I recently came across a Facebook post asking student affairs professionals how many emails they receive on an average day. The comments were disheartening but unsurprising.
People shared that they were inundated with emails, yet seldom were their contents important or meaningful. In 2016, technology market researchers found that the average office worker received over 200 emails per day.
As an SApro, I receive approximately 70 each day — in addition to many text messages from coworkers and campus partners, as well as occasional phone calls. This equates to more than 70 daily instances of people vying for my attention and more than 70 distractions from the meat of my job, which is serving students. Even though I know that I wasn’t hired to just respond to emails, often when I hear my colleagues exclaim that they achieved “inbox zero,” I feel compelled to get there myself.
Email is a frustrating example of shallow work, as are meetings. In my office, we hold meetings about literally everything. On Mondays, I have a two-person meeting to prepare for a five-person meeting on Tuesdays where we prepare for a biweekly 15-person meeting on Fridays.
With so many meetings scattered throughout each day, essential projects — like writing a report, designing a student program, or thinking of creative solutions to student problems — have to get done in short bursts. Plus, you need to squeeze into time to use the restroom, respond to email, follow up on goals from previous meetings, and prepare for upcoming meetings. When factoring all of those tasks into the day, it becomes more clear just how easily our student affairs culture erodes productivity.
Cal Newport, a computer science professor and academic/career success writer, blames shallow work for the erosion of productivity and inability to make headway on deeper, more important work. In his bestselling book Deep Work, Newport highlights that our brains are not meant to work like this and that the constant fragmentation of work throughout the day makes it extremely difficult to be productive when we finally have the time.
Shallow work, like responding to emails or attending frivolous meetings, not only prevents you from doing something else, but it eats away at the mental sharpness that you need throughout the rest of the day. This is due to attention residue, which is the idea that our brains cannot move immediately from one task to the next; they need time to catch up. Further, the more fragmented our attention is during a given task, the higher the occurrence of attention residue, and the poorer our performance on the next task.
Fortunately, Newport believes there’s a solution to all this: Deep work. Deep work involves working with a high level of focus, without distractions, and making immense progress on a single task.
Just as the external pressure of a deadline compels students to write entire papers on their due dates, deep work requires you to fully commit to the task at hand and work until time is up. While you might read this as a classic example of procrastination, deep work reimagines that by requiring the user to tap in that same intense level of focus for a fixed amount of time every day. This means not checking your phone, not hanging out in student affairs Facebook groups, and not checking your email.
Deep work is an alternative to our culture of multi-tasking, and it requires you to retrain your brain. Newport’s book changed my life, and the following strategies that I gleaned from it might change yours too.
1. Protect your time
This is the most beneficial strategy to incorporate as you begin to work deeply. If you work well in the morning, then block out some morning time on your calendar each day to get real work done. If you were to dedicate two hours of your most productive time to meetings, you’d be draining your brain’s resources and setting yourself up for the detrimental effects of attention residue.
To schedule your workday in a way that encourages deep work and protects you from the effects of attention residue, you can schedule all shallow tasks on one day each week or at the end of each day rather than the beginning. This is helpful because tasks like email, check-in meetings, or sending calendar invitations do not require focused attention.
If your preferred productivity time is also the preferred meeting time for others, directing the next strategy at departmental norms will be helpful.
2. Understand the root cause of your shallow work
Maybe you spend hours each week adjusting your calendar as a way to cope with anxiety, or maybe you respond to emails to show your micromanaging supervisor that you’re working. Either way, our motivation to complete shallow work comes from somewhere, and once you identify the cause, you can develop more beneficial alternatives to free up your time for the more fruitful and enjoyable parts of your job.
One way to identify the cause of your shallow work is to ask yourself a few why questions, such as:
- Why am I attending this meeting?
- Why am I responding to emails right now?
- Why is my calendar jam-packed today?
- Why haven’t I started writing that report?
Answering these questions will lead you to a deeper understanding of your office or departmental culture.
Further, you will understand your motivation for working during specific parts of the day, the rationale for scheduling yourself, and the intention behind some of your work obligations.
One reason why shallow work is such a norm in student affairs work culture is that it is uncritiqued. You’ve probably heard coworkers express sentiments like “We’ve always had this meeting” or “we always formed a committee to execute this program.” Seldom does anyone consider alternative methods to meet desired outcomes. Questioning longstanding practices in your department will potentially create a wealth of opportunities for incorporating deep work into your life.
3. Eliminate distractions
In order to be successful with deep work, you have to let some things go.
Personally, I needed to say goodbye to social media and Google Hangouts. I try to avoid social media during the day and sometimes I even deactivate and uninstall the apps from my phone. That’s because they can be extreme time-sucks with my use of them seldomly relating to my work.
I stay away from Google Hangouts to ensure that the message is clear to anyone wishing to contact me through there: I am not always available. Constantly texting, direct messaging, g-chatting, and picking up the phone can wreak havoc on boundaries, and blur the lines between what’s urgent and important.
Prior to the telework era, you may have closed the door or drawn the blinds in your office. Now, you might consider eliminating texting during the workday or silencing your mobile notifications altogether. Some people will interpret this as eccentric or abnormal, but nothing about deep work is “normal” in our culture, and that is why it works so well.
4. Set realistic goals
When moving from a habit of extreme multitasking into deep work, you have to be realistic.
In the beginning, you may only carve out 90 minutes each day to work deeply, and that is okay. That time will extend as you strengthen your brain’s ability to focus and concentrate without distraction! So do not jump into it too quickly or beat yourself up if you hit barriers at first.
One clever mindset shift that Newport identifies in the book is to set goals based on the process, not the product. For instance, set a goal to work deeply on a research report for two hours, rather than striving to finish the report. You may finish it, or you may not, but you will have more success working deeply than working in a distracted state.
To slowly ease into deep work, you can use the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work deeply (and uninterrupted) for 25 minutes, then give yourself a five-minute break. The only tool you need is a timer. I like using the Focus To-Do smartphone app, but you can use your phone’s built-in timer or another Pomodoro App.
I like to use the app when I am focusing on housework or tasks that require me to move around because it plays an alarm and connects to my Apple Watch. If you are a fan of low-technology office options like me, you can get this beautiful Pomodoro hourglass set from Amazon, but know that it will break if you knock it off of your desk trying to kill a spider …not that I would know from experience or anything.
I want to reiterate that although working deeply is not easy, it is absolutely worth it. Instead of moving frantically between several tasks at once, you’ll be able to engage in individual tasks with renewed focus, energy, and productivity.
This is how we serve students more effectively, by creating systems that work so that we can be healthy and whole.