The Benefits of Discovering ‘Deep Work’

Woman doing yoga on the beach
Want to find time to do more of this?

Do you want more time with your family or to fit in that yoga class you keep promising yourself that you’ll join, but you’re always too tired by the end of the day?

How does your average day go? Maybe you’re looking at your emails on your phone as soon as you wake – reaching out to grab your phone whilst it’s still dark or you log on to your computer before the kids wake up just to get in an hour before the day gets hectic. Then there’s the long commute to work, a busy day answering emails and attending meetings, no break for lunch and then the drive back home. Maybe you work evenings and weekends just to keep afloat.  

A different job might be the answer, but finding a new one isn’t always that easy. You’ll probably have to work just as many hours as you do now, unless you’re prepared to do something less responsible and for a lower salary. If you’re trying to save as much as you can on your journey towards financial independence then that isn’t an option that you’ll want to consider.

clock
A way to help you manage your time

So what is an option?

My suggestion is to try to find a way of managing your workload better, so that work stays where it was originally meant to be and only happens between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday.

I expect at this point you’re say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all this before. I know, I just need to be more organised and learn how to plan’. You’re right, those things will help, but I’ve got another idea for you, courtesy of Cal Newport. In his book, ‘Deep Work’ he describes what is a valuable technique in how to really focus to get tasks done. In essence, how to do the same amount of work in a shorter period of time and do it better.  

If you’re a nurse or serve burgers at McDonalds this isn’t going to be for you, as it’s a practice which helps the creative process in the world of what he calls ‘knowledge work’ i.e. for those of us who spend a lot of our workday sitting at a computer.

Neon sign saying do something great
Learn to push yourself and do your work better and quicker

So, what is ‘Deep Work’?

Cal Newport describes it as ‘professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit’. He claims that those individuals who have been influential in society often practise deep work.

In contrast to these people, most of us in the modern world have forgotten the value of deep work. Unfortunately, in our ultra-connected world, the focus has moved away from this valuable work to tasks such as responding to and sending emails, what he would define as shallow work. This is ‘non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted’. He believes that this work doesn’t create much new value in the world.

Cal states that there are two core abilities for thriving in the new economy:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

These two core abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work, which involves :

  1. Focusing your attention tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master. This requires uninterrupted concentration.
  2. Receiving feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
Be Happy sign
Focus on what you like doing, reduce stress and fall in love with your work

The benefits of deep work

As well as enabling you to increase the quantity and quality of your work, Cal believes that if you spend your day focusing deeply on a task you don’t have the capacity to think about irrelevant things or worry about problems.

In contrast, if you spend your day checking your inbox the problems the emails present will remain at the forefront of your mind. By concentrating fully on those things that are important you will experience your working life as more important and positive. In summary, ‘to build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction’.

Next time I will look at Cal’s four rules of how to develop and build the skill of ‘deep work’. If you can’t wait until then listen to him being interviewed by Paula Pant on the Afford Anything podcast.

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How to be More Organised

desk with computer which is very tidy
Learn how to be more organised at work
introduction

For me ‘a simple life’ extends to keeping work simple, to limiting it to between Monday and Friday and between approximately 9am and 5pm. Unfortunately I know that this is easier said than done, but in this article I want to give you some ideas about how you can achieve this. I believe that the key to managing your time is to be more organised.

It seems that we are all expected to be busy nowadays. If you’re like me, when you bump into someone you haven’t seen in a while, the first thing they ask you is, ‘Are you busy?’ In this situation I feel scared to say that I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I haven’t got enough to keep me occupied, but most of the time I don’t feel overwhelmed by it. I’m not up until 2am writing reports the day before the deadline, unlike some of my fellow workers.

