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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Workday Experiment

Written by: on September 19, 2019

Cal Newport, Computer Science professor at Georgetown, is perhaps more widely known for the imprint of his writing on the world of productivity. I enjoyed his book, Digital Minimalism, and am fascinated by his disciplined work and full life. Though there is much to digest in Deep Work, I gleaned two particular things from the book:

#1: Mindfulness of my schedule is primary to deep work.

Deep work is necessary for my job. In fact, deep work actually constitutes the largest portion of my work. I like to think I knew this before I read Newport, but I did not. I realize now that I often fall into the trap of many knowledge workers: the desire to prove my value to the team through the number of tasks I complete.

A similar reality creates problems for many knowledge workers. They want to prove that they’re productive members of the team and are earning their keep, but they’re not entirely clear what this goal constitutes.

I find myself ignoring the thinking work I need to do in favor of tasks that can be seen and acknowledged as completed. Instead of taking the time I need to accomplish higher-level problem-solving, I am tempted to submit to the tyranny of the urgent and complete tasks that I should be handing off to others. This mindset causes me to be held hostage to my Outlook app, and I often end the day unsure of what I really accomplished, but very sure of the fact that the problem I need to tackle is yet unsolved. I go through my day on autopilot when I should be practicing mindfulness regarding my workday.

Newport suggests that I assign every minute of my day.[1] This was very difficult for me, at first. It felt constricting. After all, my schedule is already out-of-control, and now this author wants me to put even more on the calendar. I was frustrated until I read, “This type of scheduling, however, isn’t about constraint – it’s instead about thoughtfulness.”[2] This was intriguing, so I decided to experiment with the idea. Now, a few weeks into the trial, I must admit that I have not only produced more work that only I can do in my context, but my non-work hours have been more fulfilling. Knowing I have already set aside time for shallow work keeps me from the guilt of not responding immediately and offers me the permission I needed to be present in the remaining moments of the day. The experiment has been a success, and I intend to continue. The practice of thinking about the end from the beginning of my day, week and month, has created more purposeful space that allows for deep work. This was space I’ve had all along but hadn’t realized.

#2: People appreciate clarity, and so does my mind.

The chapter titled “Drain the Shallows” was particularly interesting to me, especially the section on responding to emails. In my work, the balancing of my value of quick response time to the sheer volume of emails asking for a response is one of the most difficult things for me to find. It seems as though every message in my inbox is accompanied by a little red exclamation mark demanding my immediate attention. At first read, I found Newport’s strict boundaries on email communication overwhelming, but I appreciated his argument that “more important, people appreciate clarity,”[3] so I decided to experiment with this concept as well.

Over these few weeks, I have had the best return from the tip, “do more work when you send or reply to emails.”[4] Taking the few moments to ask myself questions regarding the project and the process before I reply has allowed me to move real work forward rather than becoming trapped by a mile-long email thread. I didn’t announce this new approach to everyone, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the change in emails sent to me. First, I am receiving fewer emails altogether. Second, the emails I do receive are more thoughtful and lead to specific objectives. It seems clarity is contagious!

Early in his career, Cal Newport learned something I had missed, and I am grateful to be learning from him. Thanks, Deep Work, for inviting me to experiment.

 

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[1] Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, First Edition. (New York Boston: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 221.

[2] Ibid, 226.

[3] Ibid, 245.

[4] Ibid, 248.

About the Author

mm

Rhonda Davis

Rhonda is passionate about loving her Creator, her wonderful husband, and her three amazing sons. She serves as VP of Enrollment Management & Student Development at The King's University in Southlake, TX.

4 responses to “A Workday Experiment”

  1. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Wow Rhonda, you have really given this book your attention. I think you picked two poignant aspects for Newports book – taking control of your day and focusing deeply on the important, not the extraneous. By an large I am hopeless without a calendar, but have learned to remember the calendar belongs to me not the other way around. How have you found spending time on depth of thinking regarding your ministry work has reshaped the contents of your calendar?

  2. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Rhonda,
    I am so glad you are finding some of Newport’s Deep Work suggestions working for you, particularly in the area of emails. What else have you found helpful? Where would you like to experiment next? I look forward to hearing how this source has enabled you to think deeper about your work.

  3. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Great post Rhonda.

    Would love to read your email responses, great news that these strategies are working for you and your community!

  4. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    Thanks for your post Rhonda. I love how you have put it into practice. I also appreciated his guidance on emails and how to shorten what could become long threads. One of the pieces in this efficiency however is how do we maintain a pastoral persona in the midst of strict efficiency? I’m reminded of Emma Percy’s reflection on pastoring seeming like we are doing nothing at times. A few years ago I determined to add a pastoral sentence to emails I sent to my congregation, even if they were short emails. Sometimes they are encouragement, sometimes it is a thank-you, sometimes it is sharing a verse or thought that I thought, sometimes it is a note that I am praying. Relationship building is never efficient and too much efficiency (I have found) hurts pastoral relationships. So how to temper Newport’s excellent advice with work so relationally dependent?

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