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Deep work, crazy work, and rest

I’ve been on a bit of a reading kick. I’ve read a few books that contain bits about sustainable pace, a favourite topic of mine.

I’m a fan of

“Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

from the Agile Manifesto principles. Three books that have tickled this bit of my brain are Deep Work, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work and Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.

I tend to define myself by work quite a bit, and I like to keep busy. I find it helps to regularly focus on themes of calm and rest. Some of the themes cropped up across these books are:

  • Do less to do more
  • Focus and concentration
  • The metric black hole
  • The importance of downtime

Here are some of my notes from those topics, from those books.

Do less to do more

One way to “do less to do more” is to work fewer hours. Having fewer hours forces you to spend them more wisely. It forces you to pick better things to work on instead of working longer hours to get it all done. Another aspect is saying no more often: do less, maybe nothing. Doing less makes it easier to get to a sustainable pace. It lets you go for depth in a topic, not breadth.

Focus and concentration

Working in big blocks really helps with focus and concentration. These blocks need to be distraction and interruption free: maintain a single focus on the problem you’re working on. Context switching leaves attention residue (part of our brain is still thinking about the other thing). Fleeing boredom (by checking email or chat during a big block) weakens our concentration ability and our focus capacity.

It helps to schedule not-the-real-work stuff like meetings and emails. That stuff is seldom actually urgent. It can (usually) wait.

The metric black hole

In Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about the metric black hole. It’s hard to measure the productivity of modern knowledge work, so we fallback on what we know: hours, like we used in the industrial era. This means sometimes we try and brute force problems by throwing more hours at them, but that’s not how these (creative) problems work. The amount of hours spent on a problem doesn’t necessarily determine the importance of it. It’s more important to be effective than it is to be “productive.”

The flipside of the metric black hole is that it’s also hard to measure the cost of distractions and interruptions. That means we can underrate their (negative) impact.

The importance of downtime

The most important thing is: don’t cheat sleep. Sleep deprivation affects focus, stress, judgement, performance, ability to learn, health.

It’s important to have downtime. It’s important to have strong, hard, boundaries between work and life. That means no checking emails outside the office / office hours, no taking calls when you’re on holiday. You can’t do good work without a good rest. Breaks give us time to mull it over. Breaks clear the mind, give us a fresh perspective, lead to insights. Stress in one area of our lives bleeds into others.

It’s important to note that rest doesn’t mean checking out or binge-watching TV series. Structured hobbies are best: the brain likes change, not rest. Something that’s relaxing, provides you a mastery, learning, experience and gives you mental detachment from work.

Further reading

What else should I read that’ll give me a fresh perspective on these topics?

Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More and Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done are on my short list.