The ever-present problem of time management haunts every client I have – it also haunts me! There are over 6,000 books on the subject on Amazon – evidently, we are not alone in our search for the silver bullet to address the problem of being overwhelmed.
For those of you who have participated in the WLF Sessions: Working Smarter Not Harder, you know that we recommend dropping the idea of time management and picking up the idea of managing your energy. This principle is based on important research from Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, which you can read more about here.
This month I am excited to introduce new and related research that makes a compelling case for what might be the closest thing we can find to a silver bullet for time management: time blocking focused work, a theory introduced in Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Cal’s book focuses on two big ideas: deep work and shallow work. Let me explain.
1. “Deep work” is using your skills to create something of value. It takes thought, energy, time and concentration.
2. “Shallow work” is everything else – all the administrative and logistical stuff, like emails, meetings, calls, expense reports, etc.
Our daily lives are defined by constant opportunities for distraction: responding to emails, calls, meetings and other seemingly endless interruptions. Much falls into the category of shallow work. The tricky thing is that shallow work often makes us FEEL like we are being extremely productive but at the end of a day of shallow work, while we are exhausted, we find we have accomplished very little that really matters.
This problem is heightened when we try to multitask between deep work and shallow work. Neuroscience shows that multitasking actually diminishes performance; brains can in fact only focus on one thing at a time. When we try to do more than one thing at a time (other than something like emptying the dishwasher while waiting on hold for the repair man) we are less efficient than if we did each task separately. That is because our brains need to adjust to the new tasks.
Cal calls this adjustment period, “attention residue.” He explains that when moving from one task to another, part of your brain is still distracted from the original task (e.g., reading an email) and you aren’t giving your full attention to the task at hand (e.g., writing a memo).
It’s easy to see how shallow work gets in the way of being productive on deep work. But you may be alarmed to hear that Bridget Schulte’s sites research in her book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, Play When No One Has the Time, stating it takes 10 to 20 times the amount of the interruption to get back on task. So, after a 30 second interruption it can take 5 minutes to get back on task. Think of how many interruptions (e.g., times you check email) you might have in one hour – scary!!
I highly recommend both Cal’s and Bridget’s books. Their excellent perspectives and tips, if practiced, can have a significant impact on your productivity—and sanity. You may even get 30% of your time back!