Want to achieve more by doing less? Here's how.

Cutting out the distractions and getting the job done

If you’ve ever felt frazzled by the pace of modern life, it may well be the fault of technology. What was supposed to set us free – work anywhere, any time from any device – seems to have slowly pulled us into a 24×7 routine that never lets up. 

So we check emails in bed, at the gym and over dinner. We reply to IMs and scan Instagram feeds in meetings, in the car and at the hairdresser.

No wonder we feel frazzled. So maybe it’s time to take a leaf out of Cal Newport’s book. 

Newport is astonishingly prolific: within 10 years of graduating, he published four books, got a PhD, regularly peer-reviewed white papers, and became a professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

And in between, he taught classes – his real job.

He’s achieved all of this through deep focus and efficient use of his time. And that means not being constantly distracted by the demands of new technology.

So he’s never had a Facebook or Twitter account, or any other social media presence outside of a blog. He schedules every minute of the day, and has an email curfew in place, so he’s not disturbed in the evening or early morning. He also practices ‘productive meditation’, where he ponders problems on his walk to and from work.

Ditching the distractions

I’ve been reading all about Newport’s radical approach in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

He claims that focus is the new IQ in the knowledge economy. As he puts it: 

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Deep work means cutting out the distractions, because they have a hidden downside. 

It might seem pretty harmless to glance at your email every 10 minutes, but it’s the attention residue after switching tasks that causes problems. And if you can’t immediately react to what you’ve read, it’s worse, as it lingers unresolved in your mind, interfering with your primary task. 

There’s also a hidden cost associated with all this addictive checking: Newport mentions a company that was calculated to be spending over a million dollars on employees processing emails every year. 

He also talks of “busyness as a proxy for productivity”, which is very common in today’s knowledge economy. Since there aren’t any clear indicators for what productivity looks like, people simply do “lots of stuff in a visible manner”.

And let’s be honest: we’ve all been there. You haven’t stopped all day, and yet when you look back at what you’ve actually accomplished, it’s difficult to quantify it. You were just busy.

But busyness doesn’t equal business.

Depth not breadth

So much for the problem – what’s Newport’s solution?

Having made his case for homo sapiens deepensis in Part 1 of the book, he turns to the rules (and yes, there are rules) in Part 2:

  1. Work deeply
  2. Embrace boredom
  3. Quit social media
  4. Drain the shallows

He breaks down each of these into manageable steps and gives real-world advice based on his personal experience. He says it’s important to decide where you’ll work and for how long, how you’ll work once you start and how you’ll support your work (with food, coffee and exercise).

And one size doesn’t fit all. There are, he says, many different approaches for working deeply, and you should choose the one that’s best suited to you:

  • Monastic – you cut yourself off totally and devote yourself to the task.
  • Bimodal – you divide your time between your deep focus/work and other, shallower activities.
  • Journalistic – you fit deep work into your schedule wherever you can (like a journalist, you write your story up anywhere).

Although I’d like to be monastic, I know deep down I’m more bimodal. What about you? 

Deeper and deeper

Newport’s case is pretty convincing and his approach is practical and no‑nonsense.

Even if the book doesn’t inspire you to radically change how you work, you’ll definitely pick up some tips on how to get more out of your day.

My favourite is one is entitled Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work. It’ll help you avoid the endless email ping-pongs that cause so much of our daily distraction. 

Deep Work is a fascinating read, and at 260 pages doesn’t require that much deep reading. I highly recommend it. In the meantime, if you’re too busy with all those emails and IMs, check out instead Newport’s TEDx talk called Quit social media

Because if you do that, you might just have time to read the book. And a lot more time besides.

Great ideas from the Intersection

When unusual combinations produce unexpected results

great marketing ideasI’ve just finished reading an intriguing book – The Medici Effect, by Frans Johannson.

The idea is simple: when two unrelated fields cross over, you enter what Johannson calls ‘the intersection’.

And great ideas result – sometimes.

The name comes from the Medicis, the family of bankers in fifteenth-century Florence. They brought together sculptors, scientists, poets, philosophers and more, and broke down the barriers between disciplines and cultures.

The result was the Renaissance.

Johannson himself is a result of an intersection. His father is Swedish, his mother American (of black/Cherokee origins). He was brought up in Sweden but lives in New York.

Like all the best business books, it’s peppered with anecdotes that bring the theories alive. And from memes to monkeys playing computer games, from Richard Branson to turds in a blender, this book’s got it all.

The Medici Effect was voted one of the 10 best business books of 2004 on, and has been translated into 13 languages.

You can buy it here.

On my bookshelf

What copywriters read – when they’re not writing

“You ain’t ‘alf got a lot of books,” said the removal man to me as he lugged another box up the stairs. “What do you do with ’em?”

He’s right – I have got a lot of books.  And mostly, I read them – unless they’re one of my passing interests, like Teach Yourself Zulu or Juggling for the Complete Klutz, in which case they simply gather dust.

One of my favourite copywriting books is We, Me, Them & It, a fascinating look at the use of language in business.

It’s written by John Simmons, formerly head of verbal identity (yes, that’s a real job title) at Interbrand, one of the UK’s top branding agencies.

The book naturally falls into four sections – we (the client), me (the individual voice), them (the people you’re communicating with) and it (the product/service).

Drawing on decades of experience at the copywriting game, Simmons effortlessly weaves opinions, anecdotes and facts into a very readable whole.

At one point, I almost put the book down. Not because it was bad; because it was too good. It had hit a nerve.

In the chapter on ‘me’, Simmons reproduces a heartfelt letter he wrote to his children. It’s almost too much. But it makes he point more than eloquently.

If I remember one thing from this book, what will it be? Easy. He sums up very neatly what all writers strive to achieve:

Write as if you were speaking.
Write as if you were telling a story.
But tell the story well.

This is billed as ‘a business book with a difference – a business book that’s an intriguingly good read’.

And that it is.

Best of the rest

Here are three more from the thousands of books on my groaning shelves. Like the man said, I ain’t ‘alf got a lot.

The Copywriter’s Handbook
The de facto bible for copywriters, by one of the top copywriters in the US.Written in a practical, no-nonsense style, it’s a delight to read, packed full of useful information for the aspiring copywriter.

One Step Ahead: Writing Reports
Excellent guide to researching, writing and editing reports. It’s well laid out, easy to follow – and, at just 116 pages, pleasingly concise.
Words that sell
Looking for just the right word to close that sale? Look no further.Words that Sell does just what it says on the cover. From ‘clinchers’ to ‘grabbers’ they’re all here.