May 30, 2019, by John

Deep working (when work doesn’t happen at work)

If you are reading this, you might be procrastinating from the revision you have to do. If you are, this might be helpful. As I’m currently on placement, I’ve been grappling with this question: why doesn’t work happen at work? I make myself many cups of tea, I chat with my colleagues, and I attend meetings. But why doesn’t any work seem to be done?

Perhaps you feel this way too as you revise. We set out from home with grand promises of what we will do today during revision. We tell ourselves that we will spend 8 hours in the library. We diligently write out a beautifully crafted to-do list. And when the day passes, we realise that little was accomplished. Instead, a beautiful day has been spent surfing through cat videos, replying frantically on Snapchat, and scrolling through our social media feeds. Why doesn’t work happen at work?

1.       We are lazy.

We are creatures of comfort. When given an opportunity to slack or work hard, we choose the path of least resistance. We slack. What’s the difference between a star athlete and us? They have learnt to subject themselves to incredible discipline. They ignore the instinctive tendency to take the easy way out. They ignore what their motivation says. When their motivation says ‘stop!’, they say, ‘Shut up, I will continue.’

They push.

2.       Interruption disrupts our flow.

Jason Fried describes this funnily in his Ted talk. He likens work to sleep. We move into deeper and deeper phases of sleep without interruption. Similarly, work demands the same. We move into greater flow with diminishing interruption. Our constant switching between phone to work, work to washroom, chat to work, disrupts our ability to focus.

So what can you do?

This is difficult, and it demands that you ignore our primal instincts for comfort.

1.       Disconnect.

Whilst working, send your phone into the sky – put it in airplane mode. This stops you from being persistently distracted by notifications that pop up. If possible, keep your phone out of sight, within your bag. Better still, leave it at home. Whenever you are tempted to check your phone, take a deep breath. Impulses come, but they also go.

Rather than checking your phone at every break, check it at fixed times. I do it once at lunch and dinner. This allows you to batch your replies, rather than populating your day with a series of short bursts at work and on your phone.

2.       Start fixed schedules.

I love the student life for its autonomy. You decide when to work, and when to play. But as I moved into placement this semester, juggling the simultaneous 9 to 5 with the impending academic coursework deadlines, I started to hate the poor boundaries between work and home. A typical day for me would see leave for work at 7, and return home at 8 after working on my accompanying coursework.

Cal Newport, a computer science professor, advocates fixed schedules in his book ‘Deep Work’. I highly recommend this book if you are searching for methods to take your grades to stratospheric levels. Start imposing strict boundaries around work. For example, no work after 6. Since starting this, I have seen the power of not moving beyond such boundaries. It has sharpened my fcus on my assignments, knowing that there is absolutely no negotiation around the time.

That’s why deadlines work. Rather than adding another hour to your revision, why not start imposing strict boundaries around your work time?

How badly do you want to do well? If it doesn’t matter that much, then you can continue with what works for you. But if it does, try these 2 simple methods over the next month.

When you lie on your deathbed, if success for you was responding ASAP to every message, liking every photo, and knowing everything about others, please, carry on.

Success (whatever your definition is) depends on disciplined efforts daily, that translate into minor achievements yearly, and extrapolate into a life which you can look back on and say, ‘It’s all been rather lovely, hasn’t it?’

John writes regularly at

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