I’ve been pulling together some resources to support me in working with the 80/20 principle in the way David duChemin described it in last week’s post.
As I was going through my overcrowded email box, I saw several newsletters with links to articles that seemed to be highly relevant to this. Normally, I would have deleted these emails without reading them but at this moment they stood out to me so I took some time to pull out the key points I think will help me in this work.
A couple of the articles were about “deep work”, which is a phrase coined by Cal Newport, to describe periods of focused work without distractions like email and social media. This is the type of focus you need to be able to complete research tasks, writing tasks, study and other work that requires you to think and concentrate on what you’re doing. It’s work you need to be able to devote chunks of time to so that you can get into a “flow” state, rather than flicking backwards and forwards between it and other work.
Generally to do deep work you need an environment free from distractions, which for me includes a lot of noise, interruptions, email, my phone, the TV, people moving about around me and other people’s keyboards (a sound I find particularly grating and irritating). This can be partially, but not entirely, mitigated by putting my phone away, turning off email and using noise cancelling headphones.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about David duChemin’s observation that having time to do things is not enough; that we also need to be fully present mentally and emotionally in order to do our best work. Part of this is making sure we aren’t exhausted when we sit down to do our work. We can’t expect to churn out hour after hour after hour of our best work because doing focused work mentally exhausts us, and we need to take time to replenish our energy.
This made me reflect on how some work environments by their very nature are physically and mentally draining on me. Often, just getting myself to the point where I could do any meaningful work in these spaces takes so much physical and mental energy that, by the time I’m ready to start work, I’m already spent and incapable of doing anything like my best work.
After listening to David, I realised I’d been thinking about everything all wrong. I keep beating myself up because I feel incapable of doing anything more than “shallow” work in that location, even though I’m no more capable of doing any deep focused work in that environment than I am of running a marathon, anywhere, ever.
So what would happen if, instead of beating myself about about it, I were to acknowledge that this is who I am, it’s how I’m wired, and that I need to find ways to make that wiring work for me not against me? And what if I looked at my time spread over a week rather than individual days?
So that’s what I did.
I work 30 hours a week. If David is correct in his interpretation of the Pareto Principle, and we can expect that doing deep focused work for 20 per cent of our time will yield us 80 per cent of our results but also that 20 per cent is about the limit of what we can actually spend doing that work, this means I might realistically expect to be physically and mentally capable of doing deep focused meaningful work for about six of those hours.
I don’t think it would be possible to do those six hours in one day. Other things I’ve read have suggested that your capacity to be productive across the course of any given day taps out after about three to four hours. Taking the 20 per cent theory and applying it to an entire day of 16 hours waking time, three hours focus work per day (on any project, not just work), sounds about right. Expecting to be able to focus for six hours in one day is, therefore, not realistic.
So if I look at my six hours a week, and trying not to set myself up for more than three or four hours in any one day, I can still allocate that much time for deep work to the three days I’m not in the challenging work space.
This means a reshuffle of the way I do things.
First, I need to be okay with not doing any focus work on the days I’m in that space. I will give those days over to doing process work, filing, responding to non-urgent requests, having meetings and all those other things that take up time, have to be done but still take us away from our deep work. The 80 per cent.
Second, I need to take most of that process work out of the days when I schedule the deep focus work and, in David’s words, “zealously guard” the time to do that work. So, for example, keeping email turned off most of the time and not feeling like I need to have processed everything in my email, because it will get done on my “down” days.
When first started to work through this idea, it felt like a weight had lifted off my shoulders. It felt like I’d found a way forward that would let me get a lot more done without feeling guilty every time I was too exhausted to be working on the important stuff.
So, let the 80/20 experiment begin!
21 for 2021 update
Kramstable’s videos (thing 8)
I started work on video number three for the year. I haven’t quite finished the second one but I need my quality checker to sit with me and work out which bits we need to change and he wasn’t available this week. So that one can wait. I still have a month before the deadline to finish it!
My mother’s story (thing 9)
I visited Mum and we didn’t talk much about what was going to go into her story. I think I have to start writing it rather than waiting for inspiration to hit on how I’m going to do it. That’s something Patti Miller said at the end of the Life Writing course I did in September. You don’t need to have a structure worked out at the start, just start somewhere and see where it takes you.
That’s not her exact words but it’s my interpretation of what she said. What she actually said was if you start with the structure, it’s like you’ve already decided where you’re going before you get there and you won’t discover anything. The point of writing a memoir is to go on a journey of discovery. Okay, so this isn’t my memoir but I think the principle can still apply. She said to keep making “patchwork quilt” pieces rather than trying to work the whole thing out at the start and eventually these pieces will start to come together.
21 for 2021 summary
Things completed this week: 0
Things completed to date: 4 (1, 11, 18, 20)
Things I progressed: 2 (8, 9)
Things in progress I didn’t progress: 9 (2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 13, 14, 16, 17)
Things not started: 5 (3, 12, 15, 19, 21)
What else did I do this week?
I think my main achievement this week was to complete two more posts about the Open House Hobart weekend for my photoblog.
What I’m reading this week
Untangling you: How can I be grateful when I feel so resentful? by Kerry Howells
Wrest Point: The Life, The Times and The People of Tasmania’s Hotel by Graeme Tonks and Mark Dibben
Defying the Enemy Within by Joe Williams
Days I went for a walk in the morning (Goal = 7): 7
Days I did my morning planning routine at work (Goal = 4): 0
Days I did my post-work pack up routine (Goal = 4): 0
Days I worked on my art (Goal = 2): 5
Days I read a book (Goal = 7): 7
Days I did yoga stretches (Goal = 7): 0
Days I had a lunch break away from my desk (Goal = 4 work days): 4
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): 5