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5 Secrets to Managing Your Time, Backed by Research

15 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

It’s the problem we all face at the office: how to manage your time. You’re so overwhelmed with meetings and email that you always wonder if you’re really getting anything done. And often, you’re not.

But one expert has an answer to how to make sure you’re getting ahead in your career while being less stressed and enjoying your work more.

Cal Newport knows something about getting stuff done. In the decade after he graduated college he published 4 books, earned a Ph.D. from MIT, published a ton of academic papers and was hired as a professor at Georgetown University.

Cal leaves the office every day before 6 p.m. and rarely works weekends. He’s also married with 2 children.

How does he do it? Cal prioritizes what he calls “deep work.” And in his new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he explains why this is key and how you can incorporate it into your own life.

This book deserves the kind of praise I offer very rarely: It’s important.

So let’s hear what Cal has to say on how to manage your time, how you can be less busy and complete the kind of work that will get you raises and promotions…


Why You’re So Busy But Get Nothing Done

The one line answer: you’re prioritizing “shallow work.” You’re making your attendance at meetings, the speed of your email replies and looking busy a proxy for real productivity. It’s ineffective and it’s making you miserable.

Everything we do at the office gets called “work.” And that’s a problem. Really, there are two kinds of work:

  • “Deep work” is using your skills to create something of value. It takes thought, energy, time and concentration.
  • “Shallow work” is all the little administrative and logistical stuff: email, meetings, calls, expense reports, etc.
  • Shallow work stops you from getting fired — but deep work is what gets you promoted.

    Here’s Cal:

    Deep work is to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, and shallow work describes activities that are more logistical in nature, that don’t require intense concentration. We just think of work as being any activity that plausibly produces benefit. Once you realize there are different types of work and some types have way bigger returns than others, it completely changes the picture.

    The problem is that we’re all “drowning in the shallows” while the world is valuing deep work more and more.

    From Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World:

    The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

    How bad is it? Email and internet searches alone take up 60% of the average knowledge worker’s hours.

    From Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World:

    A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.

    The CTO of Atlantic Media (the company that makes The Atlantic magazine) wanted to know how much they were paying people just to respond to email. When he ran the numbers, it turned out the number was about $1 million dollars a year. Here’s Cal:

    He did all of this and found out that their investment was roughly the same as buying a Learjet every year in terms of how much money they were paying people to send and receive emails.

    Now for some, like salespeople and senior management, emails and meetings are their job. But for most of us our real work only begins when the email and meetings are done. And these days those things never seem to end.

    And there’s another benefit to focusing on deep work. And it’s a big one: Deep work makes you happier.

    Spending time on deep work has been shown to make us more satisfied with our jobs, while email and shallow work makes us miserable. Here’s Cal:

    We see at the neuroscience level, your world is what you pay attention to. When you’re doing deep work, your attention is really focused very concretely on something that’s very satisfying. “I’m creating something in the world. I have some autonomy.” Your world seems like something that’s good. At the psychology level, we have all the research on flow. We know it’s satisfying to enter a state where you’re giving full, rapt attention to something that you’re good at. Shallow work, on the other hand, fragments your attention and exposes you to a lot of things that aren’t that nice. You’re going to see the Facebook post that makes you jealous and the email that stresses you out. Someone who’s based mainly in shallow work, neurologically speaking, is going to eventually construct an understanding of their world that is stressful and fractured.

    Cal’s right. We’re happier when we’re focused and immersed. As Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, explained in the Harvard Gazette, a wandering mind is not a happy mind:

    People spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy.

    I know what some of you are thinking: But the world will burn down if I don’t check email every 30 seconds.

    No, it won’t. And your work won’t suffer. And your business won’t lose clients. Harvard Business School’s Leslie Perlow got a team at BCG (a leading consulting firm) to spend one workday a week with no access to email.

    They all thought the world would burn down. What happened? Here’s Cal:

    What happened was it didn’t cause a problem. It increased the quality of their work and the satisfaction of their customers went up after they started spending more time disconnected.

    (To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

    Okay, so deep work is important. But how do we fit it into our insane schedules?


    1) Don’t Schedule Distractions. Schedule Deep Work.

    We use our calendars all wrong. Meetings get scheduled. Phone calls get scheduled. Doctor appointments get scheduled. You know what often doesn’t get scheduled? Real work.

    All those other things are distractions. Often, they’re other people’s work. But they get dedicated blocks of time and your real work is an orphan.

    If deep work is the stuff that really affects the bottom line, the stuff that gets you noticed, the thing that earns you raises and gets you singled out for promotion, well, let me utter blasphemy and suggest maybe it deserves a little dedicated time, too? Here’s Cal:

    Start time blocking. Actually start scheduling out your day. “What am I doing during this hour? What am I doing that hour?” Get in the habit of actually making a plan for your day and a plan for your weeks. If you’re actually making a plan for your time, you’re going to be much more likely to be able to proactively put aside time for deep work.

    Don’t schedule distractions and hope to fit in work where you can. Invert your schedule. Block out a few hours for real, deep work. Cluster your email and other administrative shallow work into “batches.”

    (To learn what the most productive people do every day, click here.)

    So you’re making deep work a priority and giving it dedicated time. But interruptions happen and there are meetings you can’t miss. How do you make sure the week doesn’t become a blur where no real work gets done?


