Deep time

sunset

 

I have just finished reading Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world, by the writer and study guru Cal Newport. The idea is a very interesting one, and although after you’ve read it you think “that’s obvious, I was trying to do that anyway”, the book is very clearly written and the case well argued. I recommend it.

Deep work is work that advances our meaningful goals. One could quibble in saying it’s not always obvious what’s meaningful, but I know deep down which goals are worth while pursuing and which are superficial. As far as work is concerned it’s writing, and that’s probably true of most academics (and most writers). Not all writing is deep: books, papers, and lectures (to some extent) are, but a report on what I’ve been doing recently isn’t – it’s just something I have to do. Deep goals need deep work, which is demanding and involves concentration, effort, and time. It involves, using the psychologist Csikszentmihályi’s term, getting into a state of flow. You don’t make much progress on writing a book unless you put aside some quality time, which means time free from distraction, and get on with getting those words out.

The problem is that distraction is all around us, even when we try to do deep work. The other day I noticed that my Kindle said “15 minutes left in book” (the book was Deep work in fact). So I sat down and tried to finish reading it, measuring how long it actually took. It took over 45 minutes! I kept on getting distracted, looking around me, my mind wandering, checking a few facts, standing up to stretch and wander around.

And writing is so much more difficult than reading. At our desk or laptop we are usually always connected to the internet, and what a distraction that can be. Checking email, looking at Twitter maybe, checking our messages, looking at Facebook, checking the news to see if anything interesting has happened in the last five minutes, checking a fact on what we’re writing and then getting distracted by another link – none of these distractions were around when Proust was writing. It is easy to start writing with the best intentions and then discover an hour later we’ve only managed a sentence. We do know that Arsenal haven’t bought a new striker and that Emily’s cat slept on the duvet last night looking cute.

So clearly some discipline is necessary when we’re trying to do deep work. Newport argues that we can learn to work deeply, just as we can acquire any other skill. We might be able to work deeply simply by resolution and determination. Some of us might need to log out of Twitter and Facebook to make it that much more difficult to check them. Some of us might need more drastic medicine and to switch off our internet connection or router. Some might even need to burn the router. Newport is against even checking facts as we write, putting them aside to dedicated time later.

Even when we can do it, deep work is tiring. When I was writing my book Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science, I think I was pretty disciplined. I would sit at my desk in the morning,, starting at 8, and from the hour not stop until I had written 500 words. On average these 500 words would take me 35-40 minutes. Then I would stretch, stand up, go to the loo, make coffee perhaps – and very quickly the top of the hour and come round and off I’d go on the next 500. I found this regime absolutely exhausting.

Newport argues that it’s not easy to do much more than four hours real deep work a day, and that’s my experience when writing Talking the talk. I doubt if I could do four contiguous hours; I would need a coffee break at least – time to catch up with the news and checking those facts. And often our jobs involve work that is necessary but not necessarily deep, so we need to reserve some time for shallow work.

It all sounds very obvious, but in practice it’s fiendishly difficult to do, for me at least. Now it’s time to check my email again.

A brush with death

Just before Christmas I nearly died.
One Saturday I was feeling fine – rather stressed, but physically fine. Sunday morning I couldn’t urinate. Sunday evening I was in hospital. Monday evening my temperature was soaring, my pulse racing, my blood pressure falling through the floor, and I wasn’t breathing well. I was in a stae of severe sepsis – what my mother calls “blood poisoning”. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the stage I reached has a mortality rate of 50%. Fortunately I recovered; my infection responded to the antibiotics, and I had wonderful care at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. Recovery was slow, and I still don’t feel completely well.
It turns out that there is nothing like nearly dying to focus the mind on what you should do while you’re living. We’re all going to die sometime; if I’m lucky I might have another 40 years or so, although how many of those will be quality years is unclear. What should I do in the next 20 – 30 years? What do I need to do now so that when in the future I am on my death bed I will be able to lie back satisfied and think “yes, that was a worthwhile life”?
It wasn’t just this near death experience that made me think about the meaning of life, although it has focussed my mind on it. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with how I should live my life, and how I should spend my time.
Someone once said something like “No one ever said on their death bed ’I wish I had spent more time at the office’.” (I think it was the American rabbi Harold Kushner.) I suppose though it depends what sort of office you’re talking about. Hillary Clinton might well end up saying “I wish I’d spent more time in the Oval Office”. It depends on your job in having an extremely good job: I am an academic, a Professor of Psychology.
For many years I even said “I don’t make any distinction between my work and my life”. My reasoning was that (most) academics are pretty much working all the time. You go on vacation (or “take annual leave” as it has now become) and you read a psychology book – are you now working on holiday? You think about a problem in the bath, answer a student email while sipping a glass of wine at midnight, you read a short article Christmas Day while waiting for the turkey to cook – you see the problem about defining work, holiday, and non-work.
Unfortunately some of fun, for me at least, has gone out of the job, caused by increasing bureaucracy and attempts to quantify academics’ time with the noble aim of ensuring that the public aren’t being ripped off. Of course the public should be able to sleep safe in the knowledge that university dons are earning their pay, but you, the public, can rest asure that there isn’t a widespread problem: we aren’t on holiday for half the year, because there’s always research to do, new teaching to prepare, PhD students to supervise, and administration to catch up on. A recent article suggests that many academics work considerably more than 50 hours a week. And now we have to account for our time, by filling in forms and keeping track of what we do. Mechanisms with names like TRAC determine how government money is allocated on the basis of these timesheets. Workload models proliferate, mostly giving us 1768 hours a year to account for – even though we might work more than 2500 hours! And they all suffer from the problems above: what exactly is an academic’s work?
For these sorts of reasons I no longer think that my work is my life. And certainly my job isn’t. The life of an academic has changed over the last 30 years, largely for the worse I think, and it is now full of countless meetings, evaluation, meetings, and forms to fill out. I don’t find that part of the job much fun (and I doubt if I am alone).
So now I do distinguish between my job and my life. It’s still a great job and better than most others. And there are still many parts of the job I love (writing and teaching enthusiastic students, for example). But after a brush with death I cannot find meaning in my job alone.
The mortgage has to be paid, but is it possible to do so while living a meaningful life? And where is this meaning to be found?