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Deep Work and Time Blocks

A couple of weeks ago, I had to review the information contained in almost a dozen reports that were cross referenced, dating back over a decade. These reports totaled over 300 pages of information on water and sewer system upgrades and in the five years that I have been at the City of Revelstoke, I knew these reports were “important” information to process, but “urgent” matters tended to push these reports to the back burner.

An example of Covey’s time management quadrants

A report I was reviewing prior to acceptance was relying on these older reports as background information for their conclusions, and it was imperative that I had a clear understanding of the information contained and the appropriate values and facts to be referenced. This led to a further internal report drafted to consolidate many of my findings and provide recommendations to the developer’s engineer and the City on infrastructure. The outcome of my efforts is an increased understanding in the City’s leadership and across the community of some major infrastructure challenges that we are facing as we grow.

I don’t claim to be an expert in “Deep Work”, but this experience, where I focused on this one project, at times working uninterrupted for four or more hours; gave me a taste of what can be accomplished with Deep Work.

I’m just starting to read “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport. I feel that between this book and “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, I may have a chance at managing my workflow more efficiently.

So what is “Deep Work”? Others have summarized the book, so I won’t go into details, but my favourite summary:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

How do I make it work? Rather than picking a specific project to work on at a given time, I plan to set aside for a type of work. In my world I have three main types of work.

  • Short-term internal demands such as council report writing, project management, or urgent changes to a project under construction. (usually requires a minimum of an hour of uninterrupted time).
  • External short-term demands such as development engineering reviews. (usually requires a minimum of an hour of uninterrupted time).
  • Long-term priorities such as asset management planning, long term financial plan development, program management and project development. (usually requires a minimum of two hours of uninterrupted time, and sometimes up to several days of effort per task for larger projects.

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The unexpected meetings, events and emails of the day will undoubtedly alter the schedule as you cannot block out the reactive element in their entirety, but having a plan increases the likelihood of completing tasks and meeting deadlines and goals. To quote Cal Newport,

“My goal is to make sure progress is being made on the right things at the right pace for the relevant deadlines.” – Cal Newport

We are at our most productive when we reduce the distractions of email, phone calls, co-worker interruptions and instead dedicate time to “Deep Work“. It takes consistent effort and training coworkers, clients and bosses to make sure they understand you are not just blowing them off, but scheduling out your time for both the important deep work and the urgent (but perhaps not as strategically important) tasks such as emails and administration work. In today’s business world, it can be extremely difficult to carve out the time and space to achieve Deep Work, I’d recommend reading the book for a counter-cultural take on the challenges of living and working in an attention-deficit, social media driven world.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.