By Brett Kana
Much has been written about transitioning from a maker to a manager, but what about the shift from manager to maker? This has been my challenge as I transition from a Project Manager to a UX Designer. Is it possible to cultivate and maintain a great creative mind in today’s interconnected and distraction filled world? Herein lies my quest.
A few weeks into my new role, I knew I needed some help. I was realizing how fundamentally different it is to be a maker instead of a manager. The generative nature of this new role required depth and creativity I hadn’t experienced in more facilitative previous roles as a Business Analyst and Project Manager.
Recalling David Brooks’ line, “Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants,” I knew I needed an industrious and systemic approach towards cultivating depth and creativity. So I turned to the legend in this space, Cal Newport, author of the classic book, Deep Work, who makes a compelling case for why deep work is important now more than ever. He also provides actionable advice and tactics for cultivating a deep work habit, all while sternly warning against the evils of what he calls “shallow work” or network collaboration activities such as email, instant messaging, and meetings.
Now four months into my new role and equipped with Newport’s insights, I plan to share some key takeaways for cultivating deep work, while arguing that some shallow work is still conversely quite valuable, and to offer some practical examples of how I try to balance deep and shallow work in my life.
What is deep work?
Deep work requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking, and is often synonymous with being in a state of flow. Newport argues that in our distraction-obsessed world, deep work is becoming both increasingly rare and increasingly valuable. If time and space for deep work are not deliberately and staunchly protected, we will succumb to the constant pings, emails, tweets, likes, notifications etc., that drown us in a state of “busyness as a proxy for productivity.”
While I wholeheartedly agree that protecting deep work is harder and more important than ever, I can’t help but feel that Newport’s tone towards all network collaboration activities is a tad dismissive and lacking in nuance. Sure, no one likes unnecessary meetings, and email and IM can easily eat up your day if not carefully moderated, but that’s not to say that all network collaboration activity is bad.
Given my background in more facilitative roles, I’ve spent a lot of time in what Newport calls “the shallows” running meetings, facilitating collaboration, and keeping everyone organized and moving in a synchronous manner, and I can attest that effective project management is indeed very hard work that is supremely valuable. With that being said, I’m trying to balance the so-called shallow work with Newport’s tips and tactics to develop a deep work practice.
One of the precursors to developing a deep work habit is to cultivate a resistance to distraction. We won’t be able to achieve deep levels of concentration at work if, during the rest of our waking hours, we flee the slightest hint of boredom. Newport likens training and strengthening our resistance to distraction to the same way we train and strengthen muscles. So how can we train this muscle?
-Practice with your phone
Outside of work, one of my favorite ways to resist distraction is to leave my phone in my pocket when I’m in the grocery store checkout line. This may sound trivial, but look around the next time you’re standing in line, and see if any people are not staring at their smartphones. Of course, I can’t ignore my phone forever, and that’s not the goal here. Smartphones are valuable tools that have a lot of benefits to offer by connecting us with our friends, family, and co-workers. The goal is simply to be more mindful about when and how I choose to use my phone.
Over time, I’ve noticed that this deliberate attention to creeping distractions has bled into my work habits. If I’m deep into a workflow or some wireframes, and I hear a Slack notification or see a new unread email indicator, I can anticipate and resist the urge to instantly tend to whatever is vying for my attention. I remain in the flow until I get to a good stopping point that I know will make for an easy re-entry, and then I check whatever communication I’ve received. Effective and timely collaboration is undeniably important in today’s work environment. But the reality is that most instant messages can wait ten minutes.
Newport proposes that the two core abilities for thriving in the New Economy are the ability to quickly master hard things, and the ability to produce at an elite level. Learning therefore, is paramount. And learning requires intense focus without distraction. This is where resistance to distraction plays into the neurology of learning. There is a layer of fatty tissue called myelin that grows around neurons, serving as an insulator to help cells fire faster and cleaner. When you focus intensely on a single activity without distraction, you’re forcing the brain circuit associated with that activity to fire repeatedly in isolation, which triggers myelination. Developing more myelin around the relevant neurons associated with learning a skill allows that brain circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. “To be great at something is to be well myelinated,” remarks Newport.
