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I have been researching productivity for many years at this point. It’s a wide-ranging topic that could quickly spiral into a 10-hour podcast. So I’m going to focus on one particular facet in today’s episode- Deep work.
Deep work is getting more and more difficult to achieve due [00:01:00] to a variety of factors. So I hope today is to introduce you or reacquaint you to the principles of deep work. We’ll also talk about a few strategies to implement more deep work in your practice and your life. Let’s do it.
As we begin our discussion of deep work, I want to say right off the bat that many of the ideas here come from the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. Cal Newport is a fantastic author. He has written many books on productivity and focus. Deep Work is one of the big ones. He also wrote A World Without Email [00:02:00] which is a very enticing title to me and many of you, I’m guessing, but great writer, good strategies, and research-backed. So check him out if you are interested in this topic in general.
Let’s do some background. Let’s talk about what Deep work even is.
Deep work is professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. Sounds pretty good, right? Just stop for a second and think, how often do you get to do that kind of work? For me, it’s less than I would like.
Now, the opposite is shallow work or multitasking. So non [00:03:00] cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. These are things like email, checking social media, and stuff like that.
So why are we struggling? Deep work is hard. He makes a case along with others that we are having an increasingly difficult time engaging in deep work. And according to Cal, the rise of network tools is a big part of this.
Network tools are things like email, text, social media, infotainment sites like Buzzfeed, Reddit to some degree, smartphones, the [00:04:00] notifications that come along with them, chat, slack, and all that stuff. They are eating into our time. They’re eating into time where we would otherwise have spent without these distractions.
So if you are struggling with this, you are not alone. It’s very hard to avoid distractions of these types. They are everywhere. That’s why it’s so revolutionary that he could even title a book, A World Without Email because to think of such a world just seems insane.
A point that he makes that is worth highlighting is that unfortunately, if we spend too much time in shallow work where we’re distracted and multitasking and checking one thing or the other and tasks switching rapidly, spending too much time in that environment actually reduces your capacity to do deep [00:05:00] work even when you want to.
I don’t know if any of you have experienced this phenomenon where you sit down and you’re ready to dive deep into some research or read a book before you go to bed and then you get into it for a couple minutes, maybe five minutes, maybe 10 minutes, and then you feel this urge to do something else. You get an itchy brain. That’s not your fault exactly. That’s something happening in your brain that makes it hard to sink in and actually do deep work.
Another reason that he gives is, we have been taken over by this idea of being busy as a proxy for productivity. So engaging in all these activities: [00:06:00] answering email, answering chats, working on “work” but it’s pretty shallow work. It makes it seem like you’re getting things done and it’s not completely useless. It’s not empty, but it’s definitely not deep work. It’s not moving the world forward most of the time. It’s not increasing your skill or creating new value, but a lot of us get sucked into that. We spend tons of time on email and other such tasks and feel productive when we’re not actually doing much.
If you’re a testing psychologist, I would argue the one thing you should be doing within the bounds of what we typically do is writing good reports. And even within writing good reports, you shouldn’t be filling scores into tables. You shouldn’t be writing explanations for [00:07:00] what a test measures. You should be doing the conceptualization and summary and recommendations. That’s the deep work. So busyness as a proxy for productivity.
The last point I will highlight here about why we are struggling and why this is important is because there is something called the Zeigarnik effect. What this means is, or what this refers to is the idea that we feel restless when tasks are unfinished and yet when we are trying to multitask, we’re essentially just doing a bunch of unfinished tasks that stick with us and continue to make us restless and distracted.
I think of this as the unclosed loops phenomenon. Other authors have talked about how human beings like to close loops. We don’t like things to remain [00:08:00] open or ambiguous or unfinished, and this is very true. So when you have a bunch of tabs open, or you start something, or you look up an idea without finishing it, or start surfing the internet and then stop halfway through, it’s disrupting your concentration to a terrible degree because you’re leaving all these unclosed loops.
Related to that is this concept of attention residue. Now, y’all may have heard this term, but attention residue is basically the idea that, well not the idea of, the fact that when we switch tasks, even if we complete one task and move to another, the simple act of task switching leaves an attention residue that makes us have a harder time focus on the new task or the thing we’re trying to pay attention [00:09:00] to. So all in all, task switching is not good, especially not good if you’re not finishing the task that you are trying to finish.
Quick summary there. Let’s move to strategies.
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All right, let’s get back to the podcast.
What are some strategies to increase the frequency and likelihood of deep work?
Well, generally speaking, you want to organize your days around the most [00:10:00] important tasks. For us, like I said, this is typically report writing, specifically the conceptualization part. For some of us, it might be research, potentially client time- though that’s not necessarily exactly deep work.
So you want to organize your days around those important tasks and then push the less important tasks to the periphery. For me, email is not super important. Doing internet research around any number of random topics, not super important to my work. Chatting, checking social media, not really that important. So pushing those tasks to the periphery.
For some folks, this might mean doing an hour of email in the morning and then forgetting it for the rest of the day. For some, it might mean doing email at the end of the day.[00:11:00] That tends to be the approach that I take because for me and my circadian rhythm, so to speak, I do my best work in the morning and I want to save all of the brain power that I can for the most important work. Email does not deserve my brain power, period. So I push it to the end of the day.
