There is eternal battle that I fight every single day of my working life. It’s by no means exclusive to strategists and planners in advertising but I think that it affects us more than many.
And it’s the battle to engage in deep work. Proper, meaningful, in flow, immersed work that delivers the thing we are paid to deliver, new value for our agencies and clients.
Deep Work, if not a term coined by him, has certainly been popularised by Cal Newport. In 2016 he published a book by the same name and has become a kind of Deep Work guru. Feel free to read the thing, I have. But to be honest, it’s like every other business or self-help book you ever read, a decent blog post spun out into a book.
So, I’m sticking to a blog post.
At its heart Deep Work is about being able to focus on one task or problem, without any distraction and for a meaningful period of time. That could be a few years if you are cracking a new scientific theory, a few months if you are trying to turn a blog post into a book, a few days if you are pitching, or a few hours if you are trying to create a fresh piece of thinking. It is not the length of time that is important, it’s the focus that you are able to apply.
Which brings us to the paradox of our jobs as planners and strategists. We are asked to deliver new thinking, create new value and build compelling and robust arguments that require our focus but we operate in environments that constantly mitigate against this.
We work open plan, my desk is next to the reception so that I am present and accountable for our people and clients but man does it create distraction. We work on many pieces of business or projects, because the variety was one of the things that attracted us to this business in the first place. We are members of teams that demand our time and attention for a million reasons, many of which are not directly related to the added value tasks we need to deliver. We work in sociable places, where products are made through the constant interaction of people with different skills in formal and informal ways, requiring a culture of ‘meeting’ if not ‘meeting’ cultures. We work on devices that are eternally connected to resources and temptations of the outside world. And ultimately, we possess brains that, while nurtured and satisfied by the ‘flow’ state of focus, are suckers for the superficial and distracting and that love a good rabbit hole.
That’s the eternal battle, the paradox of an environment that wants us to deliver the fruits of deep work but wants us to operate in a way that encourages only shallow work. And it’s not as simple as simply trying to get rid of the shallow stuff and the meetings about meetings. The paradox is there for a reason, we are not lone writers or Nobel prize winning physicists, we are team members in a complex process of creation.
We need to be able to flex between the deep and the shallow. But shallow work needs no encouragement, it’s just fine by itself, it’s the deep stuff I have trouble with. And that’s why I made my personal theme for this year ‘focus’. It’s an attempt to help deep fight back against shallow.
Now, let’s be clear. I haven’t cracked this deep work thing. There are days when I feel that I have skimmed from one project to another like a flat stone across a lake with no real value to show for my time. But I am at least aware of the issue in a way I have never been before and its leading to a number of coping strategies that I thought I’d share.
They are not just about time management at work, they are more holistic than that. Because part of the challenge is to get your mind fit for deep work and to be able to slip into it easily and quickly when you need it to.
- Remember this mantra. You are not paid to be on top of things, you are paid to get to the bottom of them. And that means that you are going to prioritise focus and depth in your work over being responsive and organised. You won’t always be at the beck and call of an email chain or needed in absolutely every meeting since that isn’t helping you get to the bottom of things. Live by this mantra, originally coined by a computer scientist called Donald Knuth and quoted in Cal Newport’s Deep Work, it will help.
- Kill the social media. I know everyone says that but it’s such a clear and present danger to your deep work. Get off it or aggressively manage it. If you can’t get off it (how I dealt with Facebook) get it off your phone and onto your laptop (how I deal with Instagram) and if you can’t get it off your phone get it to the back of your apps (How I deal with Twitter). You need to make going on social a deliberate act. And never go to it because you are bored, you need to use your boredom more productively.
- While we are at it, make your phone as boring as you possibly can. If it’s possible keep it to tools, things that you use only when you need them. Don’t down load new apps and ditch the ones you don’t use at least once a week. Keep your phone away from you at night and first thing in the morning, preferably charge it in another room. I don’t look at mine until I’m out of the house in the morning, except to make sure I’m going to the right place, wearing the right clothes.