Managing time and attention
Once I became clear on the fundamental importance of resisting distraction and began to employ some control of my attention throughout the workday, the next tactic of Newport’s that I’ve adopted is to schedule deep work blocks into my day. This may seem obvious or simple, but there’s more to it than I first anticipated.
-Break up the workday
Newport’s recommended technique is to break your workday into 15 minute increments on a piece of lined paper. You then block off extended periods of deep work time, interspersed with shorter periods of shallow logistical style work that you can do while multitasking or hopping from task to task.
One tactic that helps me to stay focused is to maintain a list of any shallow tasks that arise during a deep work block to be addressed during my next shallow work period. While writing this blog post for example, I wanted to look up a synonym for a particular adjective. Instead of opening Google in a new tab (and entering the endless world of distraction that awaits there), I highlighted the adjective in question and made a comment to myself to go back and find a new word during one of my shallow work blocks.
The length of these deep work blocks can vary, but Newport cautions us to not bite off more than we can chew. Going back to the “willpower as a muscle” analogy, he recommends giving yourself a specific time frame and/or a specific finish line to hit, rather than shooting for an open ended slog.
In my case, I might commit to writing and refining user stories for three steps of an onboarding experience, or wireframing the steps a user would take to close their account. Then, once I’ve hit my target or my allotted time window, I make sure I’m at a good stopping point for re-entry, and I shift my attention to shallow work.
If you’re like me, you probably started raising counter arguments the moment you heard me mention scheduled deep work blocks. Doesn’t this guy live in the real world? I mean, how many times does your day end up looking nothing like what you planned it to look like?
Which brings us to this next point. Realistically, one must remain flexible and adaptable to shifting priorities in an agile software development environment. To quote Dwight Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but the act of planning is indispensable.” Following Newport’s advice, I’ve adopted a practice where if my schedule gets disrupted (and it will), I use the next available moment to reshuffle the rest of my day. I ask myself, “what makes the most sense for me to do with the remaining time in my day?” The real value of this planning method comes from continually asking myself this question. This has helped me attentively balance shallow work duties with scheduled blocks of deep work.
One last piece of advice when it comes to scheduling, is to ensure that you’re setting aside adequate break time throughout your day. We’re not machines, and a brute force approach to deep work will leave that “muscle” exhausted or burned out. Breaks don’t only help us avoid burnout however; they have shown to be a critical tool for complex problem solving and decision making. Focusing intently on an area of work for a sustained period of time, then shifting gears and letting your subconscious mind go to work can conversely be the best way to solve a problem.
Newport cites that your subconscious mind is well suited to sort through a decision or problem involving large amounts of information converging with vague and potentially conflicting constraints. This reasoning may sound counterintuitive at first, but how many times have you had an ‘aha moment’ in the shower, where two (seemingly) disparate pieces of information converge into a novel insight or idea?
For me, cooking while listening to some mellow music, going for a walk after dinner, or getting out for a morning run down by the ocean are a few go-to activities that often result in such breakthroughs.
Routines and systemization
Once you’ve scheduled those deep work blocks into your calendar, actually getting started can be daunting. Seth Godin (another favorite of mine) quipped that “no one starts work in a state of flow.” Simply put, one must start working before flow can ensue. And getting started can be hard.
Newport’s first piece of advice in this area is to create a ‘cadence of accountability’ by publicly committing to deliver something tangible as an output from your deep work session. This can take any number of formats, but Newport stresses that it must be visible to others, and it must be specific. Writing on a sticky note next to my computer that I’m going to spend some time this week on a blog post for example, would not suffice. Verbally committing to finish a draft of this blog post in PWW’s weekly Monday morning meeting however, really lit a fire under me to get writing! There was no way I was going to come to the following Monday’s meeting without a substantive update.
