Deep work requires ample recovery

Afterthoughts: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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High-performers the world over do not work for as long as many think on their craft. The work, however, they do put in is of the highest effort and quality. It is, as Cal Newport describes it, Deep Work: the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. In many ways, it is similar to the idea of the flow state put forward by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi where one is being completely immersed in an activity for its own sake. When paired with a lifestyle that allows for recovery and white space, short and intense and consistent sessions of work are enough to excel.

Acute-applications of deep work are more valuable than unfocused workdays. If you ask any author their process of writing a book, very few would say they spend more than 3 or 4 hours a day writing. Writing a book is not like finishing an essay at university, you are not pulling all-nighters two-weeks before the deadline. One, the book would probably turn out horrible, and two it would not be sustainable. Many full-time writers I have come across share a similar routine. They write in the morning for a three hours, often this is in a private study that does not welcome phones, tablets, or anything like that. Once they finish for the day, they are done, and any more writing they may do is surplus.

This story is eerily similar to the tendencies of office workers. While they are often there for eight hours a day, many studies have highlighted that the actual number of productive hours is three. The distraction of colleagues, email, morning tea, lunch, and the general hustle bustle of office life is not conducive to deep work. It is a wonder to me why the model has persisted to this day an age.

The complement to acutely-focussed sessions of deep work is a lifestyle that is conducive to recovery. Coming back to the habits of writers, after finishing their session, the rest of the day free to do whatever: read, do chores around the house, spend time with family. A lot of these activities are for leisure and help to nourish their minds after exerting themselves working. It helps to refuel them for their next writing session the following day.

I acknowledge this working day is not compatible across all industries. If you work in an environment with others, it would be probably (definitely) anti-social to ignore them. The reflex, and expectation, of checking emails or messages also remain strong. Not to mention the overhead energy expenditure in commuting, meetings, and unexpected situations. Dividing your day between deep work and recovery is nevertheless a useful heuristic to keep in mind.

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