The problem with work

I’ve been working on and off in the same government department for the past ten years. Like most of my career moves, this was completely unintentional. I started doing a short contract and as tends to happen, if you do a reasonably good job you get asked to do another one, then another, and before I knew it, five years had gone by and I was applying for a permanent position, which I got.

However, after about a year or two in that position, I had a midlife crisis. It had been building for some time so in truth it was more of a midlife chronic. I was very, very tired and very, very worn out. Burnt out, one might say. I decided I needed to get out, get away, do something else, follow my passion, live my dreams yadda yadda. I left, and felt an immense sense of relief for a few months, got some interesting short term contracts to keep me solvent, and tried to get my health back on track.

Fast forward a few years and I am back in the same department, and have just accepted a permanent position (not the same one as before).

There are two conclusions I could draw at this point:

  1. I have learnt nothing and I am clinically insane because I am doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome
  2. Something has changed and the situation really is different this time

I am going to go with number 2. Two things happened to justify this.

In the past week, I read some interesting blog posts (and would like to read the book) written by Cal Newport on the idea of Deep Work. Briefly, deep work is work that we get immersed in, and where we bring our full weight of talents and thinking to bear on difficult problems that matter (to us, to our employer). Shallow work by contrast is about 95% of what typically occupies us – email, meetings, expense reports etc, the things that prevent us from being fired but don’t actually produce anything of value.

A light bulb went on in my head. The thing I’d found so frustrating about work previously was the lack of opportunities for Deep Work. I tracked my time for a period and discovered I was being interrupted on average every 7 minutes, and that almost all my work was reactive. Yet my sense of satisfaction at work comes from engagement with Deep Work, from feeling like I have not only delivered good work but that the process that generated it was sound and deep and well considered. Instead, most of the time I was flying by the seat of my pants.

The second was having a conversation with my soon-to-be-manager about how our team was going to work. It’s a new team and we have to be somewhat self-defining because although our Big Boss has a vision in his head of what is needed, it is up to us to flesh this out and make it real and useful. In conversation with her, we talked about our preferred styles of working and we learned that what brings us satisfaction is what Newport would classify as Deep Work, and conversely our greatest frustration with work currently is the inability to get to the deep work because we are bombarded with Shallow Work demands.

This led to a very interesting conversation about how we might set up our team’s calendars, expectations of availability, and metrics for what we spend our time on based on a very different measure of what matters. Essentially, we need to be spending a good chunk of our time on Deep Work, so we need to figure out how to set up our routines and practices to ensure this happens. This will mean managing our Big Boss’ and everyone else’s expectations, and sending the requests for fire-fighters elsewhere.

This conversation dovetailed so neatly with the earlier reading that I couldn’t help but take it as a positive sign. The fact that she and I are on the same page in terms of what makes us most productive and effective in our jobs means that it’s not just me fighting to carve out the space we need to do our best work.

It remains to be seen how we do this. It’s not going to be easy, not least because old habits die hard. But it is a huge leap forward that for the first time I have a manager who both understands and supports this work style need; and that I’ve figured out it’s not the work that burnt me out but the lack of Deep Work.