Book Discussion: Deep Work, Part 7 – Become Hard to Reach

Welcome to episode 147 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share the 7th and final installment of our book review on Deep Work by Cal Newport, discussing the remainder of the 4th rule of performing deep work (drain the shallows) and the book’s conclusion.

Original Recording Date: 11-18-2021

Topics – Finishing "Rule # 4" – Drain the Shallows, Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget, Finish Work by 5:30, Become Hard to Reach, Conclusion

0:58 – Part 7 of Our Discussion on Deep Work by Cal Newport.

  • Check out Part 1, Episode 141, where we discussed the “Why?” of the book (why deep work). Parts 2, Episode 142 3, Episode 143 were focused on the first rule of deep work, which was working deeply (the structure and the execution). Part 4, Episode 144, is focused on the second rule of deep work, embracing boredom. Part 5, Episode 145, is focused on the third rule of deep work, quit social media. Part 6, Episode 146, covers the first part of the final rule of deep work, drain the shallows.
  • Format: We’ll do some summarization about why we’re talking about deep work, then summarize what we read in Rule #4, answer some questions along the way:
    • Do we believe the point?
    • Does it apply to each of us?
    • Does it make us want to change?
    • What we anticipate changing, if anything.
  • One thing we realized is that we want to model how we’re going to try to read books that have a big impact on us from now on.
    • Summarize big points.
    • Take notes.
    • Record our reactions.
    • Record what we’re going to try to change.

Why Are We Reading Deep Work?

The Deep Work Hypothesis

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding tasks that are often done while distracted which are easy to replicate and do not create a lot of value in the world
The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

We found this compelling and wanted to bring the information to our listeners.

4:38 – Rule #4 Drain the Shallows (Part 2!)

Eliminating as much shallow work as possible can drive success and excellence. There’s a limit to the shallow work we can eliminate while still maintaining our positions and there’s a maximum amount of deep work we can do a day. However, bias yourself towards the deep over the shallow.

5:19 – Ask Your Boss for a Shallow Work Budget

Describe the concept of Deep Work to your boss and ask what percentage of your time should be spent doing deep vs. shallow. This can drive down the expectation to be extremely connected. The budget might also change your behavior, for example, biasing you against status update meetings in favor of being accountable for deadlines. It will also alert you if you and your boss have wildly differing ideas about how much of your time should be spent on shallow work. You might need a new position if this can’t be resolved.

6:27 – Reactions

Do I believe this and does this apply to me?

  • John: Yes, but I don’t think it applies to me. This is a step you can take if your manager / co-workers think you are not connected enough or responsive enough based on company culture. Present this idea if there is some kind of conflict. At least so far, no one’s said I’m not responsive enough. Almost never is there an e-mail that needs my attention in the next 15 minutes, and if there is, people usually try to get in touch with me using multiple channels (chat, text, phone call). I cannot afford to interrupt my work every time there’s a chat update. That doesn’t make any sense. I turn off alerts and set reminders so that I respond to chats and emails 3 times a day. If it’s your job to monitor a chat channel and respond within a specific amount of time, that’s your job, which means no one can expect you to do things that require deep concentration at the same time.
  • Nick: Maybe a little, but the boss has set expectations for turnaround times on things like e-mail, etc. and encouraged our team to do the same (i.e. 24 hour response, text / call if it’s more pressing). I don’t know that I’ve done a great job at setting these expectations with my co-workers, but that’s a different story. I think you can find out the answer to how connected you are expected to be when you get to know a new manager just like Brad Pinkston advised in Episode 84. You’re not always going to be in a position where you need to ask for a shallow work budget. Maybe if you don’t feel like the work you are doing is valuable, go through the exercise of depth classification and presenting that back to the boss. If you’re doing too much shallow work and you don’t want to be, I think it could lead to extreme dissatisfaction.
  • John: It’s about that adaptation, flexing, discovering, and compromising. If you’re being asked to do something that requires to do deep work to do well and there’s a lot of shallow work in conflict with that, you need to have this discussion.

Does it make me want to change behavior, and if so, what will I change to align myself with this idea?