    2) Scoreboards Aren’t Just For Athletes

    As Peter Drucker once said, “What gets measured gets managed.” Keep a running tally of hours of deep work. This is how Cal makes sure he’s making real progress on things that matter. Here’s Cal:

    One of the ideas that I found really useful was having a scoreboard. I keep a tally so I can see every day how many hours of deep work I’ve actually performed. It seems like a simple thing, but without it, it’s so easy to go through a week and just say, “Well, I was busy and I think I did some deep work in there.” Once you start keeping score, you look at it and say, “I did one hour out of a 40-hour week? I’m embarrassed.” A compelling scoreboard drives you to action.

    Believe it or not, this was one of Jerry Seinfeld’s secrets to becoming a great comedian. He recorded progress visually on a calendar. If it worked for him, it can work for you.

    (To learn the schedule very successful people follow every day, click here.)

    I know what some of you are thinking: But people keep asking me to do stuff like to go to meetings or help them with projects!

    Cal has a one-word solution to this problem…


    3) The Most Dangerous Word When It Comes To Productivity

    And that word is, “Yes.”

    You have to limit your use of it if you want to get things done. I know it can be hard but something has to give. You need to prioritize deep work and you need to prioritize your work. Here’s Cal:

    The people who tend to do things that have an impact say “no” to a lot because what they’re really interested in is, “I want to do the deep things, the things that require my skills and create new value, and I can’t do that if I’m constantly going to meetings and jumping on calls and checking email.”

    Still skeptical about telling people “no”? Don’t trust me. Don’t trust Cal. Trust a billionaire. Warren Buffett once said:

    The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say “no” to almost everything.

    (To learn the 6 things the most organized people do every day, click here.)

    So you’re setting aside time for deep work, you’re keeping a tally and saying “no.” You’re way ahead of the game. But how do you actually get started once you’re ready to roll your sleeves up?


    4) Have a “Deep Work Ritual”

    Rituals are powerful. Getting focused can take time. You can make things easier and train your brain to get ready for some fierce concentration by having a personal ritual that helps you shift gears. Here’s Cal:

    One way to more consistently achieve a state of real concentration is to have routines and rituals built around deep work. It can be as simple as clearing your desk, or shutting your door. That ritual tells your brain, “I’m now entering deep work mode.” You might have a set routine like getting your coffee and doing a ten-minute walk to clear your head. These type of things can actually help your mind much more easily shift into the right state.

    Research shows rituals like these can help you be better at your work and even help you overcome procrastination.

    (For more on how rituals can improve your life, click here.)

    I’m sure there are still some naysayers out there. And I know what they’re saying: The only thing these tips are definitely going to do is get me fired.

    Here’s why you’re wrong…


    5) The Question You Need To Ask Your Boss

    Yes, if you stop going to a bunch of meetings and stop replying to email quickly and then use the time you gain to better curate your Pinterest page, yes, you’re going to get fired.

    But if you use that time for deep work, stuff that really moves the needle, and can show that to your boss, you may very well end up as their favorite employee.

    It’s a vicious circle: everyone is busy with meetings and emails so little real work gets done. So the measure of productivity becomes email and meetings. When you break the cycle and deliver real results, those false metrics aren’t as important.

    But you want to be sure, right? Okay, so talk to your boss. Get an idea of how much time they really do want you spending on meetings and email and how much “deep work” they’d really like you to be doing. Here’s Cal:

    Explain the concept of shallow and deep work. Then say, “We need to communicate with our clients, but obviously I need to be doing deep work so I can produce good things for you. I’m tracking my time, so what percentage should I be aiming for?” Get your boss to actually try to commit to a vision like, “About 50% of your time should be unbroken and 50% should be doing these shallow tasks.” When they’re actually confronted with how much time you’re spending trying to produce real results with your skills, they have to start thinking, “Okay, we need to change some things.”

    Looking busy ceases to be important when you can show results that make it clear you’ve really been busy.

    (For the morning routine experts recommend for peak productivity, click here.)

    Okay, we’ve learned a lot from Cal. Let’s round it up and learn the final secret to success in the 21st century…


    Sum Up

    Here’s what we learned from Cal:

  • Don’t schedule distractions. Schedule deep work: Block hours for what really matters, not just for anything with a designated start time.
  • Keep a scoreboard for deep work: And make it visible. The point is to shame yourself if you’re not up to snuff.
  • Stop saying “yes” if you want to get things done: Want an example of how this works? Email me and ask me to “jump on a call.”
  • Have a “Deep Work Ritual”: Whatever gets you ready to crank. Hiding in a conference room and throwing your phone into an abyss is a good one.
  • Ask your boss how much time they want you spending on deep vs shallow work: If they say “100% shallow”, feel free to ignore everything above.
  • Real craftsmen are proud of their work. Just because you’re not a stonemason or a painter doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of yours.

    We get that feeling of real accomplishment when we make things, not when we attend pointless meetings and reply to endless email chains. Here’s Cal:

    In the book I quote some well known philosophers from Berkeley and Harvard who talk about how there’s a sense of sacredness that you uncover when you get really good at doing something. That touches something deep in the human condition that can be very rewarding. No matter what discipline you come at it from, deep work is a type of activity that’s going to be mentally satisfying, especially as compared to a fragmented attention that’s divided up in all these shallow activities.

    The world is changing. We’re surrounded by distractions but those distractions matter less than ever. Here’s Cal:

    If you can train your ability to focus and then fight to make time for real intense focused work in your schedule, you are absolutely going to thrive in this economy while the people sitting next to you are going to look up one day from their Facebook feed and realize they’ve been left behind.

    Want to be the smartest person in the room in this new world of work? Cal sums it up simply:

    “Focus is the new IQ.”

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    This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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