“Am I ever going to get time to work on my proposals? I have so many things that needs to get done.” Janice is a new faculty member and feels time slowly slipping away from her main project.

“Can you join this committee?” “Can you edit this manuscript?” “Can you mentor this student?” “Can you take over my service?” “Would you mind facilitating this collaboration?” These and many more requests are often put upon a young faculty. Most often they don’t have the support that a senior faculty will have. This can be quite taxing on a junior investigator trying to establish herself early on in her position.

DeepworkThis post was influence by Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work- Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport, a junior faculty himself, highlights many of the ideas and philosophy behind our work here at E|D|C. We believe that scientists should be focused on their scientific research and less on the business of research.

The book describes many issues that plague today’s knowledge worker. He makes a compelling argument about how knowledge workers are under valued and how their approach to their creative work needs to be re-evaluated. I tend to agree with the value of a real deep focused work and its overall impact on its return on the invested time, money and resources. Some of the cutting edge of scientific research comes from deep, thoughtful and creative hypothesis driven research.

If you already believe these claims to be obvious then you’re probably more interested in the solutions. However, if you believe otherwise, I implore you to pick up the book and read some of his pretty compelling arguments that support his hypothesis. This is where I believe some basic business and management practices can help to alleviate mental distractions.

Newport goes into depth about the problems, etiology, and solutions to distracted deep work. I highlight some focused solutions that can quickly alleviate the issues before they can take root.

Develop routines, processes, and habits. Developing these habits early on can alleviate wasted mental energy on otherwise mundane decision making administrative processes. Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit helps explain these powerful and mental alleviating practices. Here are some examples:

  1. Try reviewing your budget with your financial manager at the beginning of each month.
  2. Meet with your student every Friday at 8 am.
  3. Take your spouse/ significant other out on a date every Monday night.
  4. These routines become habit and takes the guessing game out of the equation. This allows you to focus when you block off your time.

Protect your time. Time blocks are very important for any independent thinker. I always insist that young faculty have a clause in their contract that they have protected research time. It holds other interested parties accountable for their commitment toward your research success. Other examples of protecting your time include, but are not limited to:

    1. Make an appointment with yourself. Put it into the calendar to have that focused time.
    2. Isolate yourself from distractions: close your door, turn off the internet, or go away. My old P.I. used to get most of his work during his long airline travels.
    3. Practice and learn to say “no”. Saying no can be hard, but a very useful strategy for accomplishing more. It’s worth the investment. Try using strategies outlined in William Ury’s book, Getting to Yes with Yourself. He uses a simple strategy of saying YES to yourself first, then “no” to the other person, then suggesting an alternative solutions to that “no”.

Protecting your time is a matter of focusing on your success and prioritizing that.

What’s THE one thing? This question can help you focus on a single task which can answer your big research question. It’ll help you to avoid distracting and reactionary responses to requests for your time and energy. Newport emphasizes this point, but if you’d like to dive deeper behind this concept, check out the book, The One Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. Their mantra has been, “What’s the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” For example:

    1. Do you need to attend this committee meeting? Will this help you answer your research questions?
    2. Will clarifying your finding to these editors critiques help you with your publication, or will doing this experimental assay help you?
    3. Do you need to respond to your emails throughout the day, or can they wait till the end of the day?

Focus your efforts toward being mindful with your decisions on what to act upon. There are always going to be distractions and these distractions can derail the focus toward deep work. It is  that deep work that’s important to really develop novel breakthroughs and innovative approaches to your work.

While there is no one size fits all approach to working in such a dynamic field, there is a way of approaching it that can help you to focus on the things that matter most. Take these suggestions to help optimize your space and energy toward what matters to you and your career. Continue to hone that practice. The compounded investments can yield great rewards.

What are some of your thoughts about knowledge work and how do you keep your distractions down? What has worked for you and what hasn’t?

Share with us. Leave a comment.