It was hard for me to write over the past two weeks. Mrs. Poleg and I were trying to teach our daughter to sleep in her own room. We slept even less than usual at night and had to make a bigger effort during the day. There were also Jewish holidays. And the presidential debate. And the Celtics’ loss in the Eastern Conference Finals.
I did manage to work and get plenty of things done. I gave a few talks, moderated a panel, led a couple of online classes, updated PowerPoint files, read a couple of books. I sent invoices, followed-up with customers, and took care of my 2019 taxes.
But I did not manage to do any deep work. Cal Newport’s book of the same name defines “Deep Work” as
“professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push[es] your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Newport contrasts this with what he calls “Shallow Work”:
“Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
For me, Deep Work means writing. It also means editing video interviews and case studies for my online course. Editing is even harder than writing since it requires me to absorb a large chunk of information and condense it into 25% of its original length. The goal is to create a premium product that is different from the podcasts or articles that are available for free all over the internet. Good editing saves the reader time, adds necessary context, and makes the insights easier to digest and remember.
When I edit video interviews, I feel my computer’s pain. The MacBook heaves, struggling to keep in its memory the piece I just cut out so that I could then paste it into a more relevant section. My brain, too, struggles. Some cognitive tasks can only be performed at a higher state of concentration.
Dealing with unusual (but overall positive!) circumstances made me think of the more usual things that distract me every day. Even over the past two weeks, the things that really prevented me from doing deep work were not the Celtics or my daughter or Trump. Instead, it was the usual suspects: spending too much time on social media, checking emails, playing chess on my phone.
Some of these things can be avoided or controlled. Some are obviously not “productive”. The real challenge is dealing with the things that are part of work. Twitter, for example, is a great source of information and insights. It is where I met my business partner, where I get to interact directly with academics and business leaders. LinkedIn is a great marketing channel for my business(es). It is also the only way for me to communicate directly with specific people whose email or phone number I do not have.
But social platforms are designed to distract us. Whatever it is that we planned to do there, we end up doing five (or twenty-five) other things. I am normally pretty good at keeping them in check. I use a separate tool to post on Twitter (so I don’t need to actually be on Twitter in order to share something). I am generally good at ignoring LinkedIn messages and tags. I try to cluser all my scheduled meeting into one day a week (Thursdsay!). And I use a separate computer — and beanbag — exclusively for writing.
I could do even better, push myself, acquire a few healthier habits. But, ultimately, as long as my work requires daily communication with other poeple, I will have to get on those various social network and those network will do their best to distract me. Further, these networks will be supported by a growing array of devices to try to draw my attention — my watch, my refrigirator, any other connected device that I allow into my home.
The time spent on online communication “sessions” is only part of the problem. A bigger issue is the anxiety one feels between these sessions, the feeling that perhaps an important email came in, or that there’s a scheduled meeting one forgot about, or that something important happened that one needs to be aware of right now. This includes a frivolous fear of missing out, but also genuine concern for things that are objectively important nad relevant for one’s work (and life).
These challenges are particularly acute for a writer, but they affect anyone who engages in Deep Work. And, since machines are increasingly good at doing the “shallow”, repetitive stuff, we can expect more humans to face similar challenges.
What to do?
“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
The distractions he faced were indirect — a child running around, cooking sounds from the kitchen. He managed to work through them.
Haruki Murakami takes a stricter approach, working in quiet condition with a strict schedule:
“I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
This seems to be the case for most author, including Hemmingway:
“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.”
A more contemporary author, A.J. Jacobs, acknowledged the challenge of working in a connected world:
“I make my kids breakfast, take them to school, then come home and try to write. I fail at that until I force myself to turn off my Internet access so I can get a little shelter from the information storm.”
These author routines are not 100% relevant for me and are even less relevant for most other creative professionals. White, Murakami, Hemmingway, and Jacobs work(ed) alone. As such, it is much easier for them to completely disconnect from other people. But once you run a business or work as part of a team, it becomes impossible to shut the world out completely. The requirement to communicate a few times a day creates an opening through which the algorithms can burst in and draw your attention away.
What to do?
My thoughts return to my daughter. I spent the last six months — half of her life! — working exclusively from home. Previously, when I would go to the office or a meeting, I would think about her and my wife constantly. At home, I am not distracted by my wife and daughter (at least not predominantly). Knowing that they’re upstairs, a few feet away, allows me to focus on other things. If they need me, they’ll find me. I don’t need to look at my phone to know that they are ok.
At home, the main distraction comes from the people who aren’t here — the people on the internet.
This suggests a solution. Perhaps one day, maybe very soon, it would be possible for an automated assistant to filter all the noise and alert us only when something reallyrequires our attention and save us the trouble of checking our phones and various communication channels.
But until that day, the best way to ignore the people we work with is to be in the same space as them. Not necessarily in an open-plan office, but within the same building or floor. This way, if anything important happens, we can immediately become aware of it. If not, we can work in peace.
More broadly, many offices will have to offer a refuge from the internet, a refuge from constant connectivity. They will offer the psychological safety of knowing that you can work in peace until someone interrupts you, without the need to constantly interrupt yourself. Brainstorming and meetings can be done online. But, perhaps, we can only be truly alone when everyone we need is not too far away.
I am still more likely to continue to work from home because my own “team” is quite small and located in different countries. But for some people, the disconnected office could be a sensible solution.
If I ever go back to the office, would I once again worry about my daughter? Of course, but she’s older now. A big girl who sleeps in her own room.
Have a great weekend and, where relevant, a happy and joyous Sukkot!
🗞 I spoke to Diana Lind at Architectural Record about the future of cities. The piece doesn’t capture the full extent of my views — they needed someone for the "cities are dead" box — but still worth reading.
📖 Diana’s new book about smart and innovative ways to make housing more pleasant and affordable is coming out next week. I highly recommend it.
📺 This video discussion about “The Case for Remote Work” is also well worth watching. It explores a new academic paper by Matt Clancy and includes commentary from Oglivy’s Rory Sutherland and Upwork’s Adam Ozimek.