In 2020, Stop Busywork and Concentrate on Deep Work

Make a vow to stop being so productive in 2020. That’s not as strange as it sounds, allow me to clarify. Stop spending so much time on busywork. Instead, make more time for deep work.

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, defines deep work as professional activities done in distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Deep work creates new value, improves skills, and is hard to replicate. Researching, exploring ideas, writing thoughtful content, analyzing data, and developing strategy are all examples of deep work.

At the other end of the spectrum is shallow work: logistical tasks that don’t require much brainpower and are often done while distracted. This work does not usually create new value and is easy to replicate. Dealing with email and chat messages, checking social and platform notifications, pulling reports, and data entry are examples of shallow work.

deep work

Why we’re all too busy for deep work

Despite knowing better, many of us still wear ‘busy’ like a badge of honor. How many times have you been part of this conversation?

“How’ve you been?”
“Oh, (sigh) busy.”
“Yeah, me too.”

The unspoken message here is: I’m busy because I’m really important at work. Our egos like being busy.

We also hear other messages loud and clear: Do more with less! Hustle! Work smarter!

So, we keep busy.

Of course, we understand the importance of quiet, focused time. We really do want to spend more time doing deep work, but the office culture doesn’t quite allow it.

When you add members to the mix, deep work seems even more impossible. Responsive member service is highly valued. Plus, you must meet (if not exceed) the expectations of volunteer leaders. They have a fulltime job too and are probably struggling with the same issues as you, but when they have time for their association duties, you are expected to be there for them and not make them wait.

Technology has given us the power to do so much more—a blessing and a curse. We’re always on and connected. But with more channels to check, we’ve become even more reactive and feel like we’ve lost control of our day.

Email is bad enough: the average professional sends and receives as many as 140 emails daily. I know, some of you are thinking, only 140 emails, that’d be great. But now, we also have to deal with texts and instant messaging, social media, collaboration software, online communities, project management tools, and meeting alerts. These workplace tools interrupt knowledge workers 14 times a day.

Many associations are improving their organizational culture by encouraging more cross-departmental collaboration, but that usually means even more meetings. In this constant state of reactive busyness, meaningful deep work is kept waiting.

The impact of busywork: tension, stress, and burnout

Dropbox CEO Drew Houston said, “We’re hiring people for their minds, and then we’re not giving them any space to think.” Busy association professionals need this space too. You feel the tension between your need for flow and focus and your desire to be of service to others—colleagues, members, and volunteer leaders. You’re torn between the desire to claim time for deep work and the expectations of your office culture.

The judgmental inner critic goes into overdrive when you can’t accomplish everything or when you find yourself procrastinating because you have trouble focusing. When you can’t resolve these tensions, it can lead to stress and burnout.

Mobile phones—and, therefore, the office—follow you everywhere so you struggle with work-life equilibrium too. Since you lack the power to change this dysfunctional situation and to begin working in a truly more productive (and meaningful) way, you get even more stressed out.

deep work

One company's solution to busywork: the 5-hour workday

Researchers found that only 43% of the average work week is spent focusing on the job we were hired to do. The rest of our time goes to administrative tasks, unproductive or nonessential meetings, and reactive tasks like responding to emails. No wonder some days it seems like we never get anything done.

In another study, 45% of the respondents said they could do their jobs in less than five hours a day if they weren’t interrupted. Maybe this is why a technology consulting firm in Germany decided to institute a five-hour workday—with conditions. Social media and cell phone use is prohibited during the five hours, as is small talk with co-workers. Meetings are limited to 15 minutes and email is only checked twice a day. It’s still too early to evaluate the sustainability and impact of this experiment.

Knowledge work in transition

The five-hour workday is an extreme response to the productivity issue. Cal Newport isn’t surprised we’re having trouble dealing with this challenge because, he said, knowledge work is new, “at best 10 to 20 years old.” It started with networked desktop computers that connected us via email. Then, mobile phones made connectivity ubiquitous. Now, new digital tools are facilitating even more always-on communication.

Newport said, “To believe… that our current approach to knowledge work—which is brand-new on any reasonable scale of business history—is the best way to create valuable information using the human mind is both arrogant and ahistoric… If I’m right and we’re still early in this new phase of digital knowledge work, then more productive—and hopefully much more meaningful and much less draining—approaches to executing this work remain on the horizon.”

But the horizon is awfully far away when your plate is full and distractions are becoming business as usual. Something has to change, especially as boards continue to pile more on staff’s plate without taking any existing work away. Next week, we’ll share some practices for reclaiming your focus so you can minimize busywork and focus on deep work.


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