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The future of work: How to deep work, unwind & embrace boredom

01 Jun 2022

Key takeaways from my chat with Cal Newport, author of "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World" and "A world without Email". We dive into deep work as one of our most valuable skills and the importance of digital minimalism. We also talk about unwinding and embracing seasonality and boredom to create sustainable value.

Listen to the full episode here or on your favourite podcast platform.

Selling valuable content on the internet

We used to assume that people would not spend money on the internet. So attention was the only way to monetise content – attention was currency.

This way of thinking is shifting. People are now more willing to pay for content or information that is digital and useful for their lives.

This means that activity, information and money are leaving the 3 main hubs of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. There are now direct ways of selling creative work to make a living and provide value. We are experiencing a renaissance of people building niche audiences to share content.

Creating value requires deep work

Deep work is focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Shallow work is everything else.

When it comes to autonomous skilled labour, deep work is required to create new value. So deep work needs to be prioritised and protected.

We still need shallow work for paying bills, admin and other tasks. But deep work is what makes the difference.

How to protect and prioritise deep work

Protecting deep work is important to improve work capacity and create value. It is hindered by professional communication and digital distractions that grab our attention like social media, notifications or news. The way we use tools like emails and slack requires us to constantly check inboxes and channels, making deep work impossible. We are constantly context-switching. Cal Newport’s book A world without email dives into this issue of communication overload and offers a bold vision for liberating workers.

Context-switching is changing the target of your attention from one unrelated task to another. It is an intense and expensive process for the brain, even if you are just glancing at a message or email. When you glance over, you initiate the switching process and, before it’s completed, you turn your attention back to your initial task. So the brain puts a brake on it, leaving you unmotivated and unable to focus or think clearly.

Brief and interruptive context-switching like checking messages is a productivity poison. It has a cognitive effect, reducing our capacity to learn and produce quality work.

The issue of context-switching at work is hard to solve. We have built many workplaces around the need to keep checking channels of communication. A lot of work depends on constantly moving messages around – people are waiting so you have to answer.

So how can we minimise context-switching?

  • Focus on one thing at a time

Work on a single task until a natural stopping point before switching to the next task.

“Ok I’m done with this, what’s next”

  • Have a ticketing system

Work on something until done, tick, and move on to the next.

  • Put in place alternative methods of collaboration at work

The key is to move away from using unstructured messages as the main way to collaborate.

The future of work: Preventing communication overload at work

A shift towards better collaboration and communication at work is essential to think clearer, feel better and create value.

The way we approach work needs to move away from using unstructured messages as the main way to collaborate. Instead, we need to build better habits and norms around response time to allow deep work and focus.

This means putting in place alternative communication methods that provide structure and clarity.

Some examples of communication systems:

  • Public boards
  • Office hours
  • Automation - a set procedure that everyone agrees on for how a repeated task gets accomplished

An ideal day for deep work and creating value

Start deep work in the morning with a fresh mind. Spend a few hours in the world of a specific topic or task until a natural stopping point. Then shift to shallow work like meetings, calls or admin. As the day progresses, cognitive fatigue accumulates so reduce your cognitive load as much as possible. Reducing what’s on your plate usually leads to deeper work.

In knowledge work, what is good for employees is also good for the business

We usually think that what is good for the business is bad for employees. But in knowledge work, there is an alignment between what benefits employees and business growth. To produce value for a company, knowledge workers need a well-functioning brain. This means reducing cognitive overload as much as possible. However, improving work systems is complex which is why many companies still rely on distracting communication methods.

Winding down - separating work from personal life

Winding down is not only shutting your laptop or commuting back home. There is an intention to truly disconnect and allow yourself to relax for the evening, especially if you are used to being anxious about work.

Not winding down = allowing your mind to ruminate and pull you back into work even late at night.

So it’s important to develop a shutdown routine that tells your brain that everything is taken care of and you can relax.

What does a shut-down routine look like?

1/ Service any open-loops

Put everything out of your head in a system that you can trust. It will all be dealt with tomorrow.

2/ Add a verbal or visual cue

Like a distinctive phrase or a box you tick every time you finish work.

With a good shut-down routine, if your mind tries to ruminate after work, you can trust that you did your routine knowing that you are fine and everything that needs to be done will be sorted.

Embracing boredom as a form of work

There should be at least one occasion every single day when we allow ourselves to be bored – we are craving stimulation but not engaging in it. Nothing in the ear, nothing in the hand. Simply allowing our thoughts to run free.

Why is boredom important?

1/ To break the pavlovian conditioning where boredom is associated with stimuli

If your mind is used to getting distracted every time you feel bored, you learn to not tolerate boredom. You cannot resist the stimuli. And that craving appears when we are working and creating.

So learning to be bored helps with concentration and deep work to create value.

2/ Time alone with your own thoughts is when you make sense of your experiences and understand your identity

So, get your daily and weekly dose of solitude and boredom:

🧠 One short moment every day

🧠 One long moment once a week, on a walk or sitting in nature

Seasonality is not just about food

It’s also important for us to embrace seasonality and let it influence the way we work. This means natural periods of intense work alternated by non-intensity. We cannot create sustainable and meaningful value if we go full-on every day of the year.

So, embrace seasonality on all scales: daily, weekly and annually.

For more, listen to my chat with Cal Newport: https://thedoctorskitchen.com/podcasts/152-a-world-without-email-with-cal-newport
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