Our thinking paradigm around work life balance is still fixed on a factory model, with a clocking-in, clocking-out, fixed-breaks type of reference in our heads. It doesn’t apply to 99% of us who work in some kind of knowledge-management profession, be it teaching, consulting, lawyering or HR-ing. We have choice in how we spend a significant part of our day. What constitutes work and non-work is now an interesting challenge. If I am reading a book in bed about management (I rephrased that from ‘management in bed’, please note), my wife complains that I am still in work mode, but I do not see it that way. If I am spending four hours chairing the board of the schools trust I am involved in, on a voluntary basis, I very much see it as work. Since leaving my job as a CEO and setting up my own consultancy, all the lines are even more blurred than normal. I might spend three hours with a friend who is going through a tough time, or an hour on a Zoom call in peer to peer supervision, both unpaid of course, but they still feel as worky as much of what I did as a CEO.
I have recently been reading a number of books about our working lives, but the one that has had the most impact has been ‘Deep Work’, by Cal Newport, an academic at Georgetown University. For him, the greatest binary divide in the area of work is nothing to do with work versus ‘life’, but deep work versus shallow. Deep work is when we are totally focused on something where our mind is ‘stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile’ (here he is quoting from Cskiszentmihalyi’s 1990 book, ‘Flow’). Much of his book is about how to achieve this. He claims that no one can manage more than three of four hours of deep work in a day. It needs to be interspersed with brain space – a walk or some kind of exercise where we can mull on something (for Darwin this was a walk around his garden, with the intention of thinking through a particular problem).
Newport’s thesis is that the most significant breakthrough discoveries, the greatest achievements in the world of the arts, the feats of such luminaries as Bill Gates all come from the intense and totally focused application of deep work.
Since reading the book, I’ve been rather down. I have wasted so much of my life in superficial emailery. I have assumed that a day packed with meetings is a productive one. If only I had been more intentional and ruthless in my time management, I would have achieved so much more.
Newport sings the praises of Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton University who is a prolific writer in the world of work psychology. I remember reading his ‘Give and Take’ about ten years ago, and many articles since. Apparently, Grant squeezes all his teaching into the first semester and then goes missing for great tracts of time during the second. As a result, he ends up producing many more peer-reviewed (which I believe is academia-speak for high quality) articles than any of his peers. The man is clearly a machine. And he works a standard length day, downing tools in the early evening and at weekends. In fact, Newport’s proposition embraces the notion of fitting your work into reasonable hours, and still being far more productive than the norm.
Today I set myself the challenge to write three pieces that I have been sitting on for ages. I found a room that I don’t normally use for work, switched off my phone and focused just on what I wanted to accomplish. I have seven more minutes set aside to complete this final piece, so I’ll now finish to allow time to remove any nonsense. I have somewhat surprised myself in what I have been able to achieve.
The new man is emerging….