-Establish rules of engagement
Once you’ve created a cadence of accountability and publicly committed to a deliverable output, establishing what Newport calls “rules of engagement” is essential. Newport, for example, prohibits any internet use, and commits to a metric (i.e., words typed per 20 minute interval) to keep himself on track during a deep work session. The man is also impressively absent from any social media platforms. I personally might not draw such a hard line, but I’ve made a rule for myself to not to open Google or check my email during a deep work session, and it is paramount for me to keep my phone out of sight.
A couple of simpler hacks I’ve found effective are to reduce the sensory (audio and visual) inputs in my environment. If I’m working in Sketch for example, that is the only open app you’ll see on my monitor. I’ll minimize or close all of those other applications and browsers that would otherwise be brimming with distraction. I’ve also found that noise cancelling headphones with some instrumental music or binaural beats have been incredibly helpful for blocking out other distractions and getting me dialed in.
Another tactic from Newport that I’ve found particularly effective if I’m really struggling to make headway on something, is what he calls the “grand gesture.” The idea is to make a non-trivial investment of time, effort or money towards radically departing from your normal environment, in support of a deep work task. By making this investment, you increase the perceived importance of this task, which in turn reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate.
He cites the example of J.K. Rowling checking into an expensive suite at a luxury hotel in Edinburgh to finish her last Harry Potter book. With all distractions aside, and with a significant investment made, she finished her book in a matter of weeks after she’d been struggling with it for months.
While not quite on that level, I’ve found that even the act of leaving my desk for a secluded meeting room elsewhere in PWW’s office can have the same effect. A change of environment for a specified amount of time to work on a specific area of work helps me dial in. With my rules of engagement in place and my environment set up to my advantage, I’m well positioned to maximize deep work time.
-Transition to down time
The last, and not to be overlooked, step in the deep work practice is what Newport calls “shutdown,” or taking a thoughtful approach towards leisure time away from work. Continuing to grind your gears while you’re eating dinner with your family or getting into bed will only degrade your performance over time.
For Newport, this might entail writing a bulleted list of key accomplishments from a deep work session, followed by a note or two on exactly where and how he’s going to pick up where he left off when he returns. I’ve adopted Newport’s practice of writing a very prescriptive list of next steps at the conclusion of a deep work session and found it to be very beneficial. The assurance of knowing I have these important details nailed down gives me added peace of mind to more fully disconnect.
Newport also advises that we plan our leisure time deliberately, lest we succumb to “bathing for hours in semiconscious and unstructured web surfing.” For me, this means setting an intention to go for a walk after dinner before turning on the TV, or giving myself a TV curfew, at which point, I’ll transition to reading for entertainment. I acknowledge that this all might sound very rigid for an approach to unwinding, but I’ve found this to be an important step in completing the deep work loop.
So where does all of this leave me as a budding UX designer, transitioning from a manager role to a maker role? For one, I’ve now established a very public and visible cadence of accountability for my intentions via this blog post. See what I did there? An underlying thread connecting all of the takeaways in this summary is the notion of explicitly setting intentions. I can say, from personal experience, that writing my intentions down (especially publicly), greatly increases my odds of realizing them. So here I am doing just that, and hopefully within a year I’ll be able to write another blog post from a more retrospective angle comparing my UX Designer role to previous roles.
On a deeper and more personal level, I’m pursuing deep work because I find it fulfilling and satisfying. Newport cites that “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” He elaborates to say that your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to. The mental world we construct when dedicating significant time to deep endeavors results in improvements to virtually every aspect of your experience. It’s a bold claim, but a compelling one, especially when compared to the alternatives.
If any of this resonated, check out my colleague Kevin Ferguson’s white paper on Kaizen Techniques That Really Work. I’ve found his goal setting and systemization techniques to be incredibly helpful in my pursuit of deep work.