I’ve been reading a lot about productivity, distractions and work lately. One of my favorite books on this topic is Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport’s argument is simple: we live in a society that requires “deep work” and yet most of the work we produce is shallow. Why? Because we are distracted by emails, social media, the internet and the constant feeling that we need to be available.
What is worse is that we are often applauded for doing this type of work because it makes us feel “busy.” In fact, we often times feel like we are working more than we ever have. Simply responding to emails or “moving information around” makes us feel accomplished. But as Tim Ferris has said, “Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.” In fact, in 2012 the consulting firm, Mckinsey, discovered that the average worker spent roughly 60% of their time using online communication tools and surfing in the internet. In comparison, only about 30% of their time was spent to reading and answering emails.
In other words, we are doing intensely shallow work. This may not seem like that big of a deal since it seems that pretty much everyone is doing it. However, Newport points out that shallow work consists of… “Tasks that do not create much new value, easy to replicate, often performed while distracted.”
Stated bluntly, this is low value, low impact work.
There are a bunch of solutions to this, of course.
1) You can ritualize deep work by scheduling your routine around the pockets of time you will engage deep work. Intensely focus on a single thing for between 1-5 hours. After that, rest and let your brain recharge. Yes, that means it is totally ok for you to schedule times to be lazy.
2) Schedule times when you are allowed to use the internet and then DON’T DEVIATE from that schedule. Don’t buy into the lie that you just need to “Google something.” You don’t. That is your brain telling you it wants a different form of stimulation. It feels good to Google or check your notifications. But it is like cotton candy for the brain—you know you ate something, but it is gone just as quickly as you ate it. No nourishment. No deep work.
3) Schedule your day out. The problem is that we often live aimless lives. We don’t plan our day wisely. We wake up, go through our routine, and if we happen to stumble upon some free time, we use it unwisely. This was actually one of the things I had to adopt in my own life when I quit being a teacher. When I was a teacher, I had a very set schedule of work. I knew my rhythms and I tried to use my time effectively to achieve all I had to do. When I quit teaching, I found myself with a day that was unstructured. I had to impose order upon it in order to be more successful.
4) Become harder to reach. What this means is that you need to schedule time to take calls and respond to emails. If it isn’t time, then don’t do it. People can wait. They may think that whatever they are doing is an emergency and that you are holding them up. But more likely you are actually helping them out by helping them focus on doing deep work.
Essentially every step on here boils down to this: impose order in your life by creating a schedule for your work. If you don’t do that, your life becomes scheduled for you.
I am not writing this as an expert practitioner but as someone who is on a journey to be more productive.
Allow me to tell you a story…
Throughout my twenties I would typically wake up a few minutes before going off to work. I would scramble around, shower, maybe eat and then hop in my car for the commute to work. I tried going in early to work a few times in order to get more work done but I gave up after a couple days because it felt SOOOOOOOO freaking good to sleep in.
This cycle continued for years. While I managed to accomplish some things, I found that a lot of my time was wasted and wasteful. If something wasn’t scheduled out on my to-do list, it just wouldn’t get done.
I accomplished the most when I set smaller goals and stuck to my deadlines. For instance, when I was working on my D.Min, I had to take some online classes and listen to lecture. I would schedule those times at night and try to get done as much audio lecture as possible. I was typically highly productive at those times.
However, even then I didn’t truly accomplish deep work. I would do these tasks late at night, typically in a room where other things were going on. I felt the constant temptation to have other tabs pulled up on my computer. I always had my phone by me and if anyone texted, I would instantly respond. Nevertheless, I still accomplished my work.
But I am not sure how good my work was or if it truly impacted who I am the way it should have. And I think that is the fundamental issue:
God wants us to do deep work, not because it will make us successful, but because doing deep work transforms us and glorifies Him. The by-product of deep work may be success and the feeling of doing work well. However, it’s ultimate aim is the glory of God and our personal transformation.
And when I think about work along those terms, I realize that much of the work I have done isn’t particularly good.
I would wager that the problem with shallow work also carries over into my spiritual life. Much of what I consider “spiritual” in my life is really just a few moments of shallow engagement with God before heading off and doing other tasks. Worse, much of my engagement with God is distracted—I’ll have my phone on or I will check a Bible commentary on a particular verse instead of just deeply engaging with God in prayer or reading the Bible.
We hear a variety of admonitions against doing this, of course: “Don’t make God into a “to-do” list.” “Don’t put God to the margins.” “Give God your best.”
I would simply say that the root issue here is just being distracted. Maybe we don’t prioritize our time with God because we simply have lost our ability to prioritize at all. We simply flutter from one open screen to the next. We call a few minutes of prayer a “walk with God” when really it is just another open “tab” in our life.
As much as my charismatic, spontaneous side pains me to say this, I think we have to schedule God into our week. And that means carving out intentional time—not simply a few minutes—to go deep in our relationship with him. We need uninterrupted, guilt-free time when we just pray and read scripture.
When my Schedule gets Hijacked
I have a 6-month-old daughter. That means my schedule is constantly in flux. Daily routines, while nice, are often times sidetracked by immediate needs (like a dirty diaper). This can prevent deep work and deep spirituality from getting done.
That’s ok. I don’t think we need to be held hostage to our daily schedule. But I do think we need to block our time in such a way as that when something comes up that forces us to reorganize, our entire schedule isn’t destroyed. Here is what is working for me currently:
1) Blocking my schedule into half an hour chunks. This way, if one of my chunks gets destroyed or derailed, it doesn’t ruin all of my work. I just put that devoted chunk of time somewhere else in the day (or throw it out if it doesn’t fit anywhere else).
2) Reflecting on my to-do list the night before. This way, when I wake up the in morning, I know exactly what tasks are to be done that day. I am also not wasting time trying to figure out what I should be doing. I already know.
3) Spending extra time thinking about what could go wrong. I actually like to look at my schedule and think up a few contingencies or “worst-case scenarios” for each thing. What would prevent me from accomplishing my task? What happens if I cannot complete this task? If an interruption comes up, where does this task fall on my priority list? Doing this helps me process through the major work I have to do and sets me up for success, even if things don’t go as planned.
4) Saying “No” a lot more. I hate disappointing people and saying “no” to someone is very tough for me. But I also realize that there are just too many projects I have going on for me to take on much more. Therefore, I have to say “No, I appreciate the offer.” I typically ask myself if a particular offer or invitation excites me. If it doesn’t, I typically decline it.
So that is the basic structure of what I have been learning about “deep work” and “deep spirituality.” I could add more and talk about my changes in diet, exercise, vitamin regimen, and sleep schedule, all of which have impacted my productivity levels (both positively and negatively). That is a post for another day.
How about you? What tips have you found to help you engage in deep work and deep spirituality?
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Daniel Pandolph is co-founder of Ministry Assistant Services and founder of Theologian of the Boss. He holds a BA in Christian Studies from North Greenville University and an MA in Religion from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.