Working deeply towards a more balanced life in academia

Sara Wilbur is a second-year master’s student studying hibernation physiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In her previous life, she toured the country as a violinist with a folk orchestra called Patchy Sanders. Sara recently returned to her hometown of Fairbanks to be with family and to unlock the mysteries of telomere dynamics in arctic ground squirrels. She also enjoys delicious beer, knitting, and skijoring with her husky mutt.

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Deep Work by Cal Newport was introduced to me by Dr. Kevin Winker, curator of birds at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Museum of the North. I took a course from him in spring 2017 called Advanced Explorations in Genomics. In our last class of the semester, Kevin recommended the book to us nine graduate students and I followed his suggestion. The central message of the book is that focused, undistracted effort devoted to mastering difficult concepts efficiently produces work of true quality and value. In it, Newport discusses the social media time sink, busyness as a mask for true productivity, and how the ability to work deeply is a valuable skill in today’s economy.

I felt so inspired by Deep Work that I interviewed Kevin late July 2017 to discuss Newport’s ideas. Kevin is a kind, thoughtful person who provides an invigorating balance of support and challenge in conversation; talking with him was a pleasure. I left our chat feeling inspired to continue honing my focused working habits.

Sara Wilbur: Can you paraphrase Cal Newport’s definition of deep work? 

Kevin Winker: Scheduled periods of intense focus on a topic of interest. [Newport] is certainly not the first to recognize the importance of regular scheduling of intense focus to achieve a refined product when tackling complex mental tasks.

SW: If he’s not the first to describe this sort of work, why now write an entire book about it? 

KW: With increased electronic access to things like social media, computers, Google, etc., our lives and our attention spans have become much more fractured and there is a cost to be paid for that. We are constantly distracted and we are always interested in the next shiny object that passes by. Those environmental effects and that fracturing cause us to lose the ability to focus intensely on a single topic. And our brains love to be distracted, they love instant gratification, and that is something that has to be fought against to enhance quantity and quality of product.

SW: On your note that we’re predisposed to distraction, what I think, and what Newport describes, is that society actually encourages distraction via the importance placed on social media, instant email responses, etc. 

KW: Absolutely. You have to have the ability to control your immersion in it. It is difficult to control how much time you spend with those distracting things. Twitter is a fantastic tool for science and for social aspects. However, there is only so much time in a day, and how, in our business, are you going to be successful in producing the product that brings that success? Rigorously holding back those distractions becomes a critical skill. And it’s really hard.

SW: Newport has a section detailing how you can fit deep work into your life no matter what your schedule, lifestyle, or career. He thinks that no matter what your obligations are there is a way to regularly fit in periods of deep work.

KW: Yes. Schedule your time and follow through. It can be tough, especially with so many distractions. One of my career’s most important papers took nearly ten years to complete because it was an incredibly complicated problem. Simply beating my head against for years wasn’t necessarily solving it. That’s a nice thing I like about multitasking projects. Having Task “A” percolating in your brain when you switch to Task “B” can be quite helpful because it’s just sitting there, stewing, and sometimes new insights can just pop into your head.

SW: Yes. Newport is a big advocate for focusing singularly on a project. However, some complex problems get solved in your unconscious. You can pop it in back there and trust that your unconscious is going to work on it even after you’ve shifted your conscious focus to another project.

One thing I really like about the book is that Newport convinces us that deep work produces work of value.

KW: Yes, and quality of work is higher. You can still produce things of value in a fractured existence. I tend to reserve things like making tables and figures for times when my brain isn’t at its best. You can also create product of quality in a more fractured existence, but not product of complex quality.

Speaking of a more fractured existence, email is potentially a bottomless sink of potentially important and unimportant communication. I try to look at it just a few times a day.

SW: That can be hard to do. You have to turn off all the little dings that let you know when something new comes in.

KW: Never use them. Never use those. Ever! The first thing you do when you pick up a new piece of software is figure out how to prevent it from badgering you.

SW: I think email is a perfect example of what Newport calls “busyness as a proxy for productivity.” I could be sending high-quality, well-written emails all day. I would be making progress in terms of my communication with colleagues, but I wouldn’t be making progress with the nuts and bolts of my research.

KW: Right. Critical to recognize that.

I’m still learning how to be more productive, and how to be a better writer. I remember sitting down, talking with Terry Chapin [Professor Emeritus, University of Alaska Fairbanks], and I said, Terry, how are you so productive? He said, well, I keep a list. I said, gee, I keep a list too! [Pulls list out of pocket]. And I said, but how do you get so many papers done? And Terry said, I always keep something of mine at the top.

And that emphasized the fact that we can be so accommodating to others that we bump our own priorities in favor of satisfying someone else’s request. Terry’s key words there are that your projects have just as much priority as anyone else’s. Since then, I’ve been unembarrassed about my priorities being equal to anyone else’s.

SW: I was recently listening to a podcast interview with Newport and he said he doesn’t let his mood affect how he works. He doesn’t let how he’s feeling compromise his preplanned work schedule. I was curious what you thought about that, and to what level this is realistic and how one can find a healthy work-life balance.

KW: I agree with him. Deep work and productivity of the kind we’ve been talking about require a very strong commitment. That time you’ve set for yourself to work on things of high priority is so precious and you can’t bump it around. Didn’t he talk about training yourself to do this kind of work?

SW: Yes, he calls it deliberate practice, [where] you’re consistently, every day, training your mind to avoid distractions and to become comfortable with boredom.

KW: I love that. I’ve become a big fan of boredom. What I do when I am in a boring situation is bring out the series of questions in my mind that I’ve been waiting to work through and use that time to solve complex problems. I now look forward to boring times!

When you schedule that time that you know is precious, and that you know enriches your life and your life’s success, and you enjoy spending it, yeah, maybe it doesn’t give you the instant gratification that Twitter and Facebook and the internet would give you, but you know it gives you long-term gratification. So, buckle up and do it. Part of that discipline, that deliberate practice, part of making that work is doing it every day. Even with one hour every day, you can move a mountain with a teaspoon. You just have to go at that thing every day, with your teaspoon. You’ll feel so good with your progress and with the amount of material you can move.

My interview with Kevin was engaging and insightful. Our discussion further convinced me that to produce work of real value, I need to dedicate regular periods of intense, focused work on tasks that will advance meaningful progress. However, I left the conversation still curious about how effective work leads to fulfillment that seeps into your non-working life. Since starting my masters in 2016, I’ve been an advocate for working smarter, rather than harder. Some part of me knew that it was possible to make progress while still having a happy life outside of the lab. However, I felt surrounded by supervisors and peers who practice unsustainable work habits. How could I be sure that it was acceptable to allow myself consistent free time in the evenings and on weekends?

I found my answer in Deep Work. Newport advocates focused, intelligent work in the office. He suggests laying your work to rest at a reasonable hour and picking it up the next morning with a fresh, relaxed mind. Interestingly, however, Kevin does not seem to heed this bit of Newport’s philosophy. I asked him if deep work constrained between 9 am and 5 pm improved his overall quality of life, and he neatly sidestepped my question before moving on to another subject. Although he values smart work while on the job, he works very long hours, works at home, and works on the weekends. Perhaps his immense time investment in his work is fulfilling in and of itself. For me, I prefer and seek a balance, and found support for this personal conviction in Deep Work.

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