new idea.


You can actually go back centuries to find such sentiments in the philosophy of Confucius (551 B.C. – 479 B.C.): “Do not be desirous of having things done quickly. Do not look at small advantages. The desire to have things done quickly prevents them being done thoroughly. Looking at small advantages prevents great affairs from being accomplished.”

Warren Buffett, CEO, Berkshire Hathaway said this in a 2015 interview: “I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think. That is very uncommon in American business. I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking and make fewer impulse decisions, than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.”

Others who advocated immersion in one thing at a time include George Leonard (1992) rules for mastery includes “intentionality” by maintaining a clear vision (focus) of where you are trying to go by “keeping your mind in the game.” David Allen in Getting Things Done (2001) discusses the myths of multitasking including an increase in the numbers of errors made; and “The multi-tasking paradox: perceptions, problems, and strategies,” (2006) by Steven H. Appelbaum, Adam Marchionni and Arturo Fernandez, provided a literature review of the “pitfalls of multitasking” from 1984 through 2005 stating in their abstract: “In essence, in an information economy, task completion by knowledge workers to a set deadline may be counterproductive to the interests of the organization as a whole.”

Multi-tasking myth

It turns out that multi-tasking is really “multi-switching” and your brain cannot handle more than one intellectual task at a time.  Yes, you can fold laundry and mentally write your next paragraph, but only because the one task is considered “mindless.”

As Tony Schwartz put it in a 2014 opinion piece, “The way we’re working isn’t working.” He quotes Luke Kissam of Albemarle specialty chemical company, “I just felt that no matter what I was doing, I was always getting pulled somewhere else. It seemed like I was always cheating someone — my company, my family, myself. I couldn’t truly focus on anything.” Many studies have looked at the rise of digital technology as one factor, the constant new flood of information, as part of the problem in sustaining focus on the most important tasks.

This is where Cal Newport comes in, defining deep work as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” He divides his book into two parts, arguing that deep work is increasingly rare but truly meaningful, and can be economically valuable. He then offers rules for achieving deep work that includes minimizing distractions, especially by turning off social media. His simple formula for achieving high quality is (time spent) x (intensity). Deep work is not incompatible with collaborative work: much like many ideas can flow from an interactive meeting, the real labor gets done when people leave and work on their own assigned tasks.

Newport also recommends many of the things I have advocated in previous posts: creating rituals to perform your most important work, providing yourself a habitual time to work on it every day (even if for a limited amount of time), giving yourself “down time” to process information after sustained periods of deep work, and turning off all distractions like email, Facebook and Twitter.  Or as I like to say, “Turn off all your weapons of mass distraction.” You don’t have to turn off “network tools” forever: Social media can be used during down time or taking care of small administrative tasks to give yourself a break.  But at the end of any given day, turn completely off to allow your subconscious to surface ideas that might not otherwise get your attention. These steps can actually help you be more productive.


If you can focus on what you truly enjoy, whether it is writing, research, teaching, administration, or any other creative work, it will energize you rather than leave you drained.

Vlad Denic is a personification of the deep work concept.  Profiled in The Scientist (December 2016) as “failing successfully” by going his own way for seven years in graduate school and pursuing ideas related to “determining very long-chain fatty acid length,” he devised his own innovative experiments with enzymes. After the 2007 publication of his work on this topic, he landed a faculty position with Harvard in 2008.  He now heads a lab at Harvard investigating other cellular processes and is now trading ideas with scientists at Google’s Calico, the biotech venture launched to study the biology of aging.

OK, not everyone can manage or afford seven years of graduate school, or claim this level of success from concentrating on deep work.  It’s also true that organizations do not necessarily reward such behavior. Knowledge work is not always a product, but it may produce a solution to a vexing problem.  Think about Sherlock Holmes sitting in his chair with fingers steepled until he solved a murder by determining both motive and method.

I believe deliberate attention will keep you mindful of what is important. It may someday lead to a greater contribution in your field than you can anticipate now. Doing less but more intensely through the practice of deep work can help tame the myth of “busyness” enhancing productivity. Practitioners in disciplines from anthropology to zoology have found managing their concentration time leads to greater, not lesser, life/work balance. You will also end each day happier and more fulfilled.

What a great prescription for getting your New Year off to a good start!

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