Why Embracing 'Deep Work Time' Is the Responsible Thing to Do
Every time I walk into an expansive lobby, corridor or random nook of a hotel, I have a thought: I bet it would be fun to sit here and think about diapers.
It used to be, as advertising creatives, we had extensive timelines to do some deep thinking (about diapers mostly, being that Huggies/Kimberly-Clark was a key client of mine for a number of years). My partner and I would take this time to wander the city of Chicago, find a random nook, and ideate. Sometimes, I'd go off by myself, too. It was an experience that was very fulfilling, very meditative—so long as I didn't get too distracted by ornate cubism, strange sconces or patterned rugs.
Having read the book Deep Work by Cal Newport during my last vacation (yes, the irony is very clear to me), some new thoughts have crystallized:
Creative thinkers need Deep Work time more than ever.
Creative thinkers have less Deep Work time than ever.
Our workdays have evolved to the point where we're busy answering queries or requests from everywhere except the depths of our strange, weird, awesome minds. This hinders our ability to tackle the business problems we are paid to solve. At day's end, we're exhausted—with little to ultimately show for it.
We are compromising, frankly, our overall reason for existing. And we do it every single day. It feels like this is a phenomenon we all recognize, but can't quite resolve.
No-meeting Fridays. Hybrid office/non-office appearances. Not checking email/Teams/Slack for a specific duration. These are all, perhaps, useful paths forward.
For me, Deep Work time is born from pure necessity. That is, two small children and their associated distractions dictate that time for me. Specifically, I'm allowed that time in the early morning, and it's glorious. It can be late at night too, but that's not so glorious. And it's never a perfect system. This new way of finding time to actually think while still balancing work and life is a constant struggle for me. As I'm sure it is for most.
I'm becoming increasingly worried that for creative people everywhere, we are spreading ourselves both too thin and too shallow. We're victims of our own responsibility. Because the more emails, Slacks, Teams chats and bump-ins you respond to, the more Deep Work time you wind up missing out on.
Is it just me? I don't think so. At least judging from what I've heard from trusted mentors and friends.
To wit, here's some unsolicited advice for younger creative types out there: If you're not careful, your sense of responsibility could get you in big trouble.
Here's what I mean:
Creative professionals need to learn, or relearn, the difference between being responsible and being responsive.
Because being responsive winds up meaning you're being irresponsible to the work you're creating.
A conversation with my friend Isaac Pagan, ECD at Ogilvy Chicago, brought this point to light.
The majority of what he sees from his people is this: deferring during the day to do the real, deep work after hours.
It's not healthy. And it's a collective issue that needs to be addressed.
So what do we do? Become less responsive, not less responsible. Carve out real time to dedicate to creative thinking—by ourselves or with a partner.
The emails and messages will stack up. But you can pick and choose when to answer them. If it's a true emergency that requires immediate action, believe me, you will be contacted. I once had a producer call me 49 times while I was driving to a client presentation, and she kept calling until I finally answered.
I remember those days back in Chicago—and better parts of weeks, even—where I roamed those random hotel hallways, randomly mulling diaper ideas. And I can recall but a single time I was called back to the office (via text) for an emergency meeting.
Nobody asked, "Where the hell were you?"
I don't think anyone even knew or cared I was out of the office.
But these days, when I'm in the office, and I walk three blocks to get a sandwich, then come back and choke it down at my desk while replying to Teams messages ... even that feels like pushing it.
Ironically, the best way I could figure out to finish this piece was by arriving early to pick my son up from school, park, put my phone under my seat and out of reach, and write in my driver's seat for 35 minutes. I'll probably start editing this later while I lay next to him as he drifts off to sleep for the night.
I've gotten my lunch-eating time down to four minutes when I'm working from home, and that is not good.
Be less responsive. So, you can be more responsible to the work you're ultimately responsible for.
Go read the Deep Work book for a much more insightful and in-depth analysis of this phenomenon.
And for the best test of your Deep Work progress, do this: Look at the body of creative work you've made in the last year. How robust is it? What are you proud of? What could be better?
And the next time you're interrupted by a message on Teams, think about what you could do if you had more time to really, truly think.
As a matter of fact, maybe don't even open Teams.
God, do I hate Teams.