Niel Wilks is a Brit in New York who hasn’t lost his love of tea. Each weekday morning he wakes at 6:30 a.m. With a cuppa in hand he lazes about the kitchen table; the calm surroundings put him in a well chirpy mood. He peruses emails on his smartphone, since reading and responding on this particular device forces succinctness.
Wilks started out in the world of human resources back when it was still dubbed ‘personnel’ and has cut his teeth building resilient cultures at Nokia, Cisco, Amazon, and Soundcloud. He benefits from an impressive volume of creative output, precisely because he doesn’t work round-the-clock. For Wilks it’s all about getting energy from people,“I like to be able to come and go [to the office] as I please. I like the security of a home base, but I don’t need a personal space — I just need my flock. If I’ve got my flock I’m happy.” And for many like his flock, this rhythm of working has become the norm.
Once out the door, Wilks hops on the J Line to Manhattan and switches devices to his iPad. The welcoming confines of the train (in particular the lack of Wi-Fi) enable dedicated time for more thoughtful work. This found time is sacred.
The New Rhythms & Rituals
Discovering and safeguarding time to do your best work is really what distinguishes prolific creators from the rest of the pack. On New Years Day, without fail, John Grisham starts writing a new book. Five days a week, each morning at 7 a.m., he’s in the same room, sitting on the same chair, tapping away on his trusty computer, and most importantly — with the same cup of coffee in hand. No beeps, pings, messaging, or internet, for that matter — simply no distractions. And like clock work — six months later come July, he’s finished. He’s been performing this ritual for 30 years. That’s 30 books. If that’s not a precious work ritual (and yes, a tad OCD ), I don’t know what is.
Everyone has their own style of working — it all comes down to the person and the particular activity at hand. Being deliberate about your rhythms and rituals (R&Rs) not only can boost your creativity, but your ability to focus as well.
A new creative class has cultivated this ability to seamlessly switch on for bursts of work and just as easily switch off. Computer scientist Cal Newport labels this working in “batches.” His popularized concept of deep work suggests that we are best off performing professional activities in a state of distraction-free concentration that push our cognitive capabilities to the max. It’s a skill that must be developed if you are wanting to focus in our attention draining world. Like a surfer who navigates a set of waves with intense determination and explosive force, workers of tomorrow will master their deep work rhythms.
And how you fluidly move between modes of working is really determined by your self-discipline. Everyone has their own distinct R&Rs and what matters is protecting your most creative times to ensure you keep your flow. If you fail to design and adopt the conditions for doing your best work, it’s likely because you didn’t deliberately choose when, where and how to do it.
Will Technology Set us Free?
Technology has always acted as a double-edged sword — it’s proven to be both our best friend and worst enemy. For starters, 80 percent of American smartphone users aged 18–44 check their device first thing in the morning. Their brain often becomes negatively wired from dreadful news and a dreary Facebook feed as they move into a reactive mode from the get-go.
But many also begin their days without technology — adhering to their own digital diet. With a morning ritual that sets them up to be their best selves, they turn the tables and set the expectations of others to respond to their rhythms. Designing our lives to optimize for creative work means consciously using technology as a tool.
Filtering and making sense of information, with the aid of increasingly sophisticated machines, will also aid knowledge workers in perfecting their craft. Take email for example. One U.K. study demonstrated that an average British worker thinks doing four hours of email is a productive day at work. We now spend over 60% of the workweek doing email or searching the web. And if you’re a typical office worker, according to one study by bedtime you’ll have processed 124 emails. Everywhere one looks, a notification of some kind is lurking around the corner.
There is plenty of time (unless you’re a surgeon or some other professional who works within life-death parameters) to check email after breakfast and after accomplishing the things you intentionally set out to do. Many productive workers limit both the the frequency and the time they spend doing emails. And if by chance you’re an email Filer (relying on yourself to create folders and file emails accordingly) you may consider switching teams to be a Searcher (relying on your trusty computer to do the finding for you). Because on average, finding an email by searching is realized 41 seconds faster than locating it by folder.
Emails aside, a question to keep front of mind is: how can I increase my output by reducing what I work on? The king of this of course is Warren Buffet. Forsake any time-suckers and adopt a ‘2 list strategy.’ Employ a bit some kaizen to educe waste and help you fire on all cylinders. Simply make a list of 25 career priorities and then scrap the bottom twenty. Strictly focus on the top 5 and it becomes life changing stuff — literally.
Leisure is Not Idleness
Often we can speed things up in work, simply by slowing them down. If you’re one of those people who thinks scheduling leisure time is a low priority, think again. Research suggests that when you get busy (like real busy), your attention is hijacked. You simply can’t exercise good judgment on how best to spend your time. The net outcome, of course, is that you end up busy being busy — and experiencing increased anxiety to boot.
Planning a recess not only boosts creativity as your mind works through problems in the background, ironically, it reduces your feeling of time pressure all together. The creative benefits of walking, running, napping, loafing, meandering, and generally mucking about (all in good measure) are now well known. Deliberately taking time out can bring you solace as well as make you more productive at work. It turns out, a bit of slacking, is good for the soul.
What matters then, is that when trying to fuel your creativity, you avoid incessant hours of toil. “Even in today’s 24/7, always-on world, we can blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative, and happier,” writes Alex Pang in his book Rest. Instead of burning the midnight oil, you might take time out to master the skill of resting, drawing in that blissful state of boredom.
Joy at the office. Happiness in work. Fulfilment in your career. These are all things we’d surely like, but if anything they are constructs of the mind. These are moments where we hold a particular view of ourselves. I’ve come to favour the word meaning, because finding purpose in work suggests a temporariness whereby we continually are striving for confirmation. Even as we grow and change, identifying with our work can wondrously make us feel more like ourselves.
Through social cues, professional standards, a tireless media, and how we feel about our work, we tell ourselves stories. And with over 175 cognitive biases at play, our own construct of our place in the world is inherently skewed by how we want to see things. And I think at the core, this is a view where we need to believe that our work holds meaning.
A simple test of meaning in work is, “Whether we do work so obviously useful that we have only to describe it,” explains Raymond Williams in Work: Twenty Personal Accounts. Williams thought that we all chase meaning in our work so that we can feel alive in some unique way. OK, so maybe from time to time you wonder off daydreaming of being a food critic or a wilderness photographer. I know I sure do. The point is that everyone is different — and if you subscribe to finding purpose in your work, the contribution you’ll make to the world becomes evident.
Work then, is the one thing next to love, that you‘ll direct the most energy to. And since great work happens anywhere — staying cognizant of space, both mental and physical, is critical. Deliberate R&Rs that weave together cognitive-pumping work sessions and restorative departues will help you do your best work with ease.
Finding fulfilment in your work is most often found by the intrinsic value it brings even over the external ones. And my hunch is that if you’ve read thus far, you do what you do because you feel you’re making a contribution to the world. I’d also harbour a guess that you couldn’t really see yourself doing anything else. The proof is in how you bring your whole self to work. And the pudding is how our lives are shaped by the work we do.
This is Part 2 and a 3 part Better Work Series. You can check out Part 1 here