So how do I manage this then? I haven’t got less work than other people, it’s just that I am very organised. I have systems in place to manage my workload and I spend a lot of time planning. Some people would say that I spend too much time planning. The thing is when I’ve got a plan I feel calm. How does this compare to your average working day? Feeling stressed and overstretched? Want to be more organised? Here’s how…

cup of tea and note book
Try to start your day with a plan
Daily planning

How do you plan your days? Do you even plan them at all or do they just happen? My work days are very varied. Sometimes I am at home all day, other times I am out at the door at 8am, going to various appointments and don’t get to sit down at my computer until the afternoon, if at all. When I do get some time to myself though I have a checklist that I go through and I have that checklist written down. It includes tasks such as:

  • complete timesheet
  • reflect on previous day and note tasks arising
  • check voicemails
  • check emails
  • allocate tasks a slot on my calendar

On most days I get at least an hour to do this at some point. What this means is that I don’t end up for example having to fill in my timesheet days or weeks late when I can’t actually remember what hours I worked on that day. It doesn’t become a chore. It takes a few seconds at the beginning and end of the day and it’s done. I don’t forget about a message someone left on my phone. If I went to a meeting the day before then a task I add to my list is to write up my notes.

What are the tasks that you need to do every day? Do you sometimes forget them and find yourself trying to catch up later on? Take a few minutes to make a checklist of those daily tasks that you can refer to every day. It really will help you to be more organised.

Make all your phone calls at once
How to keep track of your tasks

So, how do you remember all your tasks? Thanks to the book ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen I’ve developed a task sheet. It has sections for phone calls, emails, notes to write up, documents to read. The idea behind this is that instead of flitting from one type of task to the other it is easier to make all of your phone calls in one go or send your emails one after the other. On many days I am out and about between meetings and sitting in my car. I can look at my task list to see what calls I need to make and do those whilst I have time to kill. Other, lengthier tasks, I’ll save for when I am sitting at a desk.

What tasks do you have to do on a regular basis? Do you make your lists on scrappy bits of paper that you can’t find when you need them. If you want to be more organised develop a task list with sections for each type of task. You can either print your lists out and throw them away once you’re done with them or keep it electronically and keep updating it.

Open diary on a desk with a yellow pencil
Forward planning is priceless if you want to be more organised
Weekly and monthly planning

Years ago, I went on a training course about planning. It was a two-day course, with day one and day two being several months apart so that we could try to implement the recommendations and then return later in the year to review how we were getting on. What I learnt from that course is that it’s not just enough to have a to do list, you have to put time aside in your diary to undertake those tasks. In fact, I came across an episode of The Life Coach School recently entitled ‘Throw away your to do list’. Brooke Castillo talked about this exact thing. Take your to-do list, diarise each task and then throw away your list.

We all have deadlines. My job involves writing reports, one at the beginning and one at the end of the project. For the initial ones I don’t always have a lot of notice, but for the final ones I know six months in advance when they will be due. I can also pretty much guess what other tasks I’ll have to do to gather information for the report.

Each week I review where I am on different projects and put aside time in my diary several months in advance for any meetings that I need to arrange and to write the report. Now, I don’t always stick exactly to the time and day, but I know roughly what I’ll have to do over that week. It also means that I won’t miss anything nearer the time. I won’t sit down to write my report and think, ‘I should have met with so and so’, because I’d have diarised it and done it before the slot for report writing was in my diary. It also allows me to see how much work I’ll have in a certain month and if the manager is trying to give me something new to work on I can show how many other commitments I have at that time.

Every week I try to look at the following week, which should already have appointments pencilled in, and book those meetings. When the week arrives then I add the other day-to-day things such as making calls and typing up notes.

Want to put this into practice and be more organised? Are there tasks that you know will be coming up over the next few months, even though you don’t know exactly when? Allocate time in your diary for them. Even if you have to move them around it will give you an idea of how much work you’ll have on over that period of time. Attend regular meetings for which you need to prepare? Put an hour aside several days before each meeting to do so. Make a monthly mileage claim? Again, schedule this into your diary so that you don’t end up waiting months for that money you’re owed.

The word email on white tiles with a grey background
Do you ever turn these off?
Being Effective

There is also the question of focus. When you have to prepare a report how well are you able to concentrate on it? For some ideas I would suggest having a read of my two posts on Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’:

You could also listen to him being interviewed by Paula Pant on the ‘Afford Anything Podcast:

The basics that I gleaned from the interviews were that in this world of instant responses and the temptation of social media, in order to be able to be productive you need to disconnect yourself from all of that. He recommends turning off your email alerts, putting your phone in another room and basically reducing distractions as much as possible.