If that makes you restless, you can always inject a little half hour in the middle of the day. The core idea here is that you want to organize your days around your most important tasks and prioritize those most important tasks.
Then you want to decide on a strategy for how you want to commit to this work.
For a lot of us, there are a few different strategies. He talks about a monastic strategy where you are basically completely sequestered for long periods of time working on [00:12:00] one thing or another. I’m talking like months or maybe like forever. He gave an example of a professor who doesn’t have an email address and checks his paper mail once every quarter. I don’t think we have to go that extreme.
He also talks about a bimodal strategy, which has worked well for me in the past. Maybe works well for some of you. That strategy basically involves an ebb and flow when you’re in deep work for a week, and then you’re in shallow work for a week. And the interval could be whatever you want it to be. It might be three days and three days. It might be two weeks and two weeks, whatever. But it’s this idea that you’re switching between deep work and shallow work on relatively lengthy intervals but not as long as a quarter or a year necessarily.
The other option that might make more sense for a lot of us is a [00:13:00] rhythmic strategy, which is more a strategy of creating deep work time on a daily basis. Now, since my roles have shifted in my practice, this is the approach that I tend to take these days where I will create deep work periods. I try to do at least three times a week but sometimes that’s challenging.
That’s the point though. You decide on a strategy and whatever fits best for your schedule knowing that that might change. You experiment with one and then you experiment with another and do it differently.
Let’s see. The next step is to ritualize it. So you schedule it. You schedule it, you do it the same, and you make it consistent. So put it on your calendar. Get a routine. Limit the decisions you have to make and just do it. Make it easy.
This is one [00:14:00] place where that book Atomic Habits might come into play where he talks about habit formation. And I think that’s very relevant here. I have a routine for when I get to the office and what I do and my checklist to get set up for deep work. And it’s relatively ingrained at this point.
Another component of deep work is to consider a partner. Partners can help keep us accountable and partners can help us stay focused. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this on the podcast before, but I did mention it in the Facebook group two months ago. There’s a service called Focusmate that basically lets you sign up and get I think three sessions a week with a partner where you don’t have any [00:15:00] responsibility to that person.
You both just log on and you do the work you want to do in silence if you prefer, and just know that you’re going to have an accountability partner for that time. It’s free for three sessions a week, and you can pay if you want to do more. There’s a link in the show notes. If you’d like to check that out, it’s called Focusmate. Something like that could be helpful. If you don’t want to do that, you can have a real partner, but there are a few components that are helpful with this.
It helps build deep work blocks into your schedule 2 to 3 hours at a time. It’s important to turn off all of your notifications. That way you are just there doing your work. You’re not distracted. You can use a web [00:16:00] restriction software. There’s one called Blocksite and there’s one called RescueTime. These are pieces of software that will actively block websites and keep you from searching or going on the internet where you don’t want to go.
You can also make it really clear that you’re in a deep work period and not to be disturbed. So if you put it as a meeting on your calendar and you can enter have a meeting with your “partner”, then You just told coworkers you’re in a deep work period.
Now the next and last level I’m going to talk about is downtime or even deeper work. I’ve talked about the concept of a think week on the podcast before where you go away with relatively little agenda and just give yourself time to be [00:17:00] bored and creative and think about things, but you can even go bigger. You can do a think month, you could do a sabbatical.
So there are options out there if you want to take this even further, but I think just to start out, like with anything that you’re trying to start or do differently, you don’t have to set the expectation super high unless you are attempting what Cal Newport calls a grand gesture. And that’s where you turn everything off, you leave your life, and you go to a cabin in the woods for a month purposefully to do something really important. But you don’t have to do that.
When I talk with my consulting clients, we will work on just creating one two-hour block each week that they know they will not be disturbed and can focus on a big [00:18:00] project. And that’s okay. If that’s where you start, that’s where you start.
So if you’d like to learn more and really dive deep into this, I would recommend the book Deep Work and any of his other books. If you’re finding yourself distracted and having a hard time getting into Deep Work, you are not alone, but there are some strategies to help out. And I hope that you might try to implement some of those and do that important work that you are meant to do. We got these degrees for a reason. We have this knowledge for a reason. We didn’t get a Ph.D. to answer emails all day and go on social media. So share your light with the world, shine like you’re meant to.
All right. I’m done for today. Thank y’all.
All right. y’all. Thank you so much for tuning into this episode. Always grateful to have you here. I hope that you take away some [00:19:00] information that you can implement in your practice and in your life. Any resources that we mentioned during the episode will be listed in the show notes so make sure to check those out. If you like what you hear on the podcast, I would be so grateful if you left a review on iTunes or Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcast.
And if you’re a practice owner or aspiring practice owner, I’d invite you to check out The Testing Psychologist mastermind groups. I have mastermind groups at every stage of practice development: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. We have homework. We have accountability. We have support. We have resources. These groups are amazing. We do a lot of work and a lot of connecting. If that sounds interesting to you, you can check out the details at thetestingpsychologist.com/consulting. You can sign up for a pre-group phone call and we will chat and figure out if a group could be a good fit for you. Thanks so much.
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