  • John: I don’t want to change anything right now, but I do feel well armed to have a conversation with my management or teammates / colleagues if it ever becomes an issue.
  • Nick: I agree with you, John. It doesn’t make me want to change at this point. I see it as a button you can press if and when you need to.
  • John: It’s good to have a tool in the toolbox that’s just in case. You never know when your work situation will change, your manager or team changes, etc. I like the tool, and I like the tip.

14:19 – Finish Your Work by Five Thirty

Cal Newport calls this fixed-schedule productivity: Set the end time, and work backward to schedule things so they can end there. This includes carefully guarding the shallow work budget.

14:50 – Reactions

Do I believe this and does this apply to me?

  • John: Yes, and I’ve been getting better about this step, but still need to focus on it. What I’m taking from this idea is not necessarily the 5:30 time because that’s not always possible. For IT professionals, you might be on call. Maybe you’re traveling or taking colleagues / customers to dinner. What I do see here is a general guidance to end your day at a specific time and then work backward from there to make sure you can actually walk away at that time (i.e. no loose ends, record all action items somewhere to quickly find them).
  • Nick: When I read this, my first reaction is it can’t be done or is unrealistic (to do consistently). I like your point that it might not necessarily be 5:30 for you. Likely many of us I have needed to do this when we were about to go to a medical appointment during the day, leave town for a trip, etc. I think it definitely applies. It’s time boxing on a larger scale. I think you stated it very well (much better than I did). The spirit of the advice is that you need to have a cut off time.
  • John: If you’re doing knowledge work, you have an infinite amount of work that you could be doing. You’re not going to get to the end. You have to put a boundary on it. Sometimes you have outcome limits like a deadline (something must be completed today), and those are the times in which you might end up violating what your ideal day is going to look like / how it will end. Stuff happens, and you will have to juggle your schedule. That is life. But if you have the goal and you start working backward from it, you know what you need to do to get there and what needs to be juggled to react to things that come up.
  • Nick: My immediate reaction was "I can’t do it." But I also haven’t tried it. Maybe I should and see how it goes.
  • John: For me, I did exactly that. That meant I had to put a meeting on my calendar at 5:15 that reminded me to organize my task management system. During that time I need to take the things in my head and start shutting down. I actually found this takes more like 30 minutes. If you don’t leave the time to organize your thoughts at the end of the day you will not be able to easily pick it up when you next start working. Schedule the shutdown time, and that effects the last meeting, administrative time block, or deep work time block. I’m definitely not perfect at it and am up to maybe 30% of the time doing it (which is up from zero).
  • Nick: For me it’s a missing metric altogether. I don’t know if it makes me want to change right now. Maybe I should start.
  • John: Do you not have a desire to stop at 5:30? That’s a tougher question than I thought.
  • Nick: I don’t know if there’s a fear of setting the goal because I’m a afraid I won’t be able to hit it. I had not heard the perspective you gave until we recorded this show and liked your idea of picking a time. It could depend on the day and what the family schedule is like.
  • John: If I need to pick the kids up at school today, then I need to be finished 45 minutes before I leave for example.
  • Nick: I think it’s fear of not being able to hit the goal. I have some workaholic tendencies and am trying not to check e-mail constantly. I definitely would like to stop being addicted to e-mail, but it’s challenging.
  • John: It’s that fear that you’ve been notified and you’re not responding (i.e. someone is waiting on you).
  • Nick: In some ways we create our own situations, and this is one I created myself.

23:35 – Become Hard to Reach

We can’t quit email, but we don’t need to give it control over all of our attention.

Tip #1: Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work

When publishing a “general inquiries” email, tell people what you expect of them to best evaluate their note. Also, set the expectation that you might not respond immediately or at all.

Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails

What is the project represented by this message, and what is the most efficient (in terms of messages generated) process for bringing this project to a successful conclusion?

“Process-centric approach” to email, spelling out the process to get from the current state to desired state with the minimum number of additional email interactions. Reduces the emails in your inbox and the brainpower you use to process them. It entirely moves the task from your inbox/memory into your task management system (David Allen: “closing the loop”). Put more work into crafting your email responses to lay out the future process and thus minimize the chance you end up playing email ping-pong, requiring you to spend time and energy monitoring your inbox as a project management tool.

Tip #3: Don’t Respond

Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies:
It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response.
It’s not a question or proposal that interests you.
Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.

Exceptions should be obvious based on role-power or relationship. Let the small bad things that might happen, happen. Reclaim the good big things that happen when you don’t manage your projects via email responses.

