Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Concentrated Life

As MrsDarwin mentioned in her post about hot water (or the lack thereof) I had to make a sudden business trip this week. The last two days saw me at a company which was recently acquired by my employer, spending all my time trying to get the data about their pricing and discounting programs sorted out. This resulted in a very different work day than my usual routine.

On a typical day back at the main office, I'd spend 4-5 hours out of 9 in meetings, and the rest of my day in sections of an hour or less between meetings working on various short tasks or helping direct my team on the tasks of the day. Often, I'll find myself with 5-15 minutes free and end up using the team to read around and/or deal with email, because there's not enough time to really get into a major task. At the end of the day I invariably feel both exhausted and simultaneously like I haven't got much done.

During this trip I've been working longer hours, having only two days to deal with the tasks at hand and also not having a family to get back to in the evening. Yesterday I put in ten hours at the office, then went back to my hotel after dinner and worked till midnight. But all of this work has been on just one project. When I met with people, it was to get questions answered on the one project taking up my attention all day. And somehow, despite the longer, harder work (or perhaps because of it) I've come away from work each day feeling much less drained than usual.

By coincidence, as I was getting ready to leave MrsDarwin handed over to me a library book she'd just finished with, saying that she thought I might find it useful since it was more focused on business than she'd expected. I've read about half of Cal Newport's Deep Work now, and its basic thesis is that for "knowledge workers" to excel it's important to get away from distractions and devote themselves entirely to one thing at a time -- something that the normal frenetic pace of office and online culture does not allow for. He maintains that "deep work" is both more productive and also more inherently satisfying.

Overall, these couple days seem like something of a confirmation. My normal job requires that I spend a fair amount of time in meetings, directing other people and projects rather than doing things myself, but it would be interesting to see if I can move a bit more in the direction of Newport's "deep work" in my normal day to day.


bearing said...

I relate to this sooooo much. It feels like a mini-vacation when I can arrange things so that I work on 1 thing for 4-6 hours straight. (I have to be careful not to let that feeling fool me into never taking an actual break by, say, spending all my Sundays organizing closets. Or fool me into thinking that anything I spent 4-6 hours on must have been a productive use of time.)

Rob Alspaugh said...

Do you know if/how teaching fits into Newport's idea of deep work? I'm curious (just not curious enough to get the book...). In some sense I suppose I do move from task to task every hour or so, but it sure doesn't feel like it. It feels like a continuous activity that leaves me utterly spent at the end of the day, but that's at least as much down to the performance aspect of teaching as it is the cognitive aspect.

By contrast, my administrative work in the summer is superficially similar to your office life: lots of little tasks that individually don't take much out of me but add up to a steady drain. The difference for me is that I love how relaxing that is...I'm nowhere near as tired at the end of a summer day despite often leaving work later. I'm way more fun to be around (uh...I think) between June and August than any other time of year.

Darwin said...


Sorry for the slow response.

The only times he seems to talk about teaching are as a distraction from doing deep work -- which I guess is pretty typical of a certain type of university professor. In his own life and those of other university academics, he talks about segregating class work into only times of day or of the year so that the rest of the time can be spent doing "deep work" on finishing a dissertation / writing a book / writing papers for publication / doing research.

I suppose, to be honest, within his framework you could debate whether the work I was doing was truly deep work. It wasn't the more meeting/administrative focused work that I normally do, and it did involve building a small database and figuring out how to to do some data transformations. But it wasn't creating some sort of lasting intellectual work or achieving some new breakthrough in the field.

It seems to me that although his book is focused on a definition of deep work which assumes you're doing major intellectual lifting or writing a major research or creative work, there's also some sort of distinction to be made between doing concentrated core work and getting bogged down in stuff emails and distractions.