There’s some recent research that we knowledge workers, spend more than 11 hours per day consuming information. - Tiago Forte
Do you get your paycheck from thinking at work? Do you find yourself juggling with a lot of information every day? Would you like to increase your productivity doing so? Productivity is a recurrent pain point with a lot of knowledge work. Since it’s still a very new field, there are a lot of things to be researched and found. How do you increase your productivity output when it all happens in your mind? In some part of the field, the answer can be easier than others. For example, academic research and writers have publication numbers. But some other parts are more nebulous like programming.
In my quest to increase my productivity, I came across three big framework and mindset. The three of them helped me reach my productivity goal. No matter how you define your productivity those should help you. Deep Work, Second brain and Atomic Habits are those tools. I use mainly atomic habits to build foundational habits that I can use to build upon. Second brain is my information management framework. Finally, deep work is what I use when I need to get complex things done fast. I’ll go over in more details how I use them with the overview.
A great interview made by James Clear where he talks to Cal Newport. They both explore each other expertise throughout. The interview is a great summary of the Atomic Habits system and also how it intersects with Deep Work. How you can build habits that help you do deep work and keep doing deep work. Since building habits can be so wide and far-reaching, this is a good start to see how it fit for knowledge workers. Here’s my main takeaways from it:
- Compounding attention over time (1% increase) can be very powerful
- Building deep work into a regular practice:
- The ritual is the important part, not the doing
- The habit is the entry point to the deep work
- Need to be mindless and habitual
- Master the first habits “like showing up” then expand from there and look into deep work
- A lot of deep work case studies have environment or drinks as their appealing part. The environment being inspiring is important. The liquid is coffee or alcohol because it’s something you look forward to.
- The framework for habits sticking which help make a habit stick. Make each habit:
- Easy and simple
- They can also compound to make it even easier
- People that reach deep work often use a system built from environment and other habits. They also keep tweaking them all the time.
- Time and attention is a tool that can be honed to create lots of value
- Reasons why deep work is appealing to people:
- Humans are satisfied by mastery
- Having an impact is satisfying
- We like having things from our mind made into life
- Autonomy is important in loving your work
How I use it
I use Atomic Habits framework not just in getting more work done but also in my daily life. It’s helpful to know how to get habits going or stop them. I used the framework to get into the habits of capturing thoughts for my second brain. I also used it for building rituals for deep work. For example, I have a specific location with specific music I use when I want to go deep that I turned into a habit.
The book packs a lot of very interesting ideas and tips on how to do deep work and what it is and isn’t. Deep work is a state of uninterrupted very high concentration and output. It also often leads to massive advances or breakthrough. I find it is particularly useful for tight deadlines of complex projects. Because it allows reaching and keeping flow for a long time. The book also tries to make the point that, in the current state of the industry it’s going to be more and more required. I tend to agree with that idea as knowledge working is reliant on thinking.
The book itself is divided into many rules of deep working. The main takeaways are focused more on Rule 1. It’s where the author explains how the system works and is defined. For the remainder of the rules, I added interesting ideas and examples to help reach a deeper level of deep work.
Rule 1 - Deep work
The various approaches of deep workers:
- Monastic: Attempt to completely remove distraction from the day-to-day life. They try to only do deep work.
- Bimodal: Define some long dedicated period for deep work and the rest is for everything else. When in dedication period, the worker will act has monastic. The division can be on multiple scale ( week, month, season, year) with a full day as minimum unit.
- Rhythmic: Turn deep work into a habit and routine on the schedule every day/week. Provide consistent progress, even if small, across time. The goal is scheduling it to reduce the barrier and decision to go deep.
- Journalistic: Try to make deep work every possible moment even on the go. Require confidence in the worker skill level and motivation to pull off.
Make grand gestures
Leverage radical change in environment coupled with investment in time or money. This investment will increase the perceived importance and boost focus for the work. This will in turn make it easier to sustain deep work for longer periods.
“You’ve spent all this time/money already might as well make it worth.”
Examples of possible gestures:
- Rent a hotel room / suite to deep work from
- Buy a plane ticket to work in the planes
- Writing outhouse dedicated to deep work
Collaborative deep work
Use the white board effect for some collaborative effort. Working with someone else or the presence (physical or virtual) of someone. Not wanting that person to wait for your work will short-circuit the tendency to not deep work.
- Distraction remains a destroyer of deep work.
- Separates the serendipity research from the effort to think deeply. Then focus on both separately.
- Leverage the whiteboard effect when it’s adequate to do so to reach deeper work
Rule 2 - Help improves deep work limits and depth.
