Creating Space for Deeper Work and Better Living | Whiteboard

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Insight 24 | July 5, 2017

Creating Space for Deeper Work and Better Living

by Nick Blackmon
Our days are largely the result of unconscious responses and so the routines we build for ourselves will determine how we respond, work, create, live, love, and play. Living meaningfully then, is done by creating frameworks to prioritize what is significant rather than urgent.

95% of your decisions are subconscious (Dr. Bruce Lipton, Stanford University). This means that the “conscious” decisions we make day-in and day-out are a by-product of our subconscious minds.

Our days are largely the result of unconscious responses and so the routines we build for ourselves will determine how we respond, work, create, live, love, and play. Living meaningfully then, is done by creating frameworks to prioritize what is significant rather than urgent.

Will you create, relax, or work today? The success of any of these depends upon how you organize your mind and your environment to create real space for it.

Key Messages


Creating Space for Deep Work

Studies show that it is impossible to multitask except for with more automatic tasks like walking (Christian Jarrett, 82). In fact, attempts at multitasking actually make you stupider. Awareness of an unread email in your inbox reduces your IQ by 10! Multitasking reduces your focus to less than that of someone high on marijuana (Levitin, 98). While studying or trying to learn something new, multitasking actually directs information to the wrong part of your brain so that it is harder to recall correctly later, if at all. (Levitin, 98)

But it doesn’t feel ineffective at all does it? If we’re honest, many of us feel we’re pretty great at getting a lot done at once. Many of you think you’re the exception and some of you (parents in particular) may even feel affronted.

We have largely believed the delusion that we are capable of multitasking; we do it every day, right?

We answer emails as we create a spreadsheet for our boss. We check Facebook as we design a new web page. We respond to texts and calendar invites (so many calendar invites) while in meetings. You may be even attempting to do something else as you read this article.

We all know we get a bit of rush from answering emails, and this is because it is actually addictive (Levitin, 98).

Each time you check your inbox, answer an email, or “complete” some other small task you get a hit of happy brain chemicals, called dopamine, as your reward. If you have listened to this talk by Simon Sinek then you get this, it’s the same high he mentions from getting a text message, or stimulation from social media.

So what’s the rub— if you are getting a hit of dopamine and feeling good, is there really a problem?

The problem is you become addicted to completing that which is urgent but not significant. You become really great at marking of items on your todo lists, while not creating anything. You finish projects without solving problems. You fail to do your best work. You feel anxious, like there is never enough time.

As Mark McGuinness puts it, we sacrifice our “potential for the illusion of professionalism.”


I just described how many of you feel about your work each day. What we think of as multitasking is actually just task-switching. It is impossible to focus on more than one task at a time and each time we shift our brains need 10-15 minutes to adjust to our new tasks, meaning some of you may never catch up (Microsoft Study, 83).

To thrive in our work and in our lives amidst the deluge of information at our finger tips, poking and prodding our eyes and our minds every second, we have to reject bad habits and carve space for new ones to be formed.

We must forego the short-term reward that comes with an illusion of productivity and choose to chase the long-term reward that comes with focusing on one task at a time.


Tips for Deeper Work

  1. Stop task-switching.Performance quality suffers and all activities take longer to do than they would if a single task had been the sole focus.” (Jarrett, 82)
  2. Block times on your calendar for focused work. “Mark this time on your calendar like any other meeting… [this] however is only half the battle. The other half is resisting distraction. This means: no email, no internet, no phone.” (Cal Newport, 74)
  3. Ignore people when you can. Put everything in Do Not Disturb Mode. “It’s better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to surrender your dreams for an empty inbox.” (83) Replying to a message diverts your attention for an average of 10 minutes and just knowing it is there can ruin productivity, so completely avoid it until dedicated time for that later in the day.
  4. Practice self-control and improve it with unrelated tasks. “ Self-control is not genetic or fixed, but rather a skill one can develop and improve with practice.” (Erin Doland, 101) Even simple tasks like improving your posture, flossing your teeth, or making your bed each day can bring improvement.
  5. Finish what you start, or get to a good stopping point. “Research has shown that an unfinished morning task could linger in your mind like a mental itch, adversely affecting your performance later on.” (Jarrett, 84)


Creating Space for Routine

Judges presiding over identical hearings over the course of a day become erratic in their judgements toward the end of the day. (Shai Danzinger) But this isn’t related to occupation— we all become more likely to make poor decisions as the day winds on. We become more easily angered or stressed, and more likely to binge eat or wile away hours in front of a screen.

Even decisions like fighting the temptation to eat dessert, or remain stoic during an emotional scene in a movie reduce the energy we have left for other decisions (John Tierney). As we make more decisions we begin to surrender our preferences, follow rote processes, procrastinate, and abandon even small tasks.

