Deep Work Part 3: Are you on the right path?

In the last two articles, we learned about deep work and dividing it into two separate tasks. We understood that deep work is best done in physical environments that are special, and perhaps with a few rituals. What we have not yet explored is the “how” to work deeply. This question is different to the “what” work I have to do. You know what work you have to do, but how are you going to do it?

Let me warn you. It takes time to do this, and you will make a few corrections along the way. I also am aware of my privileged position in determining my own time, working environment and the work I need to do. It will be even more of a challenge if you work in a team, on a project, in a busy office. It will require coordination and goodwill from all those involved.

I will use my own experience to highlight Newport’s ideas. For the sake of context, I am a freelancer. That means I teach (which is my source of revenue), plan, market, sell, do admin, and live a life outside of work. My day, too, has 24 hours. I decided to use the pandemic in 2020-21 to change my business model and client base. As I write these lines, I am at “ground zero” in a financially challenging year.

I started to categorise all my work into shallow and deep tasks and then prioritise them. Identifying deep tasks is the first step, and here Newport suggests “focus on the wildly important”. It is easy to say, everything is important. But, as he writes, “the more you do, the less you accomplish”. Instead, you need to set yourself a few very ambitious goals.

I quickly identified several deep tasks. These are writing for a new version of the Brida Journal and planning a whole new set of programmes. It is part of my overall strategy to take the project to a new level.  All this resulted from the change in my market conditions due to the pandemic.

You will remember that I am gradually allocating Mondays as my day of deep work. It meant a 20% potential loss in teaching and revenue time. As it happens, Monday is not the best teaching day, so the loss is manageable. But it still needs to be compensated over the remaining four days.

Having identified my important deep tasks, I needed to resist the temptation to do everything on a Monday. Deep Work requires concentration. After anywhere between 2 to 4 hours, the brain starts to protest. We will come to the training of the brain later. The only way I could manage my deep tasks was to allocate time blocks to them and stretch this over a longer period of time. It is the first step in making those “wildly important” priorities and finding the best time to do them.

After working through the tasks and estimating how much time I would invest in each task, I ended up with a sheet of paper divided into weeks to the end of October. Without any historical data to orient me with, I allocated several hours to a task. We know this planning from project management.

To make this clearer, let me take one of the tasks I had envisaged. In 2020-2021, a client called Geneviève and I decided to write a series of articles following the 2020 Tour de France. It was a mammoth project resulting in 17 articles individually researched, written, published and an audio version made. In the beginning, I also created lesson worksheets for each text.  By the end, we both were glad it was over. However, I still had to edit and rework several articles long after we had rolled down the Champs Elysées and had embarked on another project. By July, I had these 17 articles, of which I had only processed about 50 % with accompanying worksheets. Originally, I thought of self-publishing all this material in a book. Perhaps, Geneviève would like it as a souvenir of our race around France.

Newport recommends setting yourself an “ambitious goal”. Without any other reason than that it looked good, I set myself the goal to rework the whole project by the end of September 2021. I allocated a total of 22 hours on several Mondays. But why? I might have a beautiful product, like our blacksmith in the first article. But, what to do with it?

In the second step, Newport describes the metrics which we can use in Deep Work. Suddenly, the project takes on a new dimension because it needs to be measured. We start giving it more sense. It makes it meaningful, practical, and worthwhile.

Newport describes two types of measurements. The first is “lag measurement”, which are metrics for the work done. The other is “lead measurement”, which are metrics resulting from the work you will do. It highlights one constraint. Time is a limited resource, and if you add a figure to it, you quickly arrive at the question, is the task worth doing?

In my Tour de France example, the lag measurement was the time invested in doing the course. As it was an English course, the calculation is simple. We multiply the number of allocated hours by the course fee. The result is not just the lessons. It is also the physical result (articles, audio files and perhaps, a book). However, when I look at this project from the “lead measurement” perspective, everything changes. Taking my 22 hours, applying the maximum fee I charge, I arrive at a figure of well over €1000 in costs. Would I be able to recoup those costs in book sales or a repeat of the 2020 Tour de France course? I doubt it. I also know my client. She is happy with the experience of having done the project. The book would not provide any significant added value for her. The deep work investment would be a waste of my resources, and it would not be meaningful work. I have another couple who would like to do the same project for the 2021 Tour de France. I can use my experience to avoid the mistakes and hopefully deliver a book in September 2022. The lead measurements here are the lag measurements from the 2020 Tour.

This experience raises several questions about the deep work we might have to do. Especially for people who are not lucky to have the freedom of choice, but who have to accept work delegated to them by their bosses. You might not answer these questions for a long time. You may need to observe the situation.

I want to provoke people here by asking the following. Do costs, revenue, and profits drive us so much that we forget about the growth and development of our co-workers? We work in an age of global competition, increased automation, and the need to learn continuously. Do we focus on accepting more work than we can handle only to ensure financial security, and without providing for the right environment to ensure it is completed “at an elite level”?  

When a manager delegates work that needs a deep work approach (without any distractions), meaningfulness quickly arises. A task can only be meaningful if it makes sense to the person executing it. Usually, it is fulfilling a client’s order and maintain financial security. That is the standard argument. But how are tasks distributed? Does management distribute it to those who are already at 100 % capacity?  Or does management distribute work in a more meaningful way by considering a growth path, a development path for each employee? Large organisations have an HR department that can monitor such employee progress. But have projects replaced work and a career path, which had a built-in personal growth component?

Assuming you can escape to a quiet place to fulfil the task, is the timeframe realistic? When “multi-tasking” or juggling several deep work tasks, what are the criteria? What is “wildly important”, what are the lag and lead measures? Discussing these as a team could be the first step in the constant mantra I hear, “we are so busy.”

When I removed the 2020 Tour de France rework project from my to-do list, I felt an enormous sense of relief. The task was a Deep Work task. But because I could measure the value to both the client and I, I discovered it was the wrong work. It was nice to have, but not “wildly important.”

So, I had a spare 22 hours. What could I do with this time? In the following article, we ask ourselves, why not be lazy?

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