Internet use for those examples equals seeking distraction
- Don’t take breaks from distraction take breaks from focus.
- Schedule in advance when you’ll use the internet and avoid it at all cost otherwise.
- The idea is to help reduce the switching and the amount of time you give in to distraction.
- Also include scheduling offline blocks while at home to help the mind keep training.
Rule 3 - The craftsman approach to tool selection
Identify the main factors that determine success and happiness in your life. Then identify tools that have a more positive impact than a negative one.
- Identify the main high-level goals in your life. Keep the list limited and the description high level.
- List the 2-3 most important activities that help you reach those goals.
- Consider the tool you use. For each tool ask if the tool has a positive or negative or little impact on those activities.
- Keep using this tool only if it has a substantial positive impact. That impact also needs to outweigh the negative one.
Rule 4 - Cutting shallowness
Identify the shallowness in your current schedule. Then reduce them to a minimum level so you have more time for deep work.
Fixed schedule productivity
Try to never work overtime or on the weekend with this trick. Start with a set number of hours to work for the week. From that number work backward find what you should change or cut to reach that amount.
Example: If I decline unnecessary meetings in my week I would regain 3h per week that I can use to do work.
Make a sender filter
Make people who want to send email do more work. This should help filter unnecessary email that can end up taking your time. Set the expectation about the email response. Also add conditions so the sender will filter themselves.
Example: “One of the things I love about blogging is that my readers send me links to articles, books, interviews, etc., they think might interest me, given the topics I write about. This is where I find a lot of my best material. Please keep these coming to firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: I really appreciate these pointers, but due to time constraints, I’m usually not able to respond.”
This helps make it clear what he likes to receive and what you should expect in return. Which should also lower the volume of emails he receives and the pressure to answering them.
How I use it
Deep work is the framework I use most when I need to get very complex things done quickly. Things like architecture, learning new systems etc. are very suited for deep work. Just recently I used it to learn and put in place a completely new backup system in a project at work. We had some delay already, and I couldn’t afford to take the usual time to do such a thing. Deep work saved me here and allowed to get it done in a quarter of the time. It was at the expense of a lot of energy and constraints. I had to put clear limits on coworkers interaction and expectation of response. I also had to push other things aside to allow it to happen, which can get hard. That’s one of the main reasons why I don’t use it all the time.
Building a second brain is an online class taught by Tiago Forte. It’s a system to help organize information. You can make the information more useful, actionable, findable and use it to create. Since we already consume so much information being able to make sense of it is important.
The class is based on note taking and how to leverage it to get more insight and idea. That makes it particularly well suited for knowledge working. There’s a lot that goes into this system. It’s divided into three main sections: Capture, P.A.R.A. and Just-in-time project management. I also included some themes and ideas that are more general than just in one section.
- Design a system for your laziest self
- Never start from scratch
- Broaden your perspective on what you can keep track of
- Information as food: information is food that you need to live, but you don’t need any specific food to live.
Capturing is about being a curator of information you save in your second brain. You don’t just consume information but capture some of it. Then you use it later or make relations with other information.
- Try to capture ideas as you see them or think of them.
- Capture ideas from books, articles, podcasts, every place you consume information.
- Do not save everything but the things that “resonate” with you even if you don’t know yet the use they will have.
P.A.R.A. = Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives
P.A.R.A. is about solving the “where do I put all this?” problem across all systems you use, notes app, local files, cloud files, writing tools, etc.
- The system is based on action ability, from more actionable to less
- You move your file in the four sections based on what they are and what you need them for.
- Projects are finite and clean they have a concrete outcome/package/deliverable
- Areas are things you have responsibility for but with no end date like your work, health, pets, etc.
- Resources are mostly things you are interested in. Things you want to take notes on without projects.
- Archive is where information goes after it’s been used, you can still get it out to reuse later.
Just-in-Time Project Management
This is what allows information to flow across the system. Creating small projects fast is essential, since everything is based on projects.
- Split projects into small packages.
- Package allows reaching flow more easily and can also be reused later
- You need goals that are quantifiable and finite (metrics, success/failure, object)
- Project needs a deadline to reach the goal (even if arbitrary).
- Projects are assembled from packages of previous works or new work from notes/ideas
- Projects are built just in time when they are needed and useful
How I use it
I use the second brain system in everything I do. I use it for example for writing, reading, coding and system architecture. It works in all those because it’s about retaining and using information in new ways. This article is an example of how I can build from various notes I took in the past on all those books and courses. Another example would be reusing “package” of notes across similar projects. Doing that increased my output since I can build on what I did in the past and not reinvent the wheel every time.