I was recently corresponding with a friend and the topic of extra-curricular projects came up. I rattled off a list of 6 or 7 things I’m doing outside of work.1 Bar committees, speaking engagements, article writing, writing a book, etc. All of them, taken with the day-in, day-out grind of being a lawyer, can sometimes lead me to be fairly busy. But I’m also careful to not be too busy. I have found that when I am too busy, stretched too thin, activities or projects inevitably suffer.

Cal Newport of Study Hacks, wrote about this balance today:

Deep work is phasic.

Put another way, to ape Rushkoff, we’re not computer processors. We can’t be expected to accomplish any job any time we have the available cycles. There are rhythms to our psychology. Certain times of the day, week, month, and even year (e.g., the professor I discussed in my last post) are better suited for deep work than other times.

To respect this reality, you must leave sufficient time in your schedule to handle the intense bursts of such work when they occur. This requires that you constrain the other obligations in your life — perhaps by being reluctant to agree to things or start projects, or by ruthlessly batching and streamlining your regular obligations.

When it’s time to work deeply, this approach leaves you the schedule space necessary to immerse.

I’ve found this to be very true in regards to my own productivity. There are certain times of the day, certain times of the week, when I find that I can just work. I know that if I sit down at my computer from 7 to 10 AM, whether it be writing motions or blog posts, I can plow through them with ease. If I try write in the afternoon, the quality inevitably suffers. It’s not that I can’t or won’t write in the afternoon or evening, but I know that I can much more easily slip into a state of creative flow/mushin when I am in a certain place, at a certain time.

Taking the time to discover when you are best capable of deep work is something that is incredibly important if you want to produce remarkable work. There is no guarantee that you will produce something remarkable, but you will increase your chances of producing such a thing if you know when you are most capable, most open to letting go of everything else in your life – responsibilities, bills, deadlines – and focusing on a single task or problem.

empty cupIt often seems incredibly difficult to let things go in today’s always on, always connected world. There is a desire to multi-task and switch gears at all times. Check Twitter, check email, review a letter. Write a couple paragraphs in brief, get phone call. While on phone, pull up Facebook. Phone call ends, check Twitter, back to brief. Another lawyer sticks head in office, wants to talk about an issue in a different case. Finish conversation, back to brief, an urgent email notification pops up. Read email, not really that urgent. Reply anyway. Couple more paragraphs into brief, calendar notification goes off. Lunch scheduled with another lawyer in 25 minutes.

Maybe some people can be productive in such a environment or schedule. Or rather, I’m sure they feel as though they are productive. But as Newport points out, we are not computers. We don’t actually juggle processes in the background and switch tasks at will. It takes time – uninterrupted time – to get into mode of deep work. Constant interruptions and distractions only serve to chip away at your ability to go deep and produce remarkable results.

So discover when you are the most productive. Whittle away your responsibilities from that time. Let it be open. Even if you have nothing particularly pressing to do, keep that time free. It is potential. Ready to be filled with your work when you need it.

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