All of this may be very difficult if you work in an open plan office, of which Cal is not a fan. If you can reduce distractions, he then recommends practising ‘deep work’ by setting a timer for say 30 minutes and trying to immerse yourself in the work you need to do for that period of time. After 30 minutes you can check your emails or your phone. It might be a good idea to get up from your computer. You could make a cup of tea, or if like me you are at home, hang out the washing.

Now, I don’t want to sound as though I am perfect as there are times when I think that I could be more organised, when I have worked on the weekend, but they are few and far between. Usually they are before or after annual leave. Unfortunately, in my job, there is no one else to pick up your tasks whilst you are off, therefore if you have a deadline for a report in the middle of your holiday that report needs to get written before you go away. Apart from that, as I said, life is simple. Work happens on weekdays and rarely extends past 6pm. That way I can enjoy my early mornings, my evenings and my weekends. Work feels just a part of my life and I have time for plenty of other activities.

So, if you want to be more organised, have a think about how to plan your working life better. What do you struggle with at work? What tips do you have for others who have a busy schedule? Let me know if you want more information about anything that I have written. I’d be happy to help.

Advantages of the Public Sector

I have just finished ‘Financial Freedom’ by Grant Sabatier. Like many other financial independence bloggers he recommends ‘hacking your 9-5’. Often this involves asking your boss for a rise. If, like me, you work in the public sector, this is not an option. The only way of getting more money is to apply for another position, doing something different. Alternatively, you could move to another organisation or leave the public sector altogether. Neither of those are options that I want to consider, so I’m probably going to be where I am until I retire.

This post is therefore about what I see as the benefits of my job and how I can make the most of them. If you also work in the public sector I hope that it may give you some ideas about how to take advantage of your 9-5 benefits on your way to FIRE.  

Remote working makes the commute a distant memory

Working at home

This is not possible every day as my responsibilities involve visiting people and attending meetings, but very often, if I am just sitting at a computer, then it is at home. Working at home equals no commute. In the morning I therefore have plenty of time for reading, exercise, meditation and breakfast – all of the things that I like to do before starting my work day. If I get up at 6am, which I have been doing recently, despite Mr Simple’s complaining, then I have three whole hours to myself before I have to start work – a luxury.

Many jobs could be done at home, but often it is the mindset of the organisation that prevents this. Strangely it seems that being seen sitting at one’s desk is regarded as a measure that one is being productive, whereas in my experience trying to get work done in a busy office is a challenge. I tick off more of my to-do list at home, even if I take breaks occasionally to hang up the washing or answer the door when a parcel is delivered.

I believe that it is always worth asking the question. The worst that can happen is that they say no. Even working at home one day a week can give you some extra precious hours. Then it’s up to you how you spend them – exercising, reading a good book or working on your side hustle.

Car allowance

I feel frustration when I hear time and again the suggestion that in order to get to FI quicker you need to move nearer work and get rid of your car. Even if I moved to within a mile of my office I would still need a car as my job involves visiting members of the public. The necessity of having a car is reflected in the receipt of a monthly allowance and a good mileage rate. I don’t ringfence this allowance for sole allocation to car costs, but if I did, over several years it would make up the large part of a new (well new to me) vehicle.

Pension

I have a defined benefit pension which I can take from aged 55. Due to having not had a full-time job until I was 32 my pension pot isn’t enormous, but DB pensions seem to be few and far between, so I need to count myself very lucky. My employer also contributes much more to my pension than I do.

Take advantage of being able to plan your own diary

Managing my diary myself

A lot of the time I get to choose what I do on what days. I plan my supermarket shopping day when I pass through the nearest fair-sized town. This means that I don’t make a special journey in order to do the shopping. Sometimes I do the shopping over my lunch hour if I have time between visits. This means that I am not battling the rest of the population at the checkout at 6pm.

Generous annual leave

I have been amazed to read American FI blogs stating that in the US workers only get two weeks of annual leave as I get six. It’s so many that I don’t always get around to taking them all, particularly as we are trying to save money on holidays. An idea came to me when thinking about how best to use my allowance and I thought that maybe I could book the occasional day off to work on a side hustle or my blog or any other way that I can think of to make money. So if you get plenty of annual leave how could you use some of those days to help you get closer to your goals?

Hopefully that’s given you some ideas to chew over if you also work in the public sector.

I’m sure that there are plenty of others so please feel free to comment and let me know what they are.

I would love to hear your ideas.