DMINLGP

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

Time to log off

Written by: on October 11, 2018

Sitting down to do my work today, to write this very blog post, meant not only turning toward the task at hand, but also turning away from everything else that I might possibly be doing.  I had to log off of Facebook, which I had been mindlessly surfing.  I had to turn off my Gmail account, which I was scanning hopefully for responses from colleagues.  I had to turn off my web-browser, where the path toward cnn.com, espn.com, and nytimes.com is well-worn.  I had to put my phone out of sight, close my office door and block out the time on my calendar.  All of this is quite necessary if I am going to “get some real work done”, which is my stated goal.

Does this sound familiar to you?  According to Cal Newport in his helpful book Deep Work, this is what life is like for the modern knowledge worker.  Newport writes that, “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.”[1]

Newport argues persuasively in his writing that almost anybody who uses a computer as part of their daily routine, is likely to slip into what he calls “shallow work”.  This is defined as, “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.”[2]  But shallow work also seems to describe the lack of depth when it comes to producing material of real value.  So, it can be distracted work, or it can be low-quality work, but either way, it is not deep work.

I read this book over a year ago, after our lead mentor Jason Clark mentioned it to our cohort. I had been struggling at the beginning of my DMin studies to make the time and space in my schedule for the work that I needed to get done.  Deep Work was a revelation to me.

I still use the term as a kind of short hand for “putting away distractions and getting things done.” My wife, my church staff, and even my neighbors will still ask me about this because I shared about it so exuberantly. Not only does Deep Work correctly diagnose the problem, it also has a set of practices that are obvious in retrospect, but that are powerful to experience.

One of these is simply about scheduling.  Newport argues that it is necessary to schedule time for the deep work that we need to do, which helps to set the context and mental space to really think, create and engage.  He quotes columnist David Brooks who says, “(Great creative minds) think like artists but work like accountants.”[3]  He means that, the discipline of accountants, who move methodically line by line, is counter intuitively the way that great art can be made.  I wish that I could be productive while working in the energizing and stimulating environment of a coffee shop or café, but the reality is that I need to be hermit-like, and to do my work in my office with the door closed.

Newport is not a Luddite, and his book is not an anti-technology screed, however, there is a strong preference within it for stepping away from the tools of technology. When it comes to scheduling, he doesn’t just mean the time and the place, but he also prescribes scheduling limited time to be on the internet, or social media, or email.  His thinking is that left to its own devices, these distracting baubles will creep into every moment of our time and our thinking.  It will distract us continually from doing deep work.

This resonates with what Tina Seelig writes about in Insight Out.  She describes the way the short term win or immediate need gets in the way of doing the bigger, harder and more important work in our lives.  She calls this “low hanging fruit” and says that many people, “fill their time with commitments and then, once their day or week is full, can’t imagine ways to add anything new.  They’re tackling the things they need to do, so they don’t have time to do the things they want to accomplish.”[4]

Every email, text or message that pops us can seem to be so important and immediate.  However, Seelig and Newport argue that it is possible to corral those things that come up, which seem so important, but actually aren’t.  At the same time, Newport presses for workers to embrace fallow time, rest time, periodic breaks from work.  It sounds a lot like Sabbath-keeping.

The way that I have taken this on, is by going on walks through the neighborhood around my church. I see it as a reward for getting a task done, but also, it clears my mind, awakens my body, and helps me return to the next deep work task.

My analysis of this book, which is full of suggestions for things that will seem counter-intuitive or hard to do, is that Newport is purposefully pushing the limit. His hope is that by offering a basket that is overflowing with fruit, that a reader would be prompted at least to take one or two bites.

His ideas run counter to the popular mood of the day, about multi-tasking, using technology to get more done, and open-space office environments.  However, his suggestions for monkish work habits make a lot of sense.  In fact, even taking on a few of the routines that he describes can have an immediate, positive effect for those feeling caught in the rat race, or drowning in the shallows.

[1]Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (London: Piatkus, 2016), 6.

[2]Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (London: Piatkus, 2016), 6.

[3]Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (London: Piatkus, 2016), 119.

