Your day has barely begun and already you are off track. Suddenly it’s nearly noon and the things you intended to do are totally sidelined. This wasn’t how the day was supposed to go. An urgent email came in, a client called and left you a cryptic voicemail, a panicked co-worker with a deadline is asking for your immediate assistance.
These are real life scenarios that people face every day. It can be stressful and overwhelming.
Whatever you’re doing right now there’s a good chance you’d rather be somewhere else or doing something else, even if it’s your dream job.
Maybe you work from home and are getting sidetracked by picking up around the house. There’s something that needs to get finished, but procrastination set in and you haven’t even started. You’ve got homework for a course you’re taking, a critical presentation to prepare for, or a difficult conversation with your significant other.
This is the stuff life is made of. It’s really tempting to blow these things off. But you can’t.
Your approach to anything is your clue to how you do everything.
My recent read through Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work:Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World“inspired some of my own thinking about my approach to work. I love it when someone writes about what I’ve been thing about and absolutely nails it.
His premise is that we’ve entered an era of unprecedented distractions. We’ve lost our ability to focus deeply and immerse ourselves in complex tasks.
He makes the point that this is a highly valuable lost skill and presents three concepts that help us focus more than ever before.
We’ll save those for later, o.k.?
I found it helpful to Identify, quantify, and put some healthy boundaries around these three types of work in my years as a CEO.
It creates mental accountability and peace of mind knowing I’m spending appropriate amounts of time doing the right things.
Now Onward to the Three Types of Work
First off, it’s all work, and there’s inherent value and nobility in work that is well done.
Sometimes on the road to where we want to be, we wind up doing things not because we want to, but because circumstances dictate that we have to. Often starting out in our first jobs, we’re introduced to the shovel, the broom or other mundane chores.
“There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel- and learn.”- Andrew Carnegie
1. The first is what I call “Sustaining Work”.
It’s that tedious, soul-sucking, mind-numbing, eye-blear-ing, part of your job that comes with the territory. Every job description I’ve ever seen has a “not-fun” factor. In earlier times this was referred to as “toil”. The stuff that simply has to get done or there will be consequences – usually negative.
Whether you’re a parent, an entrepreneur, or a CEO, diapers need to be changed, reports need to be filed, data needs to be entered and someone else’s messes need to be cleaned up. It’s one of those self-existing facts of life that just “is”. Much like coping with weather, gravity or taxes, you don’t particularly have to like it, but having a healthy attitude with the bigger picture in mind certainly makes necessary, non-productive work more acceptable
2. Next up, there’s “Good Work”.
This is where we should be spending the bulk of our time. Ideally, Good Work should marry your purpose with your job description. It aligns your soul with your goal. After all, this is what you signed up for, right?
“Good Work should marry your purpose with your job description, and your soul with your goal.”
It’s surprising how many people, glance at a Job Description, sign an Employment Agreement and promptly forget about it.
Lack of role clarity on the JD leads to squishy, unrealistic expectations and a lot of angst.
Fuzzy Job Descriptions are the third leading cause of employee burnout according to Gallup research. See http://bit.ly/2Y8fowY
Having a well-crafted Job Description brings focus, clarity and direction on a day-to day basis. This is where you’ll be spending the majority of your work time. This is your Good Work.
3. Thirdly, there’s “Great Work”.
If you’re progress-oriented and visionary, like me, this is the type of work that really floats the boat. It’s where the magic happens. It’s the leading edge of moving things forward.
Great work is hard.
It requires periods of concentrated focus and extra effort with no immediate dollars attached. Just ask anyone who has ever stayed up late banging out a thesis, promoted a new idea, or helped an organization move through a crisis.
As a coach and consultant to visionaries, I spend a great amount of time assisting them in executing their aspirations. Visionaries are big thinkers, risk takers, and trailblazers who exhibit great amounts of faith. They seem to live and think in the future. These qualities make them admirable. Often they are the driving force behind societal changes. I personally draw inspiration from these leaders because of their courage and resilience.
The shadow side of visionary leaders, particularly those with a driven, pace-setting, or autocratic leadership style, is that they tend to burn out or blow up the people around them. The job gets done, but there’s a good chance that there’s a trail of bodies left in the wake.
How It Breaks Down Time-wise
Being somewhat (ahem) analytical, I tracked these three categories in my own work life over a period of years.
In my setting, with some fluctuation, it usually balanced out to about 20% Sustaining Work, 70% Good Work and 10% Great Work.
Great visionary work is critical to any meaningful enterprise. A small dollop of big a vision, rolled out in a consistent way, goes a really long way to keeping your team and the organization motivated and inspired. As exhilarating as it may be to spend time with shiny new ideas and our head in the future, it can be very tempting to overdo it in this zone. It can be mentally exhausting
Often in the past, I’d catch myself getting away out ahead of my team or my board as I focused too much on the future. Not good.
Enter Mr. Newport and his “deep work” concepts.
“In almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits.”
He wisely recommends allowing 5 hours a week for this type of work.
Here’s the How-To-Get Started Part
- Train your brain to be better at focusing (example: put your phone away after dinner)
- Set aside time for deep work (example: dedicate five hours a week for deep work)
- Adopt a tiny habit that signals to yourself that you take the ability to focus seriously (example: quitting a social media service)
Once you get some traction on getting started, it gets easier and you can keep it going.
A related article you may find interesting: http://bit.ly/2YqveU5
(Dealing With My Monkey Brain)
Got ideas or a different experience around this?
Shoot me a note. I read all my emails.
I’d love to hear from you.