Cal Newport in his book Deep Work suggests to inject regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day providing you with the idleness paradoxically required to get (deep) work done.
At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free.
Reason #1: Downtime Aids Insights
Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis’s gave subjects the information needed for a complex decision regarding a car purchase. Half the subjects were told to think through the information and then make the best decision. The other half were distracted by easy puzzles after they read the information, and were then put on the spot to make a decision without having had time to consciously deliberate. The distracted group ended up performing better.
Dijksterhuis proved that some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. In other words, to actively try to work through these decisions will lead to a worse outcome than loading up the relevant information and then moving on to something else while letting the subconscious layers of your mind mull things over.
Reason #2: Downtime Helps Recharge the Energy Needed to Work Deeply
A paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science describes a simple experiment. Subjects were split into two groups. One group was asked to take a walk on a wooded path in a botanical garden. The other group was sent on a walk through the bustling center of the city. Both groups were then given a challenging task called backward digit-span. The nature group performed up to 20 percent better on the task. The nature advantage still held the next week when the researchers brought back the same subjects and switched the locations: It wasn’t the people who determined performance, but whether or not they got a chance to prepare by walking through the woods.
Walking through nature exposes you to what lead author Marc Berman calls “inherently fascinating stimuli. These stimuli “invoke attention modestly, allowing focused-attention mechanisms a chance to replenish.
Reason #3: The Work That Evening Downtime Replaces Is Usually Not That Important
Anders Ericsson studied the practice habits of a group of elite violin players training at Berlin’s Universität der Künste and discovered that the capacity for deep work in a given day is limited. It follows, therefore, that by evening, you’re beyond the point where you can continue to effectively work deeply. Any work you do fit into the night, therefore, won’t be the type of high-value activities that really advance your career; your efforts will instead likely be confined to low-value shallow tasks (executed at a slow, low-energy pace). “By deferring evening work”, says Newport, “you’re not missing out on much of importance”.
The three reasons just described support the general strategy of maintaining a strict endpoint to your workday. Only the confidence that you’re done with work until the next day can convince your brain to downshift to the level where it can begin to recharge for the next day to follow. As Newport says, “trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown.”
Adapted from Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport, Grand Central Publishing