Work like Teddy Roosevelt

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport is a must read and one for your bookshelf. It helped me understand the difference between deep and shallow work. Below is an excerpt from the book:

Work like Teddy Roosevelt Deep work.jpg

 

If you attended Harvard College during the 1876-1877 school year, you would’ve likely noticed a wiry, mutton- chopped, brash, and impossibly energetic freshman named Theodore Roosevelt. If you then proceeded to befriend this young man, you would’ve soon noticed a paradox.

On the one hand, his attention might appear to be hopelessly scattered, spread over what one classmate called an “amazing array of interests”– a list that biographer Edmund Morris catalogs to contain boxing, wrestling, body building, dance lessons, poetry readings, and the continuation of a lifelong obsession with naturalism (Roosevelt’s landlord on Winthrop Street was not pleased with her young tenant’s tendency to dissect and stuff specimens in his rented room). This latter interest developed to the point that Roosevelt published his first book, The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks, in the summer after his freshman year. It was well received in the Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological Club- a publication, needless to say, which takes bird books quite seriously-and was good enough to lead Morris to assess Roosevelt, at this young age, to be “one of the most knowledgeable young naturalists in the United States.”

To support this extracurricular exuberance Roosevelt had to severely restrict the time left available for what should have been his primary focus: his studies at Harvard. Morris used Roosevelt’s diary and letters from this period to estimate that the future president was spending no more than a quarter of the typical day studying. One might expect therefore that Roosevelt’s grades would crater. But they didn’t. He wasn’t the top student in his class, but he certainly didn’t struggle either: In his freshman year he earned honor grades in five out of his seven courses. The explanation for this Roosevelt paradox turns out to be his unique approach to tackling this schoolwork. Roosevelt would begin his scheduling by considering the eight hours from eight thirty a.m. to four thirty p.m. He would then remove the time spent in recitation and classes, his athletic training (which was once a day), and lunch. The fragments that remained were then considered time dedicated exclusively to studying. As noted, these fragments didn’t usually add up to a large number of total hours, but he would get the most out of them by working only on schoolwork during these periods, and doing so with a blistering intensity. “The amount of time he spent at his desk was comparatively small,” explained Morris, “but his concentration was so intense, and his reading so rapid, that he could afford more time off [from schoolwork] than most.”

This strategy asks you to inject the occasional dash of Rooseveltian intensity into your own workday. In particular, identify a deep task (that is, something that requires deep work to complete) that’s high on your priority list. Estimate how long you’d normally put aside for an obligation of this type, then give yourself a hard deadline that drastically reduces this time. If possible, commit publicly to the deadline-for example, by telling the person expecting the finished project when they should expect it. If this isn’t possible (or if it puts your job in jeopardy), then motivate yourself by setting a countdown timer on your phone and propping it up where you can’t avoid seeing it as you work.

At this point, there should be only one possible way to get the deep task done in time: working with great intensity- no e-mail breaks, no daydreaming, no Facebook browsing, no repeated trips to the coffee machine. Like Roosevelt at Harvard, attack the task with every free neuron until it gives way under your unwavering barrage of concentration.

Try this experiment no more than once a week at first- giving your brain practice with intensity, but also giving it (and your stress levels) time to rest in between. Once you feel confident in your ability to trade concentration for completion time, increase the frequency of these Roosevelt dashes. Remember, however, to always keep your self-imposed deadlines right at the edge of feasibility. You should be able to consistently beat the buzzer (or at least be close), but to do so should require teeth-gritting concentration.

The main motivation for this strategy is straightforward. Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable. Roosevelt dashes leverage artificial deadlines to help you systematically increase the level you can regularly achieve-providing, in some sense, interval training for the attention centers of your brain. An additional benefit is that these dashes are incompatible with distraction {there’s no way you can give in to distraction and still make your deadlines). Therefore, every completed dash provides a session in which you’re potentially bored, and really want to seek more novel stimuli — but you resist. As argued in the previous strategy, the more you practice resisting such urges, the easier such resistance becomes.

After a few months of deploying this strategy, your understanding of what it means to focus will likely be transformed as you reach levels of intensity stronger than anything you’ve experienced before. And if you’re anything like a young Roosevelt, you can then repurpose the extra free time it generates toward the finer pleasures in life, like trying to impress the always-discerning members of the Nuttall Ornithological Club.

 

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