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Bursts of Productivity Are Key to Getting Things Done

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There’s a reason people find email to be such a drag on their productivity. It is. More to the point, it’s a treasure trove of distractions. Each new email represents an escape point, an entreaty to deviate from the task at hand. We accept this burden, thankful for email’s “convenience,” and slog on--oscillating between suspecting it might cause our ADD and outright knowing it.  

Accepting that distraction is part of modern work life, the “Deep Immersion” approach posits that the antidote to constant distraction is long, uninterrupted bursts of productivity.

Deep Immersion hinges on reducing the cost paid each time we start--or restart--a task. If you spend 10 - 15 hours at once on a project, rather than stretching that time out in 1 hour chunks over several weeks, you streamline your thinking. Rather than starting and stopping every few hours or days and having to actively remember how to get back into it, or where you left off, deep immersion only requires you “get started” once--affording you a flow-like period of uninterrupted productivity.

Writing on his blog Study Hacks, Georgetown Professor Cal Newport sees the benefits of the time allocation technique as twofold:

1. It reduces overhead. When you put aside only a couple hours to go deep on a problem, you lose a fair fraction of this time to remembering where you left off and getting your mind ready to concentrate. It’s also easy, when the required time is short, to fall into the least minimal progress trap, where you do just enough thinking that you can avoid breaking your deep work chain, but end up making little real progress. When you focus on a specific deep work goal for 10 – 15 hours, on the other hand, you pay the overhead cost just once, and it’s impossible to get away with minimal progress. In other words, two days immersed in deep work might produce more results than two months of scheduling an hour a day for such efforts.

2. It better matches our rhythms. There’s an increasing understanding that the human body works in cycles. Some parts of the week/month/year are better for certain types of work than others. [A] professor’s approach of spending the fall thinking and discussing ideas, and then the spring and summer actually executing, probably yields better results than trying to mix everything together throughout the whole year. During the fall, he rests the part of his mind required to tease out and write up results. During the spring and summer he rests the part of his mind responsible for having original thoughts and making new connections.

What we’re really talking about here is focus. And this complements the theory offered by Gary Keller and co-author Jay Papasan in their book The One Thing—that the most successful people are known for just one thing, passion or skill.

Quartz staff writer Vickie Elmer notes that this theory comes from Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto’s principle, “which showed that 80 percent of wealth was held by 20 percent of the people. This works elsewhere as the 80/20 principle, where a small portion of effort leads to oversized results. ‘Things don’t matter equally. …The smaller I make my life, the bigger it gets,’ says Keller, the co-founder and chairman of Keller Williams Real Estate. Great bosses understand that businesses will succeed when staff are encouraged to excel in one domain.”

All this raises the question, does multi-tasking work? More importantly, is the North Star of government leaders (“do more with less”) actually something to aspire to? Might it instead be creating an environment where, people torn between innumerable tasks, are less productive than if they, perhaps, did less with less?

What’d you think?

Read more about Deep Immersion at Study Hacks.

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Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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