I once worked for a manager who would send his employees home by 5:30pm every day. This was at a time and in an environment where looking productive by working at all hours was not only prized and honored, but to some degree even expected by upper management. His argument for limiting the amount of time people should spend in the office was rooted in a different mindset though: He rightfully insisted that nobody produces outstanding results while being exhausted and overworked. It’s often more beneficial to let go of a pressing issue for the moment and coming back to it after a good night’s sleep, a relaxing walk, or a workout.
I think everybody would agree that pausing for rest at some point is necessary to deliver good results in any kind of job. But for knowledge workers in today’s economy, being able to work better hours instead of more hours per week is even more important. In this blog post I want to explore two ideas: Artificial scarcity as a driver for focus and attention, and time-boxed periods of deep work. Ideally, those ideas combined would allow us to produce better results in less time, ultimately freeing us to spend our time on activities outside of work, all the while becoming more satisfied with our professional lives.
Scarcity and focus
In their book Scarcity Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir present research that underpins what rings as intuitively true to many of us: We’re more focused and productive if we’re working towards a looming deadline. They call this effect tunnel vision, a state in which our mind naturally blocks out inputs unrelated to a task which we need to finish under time pressure. The authors remain ambivalent about the overall value of that effect though, as in many cases this “zooming in” on a specific issue driven by underlying scarcity can have negative consequences. For example, people on a strict diet (i.e., a scarcity of calrories they allow themselves to consume) spend a lot more time worrying about their eating habits that others, and people under hard economic circumstances (i.e., a scarcity of money) can hardly think about anything else than their financial problems. In those cases, tunnel vision can foster depression and anxiety because it blocks out more positive thoughts.
By time-boxing certain types of work though, we can reap the benefit of increased predictability while also giving us the chance of diving more deeply into a specific task.
For the purposes of improving one’s productivity, even artificially introduced scarcity of the available time can have tangible benefits. As Georgetown University professor Cal Newport points out in Deep Work we produce our best and most creative results in a state of intense focus, free from distractions and interruptions. This opinion is echoed not only by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous research on the Flow state, but even by such unexpected sources as legendary horror author Stephen King. In On Writing, he explains that a major reason for his incredible creative output of several novels per year is his focus: He dedicates each morning exclusively to writing and simply refuses to leave his desk before he got at least 2000 words down on the page.
Newport goes on to argue that with increasing connectivity, the rise of e-mail, instant messaging, and social media, it is getting harder to reach the deeply concentrated state of mind required for deep work. Hence, not only does the quality of our outputs suffer, we also feel constantly busy and distracted without getting much meaningful work done.
Newport points out a variety of different solutions to that problem, ranging from the “part-time hermit” lifestyle that Carl Gustav Jung adopted in order to produce landmark research in the field of psychology, to the Think Week approach of Bill Gates. As appealing as those ideas might be, for many of us they’re not really practical. Therefore Newport suggest a more accessible approach that offers many of the same benefits: Block out certain times of your day to focus deeply on a specific problem, and make sure to eliminate all distractions during those times. Furthermore, the artificially induced sense of scarcity of time—“I have to get this done before my deep work timeslot is over!"—increases concentration even more.
The jam-packed calendar
Newport argues further that not only should one plan ahead for chunks of time reserved for deep work, but for any kind of work at all. Therefore, each minute of your (work)day should be given a purpose, something you want to achieve with that minute of time. The underlying idea is that by leaving your calendar empty (apart from meetings and appointments) you would be easily distracted by shallow tasks, and lose focus on what’s important. The approach reminded me a bit of what I’m doing with my daily task list, but it adds another dimension to it: Limiting how much time one would spend on a specific task. If you follow an approach like that it should also become easier to impose an upper boundary for the length of the entire workday without inducing a feeling of guilt for leaving work without having gotten anything done.
I once had experimented with a similar approach and found it not only annoying, but also counterproductive. Let’s take a closer look at what I did and where I might have gone astray, shall we?
The knowledge workers diary
At the time I ran the experiment, I was the product owner for a leading functional test automation tool. I enjoyed that job a lot, party because of the range of my different assignments: I planned and structured much of what my team would be working on, wrote sample scripts and held demos for customers, assisted our support department with tricky cases, trained and educated our sales force, acceptance tested everything we produced, regularly blogged about new features, and a thousand other things besides that. Naturally, my day was filled with constant interruptions, as being accessible for the development team as well as for the rest of the company is pretty much part of the job description of a good product owner.