Many of us are familiar with this idea of “decision fatigue“, that we are more effective and productive at the start of our days. Over the course of a day each decision we make uses mental energy and calories. We only have so much cognitive ability before we need to recharge. Therefore, building routines that prioritize our most important work for earliest in the day will make all the difference in the success of our days.

“People with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.” – John Tierney


Articles about perfect routines and “The Secret Routines of Highly Successful People” abound, so I won’t get into the specifics of what the structure for conserving your willpower ought to look like. Only you can build your routine, and only you can decide what should occupy that most coveted early morning spot.

What remains the same for each of us is that our mornings should be reserved for our highest priority, and that our evenings should be guarded for rest.

Still, many of the healthiest routines will provide space for exercise, meditation, eating well, connecting with those you love, and getting plenty of sleep. For which there are plenty of resources, but what I will provide are lesser-spoken-of tips I have found that have worked well for me and others.


Tips for Building a Routine

  1. Create creative triggers. “Stick to the same tools, the same surroundings, even the same background music, so that they become associative triggers for you to enter your creative zone.” (McGuiness, 28)
  2. Creative work, then administrative work. “The single most important change you can make in your working habits is to switch to creative work first, reactive work second.” (Mark McGuinness)
  3. Your day started yesterday. Plan ahead. If you are prioritizing your most important work for the morning and administrative type stuff for later in the day, be sure to find time to plan for the next day or week. This will help you to stick to your prioritization by not requiring you to think about what is your priority for that morning.
  4. Work in 90 minute batches. “Our bodies follow what are known as ultradian rhythms— ninety minute periods at the end of which we reach the limits of our capacity to work at the highest level.” (Tony Schwartz, 52)
  5. Work frequently, work daily. “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of spasmodic Hercules.” (Anthony Trollope)
  6. Give-in to something. Watch a video, take a break. Eat a snack. Glucose adds willpower to the brain and replenishes some of the energy needed for effective work and decisions.“The very act of resisting temptation eats up concentration and leaves you mentally depleted”, so switch off a bit too (Jarrett, 83).
  7. Take a nap. “Even 5–10 minute ‘power naps’ yield significant cognitive enhancement, improvement in memory, and increased productivity. And the more intellectual the work, the greater the payoff. Naps also allow for the recalibration of our emotional equilibrium — after being exposed to angry and frightening stimuli, a nap can turn around negative emotions and increase happiness.” (Levitin, 189)


Creating Space for Rest

If your mind were a computer its processing power would be 120 bits per minute in a waking, focused state. But your unconscious mind works at 40 million bits per minute! (Lipton) Your conscious mind would be like making a phone call with intermittent service, while your unconscious mind is the same phone on high-speed internet.

When your mind is working at 40 GBpm it is organizing information, connecting disparate ideas, storing what you have been learning, practicing techniques, and solving problems that are fresh on your mind. (Levitin)

“New information and concepts appear to be quietly practiced while we’re asleep, sometimes showing up in our dreams. A night of sleep more than doubles the likelihood that you’ll solve a problem requiring insight (Levitin, 184)

We all know we are more effective when we get enough rest, but most of us probably didn’t realize that our minds are hard at work while we sleep. Beyond even the obvious benefits on performance, I’d guess that rest is more important than you realize for having a happy and effective life.

This is so crucial for us to understand because sleep is often the first thing to go when we are trying to “get more done”. We think of getting stuff done in terms of quantity or time spent rather than effectiveness.

We think that more time spent on something equates to higher quality or getting more accomplished. But sleep loss can affect our productivity even 3 days after the fact, and months or years later it can cause a loss in our memory retrieval for things learned on the days our sleep schedules became irregular.

“Sleep is among the most critical factors for peak performance, memory, productivity, immune function, and mood regulation. Even a mild reduction or a departure from a set sleep routine (going to bed late one night and sleeping in the next morning) can produce detrimental effects on cognitive performance for many days afterward.” (Levitin, 189)

Sleep is so critical to our well-being and performance that 1 hour of study and a good night’s sleep is more effective for learning and problem solving than spending the equivalent time just studying. (Levitin, 186)

1 hr. of studying + 6–10 hours of sleep > 7–11 hours of studying

To recap, if you get better sleep you will be more productive, healthier, more effective in your learning, work, and practice; you’ll be happier, more creative, and better at remembering things you’ve learned. Ok, I think I’ve convinced you, and if not I wish you luck.

