Week 13/2022: Deep work rhythms

Week of 28 March 2022

A sunrise over the beach with dark clouds looming
Wednesday morning

Deep rhythms

This week was challenging due to a situation with a family member I can’t really get into other than to say that it has had, and continues to have, a significant impact on me and on my mental health. This week was particularly difficult and draining. But I still had the chance to work on some of my projects.

What did I want to do this week?

  • Continue my TAFE work (and catch up on the unread articles) (thing 8)
  • Make an appointment to do last year’s tax return
  • Review the Mindspot Week 3 material (thing 1)
  • Do the exercises from Unit 2 of the Urban Geometry photography course (not a thing)
  • Now that I’ve upgraded my Evernote, tidy up all the tasks in there (related to thing 13, which I have actually finished)
  • Refine my morning planning routine (thing 12 )
  • Continue the offline trial at least two days during the week (thing 12)

Did I do it?

I did some of the TAFE work but I’ve still not made any progress on reading the articles I haven’t read yet. We’re now up to the final module of the course, which is supposed to bring everything we’ve learned together. I may not ever read them.

I made the tax appointment and that’s happening next week.

I looked at first part of the Week 3 Mindspot material and left the other part for next week.

I did the Urban Geometry photo exercises and I started work on Unit 3. I did most of that too, there’s just one question I have about something I’m not sure how to do that’s holding me up finishing that module.

I worked on sorting out my Evernote tasks. My plan is that Evernote will contain my “master list” of tasks, which is a massive never-ending and ever-growing list of stuff I might or might not ever do. My main priorities are in my monthly overview note, which is where I set out the projects I want to focus on that month and then work out what I need to do to make progress on them.

The Evernote master task list is all the other stuff that I can look at once a week and find anything I might want to do that week and add it into the weekly plan.

Ha.

Who am I kidding?! Weekly plan, indeed!

This list is actually for when I get stuck or bored with my projects and want something else to do. Usually her tedium of those tasks will be enough to push me back to the things I really want to be working on. I mean, come on. “Sort out my piles of book?” “Sew buttons back on my jackets?” “Get the shower fixed?” These are things I am NEVER going to want to do so they’re there just to remind me of all the things that will never get done.

Moving on, my revised morning planning routine takes about two minutes. It’s working really well as long as I make sure I do the evening shutdown each night.

And I managed to take one day to work solely on my major work project, which leads me to . . . .

What worked well this week?

According to the INTP playbook, I have “an unusual ability to focus in depth to solve problems”. This is consistent with my results in other frameworks that tell me I like to be left alone for long period of time to focus on the task at hand.

This is true. Give me a problem, leave me alone and, once I’ve overcome initial resistance and fear of not knowing what I’m doing (this is a whole other story), I’ll sit down and work on it. I will work on it all day. I’ll forget to eat, I won’t shut down until way into the evening and I won’t want to stop.

But interrupt me, or ask me to work on shitty little tasks that are all due AT THE SAME TIME, I won’t have this focus and I won’t get it that day. The project won’t get done. I won’t have the energy or the will to focus on it for an hour, two hours or for random periods broken up across the day. To do that, I’d have to overcome my initial resistance to starting every time I had to get back into it, and that’s an enormous energy drain for me. Do that more than once or twice in a day and I don’t have the energy to focus on the task. I need days, not hours, to do my best work on something.

Sadly, days are in short supply at my work. The nature of it is such that an entire day to work on one project is very rare indeed, and this fracturing of focus work time is something Cal Newport laments in his book Deep Work.

Cal suggests there are four ways you might implement deep work:

The monastic approach is where you take yourself completely out of circulation for long periods and can eliminate most or all of your “shallow” obligations. Some writers do this by locking themselves in hotel rooms or in cabins in the woods for long periods and having almost no contact with the outside world. I can absolutely relate to the appeal of this approach.

The bimodal approach means you divide your time between stretches of deep work and stretches where you deal with stuff. Cal says that if you take this approach, you need to have a minimum of a day to work deeply, a few hours isn’t enough. You might schedule two or three days to solely focus on your project and then forget about it on the other days so you can deal with all the other stuff, attend meetings and do other time sapping work. I can see how this might be a fallback if you weren’t able to escape to a cabin in the woods.

The most common method is what Cal calls the rhythmic method (nothing to do with birth control or gymnastics, at least, I don’t think so). This doesn’t appeal to me, mainly because I can’t spell rhythmic. In this method, you set aside a set period for deep work, starting at a predefined time each day, and you just focus during that time. It might be from 9-12 every morning or something like that. He says this is the most common method.

I’ve tried this but I find it difficult to (a) get into the deep work flow quickly enough to make the time worthwhile and (b) stay free of distractions because I know I’ll have to get to those things later in the day. But it can work for some things, I guess, where I need to do moderately deep work that isn’t something I would necessarily want or need to work on for an entire day.