28:53 – Reactions

Do I believe this and does this apply to me?

  • John: This definitely applies to me. I’ve definitely seen people in my workplace ask others to do some work before scheduling a meeting on a specific topic, so I think the culture allows that. One of my coworkers published a win story about a customer along with two different recorded talks about it, encouraging people to send a meeting invite for questions not addressed in those talks. I don’t know that I’m getting enough requests via email to make this an issue for me. Even podcast emails don’t rise to that level. I definitely get messages as a result of the podcast, but the volume does not overwhelm me to the point that I am losing time responding. People usually have fairly specific asks, and I’m happy to spend the time with them. I publish a way for people to schedule time with me. If I started to get 5 messages a day asking for help with resume writing, for example, then maybe I would create a document of resources and share that with people first before offering time to meet with them 1-1.
  • John: As for the second tip, I totally believe that. Email ping-pong, the instinct to prepare a minimally responsive email that puts the responsibility on someone else, is something that I fight every day. We have access to a tool called group availability, for example, that allows me to look up available times for me and other colleagues and provide it to someone wanting to have a discussion.
  • Nick: I like the idea of setting expectations for e-mail responses. I can say I’ve not really done that well with others. They only know what they’ve observed. We can’t all create a generic contact mailbox because we’re not all college professors. This is really about scaling yourself and so the attention to responding does not take away from the work you need to do. I’m skeptical of the “make others do more work” approach. I like the concept, but I’m skeptical of whether people really read e-mail thoroughly enough for it to be effective. It makes me think back to Episode 137 and Don Jones’ 4-page e-mail response. I totally understand not responding if you’re on CC and a response is not required.
  • Nick: As for just plain not responding, I see what Newport is saying, but I’m also not a popular author who is getting a ton of fan mail (i.e. the general inquiries e-mail approach). I also don’t want people to think I’m a jerk if I don’t respond to an inquiry.
  • John: That makes sense to me. It’s about managing e-mail when there is a conflict. If there’s no conflict, you don’t need to use these tools. I think that 2nd tip about laying out a process is helpful. You can cut out a lot of the things that could turn into 10 e-mails.
  • Nick: You remove the ambiguity by giving the person on the other side a clear way to make a decision.
  • John: And if they don’t agree with the steps, they can say so. You can preface the whole thing with "here’s what I propose," and that gives them permission to disagree with the process.
  • Nick: This also helps break the focus on the quick response to just get something back to the sender.
  • John: How quickly you respond is interesting compared to the quality of your response when you do respond. A fast response can often be virtually useless and could make it ambiguous on who should take the next action.
    • Listen to Nick and John riff back and forth with some examples based on this comment.
  • John: The second tip seems the most useful. I certainly get ambiguous things and am CC’d on things for visibility (no response required). There are few things I’ve done where I need people to do more work first. If there’s something like that I have already published a thing to read. I have had a number of folks reach out to me about joining Google from VMware. Since this has been the thing that has happened the most often for those thinking about joining Google / just joining Google (i.e. wanting more information from me), I probably should write something up.
  • Nick: That’s more homework for you, John, very much like last week. If you’re out there and you’re tracking John’s homework assignment Tweet at us #johnwhitemetrics or #vjourneymanmetrics.

42:54 – Conclusion

Deep work is a pragmatic choice to focus on the ability to concentrate without distraction and get valuable work done. It’s not about taking a moral stance or making a philosophical statement. Pursuing deep work is difficult and most likely requires large changes in behavior and perhaps some sacrifices (particularly of attention-monetizing technology). It may be difficult or even scary to produce the best work you’re able to and have to face that it doesn’t yet meet the standards you want it to. (Ira Glass, creator and host of “This American Life”: Early on, your taste outstrips your ability.)

But if you’re willing to sidestep these comforts and fears, and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.

44:25 – Reactions

Do I believe this and does this apply to me (conclusion and book as a whole)?

