Undoubtedly reading is one of the best ways to discover something new. Books are the primary knowledge source for me when I want to learn about unfamiliar concept or just explore new ideas. However, my reading list for 2017 consists only of five books so far — this is not even one book per month.
Recently, I was lucky to get to know Marvin Liao — partner at 500 Startups — during a series of talks at Readdle’s office. Marvin’s talk was full of useful advice, but one thing that particularly stood out for me was Marvin’s obsession with reading.
One advice I can give you: read as much as you can, meet as many new people as possible. — Marvin Liao
As an investor in Silicon Valley, Marvin’s schedule is full of meetings, events and dozens of other things. Still, he spends at least 45 minutes reading every day. But I could only read five books in six months and my schedule is anywhere close to his. Working at a company which helps people work smarter not harder, I started to look for the book which would provide me with insights on how to do that. The book which would dig into the details of work efficiency and productivity not as mainstream trends, but as skills which can be practiced and improved.
I believe I found the answer in “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. Cal Newport is a Associated Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University with graduate degree from MIT, prolific writer and a father. In “Deep Work” he tries to answer the question of “What skills does one need in order to be valued in our economy?” which can be interpreted as “How to do your best work in less time”. 304 pages of the book are filled with insights and practical advice on how to maximize focused work time while minimizing distractions and increase hours of deep work while spending less time on shallow work.
Deep Work & Focus
Cal Newport defines deep work as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive ability to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skills, and are hard to replicate”.
Professionally wise, work produced in the distraction free state is “a key currency” in our modern economy. To support this argument, Cal Newport shares stories of professors and professionals who became extremely successful with deep work approach. For example, Adam Grant, who is youngest tenured and highest rated professor at the Wharton School, or David Heinemeier Hansson, who is founder of Basecamp (formerly 37Signals) and creator of Ruby On Rails web development framework.
Most of advice in the book is focused on professional cases, but ability to focus is as important outside of the workplace too. Being able to stay connected for 24/7 with people across different time zones makes it hard to draw the line between work and non-work time. The research shows that we can stay fully focused for only about 4 hours a day, after that our ability to focus intensily decreases. By staying “connected” for 10 or 12 hours, we are forced to spread those 4 focused hours to 10 and this results in lower quality work produced over longer time period. This is completely opposite to being productive.
Schedule, habits & meaningful productivity
The “Deep Work” is full of real-life examples and advice on how to produce best work you are capable of and to learn master hard things. Obviously, I would not list every single advice here (I highly recommend you read the book yourself), but I will mention my personal key takeaway from the book: schedule balance and meaningful productivity.
While working on the recent project at Readdle, I often came to work at 10:00 AM and left at 11:00 PM. I felt really busy and I thought it was “cool”. But I was completely wrong and I would go as far as to say that it was something to be ashamed of. If I applied principles of deep work, I would produce the same results in less time (probably in seven or eight hours instead of thirteen). This would leave me with additional time to move the project forward faster. On top of that, I would not be exhausted during my free time and could have focused on learning new things outside of work, like The Ethics of Memory course from Brown University which has been on my to-learn list for a month already. Being busy seemed like the indicator of productivity for me, but I learned how important it is to be honest with yourself on how efficient you really are, because it matters in a long-term. Cal Newport shared a lot of practical advice on how to avoid those kind of mistakes and instead find a balance for meaningful productivity which ultimately helps knowledge workers produce best work in less time.
I am happy to get back on track with my reading schedule and hopefully motivational words from Marvin Liao and advice from Cal Newport will help me keep this habit. I came to realize that I am awfully bad with work-life balance — to a degree when it brings more bad than good — but I am now equipped with a good advice on how to change that. My goal is to produce the best work I am capable of in less time, so that I’ll be able to reflect on my accomplishments and learn discover new things faster.