The Tally Problem
When I was writing Deep Work I was a heavy user of deep work tallies: a record kept each week of the total hours spent in a state of unbroken concentration (see above).
This strategy provides concrete data about how much deep work you actually accomplish, and the embarrassment of a small tally motivates a more intense commitment to finding time to focus.
I’ve written about this idea on this blog (e.g., here and here) and featured it in the conclusion of Deep Work, and for good reason: it works well — especially as compared to no tracking at all.
Over the past year or so since publishing my book, however, I’ve found myself drifting from this particular productivity tool.
I increasingly found it insufficient to support the long periods of deep work (think: 4 – 7 consecutive hours, multiple times a week) that I need to really support my increasingly complicated pursuits as a professional theoretician with heady aspirations.
The problem was timing.
By the time the average week started, I had already agreed to enough meetings, interviews, appointments and calls in advance that no such long unbroken periods remained. This was true even after I drastically reduced these incoming requests with sender filters and my attention charter.
As I found myself repeatedly frustrated with the fragmented nature of my weeks I knew something had to change…
In response to these issues I began to drift toward a new and even more effective strategy: deep scheduling.
The idea is also straightforward. I now schedule my deep work on my calendar four weeks in advance. That is, at any given point, I should have deep work scheduled for roughly the next month.
Once on the calendar, I protect this time like I would a doctor’s appointment or important meeting. If you try to schedule something during a deep work block I’ll insist I’m not available.
This four week lead time is sufficiently long that when someone requests a chunk of my time and attention for a given week, I’ve almost certainly already reserved my deep work blocks for that period. I can, therefore, schedule the request with confidence in any time that remains.
Interestingly, this strategy did not really change my availability. I still end up participating in roughly the same number of these scheduled commitments in a given week as I did back in the tally days, but these commitments now tend to be much more consolidated in my weekly schedule.
The people making the requests can’t tell the difference, but I certainly can!
Deep scheduling, of course, is just one of many always shifting and evolving strategies that support deep work in my schedule. Perhaps the larger point here is not that this one strategy is vital, but instead that it’s vital to keep questioning and tweaking your own productivity habits.
A deep life is indeed a good life, but it requires, as I’ve learned, constant cultivation.
Longtime readers know I’m a big fan of 80,000 hours — a non-profit organization based at Oxford University that offers evidence-based and incredibly effective advice for building a working life that matters (as oppose to, for example, naively chasing “passion”). Anyway, they just published their first book and they are giving it away for free. If you worry about career satisfaction and impact, it’s worth checking out.