The final method is the journalistic method, where you fit in deep work whenever there’s a gap in your schedule. I’m not even going to say why this would be even more impossible for me to do than the monastic method. It requires you to be able to shift into “deep mode” at a moment’s notice (no can do) and Cal suggests mapping out deep work times on a weekly basis and then refining this at the beginning of each day once you know what you need to do that day. Cal says this is difficult for deep work “novices” and I know that it would be almost impossible for me to do this. I don’t have the discipline and I need more than a half hour here and there to do my best work.

With the project I’m currently working on, I’m aiming for the bimodal approach, where I go offline for entire days at a time and it’s been working well. I’ve been lucky that my manager supports this kind of approach and has even suggested things like keeping entire days free from meetings in order to achieve this.

Much as I’d love to go offline for days on end, I don’t love my work enough to pay for a hotel room to do that, and my family might notice I’ve gone after a couple of days too, so I have to work with the circumstances I have. Right now, this means taking entire days where I can, and trying to schedule smaller blocks that are still enough to get work done on they days when I can’t. I was aiming for two days a week. That hasn’t worked out, but it’s my goal.

What didn’t work so well?

Distractions around the family issue I mentioned earlier didn’t help. It’s hard to concentrate on things when the phone could ring at any time and I don’t know what I might be asked to do. I’m not sure how to get around this.

I’ve been super tired from not sleeping well, so that has also affected what I can actually do. I know I need to make allowances for this and not expect too much of myself on the days when I’m wiped out. It’s difficult to acknowledge and adjust things without thinking I’m letting myself off the hook.

The other thing that I need to keep an eye on is to make sure I do finish work on time. Any time after about 5.30 is getting into the “too late” territory, but that only happened once. I’m gong to write down the time I shut down every day so I can keep a better track of that.

22 for 2022 summary

  • Things completed to date: 5 (10, 11, 13, 18, 22)
  • Things completed this week: 0
  • Things I worked on this week: 4: (1, 8, 12, 21)
  • Things in progress: 4 (1, 8, 12, 21)
  • Things not started: 13 (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20)

    Orange sunrise over the beach with rocks and sand in the foreground
    Monday morning

What do I want to do next week?

I wrote this list on Sunday. By the time I came to write this post, I’d taken one thing off the list because, well, see the section above. It’s about knowing my limits and what’s realistic.

  1. TAFE module 4 (two exercises plus this week’s reading)
  2. Complete Kramstable’s first year video (another project from 21 for 2021 that I am still working on)
  3. Complete the Urban Geometry course
  4. Review Mindspot Week 3 (part 2)

Weekly summary

What did I learn this week?

One morning this week I was awake stupidly early so I sat in on a webinar with one of the coaches at Nerd Fitness, which was called Five things holding back your fitness progress (and how to overcome them). I wondered how they were going to limit it to five, because I could probably list 20 off the top of my head, starting with the aforementioned lack of sleep. One of suggestions was called “Choose Your Own Adventure”. If you’re an 80s or 90s kid like me, you might remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books where, at the end of every couple of pages, you got to choose what the lead character did next, and how the story ended depended on the choices you made. I usually died.

Not a great example.

Anyways my learning from the “Choose your own adventure” section of the webinar was that lots of different things work but not everything will work for you.

I suppose fitness is the same as productivity in this sense, isn’t it? You can acknowledge what you don’t like, and you don’t have to do it. If you don’t like the gym, don’t go to the gym, but what you need to do is explore a heap of alternatives, even ones that don’t feel like exercise, to find out what you do like. And keep experimenting and changing things up. If something stops working for you or you don’t like it any more, stop it and try something else. You don’t have to stick with the same thing. There is more than one way.

And another tiny seed to plant in my mind from the end of the webinar was, if you’re in the all or nothing mindset (I can’t do the whole thing perfectly so I’m not going to do anything), deliberately make yourself do things less than perfectly when things are going well, so that when they aren’t going well, you’ll be less reluctant to abandon everything because you’ll be used to doing it less than perfectly. One to think about.

What was the best thing about this week?

  • Connecting with a dear friend
  • Almost getting Kramstable’s first video for this year finished

What I’m reading this week

  • Find Your Unicorn Space by Eve Rodsky
  • Write it all Down by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Habit tracker

  • Days I went for a walk in the morning (Goal = 7): 7
  • Days I did my morning planning routine at work (Goal = 5): 5
  • Days I did controlled breathing (Goal = 7): 7
  • Days I did jaw stretches (Goal = 7): 4
  • Days I did my post-work pack up routine (Goal = 5): 5
  • Finish work by 5.30 (Goal = 5): 4
  • Days I worked on my art (Goal = 2): 3
  • Days I read a book (Goal = 7): 7
  • Days I went for a walk or did other physical activity in the afternoon (Goal = 5): 7
  • Days I shut my computer down before 9.30 (Goal = 6): 6
  • Weekly review at work: Yes
  • Weekly review at home: Yes
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