I know, I know, productivity is so 2017, but we still have to get work done, right? Well, to that end, I have a question: How do you work? No, not how do you blood-and-sinew function, but how do you work? Do you turn on music? Do you sit in front of the television. Do you hide in a sound-proof room and sit alone with your computer in monastic silence?
How do you work?
I tend to work in fits and starts, diving deep on something in a moment of intense focus for about an hour or two and then coming up for air like a deep-sea diver. I’ve seen pictures others have taken of me while doing intense work. Why take a picture, you ask? Well, I look like someone clinging to the outside of a top-speed bullet train trying not to scream.
I look like this because my mind is fighting against a lot of things at once. There are the Facebook posts I’m not checking, the tweets I’m not reading and the videos I’m not watching. There are the phone calls I’m not making (or taking), the paperwork I’m not dealing with, and the apartment I’m not cleaning. There are so many things I am not doing, even as I am clearly trying to focus on doing the thing right in front me (usually writing this newsletter).
The most important thing I’m not doing is giving myself permission to work. That’s what I’m going to dive into this week: how to grant yourself permission to work.
Every productivity blog will tell you that the opportunities for distraction are going up, the hours in the day are fixed, and the amount of work we need to do continues to pile up. This makes it really difficult for many of us to focus on what really matters, so we put up a fight every time we sit down to work. This fight is constant, and it’s one that many of us can’t afford to lose.
As I mentioned last week, I started reading Cal Newport’s “Deep Work
”. The book is a fascinating collection of arguments in favor of, you guessed it, "deep work”, which Newport defines as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
The book also has stories about others’ deep work habits (you know, nobodies like Carl Jung
and Adam Grant
) and how they led to major breakthroughs in the sciences and humanities. It also offers tactics for reducing distractions.
My personal favorite deep work style is the “journalist philosophy”. It’s a form of deep work where one can drop into it on command … because deadlines are real, people. Apparently, according to Newport, this is how Walter Isaacson managed to write his tomes while still writing deeply-reported pieces for The New York Times and leading the Aspen Institute and doing a bevy of other things on his plate. Years of newsroom writing and delivering to a show deadline have basically made this style of deep work my default. That being said, I have a ways to go before I start turning in 800-page biographies on paradigm-incinerating icons to giddy publishers like term papers to a college professor.
Newport also covers a couple of interesting nuggets about workspaces, including MIT’s Building 20
— a “plywood palace" that was home to some of the greatest innovations of the post-World War II period. The building’s rundown nature meant no one cared if someone popped out a floorboard here or a wall there to make room for some new technological breakthrough. It was also home to people from a variety of disciplines, leading to the cross-pollination of ideas that led to unexpected insights and outcomes.
You can see the legacy of Building 20 today in the design of places like the Stanford d.school and various tech companies throughout the Valley eager to feed oxygen to sparks of new ideas. Basically, if you want to make really cool stuff, don’t put people all from one discipline in a really pretty building full of precious stuff. Seriously. Don’t do it.
While the anecdotes, insights and tactics are great, the real takeaway from Newport’s book is this: for the love of whatever it is you really want to do in your life, give yourself permission to work.
Years of schooling taught me that homework time was time I wasn’t spending doing things I wanted to do. I was a talkative, social kid, so sitting at my desk to do homework was a time-out-style punishment for the crime of living -- because I couldn’t think of anything I had done to deserve such lonely drudgery. Then, after graduation, came the big reward: more desk work. In all of my time in school and at work, I never reached a point where I was at peace with the act of working. I just got to a point where I was too scared not to do it, so I’d endure it. It's a fact of life that work and pain co-exist. That doesn’t mean we need to suffer. Work and suffering do not need to co-exist, but sometimes they do. Suffering is the marriage of pain and resistance, and I have been suffering in my work for years.
In reading Newport’s book, I realized I had never given myself permission to work. I’d never told myself, Hey, it’s okay for you to sit here and focus on this thing you’re doing, and the discomfort you’re feeling is totally normal — hell, it’s even healthy! It’s okay; you’re okay. Everyone and everything else can and will wait. Just be here right now and embrace this thing you get to do. You’re doing a good thing for you, and, if you do it well enough, it may be really good for other people too.
That. I had never told myself that.
While Newport’s book touches on a number of interesting points, the most valuable insight is the one he doesn’t directly touch on (perhaps it’s assumed): You can and should give yourself permission to work — as well as permission to stop working.
Going deep isn’t just about setting aside Twitter, finding a soundproof box in which to sequester yourself or emulating great writers, technologists and philosophers. Deep work, as I see it, is about giving yourself permission to enjoy doing your work in a world where we’re taught work should be done away with quickly if it can’t be avoided entirely.
David Kadavy touches on this in his book, “The Heart to Start
” where he explores the role the ego plays in protecting us from getting started on the projects near and dear to our heart.
But more about that next week…
In the meantime, if you’re having trouble starting the project, paper or presentation you know you need to do, take a moment to give yourself permission to work. Tell yourself that it’s okay to dive in and enjoy the brain-stretchy feeling. Resistance may not be futile, but, when it comes to getting work done, it's often something you can choose to let go.