I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about getting things done, and at the top of my list is Cal Newport’s remarkable book Deep Work. (US) (UK) Newport makes a persuasive case that our success in the world of work is often dependent on the amount of time we can devote to serious, deep thinking. This isn’t true for every job, of course, but it’s true for many. (Management is an obvious exception, an example of a knowledge-economy job that requires decisiveness and judgement rather than depth.)
One thing I appreciated about Newport’s book is that while he’s uncompromising in his belief that deep work is essential both for productivity and for happiness, he’s quite flexible in his understanding of how it’s to be achieved, and gives a variety of examples from Walter Isaacson, who seemed to be able to snatch focused time in twenty-minute chunks, to coder-hermits who shun email and deal with most mail in quarterly.
Another powerful observation – one that hit home for me – is that for many of us, the productivity-sink isn’t watching YouTube videos or gossiping on Snapchat. It’s ostensibly-serious stuff like emails and meetings. Email, in particular, is a severe temptation for me – I find it easy and it feels and looks like work. Swift, decisive email etiquette feels very professional – but all too often it’s just an excuse for avoiding the real work.
Deep Work is a brilliant book and I unreservedly recommend it.
For a playful take on related themes, I turned to Robert Twigger’s wonderful little book Micromastery. (US) (UK) Twigger – among other things an explorer, prize-winning poet, and Aikido master – makes the case for mastering many deep-but-narrow skills. Learn how to do an Eskimo roll, or a racing turn, or how to draw a smooth circle by hand. Don’t aim to become a brilliant cook; start instead by mastering the omelette. Twigger offers a cornucopia of little tricks – the kind of thing that you might find in a “how to amaze your friends and win bar bets” book – but far more interesting and compelling is his idea of micromastery, which he sees as empowering (because you remember how to learn and discover), as a source of creativity (because you acquire an ever-larger range of insights) and as a step towards broader mastery (because learning one narrow skill well is a fun, motivating way to begin in a new field). A really fun book – and a wise idea explained well.
Micromastery also bridges an apparent conflict between Deep Work and my own book Messy, which sings the praises of switching from one project to another. Twigger argues that if you want to go deep you need variety: master something narrow, but when you feel yourself getting jaded, switch to something else. Day by day you are focused, but month by month or year by year, your experiences and skills are varied.
I could hardly finish this without a shout-out for David Allen’s Getting Things Done. (US) (UK) (Not to be confused with Ed Bliss’s classic of the same name (US) (UK) – a great book too, if somewhat dated.) Allen’s book is inelegantly-written and has always felt wordy – but it’s been a huge success because it works. The central ideas of GTD are: take vague incoming issues (a phone message, an email, a meeting, an idea that pops into your head) and turn then into some specific next action, then write the next action down somewhere where you’re confident you’ll see it when you need it. This stops your subconscious constantly churning over the issue.
That makes GTD sound simple and in many ways it is. But in the messy reality of modern work it’s often easier to appreciate the principle than to make it work in practice. I don’t follow every piece of David Allen’s advice but I follow a lot, because it’s smart, practical and useful stuff.
My new book is “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” – out last week in the UK and coming soon in the US. Grab yourself a copy in the US (slightly different title) or in the UK or through your local bookshop.