In business, time is money. But in academia, the currency is not published units but citations of your publications. For someone to not only read your paper but understand and cite it, you need to produce high-quality, readable papers. And that requires deep work.
I’m an avid reader of Cal Newport’s blog where he writes about managing your attention and energy to output high-quality work. I strongly believe that a person’s work output is directly dependent on the hours they spend in deep work. “Deep work” is when you are fully “in the zone” - you have notifications turned off on your phone, you aren’t checking your email or social media, and you are fully engaged in your complex activity. For me those activities could be writing or editing a paper, adding new features to my code, carefully curating a well-designed test dataset, tweaking an explanatory figure to make it more clear, working on an upcoming presentation with a new audience, or doing a new analysis of the data.
To help keep track of your deep work, Cal Newport suggests planning every minute of your day. It may sound crazy and obsessive-compulsive, but it really works. What he does is plan his day out on paper and adjust the schedule as things happen. I don’t like that because then my day looks really messy and I want my “on-paper” plan to be an exact record of what actually happened. Instead, I plan my day out on Google Calendar the day before (during the “shutdown” time) and record what actually happened in a Moleskine daily planner notebook (I love well made stationary products). Japanese pens are my favorite so I use the Uni-ball Signo UM-151 pens from JetPens – my preferred color is “Green Black.” Additionally, I keep a
self private GitHub repository containing markdown files for every week, and summarize what I was able to do that day.
Here’s the step-by-step of my planning rituals, with pointers to the columns of the figure below. The top is a very productive day where even though the plan changed, I still was able to get a lot done (except for those annoying UCSD ethics trainings…). The bottom is a less productive day that was governed by meetings and talks (including Aaron Quinlan of
bedtools fame!) but I was still able to get something done. These are fairly good examples, the “bad” examples (that are less productive) are quite boring - I only wrote down an hour or so of deep work so I’m too embarassed to show them.
Here’s where I write the hours and minutes I spent in deep work each day. I find that it helps keep me motivated to sustain the work and get more hours in the next day.
Personally, I’ve found that ~4 hours of deep work is about when I max out, because if I do 5 hours one day, next day I end up doing 2 hours. But 4 hours a day is sustainable. As you can see, December hasn’t been that productive of a month for me - only about 2-3 hours of deep work a day. The 40m day was one where I was traveling and just didn’t set aside a time to fully focus and was at the mercy of my impulses.
When you first start doing it, you may get frustrated that you’re not getting much done – that’s okay. I get disappointed in myself when I don’t Don’t get frustrated, just keep tracking. Just like any other goal such as losing weight, results don’t come right away.
I work in an “open office” environment which makes doing deep work quite difficult as there is constant movement and potential for interruptions around me. Our lab is quite collaborative so there are times when your input or insight is needed for someone’s project to go through. I made the mistake of taking this to an extreme and getting very frustrated when people would interrupt me while I was “in the zone” and tried to set boundaries but this closed me off from others. As Richard Hamming says in his fabulous talk, You and Your Research about people who closed themselves off:
I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing - not much, but enough that they miss fame.
So I had to learn to temper this desire to get solid work done and strike a balance between being available and performing intense work. Now, I take lunch off to socialize and chat with the group (rather than working through it), take my headphones off and interact with the world, and when I really need to get work done, I run away and go hide in a place that nobody can find me.
Productivity is very personal and what works for me may not work for you. I am not trying to say that this is the OneTrueWay™ of being productive. This system exploits my love of
git version control and simple Markdown text files (the
self private github repo), beautiful writing on good paper with nice pens (hence the Moleskine planner and Japanese pens), and flexibility of Google Calendar. My system may seem overwhelming at first because it is the product of many years of trying different things. For me, online tools like Asana and Trello make planning “too fun” and get in the way of what I want to do. Writing everything out on paper makes for an ugly planner with lots of crossing out which I don’t like. Take the ideas that work for you and leave the ones that don’t. (Thanks for the quote, James Clear!)