Conventional wisdom states that, as an entrepreneur, I should be slogging 12-16 hrs a day. Yet, on any given day, I never exceed 4-5 hrs of real work. Of course, I work beyond that as well – e.g., on administrative work, emails, etc. But I don’t do long hours or late nights.
And not because I am lazy but because 4 to 5 hours is kind of the human limit for intense focus. After that, we go brain-dead.
Today, I want to show you how to create incredible value without working insane hours.
These days, most of us neither work in factories and warehouses, nor do we do mechanical repetitive tasks (e.g., data entry). We create value through problem-solving, creativity, and our specialized knowledge and cognitive skills. This kind of work is called ‘knowledge work.’
And in knowledge work, overwhelmingly, value is created from just one thing – Deep Work.
So what is deep work?
Cal Newport defines it as “working on mentally demanding tasks for long hours, without distraction or attention switching.” It is the opposite of shallow work – tasks that don’t require deep thinking or sustained attention (e.g., emails and small little tasks that litter our schedule).
Further, Cal Newport argues that in knowledge work, the amount of deep work is an excellent proxy for value created. Then why do we obsess about long hours? Because we are still thinking like factory managers of the old days.
And if you are not convinced, think about the time you spent last week on shallow work, e.g., on emails. If you had spent twice the time on emails, would you have created double the value? Quite unlikely. On the other hand, if you doubled the time spent on deep work, the value created would indeed double (or at least, go up substantially).
So if we want to make insane progress in our career, we need to maximize deep work (quality and quantity), not the total number of hours.
Then how much deep work can we possibly do? While it varies by person and the nature of the task, for mentally demanding tasks, 5 hours is kind of the upper limit. I often struggle even after 4 hours!
So if you are struggling with ‘lack of time’, here is the wonderful news – all you need is 4-5 hours of focused work on your top priorities. You don’t need 12 (or 16) hours!
Then why do we work beyond 5 hours at all?
Because we also have a lot of shallow work, which while not as valuable, helps keep the lights on. E.g., if you stopped responding to emails, attending calls, or talking to colleagues, your business would collapse.
So shallow work is needed to survive and deep work to thrive.
We work long hours because the deep work items don’t get done in the frenzy of activity, emails, and distractions. When this pending deep work piles up, we work on them late at night, when there is no disturbance.
My guess is that for most of us, some deep work can bring down the hours by 20-40%. This means we can sleep on time, find time for fitness, and feel less stressed. This is huge!
In short, we need a deep work transformation. But how do we do that?
While the recipe would vary since each of us has a very different work environment, here are the guiding principles.
- Think of designing your day like building a house, where you first build the pillars, on which the remaining structure rests. For your work day, the deep work slots are like those pillars.
Each morning, decide how many deep work slots you want that day. And what would those slots be? Try to make them as specific as possible. E.g., “10 am to 12 pm” is very precise. But if you don’t have control over your schedule, at least have a goal like, “I will do 2 hours of deep work before lunch.”
- Do all deep work in small sprints of 25 to 50 minutes. I prefer 25 minutes, after which I take 5 minutes break. After 3 sprints, I take a longer break of 15 minutes or more.
If you are doing 50-minute sprints, take a 10-minute break after each.
The reason we need focus sprints is that open-ended focus is very hard. We normally have a certain distraction-ridden way of working – we check our phone and email in the middle of our work. But to do focused work, we need to tell our minds to drop these habits. How do we do that?
To answer via an analogy, when people go to a place of worship, they leave their shoes out because there is a boundary that the shoes should not cross. Similarly, you need a mental boundary where you leave out your usual distraction-seeking habits. The sprint serves as that boundary.
So scrupulously maintain the ‘specialness’ of the sprint and don’t compromise.
Also, remember – breaks are the key to effective deep work. Don’t hesitate to take longer breaks if needed.
During these sprints, you should ideally have a timer running and work on only one thing without switching tasks. After years of practice, I am addicted to the sound of the timer (though you may choose to keep it mute). I use a Chrome extension called ‘Be Focused.’
- Train your mind to focus. No matter how scrupulously you do the sprints, if your mind is used to seeking distractions every few minutes (e.g., checking your WhatsApp, email, Instagram), then you can’t do any deep work. If you are prone to seeking distractions, you have to break those habits and rebuild your focus muscle.
- Start small and then build up. Four hours of focus sounds simple but is very hard. So if it is challenging, start with an hour or so and then build it up. Meditation is an excellent exercise for building your focus, though you have to be extremely patient with it.
- If you feel mentally saturated after a few sprints, pick a different task that gives your mind the change it is seeking.
- Since you can’t be checking your emails and messages during your focus sprint, talk to your managers (and team members) and get their sign-off.
Once you bake deep work into your routine, you can do more in 8 hours than in 12 or 14 hours. But no claim should be taken at face value – please test out what I shared.
I know that this newsletter is a bit long. But thank you for reading this. I value our relationship and cherish this opportunity to be part of your life.
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