  • John: Yes. I love the idea that this is about pragmatic choices and not moral or philosophical stances. I do want to produce at a higher level than I am now, and I recognize the level of production I’ve been able to maintain has not met the standard that I want. For example, I don’t feel the level of writing that I put out is not the level of writing I enjoy reading. When we started podcasting, it probably was not the level of podcasting that we wanted, but we kept at it. Hopefully we’ve improved over time.
  • John: The book as a whole takes the task management ideas that I read about in Getting Things Done, focused on productivity, and adds in the dimensions of depth-of-meaning and long-term value. This book has helped me figure out my foundational philosophy of the type of work I want to do and which of the tasks in front of me align with that philosophy. We’re back on philosophy.
  • Nick: I believe it and feel it applies for me. The key word in all of this is struggle. It really is a struggle to change your behavior, regardless of what it is. This book is about breaking undesirable habits that you didn’t know were undesirable until you read it or some like it. I think back to Switch by Chip and Dan Heath and the steps:
    • Direct the rider
    • Motivate the elephant
    • Shape the path
  • Nick: I think Newport does a good job providing ways to support the change. The first time I read this I thought the ideas were very inflexible and that the amount of structure is completely overwhelming. Like I said before, it seems like the amount of structure recommended is too much. I do not think everyone is willing to do the work it takes to enable deep work and the continuous efforts to keep doing it. It’s going to be a challenge for me.
  • John: My reaction to the structure is total agreement. Upon further review, Newport is coming from a position in which he has the ability to do this (as a professor). He can control his schedule to that degree. It’s our job to take the lesson and apply the underlying meaning instead of the surface meaning. It might seem inflexible, but can you look past the hard and fast rule as stated and look at the underlying meaning. Take the structure and learn from it.

Does it make me want to change behavior, and if so, what will I change to align myself with this idea (conclusion and book as a whole)?

  • John: It makes me want to change, and I’ve already started changing. I’ve re-organized my career goals around doing deep work. I’ve started to quantify how I’m spending my time with a timeflip. I’ve started to push back on the amount of shallow work I’m doing, or at least how I’m doing it (i.e. batching, time blocking). This has been a revolutionary read for me. I am going to keep on iterating and know I have not committed to getting every part of this implemented. I was to switch over to this system, but the way to get there is incrementally.

  • Nick: I know the payoff is worth it. I know to advance in my field I need to be doing my best work. Creating an environment / atmosphere that enables me to do that kind of work aligns with things like promotions, pay raises, and aligns with my personal values. I don’t think I have done as much work as you in fundamentally changing my behavior. I don’t think I have done enough but would like to change the amount of changes. I want to be more consistent and change small things at a time. This book is about breaking / changing bad habits and is also about self-care. Not everyone will think of it that way, but the boundaries are helpful. I think of the advice in the book in a similar light to The Power of When by Michael Breus in that even small changes will help you improve. To your point about iterating, I think small changes are the key. For me it’s things like turning off push notifications for e-mail (which I have done). Does it mean I still check it too much? Maybe. I think if you try to change everything suggested in the book at the same time, you will fail. You’ll fall off the horse. You need to pick something (like a small win) and measure to see if it’s working / you’ve mastered it. Part of this process is tracking, checking in on yourself. If you don’t do that, you’ll fall back into old habits, and for me I think that’s the problem (trying to do too many at once and need to get success from just one or two). Treat it like the Dave Ramsey debt snowball.

  • John: One action has a virtuous cycle which frees up attention and resources to work on the next thing, etc. I like that idea.

  • Nick: Maybe the first thing you start with is being ok with boredom and focusing on a problem you need to solve. Maybe that makes a huge difference for you. But you have to practice it.

  • John: I’ve found what you’re talking about to be a very compelling way to do this. Also the logical part of your brain and motivating the elephant are what the first part of this book are about. Decide if you agree with it, first. I’m interested in what other people have done in listening to this series. Did it motivate you to read or listen to the book?

  • Nick: DM us on Twitter if you want a free copy of the book on Audible.

  • John: Let us know what your reaction has been to the content.

  • Nick: Are there other sources containing similar advice that we haven’t read? We’d be interested to explore them.

  • John: I’d be very interested in reading conflicting advice if anyone wants to recommend some.

  • Nick: That is the craftsman approach to tool selection at work.

  • Even though this series has reached its conclusion, there are more interviews with new guests coming your way soon!

  • Maybe from time to time we should share where we are on the deep work journey?

Contact us if you’ve read Deep Work and have reactions you think we missed; we’d like to hear from you. Reach out if you have other books you’d recommend or if you need help on the journey.

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