- Wade through your diary and mark out deep work time, you could make it a period of time every day or identify deep work days in the week. And call it deep work in your diary. It’s hard for people to complain about you doing deep work and steal the time for their own uses. Tell people that the mantra means you need to protect your deep work time.
- Find a space for your deep work. Somewhere that you like working away from where people normally find you. Don’t expect to do it where you usually sit because you will still be prey to people coming up to you asking if you have five minutes. Even if you send them packing they will have broken the spell and taken you out of the zone. Every time you leave and enter deep work you burn time and exact a heavy cognitive price.
- Create other activities in your day that require presence and focus. They help you hone your ability to focus without distraction. The gym works but beware the odd podcast slipping into your routine. I sing on a Monday night, something that requires so much focus I simply can’t think or do anything else. Its only one night a week but the discipline helps me go deep when I need to.
- Read books. And not business or marketing books. For one thing they tend to be written atrociously and for another they aren’t feeding you properly. You need raw material to forge new connections from, to plunder when you have time to really think. My kids are older so I’m not up at 5am watching In The Night Garden with them or making packed lunches or costumes for world book day. So I have the luxury, which you may not, of waking up at 6am and reading for half an hour. You can nail some pretty hefty tomes if you do that every day. Books mind, nothing that is hyperlinked.
- Let yourself be bored. We are so used to never being bored these days that we have lost the liberation that it brings, liberation that allows your mind to wander and wonder. Try this, all this week do your entire commute without looking at your phone. Just get bored and let you mind do interesting things and in particular to notice the people around you that we are supposed to be communicating with. I like paying Sherlock, you know that bit were he deduces a whole backstory about someone just from some chipped nail polish and the frayed cuffs of a once expensive but worn out shirt.
- Dump the tech. The laptop is the least insidious device on you but it’s still connected to a world of interruption and distraction. My favourite activity is to be marooned somewhere with just my pad and a pen and to think. For starters it means you have to think properly rather than pretend that you are thinking by starting a PowerPoint presentation or opening keynote. That is not thinking, that is presenting your thinking. I’m fed up with planners bringing me decks rather than bringing me their thinking. Eric Gill said “first I think my think, then I draw my think”. You should be doing that.
- We need to spend more time on that point. When I say marooned, I mean getting to spaces where you can’t be connected to the outside world. I do my best thinking on short haul flights (on long haul I want to watch movies, drink wine and eat dinner), workshops that I’m not leading and I am bored by and car journeys where connection is a palaver. Just get out your pad and pen, focus on the task at hand and slip your mind out of gear. Let it wander and doodle, accepting nonsense and insanity. Use the world around you, every shop name, street sign, 6-sheet ad or story from the street to help you solve your problem and answer your task. You’ll be surprise about the place your mind will be capable of getting to.
The critical thing about deep work is not simply creating the time for it, its fighting the distractions that harm it and honing the skills that protect it. If my approach is a little anti-tech in nature I think that’s because distraction from connection is the nemesis of my own deep work. It may be different for you.
But you have to wonder about one thing, are we really more productive than our peers in the pre-internet world? Having read all those blinking biographies of people that lived during the First World War last year something reasonably profound struck me. How incredibly productive those people were (from Emmeline Pankhurst to David Lloyd George), despite the fact that travelling anywhere, especially abroad took days not hours and communication was limited to telephone, telegraph and telegram. And they actually had to know shit because there was no means of tapping up the internet for a you tube video or Wikipedia. Yet despite this,these people seem to have been far more productive than any of us.
OK maybe it’s a little unfair to compare a bunch of planners to the greatest minds of the twentieth century (many of whom still enjoyed phalanxes of servants and support) but the stark truth is that they had one key advantage over us. Their lives lacked the industrial scale of distraction that ours suffer from every single moment of every single day. Ironically, they had more time than us to actually get things thought and done.
So, make a stand for deep work and against the shallowness that our lives and minds are drawn to. Nurture, protect and practice your own deep work. And above all remember the mantra, you are not paid to be on top of things but to get to the bottom of them. After all, as Cal Newport points out, it is the fruits of deep work that are difficult for the robots to replicate. All that shallow work stuff, you literally aren’t going to be paid for it in the near future.