Draining the Shallows

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that I’ve been making my way through Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’. So far I’ve given you a general overview and introduced you to his first two rules – ‘Work Deeply‘ and ‘Embrace Boredom‘. There are four rules in total, the third of which is ‘Quit Social Media’. This title pretty much speaks for itself – limit the amount of time that you spend on your smartphone. I’m therefore just going to skip to the final rule which is ‘Drain the Shallows’.

In this chapter Cal says that if you eliminate shallow work and replace this recovered time with more of the deep alternative, not only will your business continue to function, it can become more successful. Basically if you’ve been wasting alot of time scrolling through Instagram, when you stop doing that don’t then use that extra time to watch TV. Instead do something useful to move you towards your goals. So what are his ideas for achieving this?

Plan your schedule for every day ahead of time
schedule every minute of your day

I know what you’re thinking, that’s so boring, but I honestly believe that it is life-changing. Cal believes that we spend much of our life on autopilot, not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. I see this so often. People’s days lack any structure. Then all of a sudden that report is due tomorrow and they’re up all night writing it. Their life goes through peaks and troughs. They lurch from one crisis to the next, instead of being on an even keel. That may sound boring, but I can tell you, it’s a lot less stressful.

Cal recommends dividing the hours in your work day into blocks, assigning activities to each block. The minimum length of a block should be 30 minutes. The block tasks should be generic and you then make a separate list of the full set of small tasks that you plan to accomplish in that block. The life coach Natalie Bacon would say that you shouldn’t write “work on article”, but should say, “write 1000 words of article”. In other words, quantify the task that you want to have achieved at the end of that block.

How can you guarantee that you’ll allow enough time to achieve a task? You probably won’t at first, but you will get better as you go along. You will also have tasks that crop up unexpectedly. It’s rare than someone has a job which is entirely predictable. So, even though you’re going to write yourself a schedule, it needs to be flexible and you may have rewrite it as you go along.

I have recently moved to having only an electronic calendar and it makes this so easy. There’s no more messy paper diary with lots of crossing out. All my tasks and appointments are given slots on my calendar and as the week goes on they get moved around. Sometimes I put off a task until the following week. Other times, if something is cancelled, instead of wasting the space that’s been created I can easily see what I planned to do tomorrow and bring something forward.

Divide your day into activity blocks
Cal’s tips for scheduling
  • Over time you will get better at predicting how many blocks tasks require
  • Use overflow blocks – allocate the expected time a task will take, then follow this with a block that has a split purpose
  • Be liberal with your use of task blocks – lots of things come up in the day. Having regularly occurring blocks of time to address these surprises keeps things running smoothly. I have two 30 minute blocks a day where I deal with emails and make calls. Sometimes these get extended and other days they are shortened. I also use this time to create new blocks in my calendar for tasks that arise.
Work out what is ‘deep work’ and the rest is ‘shallow’
quantify the depth of every activity

Once you have a schedule you can determine how much time you’re actually spending in shallow activities. To determine whether a task is deep or shallow ask yourself:

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent graduate with no specialised training in my field to do this task?

Once you know where your activities fall on the deep-to-shallow scale, try to make more time for deep work and reduce the amount of shallow activities that you do.

Try to get guidance from your boss about deep work
Ask Your Boss for a shallow work Budget

Ask yourself or your boss:

What percentage of my time should be spent on shallow work?

Settle on a specific answer and try to stick to this. Obeying this budget will likely require changes to your behaviour e.g. saying no to some projects, having more mornings where you turn off all communication e.g. emails and your phone. You may decide it’s not as important as you once thought to respond quickly and in detail to every email that crosses your inbox. If your amount of shallow work increases over the limit you’ve set, your boss should agree to you saying no to things.

Cal comments that it’s incredibly wasteful to pay highly trained professionals to do things such as send email messages. When I read this I wanted to copy it to my management team as I spend a lot of time doing administrative tasks, as do many people in the public sector. I always feel that it is such a waste of me as a resource. Someone on the minimum wage, with half a day’s training, could do some of the tasks that I have to regularly complete. I feel that I could be a much more effective employee if these tasks were reallocated.

Your desk should be clear by 5.30pm
Finish Your work by Five Thirty

Cal calls this ‘fixed-schedule productivity’ – fixing a firm goal of not working past a certain time. I think nowadays many people are very poor at this. I think that it’s a result of a couple of factors. Firstly, many people do have too much work, but there are those who do seem to manage their time better than others. I think there’s also something ego-boosting about feeling that you have to be available all of the time. It’s like saying that your work couldn’t run without you, when in fact that’s probably not the case. I am definitely a fan of turning your work phone off at 5pm and on a Friday it stays off until Monday morning.

Email and instant messages makes us too available – you need to learn to manage it
Become Hard to Reach

Finally Cal gives a few tips for dealing with emails:

  1. Make people who send you email do more work e.g. sender filter laying out expectations e.g. I don’t always reply.
  2. Do more work when you send or reply to emails. Give full replies with specifics e.g. meet up times and locations to reduce the amount of emails back and fore. Each email will take more time, but save you time in the long run.
  3. Don’t respond

So there we are. If you’re like me and still in work, but doing all of it from home, you may have some more time to reflect on how you’re managing your work day. How about putting some of these suggestions into practice? You may find that if you put them in place now, once life gets back to normal you’ll be more productive than you were before.

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