Tips for Better Rest

  1. Adults need 6–10 hours of sleep each day. (Levitin, 190) The whole bit about older people needing less is a myth. Listen to your body instead of bad research.
  2. Stick to your schedule. “All of this tuning, extraction, and consolidation doesn’t happen during one night of sleep but unfolds over several sequential nights. Disrupted sleep even two or three days after an experience can disrupt your memory of it months or years later.” (Levitin, 185) P.S. Oversleeping can also effect productivity, immune function, and mood significantly for several days after.
  3. Coffee is not a substitute.“It is true that caffeine enhances cognitive function, but it works best when you’ve been maintaining a consistent sleep pattern over many days and weeks; as a substitute for lost sleep, it may keep you awake, but it will not keep you alert or performing at peak ability.” (Levitin, 192)
  4. Lose the drugs. Medications can be addictive and leave us feeling drowsy the next morning. Furthermore, those who take medication for sleep on average only get 11 minutes of additional sleep time, and their brains never enter REM sleep. (Levitin, 192)
  5. Avoid bright lights before bedtime. “Bright light in the morning signals the hypothalamus to release chemicals that help us wake up, such as orexin, cortisol, and adrenaline. For this reason, if you’re having trouble sleeping, it’s important to avoid bright lights right before bedtime, such as those from a computer screen or TV.”  (Levitin, 192)
  6. Don’t sacrifice your sleep to work more. A 60 hour work-week, though 50% longer than a 40 hour work-week, reduces productivity by 25%, so it takes two hours of over time to accomplish one hour of work.” (Levitin, 307)


Creating Systems That Work For You

Disciplined results require a disciplined approach, and thus far we have discussed how to apply this through exerted self-control but how can we make our environments work for us?

Just as we should structure our days for success and focus, so we should structure our environments the same. We spend nearly 60% of our days alternating between home and a work place, and if you include time in our cars it may be closer to 75%. Thus, we could reduce much of the energy lost to new decisions repeated daily by thoughtfully structuring our work and homes.

Has a day ever been ruined by lost keys, leaving your computer at home, forgetting to pack a lunch, or having to make a trip to work or home for something you needed? These are all problems and frustrations in your control to solve.

After all the work you’ve done to create an effective routine, you owe it to yourself to aid its success with a few simple steps to organize your life.


Tips for Your Environment

  1. Put things in the same place. If there is something that you use each day (keys, phone, wallet), give it a dedicated storage in your home so that you don’t lose them. I use a small basket in my bedroom for all these things. (Levitin, 71)
  2. Organize things so they are easier to find and access. Organize your clothes, pantry, books, kitchen items, and tools in some way that makes sense for you. I like to do this in terms of priority so that things that I use more often are easier to access.
  3. Use items and their placement as reminders. Is there something you need to remember? Get your glasses repaired? Put the glasses in your jacket pocket. Pick up milk from the store? Put the empty carton in your car seat. Create reminders and cues that will help you not to forget things. (Levitin, 85)
  4. Keep it in your car. If there are things that you need on hand while traveling, driving, or in multiple locations and it can be safely stored in your car, then do so. This will help you to not forget things like gym clothes or a tool kit, and will save you a trip home.
  5. Get rid of the junk drawer or organize it. We all have one, that drawer in the kitchen that has all the junk that doesn’t make sense anywhere else. Screwdrivers, zips ties, and batteries abound. Try to organize these things in a way that makes sense in the drawer itself so that what might be needed can be found, or better yet, get rid of stuff that is worthless. Do you really need all those rubber bands?
Final Thoughts

When you create this space for routine and renewal I think that you’ll find that you are much happier and more effective. But don’t just take my word for it. Throughout this article you’ve heard from C-suite execs, award-winning authors, and  renowned psychologists and professors; we would do well to listen to them.

Banish “multitasking” from your tool belt, build a healthy routine, and create time for rest.


The Organized Mind
Daniel J. Levitin

Somehow some people become quite accomplished at managing information flow. In The Organized Mind, Daniel J. Levitin, PhD, uses the latest brain science to demonstrate how those people excel—and how readers can use their methods to regain a sense of mastery over the way they organize their homes, workplaces, and time.

Manage Your Day-to-Day
Jocelyn K. Glei and various authors, produced by 99U

The world has changed and the way we work has to change, too. With wisdom from 20 leading creative minds, Manage Your Day-to-Day will give you a toolkit for tackling the new challenges of a 24/7, always-on workplace.

A study done on the various factors that affect judicial decisions in America, with observation on how fatigue plays a role in decision-making.

In Deep Work, author and professor Cal Newport flips the narrative on impact in a connected age. Instead of arguing distraction is bad, he instead celebrates the power of its opposite. Dividing this book into two parts, he first makes the case that in almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. He then presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four "rules," for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.

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