[4]Tina Seelig, Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 109.

 

About the Author

Dave Watermulder

8 responses to “Time to log off”

  1. mm M Webb says:

    Dave,
    It was great seeing you in HK and riding home on the flight to SFO.
    I appreciate your personal thoughts and comments about deep work. I hear the author, but do not agree with all his conclusions. “Busy people can always find the time to get things done” is an adage that rings true for me. For example, you have seen me in closets at work locations in austere places getting our Zoom and other school work done. I did not tell you about reading, writing, and reflecting about our LGP program while flying…not as a passenger either!
    I watched Dr. J during our Advance and during our Zoom meetings and do not see any “monkish” habits displayed by him, except maybe his hair! He even types with two thumbs on his smart phone while on the subways in HK.
    In short, we are all wired differently, and following the body of Christ analogy we are all unique with special talents and giftings. Newport is the one who needs to immerse himself into the information age, learn how to multitask, and research people’s leadership effectiveness while engaged in spiritual warfare. I pray he comes to saving faith and can enjoy the peace that comes when applying Proverbs 3:5-6 to his schedule.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  2. Great post, Dave!

    I liked the way that you compared Newport’s text to keeping the sabbath.

    Modern workplaces have created more flexible schedules and environments to support multitasking lifestyles; however, they’ve also created an incessant need to be connected to one’s job. The lines have become blurred and boundaries have become nil. You quoted Newport and revealed that, “…the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching…” Globalization has pushed down on personal lives and drained leaders of their space for deep thought.

    Do you find that Newport’s advice works within a globalized work structure? Localization makes is easier to draw a line in the sand and create allotted space for deep work. However, most companies and leaders do not have the luxury of separating themselves from social interactions for long periods of time. Many companies are interacting with leaders within different states and countries weekly. How can those types of companies operate effectively whilst still allotting time for deep work?

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks, Colleen,
      I think you are right that the challenges we face in the modern workspace (for all sorts of different kinds of work) is a major concern and certainly what Newport was addressing. I think there are personal choices and organizational choices. So, some of us as leaders, have the ability to affect the culture of our church, business or organization. We can set times and tone for how work gets done. But others of us, are working in contexts where we really can only control our own time (and even that is only partially true!). I think this is what this book is really about: when we have choices for our own work time, our schedule, and how we set ourselves up. I liked this book because it was all about smaller, personal choices, things we can do even within a hectic work area, or larger organization. I think that’s good news.

  3. Great post Dave. Thanks for sharing some of the ways you’ve already integrated Deep Wrok into your life. This was thie first time I read this book, but I had ready many of the books his cited, my favorite of which was The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. I am one who used to pride myself in my ability to multi-task, but I am learning that there are certain tasks (including writing a good blog post or dissertation) that are best done with my full attention. But giving undivided attention was actually a skill I had to re-learn; It’s a discipline, of sorts!

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Jen,
      Amen to this! I think that’s a good way of putting it, that we have to re-learn how to give undivided attention, especially after thinking all this time that multi-tasking was such a great skill. I guess in some things we have to keep all the plates spinning, but then in others, where we really need attention and deep work, it works against us. Thanks again.

  4. Dave,

    I miss our late evening conversations. 😉

    Thanks for your reflection on this book. I resonated with your highlighting of the approach we must take as intellectual craftspeople. You stated, quoting Brooks, “(Great creative minds) think like artists but work like accountants.” My dad trained as an accountant, and I think of him when considering the methodological approach of being disciplined and moving line-by-line. Structure allows for beautiful creativity to emerge if we submit to the order and allow it to be the boundary that facilitates artistry.

    • Dave Watermulder says:

      Thanks, Mark!
      Yea, I think it’s a good point. This is also true when we think of something like the 10 Commandments or the Garden of Eden or almost any kind of structure where we put some kind of boundary around our behavior. It is not meant to lock us down or punish us, it is meant to liberate us for greater flourishing. This was true in the Bible, and it’s also true around work and habits. It’s a hard lesson to have to re-learn, but I think it’s necessary.

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