So how does the leading exponent of deep work organize his days so he gets time to focus?
Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer science professor and author of several books – including Deep Work – recently gave a glimpse into his own productivity systems after trying out an alternative he was hopeful about that ended up disappointing him. He had tried to improve the popular bullet journal (BuJo) personal productivity system – naming his version BuJoPro – and came away with an important, if subtle, lesson.
Ideally, we want to have a simple approach to productivity. The elegant notebook gave him one item he could carry around "and whip out, at any point, to efficiently tweak the levers that control the many moving parts of my life," he writes in his blog. But while that simplified his productivity systems, it didn't simplify the complexity of the plans, compared to his normal approach. His handwritten scratches on the pages of the sleek dot-formatted journal couldn't keep up with the raw amount of information needed to capture his current activities or the frequent revisions needed to keep this perspective useful.
So he is returning to his pre-existing system, ad hoc and disparate as it is:
- Recording his daily planning in a Black n’ Red Twin Wirebound Notebook: Each day’s activities are listed on one page that is divided into two columns. In the left column, he assigns two lines to each hour of the day and then divides that time into blocks labeled with specific assignments. In the right column comes explanatory notes for those blocks, if required. He leaves space beside the time blocks to adjust as the day advances.
He dedicates 10 to 20 minutes every evening to building his schedule of time blocks for the next day, consulting task lists, calendars and weekly and quarterly planning notes. He is aiming to ensure progress is made on the right things at the right pace for the relevant deadlines. If your day requires reaction to that day’s events – requests from clients or the boss that require immediate attention – create some blocks of time in advance for those.
“Sometimes people ask why I bother with such a detailed level of planning. My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+-hour work week pursued without structure,” he writes.
- Printouts of plain text files for weekly plans: On Monday mornings, he plans the work week, writing in an e-mail and sending it to himself. Again, this swallows up time – always more than an hour – but he feels it’s worthwhile.
“To visualize your whole week at once allows you to spread out, batch, and prioritize work in a manner that significantly increases what you accomplish and goes a long way toward eliminating work pile-ups and late nights,” he writes.
There is no single format for this plan; it varies with that week’s challenges. But it often involves listing goals for each day, scheduled activities, and a guess at how best to block his time. The e-mails can be printed out as needed.
The big lesson, he says: “I always decide in advance what I am going to do with my week. These decisions look different at different times of year, but what matters is that when it comes to my schedule, I’m in charge.”
- Temporary plans: Those two plans are used at all times, but occasionally he will add a temporary plan when under siege from multiple deadlines in a short period.
This sketches out what he intends to happen over a period of a few weeks. It’s informally written and concise, ensuring he gets started early enough to coast to his deadlines rather than facing a lot of uncompleted work all due in a few days.
Again, he captures this in an e-mail and prints it out when planning his week. “I call this type of plan ‘temporary’ because I want to emphasize that they’re short-lived and used only when the circumstances absolutely require them. To plan at this level regularly would be, in my opinion, overkill,” he advises.
That may seem complicated. But he argues that life is complicated, and attempts to tame it will be complicated as well. His closing advice: "Try to keep your systems simple, but make peace with the reality that what these systems contain might be too wild to capture on a few elegantly-formatted pages."
What to say when the boss rejects your idea
So you have just presented a brilliant idea to the boss, and he or she dislikes it. Instead of slinking off to sulk, here are three more productive reactions that Kat Boogaard recommends on Fast Company:
- “How do you think the idea can be improved?”: You don’t want to get into a heated debate about why the idea has merit, but this response allows you to edge towards keeping the idea alive, with the two of you collaborating towards that purpose.
- “I’ll see what else I can come up with.” – After you gain some feedback, signal to your supervisor that you aren’t just going to roll over in the face of defeat but will return to the original problem and try to find another solution.
- “Thanks for the consideration and feedback.” – If you realize the idea is dead – and probably alternatives as well – indicate politely and professionally that you are moving on.
Coolness, as Jeff Bezos sees it
Here are Amazon chief Jeff Bezos's 24 elements of coolness, as Arizona State University leadership professor Jeff Cunningham reports at ChiefExecutive.net:
- Rudeness is not cool.
- Defeating tiny guys is not cool.
- Close-following is not cool.
- Young is cool.
- Risk-taking is cool.
- Winning is cool.
- Polite is cool.
- Defeating bigger, unsympathetic guys is cool.
- Inventing is cool.
- Explorers are cool.
- Conquerors are not cool.
- Obsessing over competitors is not cool.
- Empowering others is cool.
- Capturing all the value only for the company is not cool.
- Leadership is cool.
- Conviction is cool.
- Straightforwardness is cool.
- Pandering to the crowd is not cool.
- Hypocrisy is not cool.
- Authenticity is cool.
- Thinking big is cool.
- The unexpected is cool.
- Missionaries are cool.
- Mercenaries are not cool.
- The biggest mistake you make with your résumé is not addressing it to your future boss, who is two levels above your current role, says Marc Cenedella, founder of career site The Ladders. You need to understand their needs, predicaments, and requirements.
- Breakthrough innovators include in their analysis of an issue why previous solutions failed or were insufficient, blogger Bob Morris reports.
- Starting a sales pitch by talking about your company’s history and reputation may seem to establish credibility but just indicates you believe the value you can provide is by repeating what’s in your brochure, says sales consultant Anthony Iannarino. You need to do “discovery work” with clients instead, helping them to discover something new about themselves – what they need to do differently.
- Does artificial intelligence hold out the opportunity of reducing sexism at work? That seems logically possible – machines haven’t grown up with gender biases – but machines can reflect the biases of the people that use them. Mahe Bayireddi, CEO of Phenom People and an artificial intelligence expert, says artificial intelligence can bring these biases to the forefront, allowing HR officials to figure out the origin and fix it.
- Find and team up with your opposite as John Lennon and Paul McCartney did. That will make you exponentially stronger, more appealing, and more effective, says consultant Roy H. Williams.