Focus and Habits

I started this little series by estimating how much time I spent working on my PhD; after admitting that this was probably not the most valuable estimation, in yesterday’s post I mused on a couple of concepts that I’ve encountered recently. I think these have some bearing on time and the PhD. This was the first of three topics; in today’s post I want to think about how shallow and deep work might have some bearing on productivity for PhDs.

Second Topic: Productivity = Focus + Habits

There are systems like Getting Things Done, and ideas like the Pomodoro technique for making progress – in fact if simply Google around you will find thousands of links and tips, ideas and promises that “X will work for YOU!” But when it all comes down to it, I think the non-revolutionary idea of productivity is that it boils down to focus and habits.

Focus is where your attention is, and where your energy is invested. Done well this results in staying on task, staying at something even when it is hard or boring. Habits are the things that you do with little attention to doing them. They’re not necessarily unconsciously done, but we don’t have a full attention on them. People place value on habits, “good” and “bad”. The “quick check on Facebook” which is really fifteen minutes is not bad in-and-of-itself, but the disruption to your work flow or feeling disappointed with oneself afterwards is “bad”.

All of this week’s posts are a work-in-progress. If you have ideas about how to frame these then please let me know. Let me continue by describing how I think focus and habits apply to the terms from yesterday.

Shallow work is the work that we need to get done, but which only (at best) supports the creative work we want to do. It needs to be done, and probably needs attention/focus from time to time. I’ve been thinking that this connects with habits: shallow work getting done via little systems that need less of our focus. Some examples:

  • Email is frequently cited as a drain on productivity or a distraction – so why not create the habit of only using email at pre-defined times, rather than have it always pinging oneself?
  • Meetings also come up high on the list of things that drain energy away from creative work; perhaps there are simple steps – pro forma agendas circulated in advance, information shared ahead of time, recording meetings – that would both allow meetings to be shorter and fruitful.

Again, none of these are revolutionary ideas; simple steps to potentially allow more deep work to be done.

I was wondering if one could frame shallow work as being more about habits and deep work being more concerned with focus, but I don’t think that’s quite true. Deep work needs our attention. Research does not just happen. It requires focus – and we need things in place that support and maintain that focus. This then leads me to think that deep work is supported on a bedrock of habits as well! In order to do deep work productively we need to have things arranged according to our preferences. Simple ideas, uncomplicated systems. If you’ve never done so before, think about what supports you doing research – not the money or the specialised equipment, as important as they are – but what supports your ability to focus? What supports your productivity?

I’ll stop here, having raised some questions and provided only a few ideas. I’ve not finished these thoughts, mainly because I don’t know where they’re taking me – as I write more I see that this week is about unpacking some mental boxes. I can see myself returning to these areas in the future. Tomorrow, however, I’ll finish with the third topic that my hours calculation brought to mind.

Thanks for reading – please comment and share your thoughts!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)