While I enjoyed the breadth of my work, I often found that after having spent a full day in the office I wouldn’t have any tangible results to show for. It’s not that I procrastinated on purpose, but my fractured attention combined with constant interruptions made what Newport calls deep work almost impossible. When was the last time I had published a really good blog post? Actually thought through an upcoming feature end-to-end? Spent time dedicated to preparing a presentation without checking for incoming IMs every other minute? So I decided to turn my calendar from whitespace dotted with occasional meetings into something that resembled more of a class schedule: I filled every minute of my 8 hour workday with something to do.
For any given day, that might have looked something like this:
|7:00 - 8:00||Acceptance testing of user story #123|
|8:00 - 8:30||Check what's new in our main competitors latest release|
|8:30 - 9:00||Breakfast with the development team|
|9:00 - 9:30||Acceptance testing of user story #456|
|9:30 - 10:00||Daily standup meeting|
|10:00 - 11:00||Cross-team coordination meeting|
|11:00 - 11:30||Start working on slide deck for sales enablement presentation|
|11:30 - 12:30||Lunch break (yeah!)|
|12:30 - 14:00||Continue with sales enablement presentation|
|14:00 - 14:30||Daily standup meeting with the US team|
|14:30 - 15:30||Roadmap review meeting|
|15:30 - 16:00||Review latest blog post draft|
As you might guess, I quickly ran into a variety of problems with that approach which led me to abandon the experiment. First, my nicely planned schedule would inevitably break down, leaving me frustrated and annoyed. The slightest interruption throughout the day would require a lot of (in itself time-consuming) replanning. I had also turned from an almost-always-available colleague into a virtual hermit: I made myself scarcely accessible to the team, leading to my availability turning into a bottle neck for our entire team’s performance.
Hence I stopped the experiment after just a few days, going back to my lose “todo-list” approach. The research presented by Newport suggests that I actually was on a good way though, and had I made a few adjustments might have been able to really reap the benefits of this method. So, what could I have done differently?
Failure is an option
Newport points out that when adopting this approach, it is important to acknowledge the fluidity of one’s schedule. The goal, he says, is not to rigidly follow the plan throughout the entire day. Rather, the goal is to wisely readjust when the need arises, and to see that as an important part of the process. As I argued in On Making Lists, the mere fact that you spend time considering what’s important right now and what is not can lead to illuminating results. Re-planning, which requires re-thinking of the current priorities therefore is a merit, not a disadvantage of this approach.
Note that in the above example my calendar was fractured into a thousand tiny time slots, each of which hardly long enough to work deeply on any issue. Had I planned instead for longer stretches of work focused on a specific task (the sales enablement presentation, for example) I would likely have been a lot more productive. I’ve also seen people adopt this approach more or less unconsciously: Software developers who are allowed to work from home one day per week for instance tend to reserve their precious home-office time for tasks that require deep thinking, allowing them to really dive into a problem while being in an environment free from the distractions of the open-floor plan.
Know your limits
Research shows that even for the best of us, working deeply for more than 4 hours per day is hardly possible. Concentration and mental bandwidth are limited resources on their own, which is why we need to strike a balance between deep and shallow work. This fact lines up nicely with our requirement for being available to others though: I could have chosen for example to work deeply for two ours each morning and each afternoon, reserving the edges of each day as well as the time surrounding lunch for interactions with my team. That way I’d still be available, but also give myself enough opportunity to go deep.
I’m convinced by Cal Newport’s argument that by spending more of our time working deeply, we can be more productive in terms of quantity and quality while spending less time actually at work. Introducing artificial scarcity by time-boxing certain activities can boost productivity even more. Furthermore, by allowing ourselves to not work past a certain time every day, we give us permission to rest and relax, ensuring we’re ready for the next day of deep work that lies ahead of us.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the 40 hour work week is a remnant of the industrial revolution no longer suitable for modern, creative, knowledge-work. I’d argue that not only should we force ourselves to go home by 5:30pm as my former manager would suggest, but that we need to find ways to reduce the time we spend at work even more. Techniques that boost productivity—time boxing and artificial scarcity being just two examples—can help us do just that. After all, we intuitively know that we enjoy deep work a lot more than shallow jobs, and we produce more high quality results at that. Better results, less time spent, and more happiness—that’s a bargain I’m willing to sign up for anytime :-)